The A To Z Of SFF:- A Is For The Avengers: The TV Series

No, we’re not done yet.

Rob and Clive explore the slick, surreal and sexy world of The Avengers: the John Steed version, that is. Rob gets hot under the collar about a certain leather outfit, and Clive forgets who’s wearing the kinky boots.

Bowlers and brollies at the ready, Listeners!

The A To Z Of SFF respectfully dedicate this episode to the memory of Brian Clemens, whose creative stamp was all over The Avengers and so much great British genre TV.

Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow?


A short Twitter conversation the other night about Richard Hammond’s tv show Journey to The Centre Of The Planet had me musing on the state of science programming. It’s not great, to be blunt. Hammond’s show was damned by knowledgeable observers like X&HTeam-mate MadameWDW…

She echoed the consensus.

Science shows seem to fall into camps nowadays. You have the big specials, filled with expensive CGI and hosted by a housewives’ favourite, full of sound and fury and very little content. I’d roll the James May show where he plays with oversized Lego into this camp, too. You have shows like Spring/Autumnwatch, cosy and cute, slipping in odd bits of science amidst all the cute wittle chickywickies and a disturbingly gleeful focus on hedgehog poo.

Then you have Bang Goes The Theory, a more polite version of Discovery’s Mythbusters and a direct descendent of Hammond-hosted shows like Blast Lab and Brainiac. You could maybe parse two minutes of interest out of these shows. They’re light entertainment disguised with a white coat and protective goggles. Not that I have a problem with blowing things up on camera in the name of science, but the shows are painfully thin on actual content. Finally, god help us, the hipster Top Gear that is The Gadget Show. It’s thin gruel, but on occasion rolls out an innovation or two amidst the endless competitions and tests of the top five waterproof cameras.

There’s a hole in the schedule.

I mourn, Readership, for a memory. I mourn for a show that combined raffish charm with excitement and enthusiasm for the science of the day. I mourn for a show forged in the era of the white heat of technology, that is ever more needed in this most sciencefictional of centuries.

I miss Tomorrow’s World.

In the 60s, 70s and 80s, TW had the sort of sway, impact and viewership that was only topped by shows like Top Of The Pops. It was slick and glamourous, and not afraid to talk to it’s audience like grown-ups. It was wide-ranging, yet capable of bringing depth and focus to a subject when it was needed. It roamed the world, from the science parks and boffins of rural England to the rocket jockeys of the California deserts. In William Woollard it had a genuine, frequently shirtless sex symbol. In Raymond Baxter, a Chairman Of The Board, a smooth-talking master at the tricky job of making science approachable. You never felt you were being talked down to. Tomorrow’s World was pacy, newsy and in the right place at the right time. It was at the forefront of the computer boom of the early eighties, showed us the first home video cameras and recorders, and was all over the launch of the shuttle Enterprise. As Atlantis touched down for the last time, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge that the Tomorrow’s World team weren’t there to welcome it home.

As science becomes increasingly under threat from swivel-eyed fundamentalists and swingeing budget cuts, I think the time is right for a revival. A weekly science-based magazine show would be a great way to spark interest in the field. We need the legacy of Baxter, Woollard, Michael Rodd and the others more than ever. Let’s celebrate the world of tomorrow, with a show that will give us up-to-the-minute updates in the fast-moving field of science and technology. Boing Boing TV, anyone?

(Speaking of Boing Boing, they’ve posted some background to the picture that heads up this post. Short version: the lady, Jane Root, was a test subject into early prenatal gender screening in the 1950s. She’s just been told she’s having a girl.

I suggest that you show that picture to the next person that tries to tell you that science is a soul-less, uncaring endeavour, and then tell them to go gruff in a hat. I love this picture. And I fucking LOVE science.)

Done To A Turn: The Things TV Cookery Shows Get Right

Cookery shows are entertainment gussied up as having some educational value – which for the most part they do not have. Important steps in the preparation of a delicious meal are either skipped, glossed over or mangled. I speak from bitter experience. There’ve been too many times when I’ve served TLC something barely edible that I’ve taken from a cooking sketch. The expensive hardbacked books that these shows are designed to hawk have the same problem. As Nigel Slater says, recipes don’t take your kitchen into account. Your oven might be calibrated differently. You might not have been able to get hold of all of the ingredients. The more precise the recipe, the greater the chance that it’s going to go wrong somewhere down the line. If you’re trying something from Heston Blumenthal, you’re SOL unless you’ve got a laboratory and a tame hunchback to hand.

A real annoyance is the moment when, when in the interests of entertainment, a cook will take a stone classic and needlessly muck about with it. TLC doesn’t cook much, but her specialties have a purity and forthrightness of purpose that shines through. When a TV chef starts throwing bacon, double cream and breadcrumbs into a mac and cheese, her disdain is palpable. She’s right, of course. There’s no need for it. Better to teach the viewers how to make food properly. Here’s TLC’s tip for perfect mac: “When in doubt – MORE CHEESE.”

Frankly, a philosophy to live by.

You can get valuable tips and tricks out of cookery shows, though, if you’re prepared to watch out for the telling details. The way a TV cook handles a knife, for example. Compare the cack-handed way Nigella chops an onion to the way Gordon Ramsay renders it down to fine dice in instants. Watch the pro chefs at work, and you get some inkling of the short cuts they use to make their lives simpler.

I always get something useful out of Jamie Oliver. He grew up in a professional kitchen, cooking for punters. And it really shows. He’s a natural around a rolling pin. I’m embarrased to say that it was Jamie that showed me the right way to crush a clove of garlic (twat it with the flat of a big knife, while still in it’s skin. Peeled and chopped in one easy move, without the un-necessary investment in presses, rollers or those funny neoprene sleeves. Yes, ok, you have to pick the garlic out of the skin and maybe chop it about a little more. If you have a problem with touching garlic, then maybe you shouldn’t be using it.) Watching him and others like him at work has moulded the way I operate in a kitchen environment, taught me the importance of sharp knives, solid implements and a worktop that can take a beating.

Every so often the shows will come up with a recipe that you just know is going to hit big. in that case, it’s going to be everywhere. Both Nigel Slater and new girl on the block Lorraine Pascale (the perpetrator of the criminal mac and cheese) have featured a no-knead quick soda bread made without yeast. It’s the reappearance of a great idea (it’s in Mrs Beeton, donchaknow), and means you have a warm loaf on the table 40 minutes after putting flour in a bowl. I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism. In the culinary world, as in fashion, ideas are there to be taken and tweaked. But this one is going to run. Betcha the Hairy Bikers grab it next.

In fact, sod it, here’s my take on it.


Rob’s Sody Bread

Half and half measures of strong wholemeal and plain flour to make up 500g or 18oz go in a bowl.

Throw in a teaspoon of sea salt, another of sugar, the browner the better, and one more of bicarb of soda, and mix the dry ingredients together.

Throw in 350ml or 12 fl oz buttermilk, and scoosh it into a soft dough. Don’t got buttermilk? Add a tablespoon of lemon juice to ordinary milk before it goes in, and leave for five minutes. Now you got buttermilk.

Tip the dough onto a floured surface, and shape it into a ball. It’ll be sticky. Flour your hands too.

Score the top in a cross with a knife. Go deep. Imagine your enemies while you’re doing it.

Place your slashed dough on a baking tray, then into a hot oven 200C/400F/Gas6 on the top shelf. Give it half an hour.

When it’s nice and brown and risen and filling the kitchen with that bread smell, you know the one, the one they use in supermarkets only this is real, this is YOU making that smell you delicious creature, take the bread out  and let it cool slightly, before rending it asunder and using it to scoop up the juices of the casserole I didn’t tell you how to make. It’ll last a day or so, so you have my permission to be greedy and wolf the lot in one go. You’re worth it.


Undercooked: the three types of food TV

Cookery shows have very little to do with the fine art of gastronomy. They’re aspirational, set in the kitchens that we want, in the houses we dream about. If you try making a dish out of the recipes shown on these shows, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come a cropper. Either that, or the washing up afterwards will be of biblical proportions.

I reckon there are three different kinds of cookery shows. First, there’s the celebrity chef show, which is as close as you get to a standard cooking sketch these days. They take all their cues from the master of the form, dear old Keith Floyd. Four or five dishes will be prepped in a modicum of detail. If there is shopping to be done beforehand, the chef will go to a picturesque deli in an upmarket street, and definitely not Asda.

There will be very little chopping. Some of the ingredients will be in bowls, in tiny dice. Everything will be impeccable. There will be no limp mushrooms or half open packs of bacon here. The kitchen will be spotless, and the size of an aircraft hanger. The chef will waft through it all, airily informing you what a simple mid-week supper a samphire and duck liver souffle can make. Oh, and the word supper gets used a lot. The only supper I’ve ever been interested in is the one that comes out of a chippy.

Then we have the travelogue, where the chef goes on holiday and cooks a few meals along the way. Wacky transport will be involved here – giant RVs, motorbikes, barges, specially adapted VW campers. Inevitably, the cooking sketches are either on a beach, a harbour or in a town square. The food will be cooked on a tinpot gas range, and there will be tame locals on hand to taste whatever comes off that grill and mildly insult it. There will be lots of shots of very pretty scenery. it will be very nice, but faintly dull.

At the bottom of the barrel there are the reality shows. These attempt to redefine cookery as combat, pitting one chef against another in an orgy of ego, tantrum and spilt dairy. There will be lots of fast cutting and sweaty closeups. The host will frown a lot.
The music will be better suited to an action movie, and there will be a pause before the winner of the show is announced that lasts for the length of the last ice age. They have as much to do with cookery as The Weakest Link, and are about as entertaining. Except Iron Chef. That’s so lunatic that it’s crossed over into genius.

Delia is the exception to the rule, but she’s more of a national institution than a cook these days.

Come back tomorrow, when I’ll discuss whether it is actually possible to get decent cooking tips from a TV show. Now, if you’ll excuse me, all this talk of grub has made me a bit peckish. I’m off for a zebra carpaccio with smoked green tea foam on rye. So easy to make, you know.

Low Gear

It is perhaps the BBC’s biggest money-spinner, generating millions of pounds in revenue. You can buy books, a monthly magazine, toys and games and even cakes emblazoned with the images of the hosts. It’s enormously popular, boasting a loyal and worldwide fanbase.

It’s Top Gear, and I hate it. It’s a prime example of safe Sunday programming that just plods on and on and on doing the same old stuff week after week. It’s turned into a smug, bloated cliche. It’s not even interesting enough for satirists and comedians to have a pop at it now. It just sits there, taking up a chunk of primetime scheduling, getting in the way and stinking up the joint. It’s like Last Of The Summer Wine for petrolheads. Songs of Praise for the sort of person that buys every new Clapton compilation, regardless of how many versions of the same songs they own.

Why do I hate Top Gear? Let me count the ways.

Continue reading Low Gear