And so the Downton era comes to a close! I have been blogging on Downton for the Guardian since September 2010 when I wrote this piece: “Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville in a Julian Fellowes period drama? I may have died and gone to Sunday night TV heaven.” Ah, how the folly of our youth returns to haunt us… What I wrote during series one (and the comments underneath, suggesting what a surprising success this is for ITV) contrasts horrifically with what was to come. By 2014, I was writing that it was“one of Britain’s most toxic exports.”
Downton was a lovely surprise (for one series) that outstayed its welcome. It should have been cut off at series two or three (or ideally, actually, series one). It had enough meat to sustain one perfect outing (just like Gosford Park) but it never became a proper soap opera. Good soap opera is meticulously planned and calibrated. This always felt as if it had too many plots and too many characters and was just throwing anything at the (beautifully papered) wall to see if it would stick. Fortunately the gloss and style of the thing camouflaged this expertly and turned it into a cash cow the likes of which ITV must only have dreamed.
Tonight’s Christmas episode yielded no surprises (warning: spoilers) with Uncle Julian tying up the ends he could be bothered to tie up (sometimes rather too tightly) but leaving may things dangling. This is the Downton way. I will miss it, strangely. And I will also dream of Mr Pamuk and the Lost-in-Germany Newspaper Man.
Loved being part of the team covering the election “hangover” coverage the day after. (Pictured above with Jenni Murray and polling experts Sarah Childs and Michelle Harris.) Listen Again here. It was a strange experience in some ways as a lot of the results had not quite been finalised when we went on air. Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband had yet to resign. And yet the writing was already on the wall. I was reporting on the tone and the content of the TV coverage overnight and, unsurprisingly for Woman’s Hour, there was a lot of focus on the fact that women were very poorly represented amongst the political pundits and reporters. Where’s the female Dimbleby? Come on! The best bit, though, is Jenni Murray giving me a slap down for saying that my highlight of the entire night was a woman’s hair style. OK, that was a bit shallow. But the coverage was extremely boring. And Bridget Philipson MP — in Sunderland, one of the first results called — does have phenomenal hair. I won’t mention it again BUT LOOK AT HER HAIR. (Picture: Sunderland Echo)
Writing in today’s Observer Food Magazine about something that has been bugging me for a while: nut allergies, gluten “sensitivity” and coeliac disease. What’s the difference between a real (sometimes life-threatening) food allergy and a lifestyle choice? And is all this making us more anxious around food? Susie Orbach says yes. I am with her. This piece was inspired by this missive in the four-year-old’s lunchbox (above). My bad.
I cooked brownies, rock cakes and lemon drizzle cake for Mary Berry for Sainsbury’s magazine, May issue.
This is what happened:
“Everyone knows that Mary Berry is kind and generous and lovely. She is also honest. And she has tasted thousands, possibly millions, of cakes in her lifetime. So what’s her verdict on mine? My lemon drizzle: “Almost perfect. But could have done with another three minutes in the oven.” I knew it! But I didn’t want to risk it burning. I have fallen into the most obvious trap, the one I have seen hundreds of time on Bake Off. What an idiot.
Mary points to the top of the slice which is not quite the same consistency as the sponge at the bottom of the slice. Busted. My brownies: “A lovely sheen on top. Brownies are a personal taste. I would have taken these out sooner. Not enough squidge.” Again. I knew it! The brownies are reasonably dry. It’s how my kids like them. Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
The rock cakes? They were made – like all my cakes – the day before meeting Mary. I’m not sure how well they’ve survived the overnight storage. They were pretty tough yesterday. I don’t want to be taking out one of Mary Berry’s crowns. She takes a dainty nibble. “They need to be eaten on the same day,” she says diplomatically. “So for next day they’re not bad.” There is a barely perceptible wrinkling of the nose. “Very nice for a child’s lunchbox.” Ouch.”
I reviewed two fantastically readable new biographies about Alexander McQueen and John Galliano for the Telegraph. One, Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson, looks at the truth behind all the myth-making around McQueen. And the other, Gods and Kings by Dana Thomas, contrasts their two lives — and credits them both with establishing (and then killing off) an influential era for fashion. Two great reads — equal to something I reviewed a few months ago on McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Kate Moss: Champagne Supernovas. Also worth a look.
Here’s my list of the top 10 books of 2014 from the Observer. I plump for The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton as the Read of the Year, a wonderful debut novel. As suggested, I’m not saying that The Miniaturist is perfect. It has been a controversial book in some ways, which is what worries me slightly about debut novels becoming massive: they get over-hyped and over-scrutinised and then when people eventually get round to reading it, they’re disappointed because it’s not the greatest thing they ever read in the history of the world ever ever. (Which it can’t be because it’s a debut.) It’s a tricky situation because in order to get anyone interested in debut novels at all, publishers really do have to pull out all the stops and they did on this book. Still, it is the book of the year for its immense success – and it’s an enjoyable read. Indeed.
Cover pic: Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina
A rare outing in the FT. On Russia’s literary status and whether the glory days of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are ever coming back again.
‘In rankings of the world’s literary greats, Russia tends to figure more prominently than any other country. Anna Karenina, War and Peace, the stories of Anton Chekhov and Lolita (written in English and self-translated into Russian) are unfailingly on such lists, alongside Shakespeare, Proust, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Flaubert and George Eliot. And that’s without even mentioning Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Pasternak and, of course, Dostoevsky, the writer who did down-to-earth plain-speaking just as beautifully as Tolstoy did lofty spirituality. From Notes from the Underground: “I say let the world go to hell but I should always have my tea.”’
Thrilled to contribute to this series of tributes to funny women in the Times — Caitlin Moran on Judy Garland, Ruth Jones on Dawn French, Ruby Wax on Joanna Lumley… Maureen Lipman chose Lucille Ball. I was away on holiday when this came out and the copy my parents kept for me has got a bit, er, crumpled as you can see below. I’m writing about Sue Townsend, who I have always loved:
I enjoyed reading J. Randy Taraborrelli’s new biography of the Hiltons for the Sunday Telegraph. I had no idea that the founding father of the dynasty — Paris’s great-grandfather Conrad — had such a fantastic back story. He started with nothing, encouraging his parents to open up their ramshackle family home in New Mexico as a down-at-heel B&B when he was just sixteen. Like so many entrepreneurs, he had a series of jaw-dropping ups and downs (and several near-bankrupcy moments during the Great Depression) before “Hilton hotels” became something special. Of course, Paris is the icing on the cake. And she really does do everything with Peter Pan (her chihuahua). Unless that’s just for the cameras. Which I suspect it is. She’s all about “the brand”…