Curb your enthusiasm

It's a pity the English actors in Episodes have had their craziness toned down.

Episodes, the latest episode of which airs tonight on BBC2 (10pm), is the latest Atlantic-straddling comedy to hit our viewing schedules. In line with other autoreflexive fare (like Extras, Grandma's House and The Trip) it is self-referential to the point of narcissism: it's a TV comedy about making a TV comedy, in which Matt Leblanc plays Matt Leblanc.

Hollywood and its drones have been rich pickings for sitcom and screenwriters, but the carcass has been pulled apart so much that it now feels like self-indulgence to go back for more. Just how interested and excited are we expected to be by all that is implied by "behind the scenes" and "backstage"? It's surely a little like hubris to think we care too much for yet another anatomisation of pampered dysfunction in La La Land.

In Episodes Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan star as a BAFTA-wielding writing and romantic partnership, who are seduced into doing an American version of their critical comedy hit Lyman's Boys. Whilst there has been a steady North Atlantic Drift of comedies to our shores (of which of course Leblanc has been honourable part, in his role as Joey Tribbiani in Friends), it is hardly a reciprocal stream, and few British comedies make big in the States. The Episodes people (who include David Crane of Friends) have waggishly anticipated bafflement and criticism on both sides of the Atlantic by weighing in there first, and putting the "lost in translation" theme centre-stage.

Greig and Mangam are a mettlesome pair, but in general our home-grown comedy actors have a different rhythmic emphasis from their American counterparts, and a delivery pattern that doesn't rely on various iterations of the wiseacre. Something rather peculiar happens when Brits get to play British in US-written shows: the rhythms clash, and appear to give rise to mini eddies of European disappointment. Jane Leeves in Frasier, Helen Baxendale in Friends and even Ashley Jensen in the egregious Ugly Betty all seemed to end up being a glitch and a snag in the otherwise tight fabric of yankee banter.

Arguably, another distinguishing feature of the Brits is their willingness to make complete unattractive arses of themselves. We do so love a loser. Whereas the Friends cast, for example, could never hope to be more, or less, than their glossy, preening selves. But for all that, they were our friends too, or so we thought. So much so that, after mainlining a few episodes, I found it was sometimes mildly disappointing to glance in the mirror and realise I didn't look much like them. It was easy to cosy up in their coffee-cup world; one felt something akin to affection for the coiffed ones.

It's too early in Episodes to feel anything like this for our protagonists - but the signs are not good. They are too similar in tone, as batch-processed Brits, to be intriguing or absorbing. I'm also missing the warmth that the live audience brought to Friends, which gives energy to combustible ingredients and polishes up the timing.

Then there are Greig and Mangan themselves. Their careers to date have been predicated on being decidedly off the wall (think of Greig's kooky, klutzy turn and Mangan's surreal, self-seeking doctor in Green Wing). But in Episodes they are required to be the sober foil to all the Hollywood madness, the innocents abroad, with their craziness curbed accordingly. I miss the crazies.

There are a couple of promising cameos in the show, for example from the Head of Comedy, a sculpted blonde who gives her pained pronouncements "it was really funny" and "it was hysterical" as though they are being tortured out of her. One wonders why such turns are not built up to be fully-fledged sub-plots. Matt Leblanc had a bigger piece of the action in the second episode, and, perhaps commensurately, the second episode was better.

But Episodes will stand or fall on its writing. So far the jokes have been overstretched: they come out of the starting gates promisingly enough, only to be flogged comprehensively to death. The comedy-within-a-comedy, "Lyman's Boys", was a particular, unfortunate low. As Greig says, when gazing in awe at LA's gated community mansion that has been provided for the writing team: "our show's not this good". For the series to be anything more than Joey-with-cussing, the writing had better sharpen up, sharpish.

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle