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.

ALAMY
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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war