Reviewed: Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea

Oh my Darjeeling.

Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea

BBC1

 

So you decide to send Victoria Wood, national treasure and professional Alan Bennett-alike, off to do a travelogue-cum-documentary about tea and the British (10 and 11 April, 9pm). Good plan. Everyone likes Victoria Wood. And everyone likes tea, too – except for those people who like lattes but that’s fine because they’re all watching E4 and Sky Atlantic. OK, this project will be expensive. You will have to splash out on airfares to Shanghai and Boston, plus a couple of swanksville over­night stops in Assam and Kolkata, not to mention travel insurance and the cost of limitless supplies of Imodium, Dioralyte and extra-strength Sure for Ms Wood and the crew. But consider the result. If she turns out to be the new Michael Palin, this could be the start of a whole new franchise.

Then . . . disaster! Wood and her director return to HQ with a couple of souvenir chai cups, a comedy straw hat and a film that is dull and predictable and patronises foreigners for their tendency to look foreign, talk foreign and put condensed milk in their Darjeeling. Oh, dear. Wood is not the new Palin, after all. She is not even the new Caroline Quentin.

What to do? Do you: a) put her film on ice indefinitely and get on the phone to Alan Titchmarsh to see if he is interested in making a series about leeks, a venture that would necessitate only a trip to Wales?; b) hide it on BBC4, somewhere between the repeats of I, Claudius and Timeshift: the Golden Age of Coach Travel?; or c) simply butch the whole thing out and daringly screen Wood’s film on BBC1 in hour-long segments over two consecutive nights?

Personally, I would have gone for the second option and then swiftly disappeared for a long trip abroad myself. As you will no doubt have guessed by now, the commissioning editors went nuclear on this one and Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea – a title so rubbish, not even Craig Brown could spoof it – screened on BBC1 and lasted the full 120 minutes. Was it really as bad as all that? Oh yes, it was. The travel bits were like Blue Peter circa 1976, with Wood meekly learning to pick tea (in India), to taste tea (in Harrogate) and to talk nicely to toffs about tea (at Woburn Abbey). Wood is either very shy or very gauche, with the result that she found it impossible to meet the eye of any of her interviewees or even to look at the camera half the time. Weird.

The anthropology and social history bits, meanwhile, were like The One Show gone wrong. Various random celebrities – Graham Norton, Dr Who, Morrissey – tried (and mostly failed) to explain why they and people in general love tea so very much as Wood gazed on, looking vacant and a little bit twitchy.

Yes, you did read that right. Morrissey met her in a beige American hotel room, where he served her a cup of weak Ceylon from his personal teapot, a lime-coloured metal job with red beads dangling from it. In exchange, she produced a tea cosy knitted by her friend Norah. Yes, a tea cosy – which he accepted, albeit with a certain camp truculence.

It was so painful to remember, watching this excruciating scene, that I used to think Morrissey was the most stylish and beautiful and poetic man who ever lived. For here he was playing Dame Hilda Bracket to Wood’s Dr Evadne Hinge. Were they flirting? I think they were, a little bit. And it killed me. Sic transit gloria Morrissey. I think I’d better stick the kettle on, quick.

Victoria Wood and Matt Smith enjoying a nice cup of tea. 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 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

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 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses