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

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear