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.


more behind the scenes stuff

To keep things ticking over, here’s something I knocked out at the end of last week.

Flashpoints – the things that set you off on a tirade against life, the universe and everything – can be big, they can be small.

The flashpoint in our house typically comes when a child’s poo (in pants or potty, sometimes both) comes at the same time as a frantic call from a magazine editor wondering where your copy is at the same as the bastard spawn of a broadcaster is denying you access to someone you’ve already lined up to interview at the same time as a “your kids are so cute – I just remembered another cutesy thing they did this weekend” text from a relation comes through at the same time as a widowed neighbour appears at the door to say water is inexplicably coursing into the electric sockets and telephone points in her kitchen.

I kid you not. All of these things happened to me this morning between about 10 and 10.13am.

Call me whatever you like – Lucy, Ishmael or just a boring old fart – but I get a little rattled by this testing coming together of events. I might even raise my voice, storm measuredly into the kitchen and say to the still undressed, unwiped children something like: “Where’s your bleep father? I thought he was looking after you.”

Then there’s the inevitable guilt. I have shouted at the kids again and it’s probably because I’m a touch over-wrought after a weekend seriously on the piss networking at the Edinburgh TV Festival. If any one of the above things hadn’t happened, there would have been no flashpoint, no explosion.

Well, let’s be specific and park the blame somewhere. If my life partner and the father of our aforementioned children (two girls, aged 5 and 3, not quite old enough yet to look after themselves for an entire morning but the training’s going well), if he had merely called up the stairs something like: “Next door’s kitchen’s flooded. I’m just going round to turn off the mains water and will be back in a tick.” If he had said that I wouldn’t have assumed he was downstairs with the kids and blithely carried on attempting to interview Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or, more likely, one of his minions in deepest Dorset while they’re filming the latest series of River Cottage with a few chickens and a terrible mobile signal for company.

There is a rule of family life, but I think it’s equally true of office life and any other kind of life you might live in 21st century Britain or western Europe or wherever. It is the rule that everything happens at bloody once. It’s never just one bus after waiting for hours, it’s five. I only noticed this rule of life once I’d had children. Two children.

I didn’t really notice it with the first although there were times when I was breastfeeding or doing something that more or less pinned me to soft furnishings and the phone – non-cordless in those days – would ring in the hall and the answer machine would click in and it would be my dad saying: “Can you ring me straight back? I’m trying to open a Word document and now my modem’s dialling Australia.” Then the baby would be winded and put peacefully to sleep (what am I thinking? That never frigging happened) and I’d return dad’s plaintive call and we’d cheerfully wish each other good day and I’d sit for about four hours alone in the flat with my sleeping baby and wonder if I’d ever see or speak to another person again in my life. Ever.

But once I’d had two children I noticed that while I still had those empty hours at times, there were also frantic periods of about 13 minutes (it’s always 13) when there were more events in my tiny life than at a modern Olympic Games. It never rains but it pours, as my adorable, wise and now dead grandmother used to say. Of course, she didn’t swear, otherwise she might have summed it up thusly: “What the f**k’s happening now?”

As I write, it’s 2.33pm, the immediate crises have passed – the neighbour’s kitchen is drying out, the offending upstairs cistern having been temporarily dealt with by my generous-to-a-fault partner; the C4 press officer has been reined in and I am now only slightly testily awaiting the call from the dippy River Cottage team member to complete the feature I should have filed before the weekend; children are now dressed and variously shopping with my long-suffering partner who is already coming out of this quite well, while the older one watches a video next to me as I tap feverishly on my Sony Vaio laptop grunting at her comments on the unfolding drama of White Bear, a much overlooked Czech or similar animated feature voiced by Hugh Laurie and Helena Bonham Carter. I think of the advice on planes that if the unbelievably awful should happen and an oxygen mask appears in front of your face on a horribly twisted piece of plastic tube that is going to cause brain damage within 15 seconds of donning the thing, the thing to do is put on your own mask before attempting to help others.

So in the midst of an unusually busy morning – next week the children will be back at school and nursery and I’ll have nothing to do except clean the fridge again – I’ve started this blog.

Christ, I can go on. Yet I am irked by a feeling that I am merely rewriting one of the many Zoe Williams Anti-Natal columns from G2 which I greet with so much schadenfreude and sour grapes every week. Of course she’s eating her feminist principles and sounding like any reactionary old female columnist banging on about breasts and the bowel movements of the under 5s. She’s had a child. Join the f**king clan.

So I am. With this blog. You can read it, you can ignore it, you can do whatever you like with it. But it would be nice if you sent it to millions of other interweb users who can make similar decisions and we’ll see if we have a goer here. For more serious stuff, stick to Television category of this developing portlette where I am a touch more professional and, if you work in TV, you might just find something that helps you do your job a bit better. That will benefit us all in the end.

Oh, and don’t be shy. Leave a comment even if you have to use a pseudonym, nom de plume or (for tabloid journalists) someone else’s name.