Simon Hoggart

Let them eat cake

Prince Charles turned up on TV again this week, in Britain’s Hidden Heritage (BBC1, Sunday), wandering round a country house in Scotland that he had helped to restore.

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Prince Charles turned up on TV again this week, in Britain’s Hidden Heritage (BBC1, Sunday), wandering round a country house in Scotland that he had helped to restore.

Prince Charles turned up on TV again this week, in Britain’s Hidden Heritage (BBC1, Sunday), wandering round a country house in Scotland that he had helped to restore. He was interviewed by Paul Martin, best known as the presenter of Flog It!, in which he gets aerated by an auction for a Georgian silver salt cellar, or a set of cigarette cards.

For some reason, presenters who would sink their fangs into a politician, no matter how important, are reduced to quivering lapdogs by royalty. Alan Titchmarsh offered five-star fawning, drool seeping all over the Prince of Wales as he went round his garden at Highgrove. Fiona Bruce, interviewing the Duke of Edinburgh, gets only three stars, but she must have been sorely tested by the Duke’s lack of co-operation, or ‘rudeness’ as it is sometimes called. Paul Martin wasn’t as bad as Titchmarsh, but he came close. Four stars, I’d say. The clue is in the way they agree with whatever the royal is saying — before they have finished speaking.

Prince: ‘So I thought it would be a terrible tragedy if...

Presenter: ‘Um, um.’

Prince: ‘...this house were left to decay...’

Presenter: ‘Um, uh-huh, yurrs.’

Maybe it would help both parties if their roles were reversed.

Prince: ‘I know you’re a very busy man, sir, but what gave you the marvellous idea of starting this new satellite programme?’

Richard Madeley: ‘Well, I saw this perfectly wonderful daytime slot, and I thought it would be absolutely ghastly if it were allowed go to waste.’

Prince: ‘And I think everyone will agree about the magnificent things you’ve done with it! It shows all your pride and your passion.’

Madeley: ‘Well, we have had some frightfully good news — we’re hoping to get Esther Rantzen, and a bit of an exclusive, this, Dame Kelly Holmes!’   

The Borgias (Sky Atlantic, Wednesday) is a very classy costume drama, which is unsurprising since it’s made by Neil Jordan. All right, there was shagging (four minutes) someone’s mother is called a whore (nine minutes) and after 45 minutes, the first poisoning, with Derek Jacobi spewing out white stuff like ectoplasm that’s gone off. But nobody, thank God, says anything like: ‘Don’t invade my personal space, Borgia,’ or ‘That’s the bottom line, Cesare.’

My problem is with Jeremy Irons. Everyone seems to think he is a magnificent actor. I think he’s an expressionless actor. He bribes his way to the papacy, using his familiar default appearance of a man whose wife has put his lottery ticket in the wash. When he is finally crowned, he looks as if he’d just heard it was the jackpot winner. He looked exactly like that in Brideshead Revisited, which made me wonder then — and now — what Diana Quick ever saw in him.

I would guess that only in Britain would we have a competitive programme about baking things. But the new series of The Great British Bake-off (BBC2, Tuesday) is a whole hour long. An entire 60 minutes devoted to mixing butter, sugar, eggs and flour and bunging them in the oven. The presenters, both women, are nicer than the shouty pair in MasterChef, though they are insistent: ‘Not wanting to stress anyone out remotely, but you have ten minutes left...’ they say, whereas Greg or John would just bellow, ‘Ten minutes!’

They also take baking very, very seriously. One of the judges is ‘legendary baker, Mary Berry’. Legendary? In what legend does she appear? Escoffier might be called legendary, but Mary Berry could be more appropriately, ‘jolly competent baker’. We learnt the history of cupcakes, which, amazingly, were first baked in cups and served with tea in stately homes. It was a tough job. ‘The margin for error is tiny!’ Like making the fans in an aircraft engine, then.

We learnt more than we strictly needed about Battenberg cake. One of the competitors made a good one. ‘This is a masterpiece!’ exclaimed the legendary Mary Berry. ‘No, it isn’t,’ I thought, ‘it’s a Battenberg cake, not the “Mona Lisa”!’ But the whole show is as comforting as tea and crumpets by a log fire. I expect it will be a huge success.

The Pendle Witch Child (BBC4, Wednesday) was a very simple programme and all the better for it. The poet Simon Armitage told the story of a nine-year-old child from the windswept Lancashire moors of 1612, who denounced all her family and neighbours as witches and saw them hanged. Ludicrous and horrible, of course, but he made the point that the criminal justice system is usually swayed by the deepest fears and terrors of the day. Jennet Device came from a dysfunctional one-parent family which got by through begging and occasional sheep-looting. Ring any bells? There were no actors, just cartoon drawings, which looked much spookier.