In God, we curry flavour

Spice of life: Gordon Ramsay in India

Spice of life: Gordon Ramsay in India

 

TV REVIEW: The Meaning of Life with Gay ByrneRTÉ 1, Sunday, Gordon’s Great EscapeChannel 4, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Rab C NesbittBBC2, Thursday, Bellamy’s PeopleBBC2, Thursday

Sunday

How Earth Made Us BBC2, Tuesday

WHAT’S THE meaning of life? The greatest thinkers in history – Descartes, Socrates, Monty Python – have grappled with that question, but none has so far managed to come up with a definitive answer. Okay, the Deep Thought supercomputer from Hitchhikers’ Guide to The Galaxyworked it out and came up with the number 42 – but that answer is not going to be much use to you in an existential crisis.

Never fear, though: The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrneis back to tackle those tricky conundrums that plague our psyches, in a new series of one-to-one interviews with well-known figures from the world of film, TV, music, literature and politics. The title is a bit grandiose – you could just as easily call it Tell Uncle Gaybo All About It. We’re not talking major intellectual discourse here – these are short face-to-face interviews dressed in a mantle of spiritual inquiry. If you watched the first series last year, featuring such guests as Colin Farrell, Sinead O’Connor, Gerry Adams and Neil Jordan, you’ll know the drill. There’s no plugging the new film/book/album/TV show. This is more like a celebrity therapy session, with Dr Gaybo as your spiritual shrink, nodding understandingly as you tell him all about your childhood, upbringing, personal relationships and your experience of God and religion. And there’s no shortage of noddy shots and reaction shots from the great man himself, which add to the impression of a particularly attentive confidante.

There’s no special trick to Gay’s interview technique – it’s his status as the Elder Lemon of Irish broadcasting that elicits your trust. You can’t imagine this format working with anyone who isn’t already familiar with Gay’s paternal persona. If he asked an American to talk about their faith, he might get the answer: “Well, Jay, in my new movie, coming to a cinema near you, my character is very much on a spiritual journey.”

Gay’s first guest in the new series was “the other Gabriel Byrne”; he took great pleasure in noting that not only do they share a name, but both their fathers worked in Guinness, and both are products of a Christian Brothers education. There was no warm-up chat, just straight down to business – after all, they only had half an hour to find the meaning of life. Byrne the actor told Byrne the interviewer about his childhood in Drimnagh, his school life, and his time at a seminary in the UK, where he was sent at 12 to study for the priesthood. Five minutes into the interview, Byrne revealed to Uncle Gaybo that he was sexually abused by a Christian Brother, and again while he was at the seminary. “I didn’t feel that I suffered at the time from it, I just felt it was the way of the world,” he said.

He spoke about his own epiphany, when a travelling theatre troupe came to the seminary, and he clapped eyes on the young, mini-skirted actresses. He touched on the two loves of his life, the late RTÉ presenter Aine O’Connor and actress Ellen Barkin. When Gaybo got to the core religious questions, Byrne fudged the issue like any good lapsed Catholic would. He said – in a roundabout way – he doesn’t believe in God, the resurrection or the afterlife, but it was clear by the end of the interview that Byrne at least believes in himself, even when that self-belief has been shaken by depression and alcoholism. Half an hour seems too short to cover such a breadth of issues – it feels as if the programme is skating over the surface of a life rather than digging deep. Did we learn the meaning of life? Well, it’s not 42 anyway, we can be certain of that.

IF YOU DOUBTthe existence of a higher power, prepare to kneel before the awesome might of earth’s geophysical forces. The recent earthquake in Haiti has put our tinchy little economic crisis into some degree of perspective. The first part of How Earth Made Usfeatures earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and the destruction of entire civilisations. It also has footage of the Haiti disaster, but its main focus is on seismic events many millennia in the past. Prof Iain Stewart, throwing claustrophobia to the wind, delves deep into the Earth’s crust to discover how human civilisation has been shaped and influenced by the planet we live on.

He travels to some of the most geologically volatile regions to learn why humans through the ages have built their cities along unstable fault-lines. He dons an ice suit to visit Mexico’s Crystal Cave, one of the most beautiful – and hottest – places on Earth, discovered by miners in 2000. He is winched into a hole in an Iranian desert to find cool, clear water beneath, and he climbs the volcanic rock of Santorini to show how an enormous eruption there 3,000 years ago led to the decline of one of the greatest civilisations on earth – the Minoans of Crete. What was the Minoans’ greatest invention? The day off. What was their downfall? Not being off on holiday in Cyprus when a tsunami hit.

If you wonder why those crazy Californians opt to live on an earthquake belt, Stewart has the answer: the ore, oil and other natural resources thrown up by the San Andreas fault makes the state $100 billion a year. It’s an uneasy but profitable pact with nature. The rest of us have been living on a financial fault line and reaping the benefits of a pressure-cooker economy; now that it’s all collapsed back into clay, we’re scrambling to catch the next plane to Canada. Who’s crazy now?

WATCHING BREATHTAKINGfootage of the earth in turmoil makes me feel rather small, but what would it take to shake Gordon Ramsay’s firm belief that he is God almighty? How about a solo trip to the vastness of India, without a kitchen staff to abuse? That should take him down a peg or two. In Gordon’s Great Escape, the sweary, shouty chef took a “busman’s holiday” from his financial and personal woes back home to make his first-ever visit to the subcontinent, land of his favourite kind of food. His quest was not to discover the meaning of life, but simply to learn how to make a proper Indian curry, not the namby-pamby sort they make back in dear old Blighty. Ramsay reckons Indian food has lost something on its historical journey to the UK, and he’s determined to put back the missing ingredient – that aaah! factor that foodies crave. “I want to get back to what I’m good at – cooking.” he said.

He cooked vegetable curry for passengers on a moving train, helped prepare a massive feast of two entire goats for a wedding, and went hunting with a tribe in Nagaland on the remote north-eastern tip of India, almost cutting himself down to size with a machete. He watched a woman attempt to break the world record for eating chillies and rubbing them into her eyes, and he entered a cooking competition in Assam and came second – which naturally didn’t go down well with him.

I had feared a Ramsay ego-fest, with India shunted into the background; thankfully, Ramsay deferred to the superior power – the beauty, colour and diversity of this fascinating country. India’s all the rage since Slumdog Millionaire, but Ramsay avoided over-romanticising the country or overstating the poverty. He wasn’t not here to play the amateur sociologist or the great white benefactor – here, he was just a foreign student, learning the art of making real Indian food, so he kept his big head down for most of the trip. Mostof it.

Some segments were not for the queasy – ant’s egg chutney, anyone? – and there were more F-words than, well, Gordon Ramsay’s F-Word(hell, you’d swear too if you’d just almost chopped off your own foot with a machete), but at the end of it you were left with the distinct feeling that this effing, blinding über-alpha male celeb chef will return home a humbler, more tolerant and forgiving person, no longer convinced of his own omnipotence. And porkbellies will fly.

Not so fast New series raided from the comedy cellar

Some old faces gurned their way back on to to our screens this week. First up was Rab C Nesbitt, the man who does for Glasgow what Borat did for Kasakhstan. Rab (Gregor Fisher) is now a recovering alcoholic, but he’s still got the same rough, abrasive manner and archaic outlook on life, and he plainly hasn’t washed that string vest since his last series in 1999. In this new six-part series, Rab and Mary Doll welcome home their son Gash, who’s been in rehab for drug addiction. The accents are thick as ketchup, and the jokes are as tasteless as ever, but this is one that should have stayed in the comedy vaults.

More promising is the TV reunion of Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse, whose new show, Bellamy’s People, mashes up Little Britain, I’m Alan Partridgeand The Fast Show. Radio presenter Gary Bellamy (Rhys Thomas) is the straight foil to a host of colourful and bizarre characters, variously played by Higson, Whitehouse and a troupe of superb comic actors. There’s rap guru Early D, ex-criminal Tony Beckham, self-styled community leader Mr Khan, 1970s throwback Martin Hole (right) and 60s music manager Ian Craig-Oldman, to name but a few we met in the first episode. Some of the caricatures are spot on, although others seem like updated versions of Fast Show characters. The Fast Show hung on the same characters returning with the same catchphrases every week, but next week promises a whole new cast of oddballs for Bellamy to encounter.

This one might be just a little too fast for its own good.