Reviewed: Heading Out; Food, Glorious Food

The great British rip-off.

Heading Out; Food, Glorious Food
BBC2; ITV

Sue Perkins, the one with dark hair from The Great British Bake Off, has written a sitcom, in which she also stars. It’s called Heading Out (Tuesdays, 10pm), and it’s about a 40-yearold vet who is too scared to tell her nice middle- class parents – and you really don’t get nicer or more middle-class than Harriet Walter, who plays her mum – that she is a lesbian.

Are you convinced by this set-up? I’m not. I mean, a friend of mine came out when we were 18, in Sheffield, in 1987, at a school where you were basically a social outcast if you didn’t look and act like Shirley from Wham! Would a funny and assertive 40- year-old vet in the south of England in 2013 who isn’t married (I mean to a man), and doesn’t have children, really find it so terribly hard to say the words “I’m gay” to her loving, if somewhat conventional (and, er, possibly blind), parents? I don’t think she would, though do feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. It may be that I am just too damned liberal for my own good.

It’s a pity the set-up is so dodgy, because it’s quite funny otherwise. The flip side of my extreme liberality is an urgent desire to laugh at people who are overly sentimental about animals – I’m a real Jekyll and Hyde type, on the sly – so jokes about dead cats and pet crematoria are, alas, right up my street. Sara (Perkins) is a superbly hopeless vet: the kind who keeps a stiff moggy in her fridge – it’s a long story – and who can barely hide her derision when soppy owners from the Liz Jones school of feline husbandry start going on about arnica and Rescue Remedy.

The show has a nice supporting cast, too: Nicola Walker (Spooks) plays Justine, Sara’s friend on the netball team, and Joanna Scanlon (The Thick of It) is the batty life coach who is going to help her pluck up the courage to tell her parents that her new boyfriend is in fact a girlfriend. Maybe, then, it’ll settle down as it goes along; maybe it’ll become so hilariously funny I’ll be able to forget all about the 40-year-old closeted lesbian aspect of it. I hope so, because Perkins is a good sort.

Certainly, she seems a better sort than Carol Vorderman, the presenter of Food, Glorious Food (Wednesdays 8pm), ITV’s dimwitted and pathetic attempt to grab a slice of Bake Off’s audience. Oh, man, this show is bad. What, I wonder, do I most despise about it? Is it that the winner’s dish – any recipe will do, sweet or savoury, and the more ghastlysounding the better – will be developed and sold by Marks & Spencer at a time when our faith in ready meals has reached rock bottom? Or is it the fact that one of the “expert” judges, the charmless Anne Harrison of the WI, admitted in the first episode that she did not know what a Staffordshire oatcake was? Or maybe it’s the realisation that her colleague Tom Parker Bowles doesn’t seem embarrassed to be described as “food-writing royalty”?

It has no drama and no focus; the standard is so desperately low, it’s patently obvious who is going to win each round and, since anything goes, you have pheasant paprikash competing against Pimm’s jelly and Welsh cawl, which is just dumb. The producers seem to have chosen contestants mostly so we can laugh at them, Britain’s Got Talent style (Simon Cowell’s company makes this series). In the first episode, we had a mother and son who wear Victorian dress full-time and apparently without irony; a woman who makes fermented cabbage by crushing it beneath her bare feet; and a woman who thinks that Loyd Grossman, another of the judges, looks like Sean Connery. (And while we’re on the subject of Grossman, he appears to have insisted his OBE be added to his name on the credits, which isn’t very cool at all.)

As for Vorderman, though she has swapped her Galaxy dress for something a little more Cath Kidston, she appears to be about as interested in cooking as I am in who wins this shameless, muddled rip-off. Honestly, I would rather wear Anne Harrison’s giant purple body warmer to lunch at Claridge’s with Brad Pitt than watch this show again.

Sue Perkins in Heading Out. Photograph: BBC

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
Show Hide image

The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

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