Willie’s Wonky Christmas

Willie's Perfect Chocolate Christmas. Channel 4

Verily, Christmas on TV is now officially all about food. There’s too much trouble and strife in the religion side of things, so let’s just eat and be merry. This is a winter festival, after all. We have Nigella on BBC 2; Hugh Fearnley-Whatshisname on Channel 4; followed by Jamie Oliver tonight, also on C4.

Last night, after River Cottage Christmas, we got Willie Harcourt-Cooze. You’re right. He’s a bit posh. Lives in a Georgian mansion somewhere in Devon. But here’s the great bit: he’s a bit hopeless. He has all these plans (like setting up his own chocolate factory in Devon, which he did in his first C4 series) but they invariably go a bit tits up. His long-suffering wife Tania stands by calmly, perhaps waiting for him to disappear off to Venezuela again to source some more ‘cacao’.

Willie’s Perfect Chocolate Christmas (that P word again) saw him digging a hole in the middle of the lawn, right in front of the big house, in which to bake half a lamb in hay. Wifey Tania watched with arms crossed, wondering why it had to be done right in front of house (she was good enough not to demand, on camera, why this had to be done at all). Later, in a piece to camera, she admitted life was unpredicatable with Willie around.

But Willie was determined to be around, to spend quality time with the family instead of slaving away in the chocolate factory. His idea of spending time with the kids involved waving them off as mum took them to choose a Christmas tree and racing around outside the house stringing up lights while mum entertained the kids inside. In other words, he made a great display of being with the family but was in fact just doing what all men do, getting his own fun while mum and kids were expected to coo appreciatively once it was all finished.

And so to the Christmas feast, with 30 friends for lunch. As lunch was cooking slowly under the turf it was naturally dark by the time it was ready to eat. Still, everyone seemed to enjoy it. I expect producers Liberty Bell and Doris Productions edited out scenes of the children branding each other with sparklers as they hit a blood sugar wall while waiting for the food to appear. If only that had been included, we would indeed have had a ‘perfect’ Christmas programme: aspirational and a bit flawed.

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River Cottage all set for Christmas

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

I do, as you would expect of someone living on the Somerset/Dorset border, aspire to some elements of River Cottage living. So it was with great anticipation that I visited the River Cottage shop and canteen in Axminster last week to meet the producer of the latest River Cottage series, on a break from filming the forthcoming River Cottage Christmas Special.

The Channel 4 series isn’t actually filmed in Axminster because River Cottage there is just a (viciously expensive) shop and restaurant-cum-cafe. All the filming is done a few miles down the road, in Devon, at Park Farm, which forms the throbbing hub of River Cottage HQ.  Even Park Farm isn’t the real home of hedgerow gourmand Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; he lives elsewhere since vacating the original ‘River Cottage’ some years ago. Park Farm is a mostly empty farmhouse with a wonderful kitchen garden (created by a friend of mine, so it must be good) with a working farm around it.

Hugh’s minions presumably work the farm and the whole place fills up from time to time with people paying to eat at one of River Cottage HQ’s open evenings or attending a course in, say, allotment gardening or meat curing. And, of course, the place is teeming with life when a TV programme is being filmed, as it is this week for the Christmas special.

So what is in store for your town-weary senses on December 18 when the special is due to air? Hugh is tackling beef and venison, plus the perennial problem of how to make brussel sprouts appealing (and the afternoon movie relatively wind-free).

What you might not see is mistletoe. Although the designer has apparently done a lovely job with festoons of holly and clove-spiced pomanders, the team hadn’t – as of Friday last week – found any mistletoe. This seems odd in a location that is not only rural but right next to Somerset, cider-making country where orchards and apple-loving mistletoe abound. Will the problem have been fixed in the eight days it took to film the programme? We’ll have to tune into C4 next month to find out.

If you’re interested, the RC shop lived up to expectations with cheeses, biscuits, cakes, drinks and other sumptuous offerings to die for. But you would need to die and cash in a life insurance policy to do a serious shop there. I parted with £5 for a modestly sized lemon drizzle cake and balked at spending £13 on the 2009 River Cottage diary although it is beautiful, ring-bound and packed full of info so I’m hoping Santa will drop one into my stocking instead.


Never Mind the Buzzcocks

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

It seems the producers of BBC 2’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks are making something of a feature of inviting the not-so-musically-obvious to appear on the panel show. A few weeks ago Stephen Fry did a star turn on the show, to general acclaim and decent ratings (2.4m and a 10% share of viewing at 9pm on a Thursday).

Two weeks ago, celebrity chef and Dorset-dweller in chief Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recorded an episode of the show. But it has yet to be shown.

The trouble is Russell Brand, Andrew Sachs’ friend and mine, was also on the panel for that particular episode. “He was very, very funny,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall, who insists he will only appear on comedy panel shows if he’s an out an out fan, as he is of Buzzcocks, Have I Got News For You and Shooting Stars on which he appeared “years ago”.

All of which leaves me campaigning, possibly alone, for the BBC to broadcast the Fearnley-Whittingstall/Brand episode of Buzzcocks. C’mon, the opener to the second series Brand’s Ponderland did well over on Channel 4. Be brave, BBC, be bold and be Branded.