TV Review – The Great British Bake Off, Thirteen Steps Down, Simply Italian, James May’s Things You Ought To Know

A Lovely Bit of Parsnip

“The tent’s up, the ovens are pre-heated and 12 of the finest amateur bakers are ready to do battle.” Now the Olympics have sadly passed on, with a Closing Ceremony so rubbish it practically told you to turn off the TV and go and watch something less boring instead, what else can sate those desires for bronze in an event you’ve only just heard of?

The Great British Bake Off (BBC2) is a perfect avatar for Olympic glory. It has flags everywhere, bafflingly banal competition and guaranteed British glory, as none of the contestants are pesky foreigners. And it has Mel and Sue as presenters, which is a step up from Mel (Clewlow) and Sue (Barker). Our hosts have been taking the piss out of this sort of stuff for so long, you always secretly knew they loved it.

“Today’s episode is all about cake,” says Mel and judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood are keen to get stuck in to the newbies. “We’re going to be on their backs from the very start.” Careful, cooking’s hard enough without having to carry a judge stuffed with cake around as well. The first challenge is an upside-down cake, says Sue, “or as the Australians call it, cake.” Only Mel and Sue presenting a show about baking could get away with a joke as rotten as that.

The contestants are gradually introduced. Cathryn is a housewife and a ball of nerves, rendered speechless by Paul’s Nazi Commandant eyes. “That’s a very busy cake,” he intones at her proposed idea. She’s clearly terrified, as her hands do that thing Butters does in South Park. With this and her hair slides, she could play a battered wife in a Mike Leigh film. But as wily fellow contestant Brendan (Company Director) notes, “don’t underestimate her, she’s very determined.” She sails through the first round, despite her ‘busy’ ingredients, and is safe for this week.

Others don’t fare so well. PE Teacher Stuart is making a tomato and ginger upside down cake, but forgets to put in the tomato jam. “Without that, it’s just a cake with tomato decorations.” Sounds delicious. Student James from the Shetland Isles, who fancies himself as a bit of a Heston Blumenthal, is making parsnip cake. Crazy! Paul is not impressed by “Professor Cake Maker”, and can’t find a trace of parsnip in the finished thing. Sue can (“I just got a lovely bit of parsnip!”), but she’s clearly flirting with young James, despite the many barriers there are to that romance.

For the second round, they have to make Paul’s recipe for rum baba, whilst the judges repair to a “secret teepee” in order to blind taste the finished product. Paul has chosen his recipe well, for it features a “tricky dough” and less than clear instructions. John, a student who isn’t from the Shetlands, does a Stuart and accidentally substitutes sugar with salt. When it comes for Paul to do the tasting, he’s practically retching. “God! Jeez!” There was almost a sweary moment there. Highly inappropriate.

But it’s poor, tiny Natasha (Midwife) who really gets it wrong. She ponders baking methods. “Something’s telling me to do a bain-marie, but it might be the wrong decision.” A mysterious timpani on the soundtrack suggests it might be, but she does it anyway. Her rum baba comes out looking more like sticky toffee pudding. “They’re a mess. Oh, I’m embarrassed.” Replacing sugar with salt may be bad, but not following the recipe is clearly a worse crime, especially as it’s the judge’s recipe. “I know who’s not going to say nice things,” says Mary, looking askance.

It all comes down to the last round, cakes with a pattern going through them. “I’m not good at 3D,” wails posh Victoria, a CEO no less. But she’s got nothing to worry about as it’s between Natasha and Stuart over who is going to lick the wooden spoon and get the boot from the show. “It’s down to ketchup cake or boiled rum baba,” Sue sums up. Stuart has got his speech to trackside’s Phil Jones all lined up. “If it’s my last bake I’d be pretty gutted. I don’t think I’ve shown my true potential.”

But it’s Natasha who messes up, trying to create a sunset in a cake that comes out looking more like a wet weekend in Scarborough. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” she says, melting the hearts of a nation if not the butter to a reasonable consistency. Next week: bagels! Why can’t this be on 24 hours a day, in front of a huge stadium with William and Kate in attendance? The ticketing might be tricky but I’d happily watch it, roaring on an anxious person standing in front of an oven. And there’d be cake for everyone at the end.

One of the things missing from the Olympics was the presence of ITV. They didn’t bother competing with the BBC, putting on lots of repeats of Midsomer Murders and Lewis, so now it’s all over they can put on the usual rubbish normally exiled to the Summer months. Thirteen Steps Down (ITV1) is one such example, an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel that doesn’t seem ripe for adaptation.

Bequiffed Luke Treadaway plays a troubled teen with two obsessions: a model who lives nearby and the serial killer John Christie. To satisfy the former, he cuts out lots of her pictures from magazines, for the latter he makes pilgrimages to where once was 10 Rillington Place. “Nice to see the spot where it actually happened,” he tells his haughty landlady, Geraldine James. “They should put up a blue plaque or something.”

But James has her own obsession. 50 years earlier, she could have got married to a nice doctor, but he married someone else. “He should have married me. I was his first love,” she avers with the flinty determination of someone who is going to do something about it, especially as she discovers the doctor’s wife has just died. Because of this, she’s distracted from noticing she’s got a complete loony in her house.

Treadaway discovers where his model lives, despite being put off by his (married) lover. “Girls like that don’t go out with ordinary mortals.” Nevertheless he follows the model’s Ferrari to the local health club. He’s got a plan of sorts and this involves seducing the Polish receptionist played by Victoria Bewick.

“You kind of remind me of an actress. Kim Hunter.” He’s especially impressed that she lives in a street where Christie killed one of his “tarts”. Despite this silver repartee, they fall into bed together although he’s not impressed with her messy flat, despite its heritage. He invites her back to his obsessively tidy one.

Now Bewick gets creeped out; Treadaway has got a collection of vinyl Cliff Richard records. Not just that, she finds his books on Christie and the pictures of the model. “The bedroom’s through there. Why don’t you go in and get your clothes off?” Bewick is finding young love’s blossom fading, so when she destroys a signed photograph (the model, not Christie) Treadaway beats her to death, soundtracked by The Young Ones. “I did it for you,” he tells the now bloody photograph.

In a possibly unwise move, he hides the body under the floorboards. James notices the smell and calls in Rentokill, but a sudden bout of pneumonia means Treadaway can head them off and properly bury the body in the back yard. In the rain, of course, and with a ghostly Richard Attenborough watching on. End of episode one. Thirteen Steps Down is a sordid little story that belongs in the pages of a fifties issue of The News of the World. What it’s doing on television is anybody’s guess.

Missed by most people otherwise following the Open Water Swimming was the latest food porn served up by Channel 4, a network that caters for all sorts of specialized fetishes. Simply Italian (C4) ably satisfies all those who really like to see young ladies grating parmesan in a selection of summer frocks. Michela Chiappa is the mistress of the grate, but sometimes she is helped by her sister for some forbidden group grating. Between them, they grate more than Ann Leslie when asked about Europe.

Chiappa and her family are originally from Italy but they live in Wales and have accents best described as Welsh. Despite this, they give it the full Italiano when pronouncing the name of any of their dishes. So Gnocci is actually “gno-chhee”, risotto is “ri-sotttt-o” and you can guess the full range of glottal stops and extended vowels employed when saying “parmigiano-reggiano”. When Michela goes to visit her friend Marina (“good Italian stock”) who owns a parmesan farm in north west Italy, I had to turn the television off. I was only calmed down by picturing Sue Perkins and James from the Shetland Islands snogging.

On James May’s Things You Need To Know (BBC2) our host covered Einstein. “The worst hairdo in physics,” pronounced the worst hairdo in television.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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