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

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue