Sunday, May 13, 2007

TV Review: Rick Stein in Du Maurier Country


BBC2, 12.5.07

It was Daphne Du Maurier night on BBC2. Hey, here’s a good one. Let’s get a celebrity from Cornwall. So we’ll celebrate an author with a telly chef and a deceased canine mascot. How very very English.

This was unpromising. But… despite her very English-Cornish locations, Du Maurier’s work was interesting because it was singularly not very English at all in its darkly passionate undercurrents and Stein is maybe the most unconventional and interesting of telly chefs because less interested in himself than his product. The result of this strange conjunction – Geoff Boycott on Lawrence, anyone? - was a curious and entertaining 50 minutes of television. It looked good, sounded good and probably didn’t do your mind much good, but it was more than OK.

Rebecca, which made Du Maurier world famous and which bored her when people went on about it (Franz Waxman’s biliously sentimental score in Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of the novel, shown earlier on Saturday, may have contributed to her reputation as a writer of ‘women’s’ fiction) took centre stage.

As it should. Rebecca is a book blending psychological depth, a lust-murder and love as a destructive force in a way Plath or Woolf never quite managed with the same panache; it is more Vienna than Bloomsbury, more Schnitzler than Sackville-West. Let us not forget that her writing also inspired the very bleak and sexually-charged likes of The Birds.

To his credit, Stein, while blowing a sizeable wodge of the Cornish tourist office’s budget on a dazzling array of backdrops, all wooded creeks speckled with yachts, and the splendid lifestyle enjoyed by the novelist’s heirs, didn’t shy away from her personal quirks and themes and thought-processes, didn’t over-sensationalise her sex life and highlighted her strained relations with her family. I’d take issue with Stein’s assertion that the first paragraph of Rebecca is the most memorable of any novel’s – any reader of Catch 22 or 1984 would. It’s also quite possible that she would have found as much inspiration in a coast of a county where Rick didn’t have a restaurant; North Devon, say, which inspired Kingsley’s romance Westward Ho! A bit of lateral thinking might have helped make the case secure for the peculiar Romantic draw of Cornwall’s land and sea – the St Ives posse, Hardy’s Beeny Cliff, Bax’s tone poem Tintagel, Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers, and none of these phenomena are too far removed from sexual abandonment remembered, wanted or lived. But the lad Stein did well; words like ‘corrupt’ and ‘decadent’ don’t tend to creep too often into TV chefs’ vocabularies, especially not when used appositely in terms of 20th century fiction.

The sea, the sea - that maritime leitmotif in Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek among others, was not too overdone here, and slowly persuaded one that fish-mad Stein, whose enthusiasm for whatever task in which he is engaged is too relaxed to be ersatz, is a committed fan of Du Maurier’s sensuously charged writing. In terms of literary criticism, F.R. Leavis this definitely wasn’t, but Stein might actually not have been as unsuitable a choice of presenter as might be imagined.

Stein’s unsinkable geniality can chafe sometimes, and there was unquestioning romanticisation of Cornwall, as in Du Maurier herself, omitting trade diseases among tin miners or the china clay wage slaves of her adopted home near the Helford estuary, for example. But this programme, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and its source, attempted and succeeded at popular entertainment of the first order that didn’t assume its audience were morons and that they had a degree of emotional literacy. Stein knows this, and gently makes sure you know he knows; his sense of discovery was palpable but never obtrusive; bank on a few of Daph’s books being loaned out from libraries on Monday.

While the very thought of Jamie Oliver one day ‘discovering’ the London of Iain Sinclair or Colin McInnes is too scary to bear, this likeable oddity made one writer as satisfied as the cash-strapped hoteliers from Saltash to St Agnes for whom a bit of telegenic publicity luring putative tourists, especially when summer holidays are on the agendas of well-heeled north Londoners, can’t come soon enough. Compliments to the chef!

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