Friday, 19 March 2010

Finding my feet and fish in The East

Look at the date on my previous blog: 3rd March!  That's over two weeks ago and represents the longest gap between posts since I started.  I humbly apologise.  I don't know why you all bother with me, but I'm glad you do (quite a lot of you, according to Google analytics - who are these readers in India, Russia and Canada?  I'm intrigued.  Shows yourselves!)

You'll have to completely let me off, at least as far as this last week is concerned.  I've been up in the East Midlands presenting BBC Radio Leicester's lunchtime show and it has wiped me out.

This is not what I was expecting.  I've been presenting daily programmes on BBC local stations, off and on for more than 20 years.  I thought I'd breeze through it, especially as it's only a two-hour show.  I thought I'd have so much spare time, I'd be blogging until you couldn't bear to read another word.

What I hadn't taken into account, because I'd completely forgotten about it, is how tiring working in a new environment with new colleagues is, however nice it and they might be (and both the building and people seem very nice at the Beeb in Leicester).  I ran around like a harrassed, headless chicken for the first couple of days, unable even to find the studio, toilet, my desk or the kitchen. 

You might think mislaying the kitchen wouldn't be the end of the world unless you were starving but, on Day 2, I was to interview a fishmonger there as he poached haddock, boiled roe and sauteed chitterlings (which, it turns out, are fish intestines - you learn something every day - and absolutely yummy). 

In the studio, I commanded the computer to play a longish song then headed kitchenwards with headphones, microphone and a box of technical tricks I don't understand that enables me to continue broadcasting away from base.  The BBC at Leicester is hardly a vast, labyrinthine edifice like London's Broadcasting House or Television Centre yet I simply could not find the blasted kitchen.  After a couple of panic-filled minutes that felt like a week and a half, I put my head round the door of the engineers' office and begged them for help.  "It's just there," they replied.  I was approximately three feet away from the kitchen door.  I made it just as the record began to fade.

Once I'd got my breath back, the food feature turned out to be a joy because John Heath, the fishmonger in question, and I have had dealings before.  Three years ago, John's fish, chips and mushy peas was runner-up main course in Series 2 of Britain's Best Dish, the annual, culinary contest on ITV1 featuring chefs Ed Baines and John Burton Race and wine guru Jilly Goolden. 

Ed, John and Jilly act both as mentors and judges on the show and, towards the end of the series, were augmented by London Evening Standard restaurant critic Charles Campion, culinary goddess Sophie Grigson and me.  We were rendered ecstatic by John's pearly white, perfectly flaky cod in gossamer-light batter with chips that would have your great granny weeping with nostalgia. 

He was beaten by the narrowest of margins by an ambrosial lamb biryani.  We all felt awful having to choose one dish over the other as they were both way ahead of the pack, and couldn't have been more different: it was like saying a superb pear was better than a stunning apple.

John appears to have recovered from the disappointment of ending up so near yet so far from the glittering televisual prize and is still happily supplying haddock, halibut and herring to the good folk of Wigston Magna, as he has done for an amazing 47 years. 

Some of my more squeamish new colleagues were aghast at the relish with which I consumed his roe and chitterlings, so goodness knows what they'll make of next Tuesday's cookery feature.  I'll be meeting a guy who cooks roadkill in the exhaust pipe of his camper van.  Fricassee of squirrel, anyone?  I like to think of myself as fearlessly omnivorous but maybe even will be yearning for the return of fried fish intestines. 

I suppose I could always fail to find the kitchen on purpose......

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Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Playing with Poirot, rum, chocolate and a large portion of turkey

Another bizarre day in the life that I call mine.

It started with my providing piano accompaniment whilst David "Poirot" Suchet and two thesps, both aged about 90, sang a song made famous by the forgotten comedian Sid Fields for a BBC4 documentary.  I then enjoyed sipping no fewer than 11 rums, each paired with an exquisite chocolate dessert.  The fact that I can even find my PC's keyboard, let alone hit the right letters, proves either that I'm a disturbingly hardened drinker or an exceptional typist.  I prefer to believe the latter. 

And later, I shall have the dubious pleasure of rubbishing Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical on BBC Radio London 94.9.

Shall we run through all that in a little more detail?

Sid Field was a hugely successful comedian in the 1940s.  He was also, like me, a Brummie, so I am ashamed not to have previously heard of him.  His act, I learnt today, was not only hilarious but camp and riddled with doubles entendres.  I like the guy more and more!

The BBC has commissioned a documentary about him, presented by David Suchet who portrayed him in a musical, What a Performance, in 1994.  This morning, he and I repaired to the Prince of Wales Theatre in Leicester Square.  Mr Suchet interviewed two extremely elderly gentlemen who appeared with Mr Field in various West End variety shows during the Second World War.  I played piano whilst all three sang 'I'm Gonna Get Lit Up (When the Lights Go On in London)', apparently one of Mr Field's greatest hits.

Mr Suchet was charming, urbane and actorly, and displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge and burning enthusiasm for his subject.  He teased fabulous wartime, theatrical tales out of the two old boys who, despite their great age, remain performers to their very bones.  One of them delivered a brilliant tap routine, albeit whilst sitting down, as befits a nonagenarian.

They weren't the easiest trio to musically direct, each having different ideas about the tempo and lyrics.  The director pronounced himself satisfied with our rendition, however, so who am I to argue?

The first rule of TV filming is that it will overrun.  Sure enough, I had to jog from Leicester Square to Wigmore Street for my next appointment, a rum and chocolate matching session at posh cookery school, L'atelier des Chefs.

It was worth being temporary out of puff, though.  After introductions from north London restaurateur and rum expert Ian Burrell and world-class chocolatier Ramon Morató from Spain, I and a gaggle of food writers, chocolate retailers and assorted freeloaders worked our way through 11 of Senor Morató's divine desserts, each one accompanied by a different rum selected by Mr Burrell.

I like rum as much as the next lush but have never majored on it and so was surprised to discover that rums are at least as diverse as whiskies.  Indeed, one tasted exactly like a peaty single malt.  Others were reminiscent of brandy and calvados.  Some were pale with a sweet edge, some deeply hued and firey.

As for the puds, I'll make you green with envy with the details of just a couple: first, imagine the heaven that is a little cube of sugar syrup-soaked chocolate sponge topped with a tart passion fruit set cream, a dried raspberry and a speck of crystalised violet.  Then think of the taste and textural sensation a mini sphere of dense, deeply-flavoured chocolate mousse atop the tiniest dice of banana and crunchy biscuit swimming in a sharp lime syrup would provide.

I'm not convinced rum and puds are natural culinary companions but, hey, it sure was a blast finding out.

Soon, I shall head off to my third and final appointment of the day, describing the events of my past week to Joanne Good on BBC London 94.9.  In addition to reviewing several restaurants, I shall report on Press night at Lord Lloyd Webber's new musical, Love Never Dies, at The Adelphi.

I feel uncustomarily nervous because I shall be slating one of the giants of musical theatre.  There's no logical reason to be, as I shall only be proferring an honest opinion.  That opinion will be that the show is a total turkey.  With stuffing, cranberry sauce and chipolatas.

It continues the story of the Phantom of the Opera and Christine.  The Phantom has fled Paris for a new life in New York's Coney Island where he runs an amusement park and theatre.  Christine has given up the stage and married a petulant alcoholic who drinks and gambles away all their funds.  Without revealing his identity, the Phantom, who is still obsessed by her, offers her a vast amount of money for a one-night singing engagement.  Thus she, her husband and their 10-year-old son are lured to America where poor old Phantom hopes finally to win her heart.

So far so good.  After that, no good at all.  The plot is unbelievable (can you swallow, for example, the idea that the Phantom had sex with Christine before releasing her to marry the boy she loved?  Gaston Leroux who wrote the original story must be turning in his grave).  There are no laughs - it's all shade and no light.  The songs are just awful - A.L.W has forgotten how to write memorable tunes.  The audience tittered at what should have been the tense dénouement.  Applause throughout was lukewarm and shortlived.

I am not one of Theatreland's sneering snobs who routinely dismiss Lloyd Webber.  I love Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Sunset Boulevard and the original Phantom.  But please, if you are thinking of spending £50 of your hard-earned money on a West End musical, don't waste it on this bum-numbing tosh.  Not when Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Wicked, Billy Elliot, Sister Act and especially Legally Blonde are around.  If you want high drama, suffering and quasi opera rather than feelgood fun, catch Les Miserables.  It's still doing good business after more than 24 years.  Love Never Dies doesn't deserve to run for 24 days.

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