Gilbey on Film: beyond Harry Potter

Treacle Jr is exactly the kind of British film that needs government support.

I don't know what the Prime Minister's plans are this weekend but should he find himself in receipt of a few idle hours I would urge him to hotfoot it over to a branch of the excellent Picturehouse cinema chain in either Clapham or Greenwich. There he can see the superb new film Treacle Jr, which explores the friendship between an incorrigible (and often comically unintelligible) Irish goofball (Aiden Gillen) and a lanky out-of-towner (Tom Fisher) who is sleeping rough after deserting his wife and child.

I know Mr Cameron takes a keen interest in new British films -- he's quite the cineaste, having expressed enthusiasm recently for The King's Speech. (Never let it be said he doesn't go out on a limb in his tastes.) Oh, the delicious and unselfconscious irony in celebrating a success that would not have happened as it did without the UK Film Council, which Cameron's government then killed off in an act of staggering short-sightedness and philistinism.

That said, what looked like a clueless bit of axe-swinging did begin to assume a certain obscure logic once I listened to a news item this week about St Basil's Cathedral and heard for the first time the story of how Ivan the Terrible was rumoured to have gouged out the eyes of the architects after the cathedral was completed, so that they might never again create something of comparable splendour. Could The King's Speech be to St Basil's Cathedral as David Cameron is to Ivan the Terrible?

But back to Treacle Jr. The Prime Minister will doubtless be aware that Jamie Thraves, the film's writer-director, found acclaim eleven years ago with his debut feature, The Low Down. That picture was an atmospheric tale of aimless twentysomethings haunting the streets, pubs and walk-ups of Dalston, east London. Treacle Jr is shot through with some of the same amorphousness and melancholia, as well as the earlier film's attentive use of locations (south London this time) to nourish characterisation. In Gillen's eye-catching, lapel-grabbing, jaw-jabbering performance, Treacle Jr also features the sort of scene-stealing work on which voters can seize helpfully come awards time. Fisher is also excellent in the much quieter part, effectively the straight man to Gillen's tomfoolery.

I only bring the Prime Minister into all this because it just so happens that Treacle Jr is being released on the same day as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (which I reviewed last week). That's two British films, both admirable pieces of work in their own ways, situated at opposite ends of the budgetary spectrum. One will have a release supported by limitless publicity and advertising before opening with a screen count well into triple figures, as one would expect from a major studio's blockbuster-to-end-them-all. The other is arriving on two screens, with more to come if it proves a success -- which is why, if you are intending to see the movie (and you should), then it's imperative you go this weekend to guarantee it doesn't drop off the circuit.

Cameron could really do his bit for the UK film industry here. It's all very well championing the Harry Potter films, as he did late last year. That's the easy bit. The franchise is already popular and cherished, and it has provided extended employment for hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Cameron's support of it brought to mind Giles Smith's analysis (in his book Lost in Music) of a pre-1997 Tony Blair's admission of musical preference:

[A]sked in an interview what kind of pop music he liked . . . Mr Blair came up with REM, Seal and Annie Lennox . . . If the party had commissioned an expensive advertising agency to spend seven months in collaboration with a public relations firm researching this declaration, it's hard to believe they would have come up with anything so beautifully poised. REM, Seal and Annie Lennox: an American rock group and two British singers, one black male, one white female, with fingers in pop, soul and dance, an ample musical spread, economically achieved . . . Note how the balance tips in favour of the British artists, to avoid the suggestion that Mr Blair might be somehow in thrall to American culture.

Smith goes on to identify the tinge of the mainstream and the modern in Blair's choices (which went on the record pre-Britpop); these suggest implicitly that the future PM was no dinosaur, and no elitist either. Would that Cameron were so sophisticated. All he does is plump for the blindingly obvious, the populist choice that not only needs no leg-up from him but which no potential voter could respond to with belligerence or bewilderment: no Middle Englander, if such a creature still exists beyond the grounds of Hogwarts, would be heard exclaiming "Harry who?" or "Why on earth didn't he promise a generous stipend to Terence Davies?"

Cameron could rehabilitate himself now by coming out in support of Treacle Jr, which would show not only an enthusiasm for vitality in British cinema, but an ideological consistency on his part. After all, what could be more resourceful, go-getting and Big Society-esque than re-mortgaging your own house to make a film? That's exactly what Thraves did to raise the majority of Treacle Jr's £30,000 budget (as he tells Time Out here).

The one very real danger in soliciting Cameron's endorsement is that it could deter audiences from seeing a film they would otherwise have greatly enjoyed and admired. Anyone who was young in the 1980s will remember Margaret Thatcher praising the band Thrashing Doves on Saturday morning television. Chris Briggs, head of A&R at the group's record label, put it best: "What worse thing could happen to a young band than having Thatcher tell the nation's youngsters they were jolly good?"

"Treacle Jr" is released on Friday. To find one-off screenings of Treacle Jr accompanied by Q&A sessions, go to www.nbcq.co.uk

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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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