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Tale of the unexpected

1 October 2011

12:00 AM

1 October 2011

12:00 AM

I imagine there is software that helps you write biopics for television. First you pick the childhood from a drop-down menu, selecting [poor but respectable] [very poor] [so poor that all your belongings will fit into a single wheelbarrow which your mother pushes from a grim slum to the nearby hell-hole]. Father deserts family [yes] [no]. Star is determined to make it big but [is sent from one agent to another with mocking laughter in their ears] [meets an impresario who is sceptical at first then turns incredulously to accompanist and says, ‘My God, she’s got something!’].

Then there are the other staples which must be included by law. The trip to the Glasgow Empire, where the previous act has had fruit thrown at them. Does the aspirant entertainer [suffer the same fate] [win them over with a brilliant performance]? Actually, I don’t know why the Glasgow Empire was regarded as such a crucial challenge. My impression was that the theatre was packed with miserable sods who only wanted to make entertainers’ lives as appalling as their own.

Then there is the hopeless first marriage, the climb up the show business ladder (‘permit me to introduce myself. My name is [Jack Hylton] [Bill Cotton] [Peter Hall]’), the estrangement from family, the tabloid scandal, the unwise love affair, the row with the manager who discovered you (‘I made you, and don’t you ever forget it!’) the failure (‘that part was meant for me!’) and the trip to Australia, which is never a good idea, as Tony Hancock could have told you — he killed himself there. Finally, there is the [recognition as national treasure and a life of contented achievement] or [humiliation, degradation, death].

We’ve seen it many times: Hancock, Gracie Fields, Enid Blyton, Hattie Jacques, Morecambe and Wise — not all elements are included in all of these biopics, but most. The software had clearly been put to good use in the scripting of Shirley (BBC2, Thursday), which told the story of Shirley Bassey from, of course, rags to riches. (And not back to rags, this time; she lives alone in Monte Carlo, apparently quite happy.)

What made this largely predictable tale stand out was the extraordinary performance by Ruth Negga, a half-Irish, half-Ethiopian actress (the film was part of a ‘mixed-race season’ on the BBC) who illuminated the screen. She managed the transition from shy ingénue to showbiz diva, with every emotion in between — she caught the desperate insecurity, the mingled rage and despair when people let her down, the sense that she only ever really existed when she was on stage, the arrogance and the terror. Television acting depends to a large extent on the eyes, and Ms Negga’s were so expressive and so commanding that she could have played the part wearing a full niqab. I hope and expect we shall see a great deal more of her.

A few weeks ago I said that The Great British Bake-off would be a success, although waiting for dough to rise is not much more exciting than watching paint dry. And it has been a considerable hit. There is something about baking cakes that carries an emotional tug that no MasterChef grouse with a coulis of raspberries and pistachio crust could ever bring. (When the Americans invented packet cake mix, it failed. Market research showed that women felt they were letting their families down by not making their own cakes. So they created new mixes which required them to add an egg. It worked.)

Cookery shows have moved from the instructional through the sexy (Nigella, Sophie Dahl), the aggressive (MasterChef, anything involving Gordon Ramsay), the complicated (Heston Blumenthal and Raymond Blanc, making dishes that would require a brigade of two-dozen assistants), back to the simple (Nigel Slater, Simon Hopkinson) and now the warm, feelgood, celebrating-family-life shows which reached their apotheosis with There’s No Taste Like Home, early every evening on ITV this past week.

It’s a simple idea and a very good one. Each day three members of the public cook a dish that has been passed down their family through the generations. It might be something straightforward like a steak and kidney pudding, or baked beans with pork belly, or more elaborate, such as chicken cacciatore or turbot in orange sauce. But each dish comes dressed with the family history and memories, which gives them an appeal no slab of meat in gooseberry foam or avocado whelks could ever have.

The presenter is Gino D’Acampo, who chivvies them along in friendly fashion (even a very annoying Cornish woman in Friday’s episode; she seemed to imagine that just being from Cornwall made her a wonderful human being), and the pictures, the home movies and the anecdotes make the food taste good even when you can only look at it. 

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