Chefs vs Science: The Ultimate Kitchen Challenge

April 21, 2016 by  
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Chefs vs Science

Chefs vs Science: The Ultimate Kitchen Challenge is a BBC Four 90-minute film that approaches cooking from two different but equally fascinating perspectives: as an art and as a science. Michelin-star chef Marcus Wareing faces off materialist scientist Professor Mark Miodownik in the ultimate cookery challenge which involves a selection of the most well-known and treasured British dishes: the tomato soup, the medium-rare steak with mashed potatoes and the chocolate fondant.

Along this cooking journey, Mark Miodownik tries to unearth the rudimentary principles of taste and flavour. What makes flavour what it is? How do we perceive taste and how can we differentiate between different flavours? These are only some of the questions to which Miodownik seeks answers. Through an experimental approach to the constitutive ingredients of taste, Miodownik links flavour with the cognitive process that takes place in the brain as we experience flavour with all our senses. A different colour perceived through sight may mislead the taste buds, different sound qualities influence the intensity of chocolate flavour and the smell emitted through different shapes of glasses can alter the taste of champagne. The renowned chef Marcus Wareing is also called to experience the interaction between science and cooking. To his own disbelief and surprise, Wareing frequently attests to the scientific core of taste-savouring and flavour-enriching.

As far as the ambitious menu is concerned, the cookery competition starts with a go at the smooth and filling tomato soup. Miodownik attempts to separate the tomato pulp from its juice in order to recreate Wareing’s perfectly-seasoned and rich-flavoured tomato soup. Moving from the entrée to the main course, chef and scientist aim for a tender, nicely cooked and pink-coloured rib-eye steak. Butter, herbs and seasoning go toe-to-toe with chemistry, water bath and liquid nitrogen. As for the accompanying side of mashed potatoes, a similar technique is deployed in order to give a smooth texture and rich potato flavour to the dish. Miodownik describes in detail the process, explaining any obscure jargon that may put off those less science-savvy. The visuals further illustrate the chemical reactions involved in cooking, often blurring the line between science and art. The kitchen becomes a laboratory where cooking textbooks are out the window and chefs-scientists rely on their experience and instincts.

When it comes to dessert, Miodownik opts for a less radical and more conventional cooking method so as to perfect the foamy sponge and gooey centre of the chocolate fondant: here comes the microwave oven. Utterly amazed and a tad dumbfounded, a worried Wareing watches Miodownik resort to ready-made cake mix in order to create the third and perhaps more challenging dish of the menu. When all is said and done and the heat has worn off, Wareing is asked to taste the fondant and evaluate Miodownik’s techniques…

Chefs vs Science: The Ultimate Kitchen Challenge provides an exciting outlook on cooking, frequently probing the question of whether taste can surpass all prior process of the raw materials. To sieve or to snip? To sear or to seal? To see or to perceive? That is the… cookestion.

Chefs vs Science is available on BBC iPlayer until Friday 22 April at 11.30pm.

Jim Carter: Lonnie Donegan and Me

April 18, 2016 by  
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Lonnie Donegan 1

Lonnie Donegan, the most influential musician you may not know. Called the ‘founding father of British pop’ by the Guardian, it’s strange to think he’s most recognisable now for the song, ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’.

This one–off documentary for ITV sees lifelong fan Jim Carter, best known as Downton’s butler Carson, chart Lonnie’s life. Born in poverty stricken Glasgow in 1931 he rose through the jazz clubs of post war Britain to become a huge success in the 50s. His talent? Skiffle. A word that sounds as if it were a fight and a performance all at once. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines skiffle as a: “style of music played on rudimentary instruments”. It was a new type of music that stepped away from tradition, it was exciting, fast paced and accessible. Back in the 50s anyone could form their own skiffle band with whatever was in the kitchen. One of Lonnie’s old band mates shows Jim how to make a bass instrument with string, a tea chest and a broom handle. Lonnie was a pop star and then he faded away into cabaret, replaced by rock and roll and The Beatles.

Celebrities abound in the show. Paul McCartney, Ringo Star and Van Morrison all talk with Jim about the influence Lonnie had on their lives. It saved them, observes Ringo Star, from: “a life in the factories”. Then later it is Van who rescues Lonnie, from near obscurity. The presence of these well-known faces does fell as if it were a kind of belated dues to the man. There was a poignancy in their appearances to speak about him. Jim also talks about what it meant to be a fan of Lonnie’s. Imelda Staunton, Jim’s wife, even shares about what she thought about Lonnie’s music; not much apparently.

Reminders that this was a different era crop up throughout the documentary. His first wife recalls sleeping with a timer so she could wake at 3am to give him his meal when he returned from a show. I wonder how many women would do that now? Then the revelation that their divorce, because of his cheating, negatively affected his public persona is an insight into how conservative views were then.

There was an energy and enthusiasm to Lonnie’s music that is unmistakable. It felt exciting to hear about it. It’s a shame he has been so forgotten. Overall the show is quietly observed. Yes there were lots of clips of music and dancing but the pace is gentle. This was a window into a man’s life. An ordinary man, who, at the time, had an extraordinary life. Jim Carter did him justice.

Camping

April 13, 2016 by  
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Camping 1

All kinds of awkward. The definition of last night’s premiere of Camping on Sky Atlantic. Brought to us by the creator of Nighty Night Julia Davis, her latest offering is squirm-in-your-seat funny. The premise is a camping holiday in Devon for a group of middle aged couples. They are celebrating one of their birthdays. With glamping ever more popular this looks as if it could be a lovely few days in the countryside. We know it won’t be.

The first two episodes were screened back to back and there are a lot of recognisable faces. Steve Pemberton stars as the browbeaten husband who the trip is in honour of and Vicki Pepperdine as his dictator-style wife. Julia Davis also features as the sex-mad new girlfriend of the couple’s old friend. Jonathan Cake plays a reformed alcoholic who is fussed over by his insipid partner played by Elizabeth Berrington. By the first night tensions are already high as things start to go awry. Bickering, flapping and lots of snogging characterise the start, and that’s just the adults. The younger one’s fare no better, There’s Archie, a boy forced to wear a plastic bubble on his head by his mother to protect him and Jonathan’s teenage son, whose entrance is marked by disturbing noises from the bathroom.

While the holiday kicks off there are occasional glimpses of the creepy landowner doing strange things such as hanging out gigantic stained underwear while the group eat breakfast.

Elements of these characters are so realistic that it can make uncomfortably viewing. Vicki’s character as Archie’s over protective, routinely homophobic mother is one. It is amusing though, there are laugh out loud moments and I would watch this again. It left me turning my head away at points which classifies it as a certain type of humour. Agonising.

Camping continues as double-bills on Sky Atlantic, on Tuesday nights at 22.00.

Line of Duty: Episode 3

April 11, 2016 by  
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Cottan and Fleming in Line of Duty

An intriguing but flawed third episode took some of the heat out of last Thursday’s Line of Duty. Writer Jed Mercurio committed the cardinal sin of the suspense / thriller genre by revealing the bad guy during the third act of this six-parter.

Regular viewers of the series will know that DS “Dot” Cottan is a wrong ‘un of the top order, and secretly most appreciate his snake-like ability to get out of the tightest, dirtiest spots and come out smelling of roses. He had the makings of a criminal kingpin, the Machiavellian Dudley Smith-type conniver, so popular in James Elroy’s LA novels. Alas, he seems to have shot his bolt!

DS Cotton in Line of Duty - Craig Parkinson

Unfortunately, for us, Mercurio bases his characters in the real world and takes the more mundane and probably more accurate route to illustrate how a compromised officer can be bent to corruption. Cottan (Craig Parkinson), the shifty-eyed, evidence destroying, double-tongued rogue officer on the anti-corruption squad gets an episode to expand on his weaknesses; we come to learn he has the obligatory drink problem, the spiralling gambling habit and his wicked past actions now have him in the pocket of organised criminals. His fall from grace might work out well in subsequent episodes – after all, someone must be pulling his strings. Could it be a senior within AC12 or another police department? Could we see the reappearance of characters from past series? Could Lindsay Denton, the disgraced former Detective Inspector who got a spell in chokey at the end of the last series, have a say in proceedings?

The Denton subplot is an interesting sideline and I have no idea where it is going. She showed herself to be an absolute mega bitch in the last series and used inconsistencies in the subsequent court case against her to force an acquittal on charges of complicity in the murders of three fellow officers. She has skeletons in her cupboard, but is she conspiring with the same people that handle “The Caddy”? On the other hand, is she an unwitting participant and scapegoat of corruption at a higher level?

Supt Ted Hastings - Line of Duty

Overall, this episode was a bit of a soap opera, we got an insight into the personal life of Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) who, beyond the veneer of professional stability and supposedly rock solid marriage, is facing up to a very different domestic reality. On the upside, he is pursued by Gill Bigelow (played by Polly Walker), on the downside he is returning to an empty house and ready meals.

Also seeking a bit of attention in the least likely place was DC Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) who ended up back at Dot’s flat for wine and Chilli. She may have made herself comfortable on the couch but surely, this is a coupling from which no good can come.

Line of Duty airs Thursdays 9pm on BBC1. Episodes are available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days after initial broadcast.

British Army Girls

April 8, 2016 by  
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British Army Girls 1

Watching British Army Girls last night I expected swearing and high-tempo action. What I didn’t expect were tears.

This Channel 4 series follows female recruits as they start their basic training at Army Training Centre (ATC) Pirbright. With women making up less than 10% of the British Army, it seems amazing that a new batch of faces arrives every two weeks.

The women undergo a rigorous training regime and are obliged to stay on site for the first 28 days. You can see how this intensive period forms strong bonds between them. Room inspections, weapons handling, drill and lots of press ups seem the order of the day. As they march in the wrong direction or collapse under a heavy bag, elements of the Carry On… films come to mind. Then suddenly you are reminded of the seriousness of it all. Bayonet practice for instance.  Live firing while running around in the woods is one thing, but attacking a ‘body’ right in front of you with a bayonet on a rifle seems quite another.

Back to the tears. Perhaps it was the way it was edited. As one of the Corporals who lead them mentioned, that, under stress the male pride kicks in and prevents men from crying but women were “freer at sharing there emotion’s”. I don’t think this was said in a derogatory way but then what message does it send out about women in the army? This also comes at a time when the government is reviewing whether women should be on the front line.

That said, the importance of remaining cool under pressure is evident. One cadet who embodies this is Costerello, a calm, 22 year old who is passionate about the army and evidently popular in her group. Another recruit Strain, the oldest there at 32, cannot seem to hold back her sarcasm when shouted at. Perhaps that’s to do with age, in the way it can make you less pliable? Her trajectory over the episode is interesting to follow.

The group’s leader, Captain Rose Hamilton, is reserved. A quieter voice compared to the mouthy Corporals. There is a notable distance between her and the women. She is encouraging, but also maintains a strict formality. At only 28 she had the steely togetherness of someone much older. I would be interested to learn more about her. The mouthy Corporals added to the humour with their swearing and jokes.

This was not an explosive start to the series, there was a lot of activity but it was not immediately gripping. It may lack enough stand-out characters to carry it through. However, it was interesting to observe a world far away from civilian life. Perhaps that’s where the success will be. At the end of the episode, which is their week four, 38 of the 47 recruits remain. Will we?

British Army Girls goes out on Thursday nights at 21.00 on Channel 4.

Line of Duty

April 1, 2016 by  
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Line of Duty - Daniel Mays as Sgt Waldron

Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty is one of the best dramas produced by the BBC in recent years and its welcome third season has proven to be as cold and complex as its predecessors.

Last week’s opener focused on the complicity, and coercion into a lie, of a team of police firearms officers after their bullying sergeant, Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays), executes a suspect on a suburban street in broad daylight.

As the officers of AC12, the police anti corruption unit, probe the circumstances of the killing, they meet with a wall of silence from the firearms team and political pressure from administrators to avoid tarnishing the reputation of the force.

Even the undercover posting of Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) to Waldron’s squad fails to shed any light on the killing or crack the contrived alibis of PCs Kennedy (Will Mellor), Bains (Arsher Ali) and Brickord (Leanne Best). With no option other than to return the officers to active service, suspicion and enmity within the team leads to another deadly confrontation – and the troubled, divisive character of Waldron meets his bloody end on the bedroom floor of a squat during a raid.

DS Cotton in Line of Duty - Craig Parkinson

The stand out quality of Line of Duty has been its ability to present multi-layered storylines and a blurring of the boundaries between good and bad. A recurring theme within previous seasons has been the ambiguity around the integrity of the officers of the anti-corruption unit – we know who watches the police, but who watches the watcher? Cottan (Craig Parkinson), especially, falls into this category. While outwardly supportive of Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and the work of AC12, Cottan dances to the beat of another’s drum and his brass neck and chameleon-like ability to blend into the background makes his screen presence toe-curlingly uncomfortable. He’s a wrong ‘un and with bodies stacking up it remains to be seen whether he will be able to snake his way out of the morass.

Martin Compston as DS Arnott in Line of Duty

As DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) picks away at the scab of Waldron’s background, he discovers the headless corpse of the shooting victim’s brother and evidence of child sex abuse suffered by the officer as a child. However, his path forward is obscured when Cottan pockets and destroys a key piece of evidence containing the names of others involved.

The case is further complicated when Kennedy (Mellor) is found hanged in a disused industrial unit and the two surviving members of the team play the safest card in the deck and pin the blame on the dead guy for the death of Waldron.

Lindsay Denton, the uber manipulator of season two, played with aplomb by Keeley Hawes, returns in a courtroom subplot that threatens to undermine Arnott’s position within AC12. Seeking to exploit technicalities in the case against her, the former detective uses sex as her tool of choice to call into question the credibility of Arnott’s damaging evidence.

This intriguing pot boiler is bubbling along nicely and the introduction of a shady puppet master, pulling the strings of the reluctant Bains, adds further confusion to proceedings.

Line of Duty airs Thursdays 9pm on BBC1. Episodes are available on BBC iPlayer for 28 days after initial broadcast.

The Night Manager – episode 6

March 29, 2016 by  
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Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) in The Night Manager

The Night Manager reached its thrilling denouement on Sunday night as the iniquitous business empire of illegal arms trader Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) came tumbling down.

And yet, the episode started off so well for him. Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) is carpeted in front of a committee and has her operation shut down in the fallout of the failed arms swoop – much to the glee of the odious spook Geoffrey Dromgoole and his lackey Jonathan Aris. It appears all the obstacles in the path of Trade Pass and its supply of arms to despots around the world have been dismantled.

After eluding the attentions of the joint US/UK intelligence operation to intercept smuggled munitions into Syria, Roper shows what a repulsive character he really is with some callously misogynistic and manipulative scenes, which ultimately hasten his demise. Caroline Langbourne (Natasha Little), the humiliated wife of the au pair-bedding, Lord Sandy Langbourne (Alistair Petrie), is summoned to Cairo by Roper under threat of losing her children unless she becomes agrees to spy on his spouse, Ged (Elizabeth Debicki).

Mr Kouyami played by Bijan Dineshmand

Roper knows he has a wrong’un in his organisation and Pine and Ged are the ones under the spotlight. However, there is a multi-million-pound deal to be concluded and as with all things in Tricky Dicky’s world – money talks loudest. So, while the plastic smile of the consummate salesman is on show for his middle eastern client Mr Kouyami (Bijan Daneshmand), the conniving, ruthless schemer plots the end of his wife and her lover.

Last week’s instalment had the feeling of the quiet before the storm and was used as a scene setter for this thoroughly engrossing nail-biter of a conclusion. Pine (Tom Hiddleston) faces a race against time to save his own skin and that of Ged – who Roper admits he “isn’t feeling particularly sentimental towards at the moment” after gifting her to Frisky to indulge his sadistic fixation with water boarding.

Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) in The Night Manager

Unbeknown to Roper, Pine has managed to get word to his handler (Burr) that the Trade Pass entourage is in Cairo on business and has plans of his own to ensure an uncomfortable surprise for the unscrupulous weapons trafficker. Using old contacts in the Egyptian capital, Pine plots the sabotage of the shipment and the financial ruin of Roper.

Yet, even in defeat, having been detained by Burr, Steadman (David Harewood) and Singhal (Adeel Akhtar), Roper remains convinced that his money and Whitehall contacts will save him and “he’ll see them all again in a few days”. Pity then, that his disdain and insults for Kouyami come home to roost when he finds his client has equally powerful friends in Egyptian authority and that he will never enjoy the security of the inside of a prison cell as he is driven away to his fate.

The Night Manager is available on iPlayer until 26 April 2016.

The Night Manager – episode 5

March 23, 2016 by  
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Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) in The Night Mangaer

Many’s the slip twixt the cup and the lip is the moral we can take from this week’s gripping episode of The Night Manager.

Poor old Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) thinks she has finally nailed slippery arms dealer Richard Roper, after her man on the inside, Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddlestone), is able to leak details of a weapons cache heading for Syria. Unfortunately, for Burr, Whitehall mandarin Mayhew (Douglas Hodge) and CIA man Steadman (David Harewood), the Teflon-coated Roper, who has built his wealth on deception and subterfuge, is one-step ahead of them again.

Roper (Hugh Laurie) has been all charm in previous episodes, revealing only a glimpse of the sociopathic tyrant that he hides behind a mask. The revelation of a mole within the operation, though, brings ‘Tricky Dicky’s’ paranoia to the fore and brings down scrutiny of biblical proportions on all those within his inner sanctum.

Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) in The Night Manager

Nobody is above suspicion, nobody is indispensible – not even Jed (Elizabeth Debicki). So what do you do when you are a multi billionaire arms dealer keen to root out a traitor and equally determined to mete out swift, merciless justice? The answer; you decamp to southern Turkey to your very own private military base, garrisoned by multinational collection of mercenaries who are on call for anything from weapons training to political assassination and coup d’etat. And, once there, you set about identifying the mole.

Such is the situation for Pine, Lord Sandy Langbourne, Jed and Corcoran, as Roper hosts them among his coterie of hired killers.

I was disappointed with the demise of Corky (Tom Hollander); he promised much as a consummate mischief-maker with caustic humour and a thinly veiled sadistic streak. He began the series as a smooth operator with a finger in every intelligence pie, but five weeks in – he is easily out manoeuvred by Pine and meets his end in a very clumsy and unconvincing bit of fisticuffs after discovering he has slipped out under the wire – of the heavily guarded, top secret mercenary base!

With Corky bereft of life, Pine wastes no time in exposing him as the traitor. “So Corky was my Judas,” says Roper as he rues the inconvenience of having to hide another body.

Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) in The Night Manager

There was much to satisfy with the further exploration of the Roper character in this episode. He’s been cleverly realised and played by Laurie as a master tactician and manipulator, who seems to operate at a higher level to all those around him. Only Roper seems to be in possession of the full picture and he assiduously curates whom he shares information with and scrutinises to the nth degree the slightest weakness or discrepancy in the activities of those in his fiefdom.

Pine thinks he covered his tracks with the killing of Corchoran. But, don’t for one moment think that Roper’s suspicions have been assuaged. As the episode closes, Roper further ensnares Pine as his entourage travel to Cairo – bringing Pine full circle to the Nefertiti Hotel and a meeting the brutal Hamid family.

The Night Manager concludes on BBC1 on Sunday 27 March.

Heston’s Dinner in Space

March 23, 2016 by  
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Heston's Food in Space

When British astronaut Tim Peake was being shot into space, someone thought that it’d be nice for him to take some fancy food. That way, when floating above earth, he can think of home, even though it’ll literally be right outside his window. Creating these meals is gastronaut Heston Blumenthal, who learns about the restrictions placed on space food and the limitations that come with zero gravity, all while trying to keep it fancy – and making the other astronauts jealous.

Space is exclusive and rather expensive, much like Heston’s restaurants, while this documentary is absolutely text book documentary making. The formula for which being – our main character has a problem to solve, he learns about the problem, tries and fails, learns some more, succeeds and happy ending. Whilst space is cool, watching someone prepare food for someone else is becoming a real drawl, much like those cooking competition shows.

Here’s an idea for Heston; diners at his restaurants should have a TV set on their tables, as they watch their meals being prepared in the kitchen, a voiceover guy would commentate on the progress of the meal, while a live band play either inspirational or dramatic music. Then diners will get to eat the food that they’ve become so invested in.

I’m being rather harsh, this program if anything gives a good behind the scenes look at space travel and what astronauts go through. I’ve never been to space (surprisingly), but I imagine having a nice meal to look forward to makes a big difference. Particularly when you’re sharing rooms with numerous other people, loud equipment and some Russians. Watching this program though, I kept thinking – Heston must really like space, it explains those massive glasses he’s always wearing.

P.S. I strenuously avoided a pun about Michelin stars, out of good taste.

The Art of Scandinavia: Dark Night of the Soul

March 16, 2016 by  
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Art of Scandinavia 1

Often overlooked in the annals of European art, Scandinavia has a wealth of hidden riches, which are revealed in this major new 3-part series, looking at Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Andrew Graham-Dixon presents, and brings a real storyteller’s ear to the narrative, picking disparate works of art, from paintings to novels, scattered with snatches of philosophy and historical background from across the centuries to create a vivid picture of the region.

The first episode focuses on Norway. From the intense, austere and god-fearing art of early Viking societies, we journey through the ages, seeing how Christianity, in both its growth and later decline, and the shock of the industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th century affected this once simple and agrarian land.

Graham-Dixon neatly weaves the art into its historical context. The 19th century Romantic Nationalists, who depicted Norway as a land of untamed wilderness, of simple farmers and fishermen living out a grand, noble life against the elements, belied the truth of the period, which in fact saw rural areas decline in population by up to 50%, as thousands flocked to the cities to find work, or indeed left Norway altogether. Adolf Tidemand’s The Grandfather’s Blessing is a more realistic picture, a scene of separation, as a young woman prepares to leave her grandparents and simple country life behind, her husband impatiently carrying their things out the door.

Meanwhile, an examination of Olauf Magnus History of the Northern Peoples gives a clear image of the Scandinavia’s position throughout much of history as a distant bastion of savage, otherworldly remoteness.

Scandinavian art is enjoying a small moment in the sun, what with last year’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Peder Balke’s black and white depictions of the brutality of the landscape, and Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current exhibition (the very first outside of Norway) of Nikolai Astrup’s magical, fairytale imaginings of his homeland of Jølster.

This series, then, has come along at the perfect time, and is the ideal vehicle to familarise oneself with the wonderfully varied work of Scandinavia’s innumerous forgotten masters. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s programme is a fantastic overview and introduction for the initiate.

Next week’s programme explores the elegant and deceptively European art of Denmark, before the final episode looks to the surrealist, romantic works of Sweden.

The Art of Scandinavia is on BBC Four on Monday nights at 21.00.

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