Wednesday 13 January 2010

The Wartime Kitchen Garden

Lunchtime today brought a chance encounter with a programme which I used to watch in years gone by, a programme which had slipped my mind but that I had never forgotten - the BBC's magnificent 1993 series The Wartime Kitchen Garden. This show, probably best described as a drama-documentary, followed on from 1984's The Victorian Kitchen Garden and made for some of the most riveting factual viewing I've ever done.

By giving us a cast of people living and demonstrating the techniques discussed, the programme opens up a whole new human element, with all its attendant foibles and conflicts, that you'd never have expected from a programme which also teaches you so much.

Puddingy Ruth Mott, the head chef on the programme, may have had a rounded appearance, but she was a hard taskmaster, with matrician authoritativeness dripping from every gnarled pore. Much of the joy of the show for me was working out the exact dynamic of the "real-life" reconstructive elements. That is to say, I never quite worked out whether Ruth Mott:
  1. was presenting the show from a historical perspective but in period dress, like someone who works in a bygones museum
  2. was acting at being in the wartime period depicted in the show, or
  3. was under the impression that the war had never finished, and was just continuing to live with its privations
Let's be honest here, my favoured option will always be 3, and this is how I chose to watch the series. This would make Ruth Mott the Home Counties' very own version of the legendary Japanese soldiers who, when found in the jungles of the Pacific rim thirty years after the cessation of hostilities, were still fighting the war until told to cease by their commanding officer, most probably by this point living in a rest home. Maybe she just didn't hear the all-clear, but right up until 1993, I like to think that Ruth Mott was collecting her postage stamp-sized piece of stewing beef, boiling it up with powdered egg, a pigs head and a hedgehog, and ducking under the table every time the church bells rang.

Of course, if this actually WERE the case, it would be one of the most notable televised examples of folie à deux ever transmitted, as both Mott and head gardener Harry Dodson were both possessed of a youthful wet-behind-the-ears assistant, learning the tricks and techniques to survive a period of history which had long since passed, quite unbeknownst to them.

Given the fact that they used to go out and then come back for a stew boiled like mad for an hour and then buried in mud for a week to complete its cooking, it's hard to know how they managed to keep up this delusion. Maybe they thought the rest of the people out in the town, in their Joe Bloggs t-shirts and without their gas masks, were just impossibly foolhardy. Either way, another part of the magic for me was the relationship between Mott and her helper, whose name escapes me.

In fact, it's probably fitting that it has, because so dominant is Mott in the partnership that the assistant having anything as presumptious as her OWN NAME would be grossly disrespectful of the elder party's seniority. However, in spite of Ruth Mott and Harry Dodson's vaunted positions coming about through respect for their knowledge and experience, you couldn't help feel a bit sorry for the assistants, forced to subsist on a diet exclusively made up of brawn and weeds, whilst being firmly but kindly instructed in exactly why they were a profligate buffoon.

Being an indoors type, Harry Dodson's gardening pieces could never hope to compete with Ruth Mott for my affections, although his level of expertise and the dynamic between himself and his helper was very much the same. Perhaps the thing that kept me most occupied by his segments of the programme was the fact that he reminded me a little of John Reginald Halliday Christie, and every time we cut back outside to the garden I expected to find him propping up the broad beans with a human thigh bone.

This kind of documentary series is fairly commonplace now, but these two examples were very much at the vanguard and, as is so often the case, remain amongst the finest of their type. The series is currently airing on Yesterday (or whatever the hell UKTV History is called this week) at 12 and 5 p.m., and is well worth checking out, even if you've seen them all before. Of course, if you haven't, I'm sure they're available to buy or illegally download, like you kids today are all doing.

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