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Welcome to the land of nod

Rachel Cooke reviews "Goodnight Britain" and "The Dark Ages: an Age of Light".

Goodnight Britain

The Dark Ages: an Age of Light

There’s nothing worse than a good idea badly done. The BBC has a new show about sleep problems and how they may be resolved. On paper, this should read sure-fire ratings hit. Most people are obsessed with sleep in one way or another. Not to be unladylike but I would love to know how snoring is best cured. Do those Robbie Fowler-style Band-Aid things work? And what about mobile phones? I am convinced that mine causes insomnia, which is why I put it in the biscuit tin every night.

Alas, Goodnight Britain (28-29 November, 9pm) is so awful, it might work as a cure for one of the conditions it aims to treat: insomnia. Dull doesn’t even begin to describe it; I’ve seen more interesting tea towels. The format, stolen from the home of dross that is current Channel 4, is “reality lite”, by which I mean that the science bits, in as much as they exist at all, are made more palatable (supposedly) by some human guinea pigs; these people are not contestants exactly but they must be prepared for a certain amount of humiliation. So meet Sheila, who has a pathological desire to bake cakes until 4am; Gwen, who has chronic insomnia; Paul, whose snoring is so bad, it may be heard in Tashkent; Chris, whose shift work has buggered his body clock; and Kathryn, who talks and walks in her sleep. (“You’re my fibble!” she could be heard shouting, when a camera was placed in her bedroom. She then began muttering about a child who had died. No wonder her flatmate was freaked out.)

The experts were Kirstie Anderson, a neurologist, and Jason Ellis, director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research. They’re knowledgeable and sympathetic but this is prime time, so they had to put up with some help from Sian Williams, whose sole qualification for her role seemed to be that she used to have to get up very early to present the BBC’s Breakfast. Williams’s presence was hugely distracting. Mostly, she wandered about the grounds of the “sleep house” where our patients were berthed for the night doing nothing very much at all that was useful. She looked great in her cigarette pants and heels but they did jar rather, given that this was a pyjama-based show.

Oh, yes. Our experts had also been given a “sleep-mobile”: an old-fashioned Winnebago that, having been kitted out with all sorts of whizzy equipment, was used for consultations as well as surveillance outside patients’ homes (no point in wasting BBC resources, after all). The patients had to walk from the sleep house to sleep-mobile accompanied by two whitecoated assistants – they suffer from sleep problems, not congenital stupidity! – and then hunker inside it, Sylvanian Families-style.

It was undignified and exceedingly dumb. The result was that you cared not at all whether the volunteers would ever achieve the holy grail of a few uninterrupted hours. Though they did, thanks to some careful sleep “hygiene” (translation: tidy your bedroom, turn down the central heating and turn off your computer) and a special Darth Vader mask for Paul (no, I’m not wearing one of those, not ever). At which point, Sian appeared by moonlight and gave her butter-soft leather jacket one last talky turn in the undergrowth.

Meanwhile, on BBC4, Waldemar Januszczak has begun an attempt to cure us of a different affliction: our attitude towards those whom history calls “barbarians” (Tuesdays, 9pm). According to Januszczak, who is working his way through the “lexicon of hate spawned by the Dark Ages”, the Huns had a way with jewellery, the Vandals wrote poetry and the Goths, let loose with a few mosaic tiles, were apt to decorate the ceiling very beautifully.

There are those who think Januszczak has Philistine tendencies of his own but I am not one of them. When Jonathan Meades is off the air (most of the time, sadly), what else can one do but rely on pale-ish imitations? Januszczak is a little shouty but I like his enthusiastic waddle and his deadpan delivery. In Hungary, he met a man called Janos Kasci who is attempting to reconstruct Attila’s long lost palace, a construction that resembled a yurt on speed. No twitch of a smile, Januszczak’s face might have been carved in stone, like a gargoyle on some Gothic cathedral.

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 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis