Eat my shorts!

The Sky Arts adaptations of Chekhov are a little too decorous.

Chekhov expressed some disappointment when his work was taken to be a catalogue of human misery. He apparently thought it was a bit of a hoot. Or at least, that there was some hooting to be done along the way. It was certainly a canny idea on the part of Henry Normal to cast such comedy big-hitters as Johnny Vegas, Sheridan Smith and Steve Coogan to star in Chekhov: Comedy Shorts which will doubtless be seen as a bit of a coup for Sky Arts.

Airing the man's shorts, as it were, does present problems. Most obviously, he didn't write sitcoms. He wrote for living, breathing theatre, with all the firing of synapses and pheromones that entails -- not to mention the liberties and possibilities of staging. Television opens up possibilities, too, but to trap the performance in a 1970s version of a 19th-century lookalike set seems to confirm it as antique and moribund, and besides, all that cloying Victoriana detail is distracting.

However, there's a pleasing tension between the familiar household names -- with whom we mistakenly believe we have some sort of pally relationship -- and the old-fangled, faded references of Chekhov's sketches. The TV doyens appeared to be having fun, in a let's play grown-ups kind of way: you could almost hear the quotation marks curling around some of the lines.

At other times the delivery seemed oddly flat: the habitual underplayed patter of Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh) tended to err on the side of wood, though he did perk up a bit when sparring with "real-life partner" Julia Davis. Steve Coogan had no-one to feed off but himself in his one-hander, ostensibly a lecture on the evils of tobacco, but actually a long digression on the evils of marriage. The lecture format translates to telly neatly, and at least Chekhov is released from the amber drawing room. Coogan himself looks the picture of disappointment: mouth welded in a downturn, unkempt hair, it's Alan Partridge with ten years of suffering behind him and the "aha" ground out of his lexicon.

Vegas does Chekhov like he does everything else and it works rather well. With no concessions to time and place, some of his rants -- on tenors, for example who "attack the central nervous system" -- might have been his own; in this he is helped by a peppy translation from Paul Schmitt, who freely introduces words like "creep" and "bugger". Vegas has a muzzle built for latent tragedy, a knobbly root vegetable with a twinkle in the eye that looks as if it might turn teary at any moment; he wheezes and blusters at Mackenzie Crook with the hoarse whine of an artillery bombardment. Crook, as Vegas has pointed out, has a face you just want to shout at and merely has to look riven and pointy to Vegas's massy tuber.

And it's quite funny. Maybe not roll on the floor laughing funny, but still. There is wry humour in the running joke (or running sore) of the battle of the sexes; Coogan's off-stage wife calls him, among other pet sobriquets, Satan. Matthew Horne and Sheridan Smith are on fine form as they repeatedly derail a marriage proposal by arguing about who owns what and who has the best dog. And it's the men who get the vapours, pass out, and have nameless nervous complaints.

Barratt's Smírnoff is almost Petruchio-like in his disdain for the female of the species, who has, apparently, the soul of a crocodile and the brain of a pigeon. He gets his come-uppance as he falls in love, à coup foudre, with his widowed debtor. There are mock-Shakespearean echoes in Vegas's character, too, as he howls out Othello's "blood, Iago, blood!" in response to his exhausting schedule of matrimonial errands and tasks. Some of this could have been written yesterday: who hasn't asked their significant other to just pick up a few things while they were in town?

Our enjoyment seems predicated, somehow, on familiarity with the performers, and perhaps the biggest joke is that these light entertainment types are doing Chekhov at all. This stunt does rely on a knowledge of their back catalogue, a sense that they have more jokes in their rear pockets. The comedians prove wholly capable of doing Chekhov's light and dark; but next time, spring him from the parlour and shake him up a bit, like they do in the world of 3D that he called theatre.

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The cult of clean eating in a fast-food nation

In Britain, it used to be vulgar to comment on one’s food. Now, it’s a bit weird not to.

These are the top food trends that the British media predicted for 2016: seaweed, parsnip puddings and sprouted seeds. And yet what was the most popular recipe on BBC Good Food, the country’s biggest cooking site? Lemon drizzle cake. When it comes to the food that we eat, the gulf between fantasy and fact has never been wider.

A third of British children are overweight, yet from the pictures tagged as “kids’ food” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram you would think they lived on pumpkin muffins and raw breakfast cereal. The same site boasts 290,229 posts on #avocadotoast and a mere 7,219 for #baconbutty, but I would bet my best spiraliser that we eat more of the latter.

Food trends have always been the preserve of those wealthy enough to enjoy the luxury of choice. If social media had been around in the 18th century, the exotic pineapple would have been trending heavily even as the majority of Britons subsisted on bread and gruel. Yet rarely have these fads been so hard to ignore: right now, we are a society obsessed with our stomachs . . . or, at least, our eyes, given that these seem to do much of the consuming.

The average British adult spends five hours a week watching, reading about, browsing and posting about food – and just four cooking it. A record 14.8 million of us tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off – almost as many as saw England’s dismal performance against Iceland in last year’s Euros – yet the most commonly eaten meal in the UK is a sandwich. That conjures a depressing image of each one of us sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through endless pictures of kale smoothies and activated quinoa as we tuck in to a floppy BLT.

A nation in which it was once considered vulgar to comment on one’s food has turned into one where it’s a bit weird not to. The current feverish interest in all things culinary feels, I imagine, like the Sixties must have done after Britain discovered sex “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. And as with the sexual revolution and its fantasies of free love and cosmic joy through tantric chanting, perhaps the idea is more popular than the reality: increasingly, this endless parade of recipes cooked and meals eaten seems to be about more than the food itself.

While sex has (largely) thrown off its ancient shackles of judgement and shame, our diets are increasingly becoming their own morality tale. Once upon a time, “bad food” meant adulterated food – cheese dyed using lead, bread bleached with chalk – or perhaps cruel food, such as battery-farmed eggs. Occasionally someone who seemed to take too much pleasure in their meals might feel the weight of the country’s Protestant past, but wholesome food was generally seen as good rather than sinful.

Social media can’t be wholly to blame for the demonising of simple nourishment in the 21st century. Writing in the Observer last year, the philosopher Julian Baggini cited Salman Rushdie’s “naughty but nice” cream-cake advertising slogan from the Seventies as an early example; but “wicked” food was once a largely playful concept. Now, it is hard to find the humour in the modern idea of clean eating or, indeed, in its “dirty” dark side.

Clean eating, if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the torrent of smoothie bowls and bone broths pouring forth from screen, billboard and printed page in recent years, is a way of life (most adherents reject the word “diet”) with many rules – the Hemsley sisters’ “simple, mindful and intuitive” approach for “a long-term lifestyle change” takes up six pages of their bestselling recipe book Good + Simple. But there is little consensus among its advocates as to what these rules are.

Although clean eating is often described merely as a movement that champions minimally processed, “natural” foods, one of the few things that unites its various congregations is the need to eliminate what they deem to be unclean alternatives. Gluten is a popular target for dismissal, because it can be “hard to digest”; legumes are sometimes blamed for “bloating”. Cane sugar is definitely out, but consumption of dates and honey is actively encouraged, often served with a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter (but not peanut butter, because that “gives you cancer”).

Given the often spurious scientific grounds for these strictures (tomatoes are said to cause inflammation; dairy steals the calcium from your bones), it’s little wonder that clean eating stands accused of promoting what the food writer Bee Wilson described recently as a “twisted attitude to food”, valuing certain ingredients as pure and cleansing, while others come with an unwanted side order of guilt and anxiety.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming – and on social media, the crucible of the eat-clean craze, nothing is served in moderation. “Dirty” food, which revels in its own naughtiness, is the inevitable flip side of the clean-eating coin, a world where adherents compete to outdo each other in crimes against cookery. Online audiences encourage such extremes; they like their food, to misquote Longfellow, either very, very good or horrid. In short, a simple spag bol is never going to get as much attention on Twitter as an “Italian-style” beefburger, dripping with Bolognese sauce, drenched in Parmesan, and served between two slabs of deep-fried pasta (this does exist).

Such fantastical foods are fine online; as with pornography, the problem comes when they influence the way people eat in real life. Bee Wilson, who was subjected to a barrage of online abuse when she dared to question the thinking behind one clean-eating guru’s “philosophy” at last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, cites growing evidence of the dangers of clean eating from those working with people who suffers from eating disorders. One specialist in London told the Sunday Times in May that between 80 and 90 per cent of his patients were following so-called clean diets.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ­Oxford University study published last year in the journal Brain and Cognition explored the possibility that “exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger inhibitory cognitive processes such as self-restraint”. The researchers concluded that our brain has to make a great effort to resist temptation when looking at “food porn”, in order to “maintain a reasonably healthy weight”. And not everyone succeeds.

It remains to be seen whether this appetite for public displays of ingestion endures. I can’t imagine the world needs any more pictures of fried eggs but others disagree: 264 have been added to Instagram in the time it has taken me to write this piece.

Technology will decide – work is already under way on virtual-reality headsets that allow diners to eat one food while looking at an image of another. This is a significant development, as evidence suggests that changing the appearance of food can affect our perception of its taste and flavour.

It is possible to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, chowing down on a plate of steamed fish while gazing lasciviously at a bacon cheeseburger. Or we could just learn the old-fashioned art of moderation. Is there a hashtag for that?

Felicity Cloake writes the New Statesman’s food column

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times