Parade’s End

I thought it wouldn’t end.  I thought I would have to still be watching this series when I was 90, dribbling into my barley soup, watching whether the strangely chinless Cumberbunch would get his schoolmistress girlfriend at last, watching whilst Sir Peter Hall’s daughter continued to terrorise Benny Cumberbunch into bizarre sexual submissiveness over a stately home’s billiards table.    The only other parade I’d seen before this one was the one they do at 6.20 nightly at Disneyworld and which is followed by a light show and children vomiting from eating too many ice creams.  I would have preferred that to this.  I would have preferred anything to this.

In the last month, the writer Sir Tom Stoppard, has had four new parts added to his name by Deed Poll.  Every time his name is mentioned in print or in film relating to Parade’s Bend his name is “Sir Tom Stoppard EnglandsGreatestLivingPlaywright”, in case we mistake him for England’s greatest plumber or England’s worst midwife.  During BBC promos for Parade’s Bend he grew another name “Sir Tom Stoppard UndoubtedlyEngland’sGreatestLivingPlaywright”, you know – just in case we needed convincing.   Presumably next time Heartbreak House is on stage it will be by “Bernard Shaw England’sGreatestDeadestPlaywright”, or not, because of course, Shaw was from Ireland.  Sir Tom Stoppard should actually be TheFormerCzechoslavakia’sGreatestLivingPlaywright if we’re splitting nationalist hairs.  But we’re not.  We are being made to sit in front of “The Thinking Woman’s Downton” on BBC2 for five Friday nights and watch this pile of crap, the entire series of Parade’s End, which I prefer to call “There’s Seven Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back, Sir Tom”.

It started well enough.  Brave, noble and sentimental Torytastic Christopher is forced into a shotgun marriage, where the bullet is unlikely to have been fired by his pistol, by a pantomime villainess hussy in 1911.  The historical facts for the summer of 1911 (Lloyd George requesting 400 new Liberal peers etc) were hammered home with such violence and frequency it was almost the equivalent of the cast marching across the shot with large neon signs saying “It’s June 1911, peasants”.   It was quite fun for the first thirty minutes.  But it was like copying a recipe note-from-note from the lovely Nigella.  In goes the savoy cabbage, the garlic-infused oil and the necessary organic extras but something in the end result is wrong.  And try as you might you can’t work out what the wrongness really is.  Well, Parade’s End was a bit like that.  A well-made but ultimately disastrous beouf bourgignon, a bad Eggs Benedict Cumberbatch. 

The terrifying, posh, crypto-Catholic slattern wife Sylvia was played by Rebecca Hall and mostly she was very good but sometimes her performance was pitched wrong.  It was as if the method advised a slow roast at 140 degrees for four hours and instead she was rammed in at 220 degrees for a 45 minute boil-off.   I wonder if she was the character chosen to desperately inject some energy into the thing.  I spent the first three episodes trying to work out whether she was being directed badly, or whether she was acting badly.  Rebecca Hall is usually a very strong, watchable actress who throws frequent “convincers” around for her character.  This is the diamond standard for an actor – that we are lulled into a sense of belief in what they say by a steadfast succession of performance “convincers”.  Rebecca Hall has always been a magnificent convincer.  But in Parade’s End her performance was out of context and her characterization remained unresolved.  Is it the adaptation or the novel itself that makes Sylvia  Edwardian literature’s answer to Cruella de Vil?  Having not read the novel (and frankly after this am not inspired to) I couldn’t be sure, but the script had certainly done a disservice to Hall’s technical ability. 

I wondered if the producer was trying to kill her career with one, great, Edwardian stroke.  I wonder if that bit where she stood at the top of the stairs in the fifth episode pretending she had a great big ball of cancer about her so Benny Cumberbund wouldn’t then sleep with the schoolma’am while a nation hollered at the television “Go on, throw yourself down the stairs, DIE you oafish cow DIE” was what Sir Tom StoppardEngland’sGreatestLiving Playwright intended. 

The camera had served to make this attractive and seductive looking actress just look plain with a really big mouth.  The critics, however, saw it differently, because this is BBC2’s high drama offering of the series and only a prole would fail to be enhanced by its lush langourousness, right?  The critics wet their pants over PE but their excitement was a little overwrought.  You know damn well that if there had been a Poliakoff in the offering the same week they’d have been wetting their critical pants over that instead. 

I’ve no doubt that Sir Tom Stoppard is a great playwright, but his adaptation of another man’s work stuck in the throat like an underdone steamed pudding.   The editors really screwed up the pace of the thing.   Each episode was only one hour but felt like about five and a half.  A dramatic scene should be measured, but never mannered.   Parade’s End was strangulated by it’s own heightened manner, and occasionally upstaged by its majesterial location filming.  Cumberbatch went a long way to pulling it back to some kind of reality, with his performance of unrealised passion and unexpressed emotion which was pitched quite beautifully, but even he looked like a man being made to row upstream against an oncoming tide of crapness.  The love interest, Miss Wannop, who I thought due to Cumberbatch’s over-stiff upper lip, was called Miss Wallop for the first three episodes, was miscast and struggled to negotiate her way through 1911 with a haircut from 1928.   The problem is that heavy art does not good art make.  And, by the way, what family produces one son who looks dashing like Rupert Everett and then another son with the disgruntled cabbage patch doll face of Cumberbatch?  You’d presume there’d been a mix-up in the delivery room, wouldn’t you?

The problem here is that far too frequently pedantic and over-indulgent film-making is misdiagnosed as good drama.  There are characteristics – often arbitarily connected ones – that make up the bonafide British BBC drama.  Among them are:  long, lingering location shots, period dress, a buttoned up, distinctly English central character, a whimsical and slightly child-like love interest, all of which comes from a novel that is both big and old (so it must be good), you can also add in a dash of provincial humour and some horses.  And voila – a nostalgic and slow-moving piece  which I feel asleep three times whilst watching.     Eventually, I stopped caring whether Cumberbund and Wallop were ever going to get it on, so obsessed was I with attempting to jam knitting needles in my ears every time Anne Marie Duff spoke in a hysterical Glaswegian accent.  The pace was all off.  The camera frequently cut to reactions that should have been shown three seconds earlier.   Someone tried to include a funny scene about a telephone at some point.  Then there was another scene when we were all encouraged to laugh whilst Rupert Everett said some naughty words.  Eventually the whole series got wedged in First World War quagmire, appeared to unceremoniously sink in the mud, and left only Roger Allam’s false moustache floating on top of it like a beleagured and embittered flag of surrender.

Only the last episode dragged PE out from the muddy quagmire of  ponderousness.  As the war ended, a sense of energy infused the piece and it became distinctly more watchable, but it’s a shame that some of our greatest actors weren’t given slightly more to work with.  The difficulty with PE is it doesn’t seem that much actually, you know, HAPPENS.   I wonder if only in England, the great book’s subject matter, would a work in which so little happens pass muster.  After watching Parade’s End it makes everyone on Strictly Come Dancing look as if they are on crack and having the most amazing, glittering exciting time.  Which they probably are. 

I know what you’re thinking of course : “Two weeks of television reviews??  I thought she was supposed to be a city chronicler?  What is she – housebound?!”  Well, yes,  I am.  But this evening I’m off to a panel conversation at The Bishopsgate Institute on the 1980s featuring Robert Elms and Gary “I was sponsored by Silvrikin Hairspray” Kemp talking about 1980s music and military fashions which I shall comment on next week.  So there.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

I say, have you done something jolly with your hair? Downton Abbey : Series 3.

This is my favourite time of year in London.  You can smell the shavings from the points of newly-shorn pencils as the City hunkers down in back to school mode.  It’s time to take our accounts to our accountant to prepare for the dreaded HMRC payment in January.  It’s time to cook meats infused with ginger and autumnal scents.  It’s time to watch the fading light of the early autumn evenings – the most beautiful of the year in England – and turn to the comfort of Britain’s most successful export since Charlie Chaplin decided to take up a vaudeville touring post and head west.  It’s time for Downton Abbey, Series Three.

The Downton effect is an extraordinary one.   In his book The Edwardians, Roy Hattersley points out that the national religion of the English wasn’t Christianity, it was organised sports.  Now the national religion of the English appears to be Downton, where we watch Edwardians taking part in organised inheritance debates and sumptuous 12 course dinners with newly-related Irish chauffeurs.  I doubt we have lived through anything quite like it.  Downton is all.  Downton has permeated us.  Downton is everywhere.  My brother,  a The Sopranos / Robert de Niro sort of man, now answers his home telephone with “Good afternoon, Downton Abbey”.  The Downton App was launched last week for iPads where, for the sum of £4.99, you can take an interactive tour of the Abbey, and click on beautifully drawn rooms for character breakdowns, cast interviews, vintage style photographs and historical information. 

I have noticed that in the last week a vast amount of traffic for The London Bluebird has now started coming from Canada.  I would like to welcome the Canadians with a friendly Hello.  And the Americans too.  In order to ensure that they continue to visit the site, I’ll tell them everything that happened in the 90 minute special of Upstairs Downton Series 3, because those in the colonies have to wait another year.  Before that, I need you to gather round whilst I tell you about one of my latest obsessions. 

The thing is this : in order to spice up the day job with a little Edwardian frivolity, I take turns in taking on different Downton characters whilst answering the office phone.   It’s a harmless habit that really gets results : Pretending to be Lord Grantham to a cold caller trying to sell me PPI and saying : “Now, look here, my good man.  I must inform you that we have no need for such rag tag business here.  Good day.” is so much more effective than saying “piss off” and putting the phone down.   Lady Edith’s voice expresses a surprisingly authoritarian character, whose arch vowels won’t take any nonsense from anyone, and which belong to a woman who cannot physically afford to not see the truth.  Lady Sybil is hopeless – a simpering, sibilant voice that suggests swooning at the next availability opportunity.  Lady Mary sounds like a Martian with psychotic tendencies.  The most terrifying voice of all which is guaranteed to put the fear into those chasing payment or promising recruitment offers is that of Mrs Patmore, the cook, the woman who could knock a man out at twenty paces by hurling a well-aimed scone. 

Upstairs Downton started Series Three pack full of glaring reminders of what had taken place in Series 2.  This was wise : Series 2 ended during the most debauched period of Christmas Day (somewhere after Only Fools & Horses and shortly before a champagne-drenched viewing of Spinal Tap) so most of the country was too inebriated to remember the snowscene proposal that Mary & Matthew finally got stuck into after two series of flirting.  The vaulted turrets of Downton Abbey breathed a sigh of relief slightly earlier in the series when Matthew had informed Carson, the butler, that, despite the fact the Great War had paralysed him from the manly chest down and he was wheeling around the ancestral halls in a wheelchair, he could feel a “tingle”.   In Downton World, this was a good tingle, for Matthew must convincingly sex things up to continue the Grantham generations through the ages and stop Downton becoming a theme park in the 1960s or being handed over to the National Trust.  Bad tingles in Downton World usually happen to the ladies : one maid servant had a tingle and produced an illegitimate son who then tried to be purchased by its irate grandparents and Lady Mary’s unfortunate tingle led to Lady Cora having to assist moving a dead Turk in a duvet down the corridor. 

Series Three opened with a wedding rehearsal and general High Church jollities.  It is 1920, and no time has been wasted in raiding The House of Elliot’s wardrobe collection.  The ladies sigh into cloche hats.  Edith does something jolly with her hair, which is immediately noticed by Sir Anthony Strallen, the one-armed bandit who she follows around like a sick duck.  Downstairs though, it’s still about 1891 as O’Brien and Thomas continue to wield their resentment and unrelentingly Northern misery around the servants quarters, in a way that tells us they won’t be Charlestonning in to the 1920s.  Not when there’s pins and knives to metaphorically stab into their fellow workers. 

“I have to go to London,” said Lord Grantham, resplendent in a green silk dressing gown.

“I have been to London,” said Lord Grantham, having gone up to town and back again in one day, thereby becoming, as Thomas suggests “completely exhausted, mi’ lord”. 

As if travelling at high speed on a railway train with poor people is not enough to completely destabilize him, he has been dealt the massive blow that Cora’s fortune is gone because he invested it is some silly Canadian railways.  (Is this why the Canadians are following the blog? Is this their revenge for us withholding Downton from their screens for a whole year?)  The money is gone.  Cora is unabashed and bleakly continues her slightly simple acting style which involves occasionally bleating and wiggling her botox.  Whilst Lord Grantham comes to terms with the massive loss of family money, Matthew, The Wettest Man in West Yorkshire, accidentally comes by a great thumping wad of the stuff.  Great heaving dollops of moolah has landed, unceremoniously, in his stolid, middle class lap.  Mary is jubilant – Matthew’s money can save the family.  But Matthew insists on some gentleman’s code of nobility that says you should not take money from the dead father of the woman you pretended to love when you were in a wheelchair and then who died a horrible influenza death.  Mary is irate on hearing such tosh and instantly tells Matthew he is batting for the wrong side, or not on their side – or something about sides. 

Meanwhile Lady Sybil is attempting to bring her husband on side, which is tricky bearing in mind the hullaballoo she brought on herself by running away to Dublin with him in the first place.  Branson the chauffeur is now brother-in-law Tom but, dash it all, the fellow doesn’t even own a dinner suit and keeps shouting about Ireland over the starters at the dinner table.  In some bizarre drug attempt, some posh fruit calls Larry slips the 1920 equivalent of Rohypnol into Branson’s drink.  This makes Branson get drunk and rail about Ireland and Home Rule which is incredibly out of character.   Eventually he is carted off to bed in disgrace, Matthew saving him by asking him to be his best man at the wedding, although Branson is so off his face on Rohypnol he probably doesn’t remember this the next day.  Several people most probably violated him in the night (including Carson the butler) and he hasn’t a clue.   Lady Edith continues her pathological and puzzling sexual pursuit of Sir Anthony Strallen.  Anna, hearing that Shirley MacLaine is about to turn up, legs it to prison to visit her husband to convince him of her plans to turn Miss Marple in order to release him.  Mr Bates struggles with a peculiarly underwritten role and sits there nodding. 

Shirley MacLaine does turn up, in her much vaulted, much publicised role as Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother, but she forgot to pack her facial muscles when she boarded the Mauretania.  She slips out of a gorgeous Rolls Royce with a performance low on energy and high on red lipstick.  Her lines often call for a raised satirical eyebrow, but our Martha’s had some sort of stroke so cannot move her face.  Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess does a lot of English disapproval and bitchy asides before brother-in-law Branson the chauffeur decides the whole ShirleyGate thing is just too much and checks in to the local pub.  He didn’t marry “up” the social scale just so he could tear pheasants with Warren Beatty’s sister.  Lady Cora attempts to smooth over the political disaster of chauffeur-at-table by tasking him with answering odd questions about Irish horticulturalism, as if he is Dublin’s answer to Monty Don.  Mary is upset at dinner due to Wet Matthew failing to hand over his moolah.  This delights Lady Edith who, having a face that breaks mirrors, secretly despises her sister, and probably makes wax models of Mary and then burns them in the dining room fire.  Lady Sybil seems to have developed laryngitis, a frumpy bob and a pregnancy in that order, and spends a lot of time fretting over whether her husband will ever fit in, failing to notice he has performed the worst dining room faux pas since Mrs Patmore put salt on the meringues because she was so blind she couldn’t tell it wasn’t caster sugar.

Branson redeems himself in trying to convince Matthew not to be so stupid, and plays a hand in attempting a reconciliation with Mary the night before the wedding, thereby ensuring Series Three shifts from a series of pre-marital disagreements between Mary and Matthew to a series of marital ones, which will be occasionally hijacked by Matthew’s mother, the irritating Isobel Crawley.  She is only at home when tending deep wounds of infantrymen from the front and attempting to supercede Lady Cora as Director of Operations at Downton Abbey.  If the Dowager Countess as mother-in-law would make any sturdy American baulk, then the parsimonious and interfering Isobel Crawley will test Lady Mary’s patience more than Sir Richard Carlyle did in Series Two, when he behaved like a mean chav whilst out on a partridge shoot. 

Lord Grantham has found the answer to his financial distress – hard liquor.

“I say, mother, would you like to try one of these new fangled cocktails?”  he chirrups at her, clearly 7 mojitos to the wind and only another 3 mojitos away from embarrassing all and sundry by attempting air guitar to Genesis in the drawing room.  He glances at the camera with a look in his eye that says “Yes, viewers.  This is the 1920s.”  The Dowager Countess is appalled. 

Lady Cora’s delusion regarding her husband flushing her money down the toilet knows no bounds.  Her resolve to carry on and just have a good party of the wedding stinks of burying one’s aristocratic head in the sand.  Perhaps there is more to her motives than meets the eye, however, as she had earlier reminded her husband that she is an American and has a gun, thereby hinting at what might happen to Lord Grantham the next time he is discovered snogging a maid in the wine closet.

Then they all go off and celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

No, of course they don’t.

They roll out of bed the next morning, Mary deigns to dress for her wedding looking like Frankenstein’s bride of death, puts up with her mother’s icky advice that married love really is rather “terrific” once one gets the hang of it, and turns up to the church.  But there unfortunately, the first episode draws to a close as they stand at the altar, ready to be married in the High Anglican tradition, so I leave it up to your fetid, disgusting minds to work out once and for all whether Mary and Michael finally get to consummate two series of will-they-won’t-they that has pushed the ratings up like nobody’s business. 

The hullaballoo of Downton has less to do with them and more to do with us.  Brideshead Revisited rocked onto our old-fashioned analogue televisions in 1981, when Britain was in the midst of a huge recession, and where a summer not only featured a Royal Wedding but also urban riots.  Today in Britain, we’ve come out of a long and artificially suspended boom, and collapsed into a long, stagnant economic pile of poo.  Our comfort is drawn from the old world, from the stately home, from the sense of an England that is not altogether lost, because it was never truly owned by any of us in the first place.  This is an England of debentures, of investitures, of entails to inherited wealth, of dressing in silks and satins for supper, an England whose structure and beaded and be-jeweled prettiness we are happy to concern ourselves with until the view out of our own early 21st century window changes.  When the economic spirit lifts, when 1 in 4 young Londoners and not unemployed, when you don’t have to produce 25 and a half years of income proof in order to get your mortgage offer accepted, and when the most positive thing that happens to us in our day is not that, like Lady Edith, we merely do something jolly with our hair, I guarantee you won’t see Downton for toffee.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious by this car park.

And so this morning we woke up to the news that Richard III has probably been found under a Leicester City Council car park.  He’s been parked there since about 1485 and no one had a clue.  What was he doing there?  Trying to reverse park over a Lancastrian, presumably.   The skeleton had a “near death trauma”  (That’ll be The Battle of Bosworth then) as well as signs of spinal curvature.  His hump!  Cry the English schoolchildren.  His hump!   This immediately makes us think of Laurence Olivier’s hump-backed performance of Dick III in the film imaginatively titled “Richard III” and which was based on the man whose got himself dead and buried under a Midlands car park.   But Richard III was not actually a hunchback (cue intake of breath from agog pupils at the back of the History class).  Instead he had the rather unexciting scoliosis.   Whilst not being half as evil-sexy as the hunchback, scoliosis does make one shoulder higher than the other, and this is consistent with the remains found yesterday.  Mind you, no one cares if you’ve one shoulder higher than the other when your eight feet in cement under a Ford Fiesta.   Richard III would be alarmed to discover he is now trending on Twitter. 

Philippa Langley, the leader of The Richard III Society has said “This has always been about finding out about the real man, not the Tudor myth”.  Richard III was of course, the last of the Plantagenets, made very dead indeed by Henry VII, who thereby ushered in the Tudor era, and spent a lot of time spreading muck about Richard III.  We have had issue with Henry VII here on The Bluebird pages before.  We shall not speak of him more, because I still haven’t forgiven him for what he did to my computer (see

Next week, we hope to find Henry IV buried under Morrison’s in Lowestoft, and after that it’s only a matter of time before we find the Princess Anastasia of Russia under a Eddie Stobart’s garage in Brockwell.   Apparently, when Richard III was buried in Leicester the graveyard was in a garden belonging to the Greyfriars monks.  If the England of the Georgian era seems so distant and impossible to conjure up in our poor modern minds, the England of the 15th century is an even more distant, grey, and slightly unappealing land, with its smell of Black Death, its warring royalties and it’s relentless turgid hygeine issues. 

Bit odd, however that the man who Shakespeare tells us was heard hollering “A horse! My kingdom for a horse”  is found in a centre of another mode of human transportation that took over from the horse – the car.  “My kingdom for a Vauxhall Astra!”  is presumably what a modern day warring king would holler on the battlefield. Richard III was “unhorsed” and then killed by Richmond, which wasn’t very nice when you think about it.   The University of Leicester have tweeted that the remains of the person, who of course, may not be Richard III but someone from the same generation, perhaps Jeremy Beadle, have assured us that the remains found will be treated “…in full accordance with the University of Leicester’s ethical policy for dealing with human remains.” 

Henry VII didn’t have ethical policies for dealing with humans alive or dead.  This whole focus on Richard III will anger him greatly.  And I am pleased for this as I STILL haven’t forgiven him for breaking my computer.  

The Yorkist Warrior’s tale continues.   The Leicester City Mayor is not concerned with Dead Plantaganets, and is instead concerned about the city’s traffic infrastructure, saying thank you to the  “social workers who had to do without their car park and will have to do without it for a time longer”.   He is resolved to be entirely unexcited about the affair.  This is the man that gave the English language rhyming slang for “turd” and which gave Josephine Tey a good idea for a book.  Apparently he led the country for two years as a King or something like that, but basically, he is LAURENCE OLIVIER.  And sometimes he’s Kevin Spacey.  I saw him once be Robert Lindsay.  Try to be a bit thrilled, dear.  Over at Reuters, they won’t be receiving an English essay prize for their critical commentary that Leicester could possibly be the resting place of “the monarch depicted by Shakespeare as an evil, deformed, child-murdering monster.”

A 55 year old Canadian furniture maker from Highgate called Michael Ibsen, descendant of the evil, deformed, child-murdering monster, is on hand to provide some of his fruitiest DNA as his mother is a 16th generation descendant of Anne of York, Richard III’s sister.  Meanwhile, The Daily Snail has gone quite peculiar, and that’s not like them, is it?  They’re demanding that should the sad sack of bones prove to be Richard III then he should have a proper kingly burial, as befits “the last truly ENGLISH King”.  This is presumably a dig at Henry VII who was half-Welsh and therefore, according to The Daily Snail, an scumline immigrant.  It is made more bizarre by the fact that most of the Plantagenets were French.  The younger journalists of The Daily Snail have been no doubt scratching their heads tying to receive rusty slabs of History A Level syllabuses.  Writers usually called upon to write about Nigella Lawson’s weight loss / weight gain / delete according to month and whether or not Kerry Katona is certifiable are now having to concern themselves with the intricate love life of Edward IV and attempts to challenge the royal succession in the Christmas of 1483.  In other words, they are actually having to write some journalism and they haven’t had to do that before.  If one thing – only one thing – emerges from the University of Leicester’s Archeological dig at their city centre to give satisfaction, it will be not that the tumbling mass of bones will be Richard III, or his wife, or his dog, but that it has meant that journalists who are able to write about crap that doesn’t mean anything and continue to contribute to the lowering of journalistic standards in Britain which began to cascade violently about thirty years ago, only to land in a heap of bovine and retarded incompetency today, have actually had to do some decent work.  I bet they can’t wait to get back to doing an article on whether or not we care that Heidi Klum is or isn’t sleeping with her bodyguard.

Bet you Henry VII slept with his bodyguard.  You see?  I just can’t let it go re ComputerGate.  Like the archeologists in the car park, I won’t let it lie.   Poor old Dickie III, eh?  Didn’t really stand much of a chance, did he, after Shakespeare did a right character assassination on him.   And now the Leicester City Mayor and the tabloid press are doing their best.  This is a man who already died by being “poleaxed to the head”, so he doesn’t exactly need Simon Heffer et al spreading peculiar nonsenses about him.  He’s got enough problems.  And that’s before Leicester fine him for being in a local authority car park for 530 years without paying for his ticket.  However, we ought not to get overexcited.  It might not be him.  It’s only a hunch.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  And if you didn’t, then don’t.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

6 ounces of butter

I am addicted to The Great British Bake Off – to all of it’s sieving, shaking, folding and whisking – to the extent that last winter, delving into the cupboards to stave off a seismic episode of the winter blues, I went doolally.  I baked every weekend, large victoria sponges with vanilla buttercream and expensive, out-of-season berries.  I forgot that my husband didn’t eat cakes, thereby leaving me to eat a third of it over the next few days and then throw the lot in the bin.  I used to stand, sentry-like, against the door of the oven in our old flat, to ensure it stayed properly closed so that the aeration effect of the self-raising flour would not be jeopardised.  Choux buns launched themselves out of the kitchen and landed, coolly glazed with organic dark chocolate and edible gold baking stars, to be munched and savoured through repeats of Downton Abbey on ITV3.  I fretted over the state of my ginger nuts.  I baked chocolate roulades in feverish, hasty bouts of pre-menstrual madness.  And then, at some point during the spring, I came to my senses and got a life.

Did get me wondering though.  Surely I could brave the interrogation of Mary Berry and that strapping Yorkshire bloke with the thick, grey spiky hair.  Would my drop scones pass muster, or could I meringue myself into a frenzy, whilst staring out Sue and /or Mel with the soundbite “I like to bake IT RELAXES ME.  During baking I fantasize about living in the 1950s and I find this rewarding.  Why are you standing on my vanilla essence?”  It amazes me that, tortes whirling through the air like plates, the bakers keep their cool in the final moments of the ticking clock whilst Sue  and/or Mel ask them questions like “You’re struggling a bit today aren’t you?  Your muffins flopped and your crumpets defied belief. You remember where you parked your car, don’t you?  Don’t bump the SMEG fridges on the way out.  They’re hired.”

Amongst all this cutesy-cutesy, retro, pastel-coloured world in which the GBBO lives, is the repeated, heraldric message of the triangular Union Jack flags, floating above the cinnamon musk of sweet bagels and looking like last year’s bunting.  One entrant was criticised this week by producing a cake dotted with so many crescents of clementines he was accused of being “too 1970s”.  Such are the highly-ranked standards of the GBBO, however, that this entrant still was awarded the much-desired title of “This week’s star baker”.  1970s is bad.  The GBBO is about harvesting ideas of 1950s retro, and don’t you forget it. It’s about romanticising and slightly fetishizing the golden glamour of the perfect English housewife, the Betty Drapers who didn’t turn to the bottle,  the wide-skirted ladies with the permanent red lipline who appeared in adverts for estate cars, three piece suites and caravan holidays.  In the safe smog of the baking fumes in the kitchen we can return to our true domestic selves.  We shall bake our way through the recession.  In fact, we already are – what with sales of cake stands and baking utensils up 10% in John Lewis over the last twelve months.  Running through this is a restorative red, white and blue ribbon of Britishness.  We find solace, as ever, in golden age fantasies of the past, feeding our Caerphilly and rosemary scones to the blushing cricketeers who team from the cricket pitch on the village green on cloudless, ever sunny, English afternoons.

The problem is, the 1950s weren’t actually like that (No?  Really? I hear, shouted from the back).  Firstly there was polio, which really disturbed your Battenburg skills and left you with a permanent limp, if you were lucky to survive it.   Heroin was legal, which probably explains why all those housewives in adverts in magazines are smiling.  Corporal punishment was still the law in all schools.  But perhaps most cripplingly for our national bakers, tea was on ration until 1952 and eggs and sugar until 1953.  How would Mary Berry cope with producing an ideal meringue or a creme caramel of crippling beauty with the dredges of bastardised powdered egg that lurked at the bottom of the housewives culinary arsenal?  It wasn’t until rationing was completely lifted in 1954 that people were able to focus on getting fat again, and buying as much butter, sugar, eggs and sugared, decorative swans etc as they wanted.

During rationing, bakers had to get inventive.  Margarine or dripping could be welcome substitutes for butter, but margarine doesn’t bake brilliantly or produce a richness of flavour.  Dripping just makes a cake feel unrelentingly suet-y.  But it is the eggs where the problem really arises.  Eggs are incredibly versatile – especially on their own, whether you fry them, poach them, go all continental and produce an omelette or scramble them.  The alchemy they perform in a cake cannot be echoed by any other foodstuff, hence the fact that ration era recipes from the 1940s and 1950s don’t even try pretending to imitate the noble egg and leave it out altogether.  Try this ration era recipe:

Eggless Sponge Cake
Cooking time: 20 mins Quantity 1 cake

6 oz self-raising flour with 1 level teaspoon baking powder or plain flour with 3 level teaspoons baking powder
2 ½ oz margarine
2 oz sugar
1 level tablespoon golden syrup
¼ pint milk or milk and water jam for filling

Sift the flour and baking powder. Cream the margarine, sugar and golden syrup until soft and light, add a little flour then a little liquid. Continue like this until a smooth mixture. Grease and flour two 7 inch sandwich tins and divide the mixture between the tins. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until firm to the touch just above the centre of a moderately hot oven. Turn out and sandwich with jam.

When you’re feeling festive you could even attempt the Wartime Eggless Christmas Cake.  Note use of carrots, a common wartime substitute for everything it seems.  This cake seems incredibly dense, so may come in useful in the event of an enemy attack, whereupon you can pelt unwanted German interlopers with slices of it:

  • 1 large carrot finely grated
  • 2-3 tablespoons of golden syrup
  • 3 oz sugar
  • 4 oz margarine
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla essence
  • ½ teaspoon of almond essence (or 1 teaspoon of rum extract)
  • 6 oz dried fruit
  • 12 oz self raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 small teacup of slightly warm tea or coffee (with milk in)
  1. Cook the grated carrot and syrup over low heat for few minutes
  2. Cream the sugar and margarine until light and fluffy
  3. Stir the bicarbonate of soda into the syrup mixture and then beat it into the sugar and margarine as if adding an egg, bit by bit 
  4. Add  the vanilla and almond essence
  5. Add dried mixed fruit
  6. Fold in the sieved flour and cinnamon
  7. Add some of the tea or coffee if needs be.  The batter needs to be thick but moist.
  8. Put the mixture into a greased tin
  9. Smooth the top
  10. Place into pre-heated oven at 200C for 15 minutes
  11. Reduce temperature to 160C and cook for 45 minutes
  12. Cool and decorate with edible toppings

The recipes fail to comment that you won’t have a bowel movement for the best part of a fortnight, but I suppose that’s not important if there’s a war on.  You would also have to contend with mockeries – mock marzipan, mock meringue, mock icing.  The closest thing Mary Berry or Baker Paul would get to a dark chocolate gateaux with blackberry and vanilla coulis and a rose-infused sponge in 1952 would have been “Duke Pudding” which is like Duke Ellington except it is made of cake.  It was the closest a housewife could get in 1944 to a “chocolate fix:

Duke Pudding

  1. Soak 2 breakfast cups of stale bread (about 5-6 slices) in a little cold water then squeeze the water out until it is as dry as possible.
  2. Beat out lumps with a fork
  3. Add two tablespoons of fat or margarine , 2 tablespoons of sugar, 3 tablespoons of dried fruit , small teacup full of grated carrot, 1 teaspoon of mixed spice or cinnamon.
  4. Stir 1 flat teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda into a few teaspoons of milk and mix and then blend well into the mixture
  5. Spread evenly into a well greased tart tin or pie dish and cook in a moderate oven for 30-40 minutes.

Whilst a noble attempt at a sugary cake, this appears to have no sweetness in it all, except that which comes from the cinnamon or the carrot.  Mary Berry would show it the door, particularly if some wartime housewife presented this during the “Technical Challenge”.  But it is the biggest challenge of all – to create a foodstuff associated with plenty and luxury when you have neither of those things.  Amidst all the gingham patterns and the Americana 1950s refrigerators, there is some things in The Great British Bake Off that would be foreign to any housewife of the post war years – the waste inherent in chucking away unsuccessful cake mixes without a second glance and the pure, wonderful glory of actually having six ounces of butter.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.