I’ll admit I was nervous about Mary Berry’s Simple Comforts (Wednesday, BBC2). When you’ve ascended to televisual godhead status like the ageless Berry, I can only imagine what constitutes a “simple comfort”.
High tea with the richest kings of Europe?
Polishing the mysterious Jade Monkey in search of which many have died?
Being swaddled in a massive swaddling blanket by servants?
Visiting a menagerie of rare and endangered animals before choosing one for supper?
Manipulating the currencies of small countries?
I shouldn’t have worried. It’s food. Mary Berry’s Simple Comforts are all types of food. And not just the juicy spherical fruits after which she was named by her fruit-obsessed parents. It’s all of the foods. At the outset we get a montage – toasted sandwiches, shepherd’s pies, chocolate gateaux – all of which cause me to move closer to my television screen to touch it, wistfully, much like Elliot’s finger touched that of his friend Extra Terrestrial.
It should have been obvious. Berry is largely famed for her gluttony and her cookery skills. She goes to France, the country that invented food, and then comes back to show us the recipes that this trip has inspired. Throughout she speaks to us in the kindly tone of a children's television presenter.
I've said for ages now that what we needed was children's television for traumatised adults (most of us, nowadays), but I'd forgotten that that's basically what cookery programmes are – make-and-do for rattled grown-ups. They should give us all bad news via cookery shows, really. "Before we dice this chicken, let's all retire to the bomb shelter while the government has more 'trade talks' with Europe," I can imagine her saying in a year or so.
So Berry goes to a cheese shop in Paris and tells us that France has nearly 1,000 varieties of cheese (Ireland, as you know, has four varieties: "Easi Single", "smelly", "West Cork notions" and "normal"). Then she nips home to her house in England, presumably via a magic portal in Paul Hollywood's beard, where she shows us how to make a croque monsieur. This is a cheese and butter-soaked toasty that translates to English as "Mr Crunchy", demonstrating once again that everything sounds cool in French and stupid in this clunky language the colonisers have left us.
Then she's back in France again, through the time-space continuum in Paul Hollywood's face
For example, in French, Les Misérables is an epic historical novel about truth and justice but, in translation it just tells the life story of television funnyman Les Dennis. (Unless that bookshop assistant was just trying to get rid of me, which, on reflection, seems likely.)
The music is all hopeful and gentle pizzicato strings or Spanish guitar, with an occasional pianist losing the run of himself. Berry narrates as she preps her food and it’s a wonderful thing. She piles on the ham and cheese and butter, “fully fat of course”, and I start gnawing on the screen. Croque monsieur is probably more appropriately translated as “heart attack before you’re out of your 40s, Patrick”.
Then she's back in France again, through the time-space continuum in Paul Hollywood's face, having a slap-up lunch with some stereotypical Frenchmen. She explains that the price of baguettes is set by the French government for affordability, that it's enshrined in French law that all citizens take an hour long lunch break and that all children must smoke Gauloises over other brands (the last one may not be actually true).
Yes, this is the malign European influence the British want to leave behind, having chosen instead, by referendum, a few pages ripped from Hard Times, annotated with crayon in a gentlemen's club, then read aloud by Phil Mitchell from EastEnders. Mary seems to feel slightly risqué having wine with lunch and I have to remind myself that this was filmed before the pandemic. And then I take a swig of my favourite work wine.
Before we know it, Mary is back in her kitchen massaging a leg of lamb and saying things like, “For little flavour bombs I’ve added slivers of garlic which I’m going to poke into the lamb.” I don’t know what this means as it’s, if not linguistically, then culturally, French. It’s definitely filth that shouldn’t be aired before the watershed. So, if it’s all the same to you Mary, I’ll just roast my lamb until it’s a cinder and serve it with vegetables that have been boiled to a sludge. For that is our way on these isles and I hope you don’t forget it.
It doesn't take long before the nefarious writers are back toying with the inhabitants, like the Greek gods of yore
You’ll get none of your fancy stuff in the Hungry Pig in Carrigstown, where they have all the meats – chicken, beef and none – in their natural burger form. Fair City is back this week and the characters look well refreshed after what must have been the most uneventful weeks they’ve seen in 30 years of painful melodrama.
The week’s episode begins with the characters reminiscing about their time in lockdown, which appears to have lately involved bingo and singsongs on the street, quite a respite from the affairs, squabbles, secret relatives, fistfights and abductions they’re more accustomed to.
It feels to me like they’re missing a few tricks. They could easily throw in a few spectacular reminiscences that would usually break the budget but which are still completely in character. “And who can forget Leo bellowing mono-tonally at those angry robotic crab people?” I can image Pete saying with a happy smile on his mug.
It doesn't take long before the nefarious writers are back toying with the inhabitants, like the Greek gods of yore. Erica and Doug are sick of each other after months in shared isolation; Bob loses his life savings in one phone call to his brother while simultaneously indulging Renee in a crazed post-Covid online spending spree (not a recognised symptom); and most darkly of all, Pete has become obsessed with salsa dancing and now wears a Hawaiian shirt. As usual, it feels like these plot lines would be swiftly resolved with the introduction of just one competent therapist or even a YouTube workshop on clear communication.
Thankfully, neither competent therapists nor YouTube exist in Carrigstown and so its inhabitants are set to weave another complicated web of avoidable but entertaining dysfunction.
Would we really want it any other way?