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The Street That Cut Everything (BBC1)

Nick Robinson has a nice way with ordinary folk.

What's that sound? Ah, yes. Plinkety-plonk. Plinkety-plonk. Of course. It's the oh-so-ironic soundtrack - cue bouncy strings and jaunty glockenspiels - of yet another reality-show-cum-documentary in which ordinary people make themselves thoroughly disagreeable for the benefit of television cameras. Admittedly, this one, presented by the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, was wearing a serious disguise, asking the question: how would city dwellers survive if their council services disappeared for six weeks? But, in essence, we have been here before. Like Wife Swap, Come Dine With Me and all the rest, this was Lord of the Flies in suburbia, with email in place of the conch, and nasty, moaning grown-ups in place of the bullying schoolboys. William Golding has a lot to answer for, if you ask me.

The city in question was Preston, a place whose chief claim to fame - as far as I'm concerned - is its excellent brutalist bus station by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson. Sadly, though, we never got to see the bus station.

The action in The Street That Cut Everything (Monday 16 May, 9pm and 10.35pm) was restricted to a single boring cul-de-sac and the occasional public loo (I will return, clothes peg on nose, to these loos shortly).

Robinson never explained why Preston had been chosen to take part in this experiment but, so far as the council went, its involvement was a masterstroke. A week in and all was forgiven. It's amazing how a few bags of rotting rubbish and some nice piles of steaming dog turds can push to the back of the mind such things as silly logos, excessive street furniture and glossy free newspapers. As for Robinson, I'm not sure what this film did for his brand. There were times when it felt to me perilously close to a piece of anti-cuts propaganda. On the plus side, however, he has a lovely way with regular people, which is surely rather surprising in one who spends so much time in Westminster - land of robots, weirdos and splitters of semantic hairs.

The film as a whole, though, failed because what happened once the council had turned off the street lights and removed the dustbins was so entirely predictable. A thriller this wasn't. Guess what? It turns out that we don't like having to clean up after ourselves. Nor are we particularly keen to look after the elderly and disabled, not even when they are related to us. Given our own budget to run, our generalised feelings about such things as free school meals and housing benefits turn unpleasantly personal (there was a mildly nasty moment when one resident accused another of fecklessness).

Desperate to inject some drama, the producers kept changing the rules, and so it was that some residents were bussed out to a public lav for a session with the bleach and the rubber gloves. Oh dear. The effects of council cuts are obviously already being felt in Preston: three cleaners had to share just one loo brush. Meanwhile, in the other direction, teenage hoodies were bussed in and played loud music in the dead of night. The council's environmental health department being strictly out of bounds, the residents had to deal with this themselves, something that only emphasised the artificiality of the set-up: in real life, they would surely have rung the police, fearing knives.

All this was thoroughly wearying, though I must admit that my main preoccupation by now was with the utter old-baggishness of some of the residents. Step forward Maria Haggis, nursery teacher. From the moment I set eyes on Maria, a woman whose face strongly suggested that she last laughed in 1977, I just knew she would be the first person to say the dread words: "I don't know who she thinks she is!" And so it proved. The victim of her chippy ire was Janette St Jean, a drama teacher, who had the temerity to chair one of the residents' meetings. Not that she was much more lovable herself. There was something unsettling about the satisfied way in which she informed her neighbours that her father, whose care she wanted them to fund, had lost both his legs. I know that suburbia can be mighty competitive. But surely some things are still out of bounds? l

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 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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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