Iona McLaren

Cooking the books | 15 September 2016

But Archive on 4 overcooked things – period dramas like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs are not 'propaganda'

Cooking the books | 15 September 2016
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Cooking really shouldn’t make good radio. On television, it’s already frustrating that you can’t taste what you’re seeing, but on radio you can’t even see it. ‘I’m just cracking an egg,’ they tell you. ‘And now I’ll crack another egg.’ The sounds — violent thuds, hissing gas, moist chewing — are more ominous than appetising and the commentary (‘I’m just mixing those eggs together now’) can’t help but be comically sedate (‘OK — they’re mixed’).

So it’s a miracle that The Food Programme (Radio 4), after three decades of this sort of experiment, is as good as it often is, and Cooking for Poldark, this week’s ingenious episode, was really very good indeed.

Its likeable star was Genevieve Taylor, a ‘food stylist’ who constructs banquets for the BBC1 adaptation, now on its second series, of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. If you haven’t seen it or read them, Ross Poldark’s world is 18th-century Cornwall, and the dialogue sounds like this: ‘Damn me nostrils! What’s that I scent? Swan? Partridge?’

Aidan Turner’s topless scything wasn’t on the agenda. The only torso under scrutiny belonged to a metre-long suckling pig that arrived on set, slightly disintegrating, in the back seat of the butcher’s car, wearing a seat belt. ‘I love it!’ said Taylor. ‘It’s got crispy little ears.’

Taylor’s brief was to cater banquets ‘as sumptuous and luxurious as possible’ with ‘touches of gold’ so that they glittered in candlelight. She had never cooked for a period set before, but she was very game. ‘I think this is called a sucket fork,’ she said, in her kitchen at home, as she poached sweetmeats in a loudly bubbling pot.

On-air cooking needs some comedy element, and Taylor’s had the spice of arcane vocabulary and the sheer silliness of the 18th-century cuisine she was trying to recreate. Hardly anything was meant to be eaten (‘That’s all just pastry, so you’d throw that away’) and much of what was for eating — cakes that look like meat, marzipan fruits hiding in cauliflower — turned out to be trompe l’oeil, something that’s even harder to pull off on radio than regular cooking is.

The feasts might not have had a speaking part on Poldark, but they could still play the diva. ‘Food’s got a good side and a not good side,’ Taylor whispered to us nervously, on set. ‘So you always have to dress it the right way. And the director has just told me he wants to film this whole banquet from the other side!’ In the end, she swivelled the banqueting table, rather than the food; crisis was averted — I was surprised to feel so relieved.

It was much more difficult to get caught up in this week’s Archive on 4. Whereas Cooking for Poldark felt a bit like an Upstairs, Downstairs drama itself, a glimpse of life in the on-set catering corps, Archive on 4: Period Drama Politics played it straight. Stephen Fielding, a professor of political history, tried to pin down why three period dramas ‘of signal lightness’ about the Edwardians — Downton Abbey in 2010, Upstairs, Downstairs in 1971 and Noël Coward’s play Cavalcade in 1931 — caught the public imagination so feverishly, all three at times of national crisis. His thesis was that they all sketched a milder portrait of class struggle than they could have. Fay Weldon’s original, tough script for Upstairs, Downstairs, for instance, was toned down by the studio, who wanted more of upstairs, less of the kitchen, and no cockroaches in the pantry at all.

Fielding argues that this tra-la-la rosiness amounted to one-nation-conservative ‘propaganda’, whispering to sleepy viewers that ‘despite our differences of status, the British all form part of one nation, the members of which are, especially in the midst of crisis, all in it together’. But does a television show really count as ‘propaganda’ if its political effect is accidental? The conspiracy punch line felt overdone.

Worse, the voices — normally Archive on 4’s strong suit — failed to sing, whether by dull picking or because social class is just too nebulous and fiddly a theme. In almost every recording, the speaker got sidetracked by describing how early a serving girl had to get up, and how heavy the pails were that she had to carry. The vocabulary was monotonous; the bigger picture made up of too-subtle pointillist dots.

Most beige of all was the opening segment, when Lady Carnarvon took Fielding around Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed. He asked her: ‘What’s the most dramatic confrontation they have in the dining room?’ Trailing away, she said (of an episode where someone vomits plumes of blood on to the tablecloth): ‘Isn’t there one where Hugh Bonneville has an ulcer or something? I can’t remember.’