Sunday, January 30, 2011

Entrance Of The Haggis

The other evening I dined next to a jolly lady who told me that this year’s Christmas present from her husband had been two live ducks.

He’d wrapped them up in a big box with a bow, and she was absolutely delighted when they burst out of the wrapping paper and quacked around the sitting room, waddling through the piles of presents. She said the terrible mess they made on the carpet added to the Christmas atmosphere. When they started attacking the tinsel on the tree, she scooped them up and put them in the bath, where they lived happily for a week until the husband had chipped off enough ice in the garden to build them a pond.

I think this sort of British eccentricity should be lauded. During the awful winter, the long haul to the January pay cheque and the tax return deadline (midnight on Monday, in case you’d forgotten), any kind of levity is to be welcomed. That’s why Jo and I were delighted to receive the invitation to our local Burns Night supper – which is where we met duck lady and her equally delightful husband. He organises the local sheep racing.

“So what exactly are we celebrating?” asked Jo, puzzled by the mixture of tweeds and tartan. I think she regretted wearing her denim miniskirt. Being American, she had already confused the occasion with Guy Fawkes night – I guess it was the Burns in the title that made her assume it was something to do with bonfires. I told her it was to honour a Scottish poet called Rabbie – and, no, he wasn’t Jewish.

“But we’re in England,” she pointed out. “Why are we celebrating some deceased Scot whose poetry nobody can even understand?”

I took a deep breath. There was no better response than the truth: in these ghastly, straightened, freezing times we seize any excuse for a party. Just then the haggis arrived, and was ceremoniously piped, addressed and knifed to death. “You guys are all quite mad”, she said, laughing at the absurdity.

Garnished with neeps and tatties, the haggis reached our table. “This reminds me of something”, she said, warily sniffing at the grey mound on her plate. “Don’t even think about it”, I cautioned. “Just pour the whisky on top and think of hamburgers”. Finally she leant over and whispered: “I’ve got it. You know that tinned dog food we give Truffle and Mabel when they’ve been ill?” My wife has a wonderful sense of smell.

The ceilidh was a riot. We tried The Gay Gordons ("Gordon was Rabbi Burns’ effeminate brother", I lied), The Dashing White Sergeant ("Gordon’s special friend") and Strip The Willow ("an ancient fertility dance, often performed naked"). Jo knew I was winding her up, but she took it all in good spirit: once we’d overcome our initial reserve, we were swirling along with the rest of them.

There are three types of dancer: the expert, the petrified novice, and the haven’t-a-clue-but-let’s-go-for-it-anyway. The first group smile confidently as they swish from partner to partner; the beginners have brows creased with concentration and mouth the caller’s instructions as they desperately try to master the pattern before the music stops; and then there are the flying villagers: real weapons of mass destruction in a tiny hall. While duck lady hurled herself like a dervish round the dance floor, Jo and I did a stately promenade: “back-two-three-four, twirl-two – oops, no – under the arch. Sorry everyone!” We were truly terrible. But it was also the most glorious fun.

There were toasts to the Queen and speeches to the guests. A man in a bow tie told a very long joke about a parrot in a brothel. Or was it a duck? Who knows? By then we’d all had far too many drams to care.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Forgetory - Part 2

In my earlier post I staked my claim to the title of Britain’s Most Absent-Minded. As if to confirm my candidacy, driving back from delivering my speech to the media conference in Manchester, I managed to reach Gateshead before realising that I had left behind my briefcase, laptop, Blackberry, and wallet, which contained all my credit cards and cash.

Good old DHL: how would missing goods ever get back home without them? When I worked in London, there was a shelf kept at the Groucho Club for my lost items and my assistant used to pop in on her way to work to retrieve them. How I managed to produce primetime network series and run a multi-million pound business is beyond comprehension. I think it’s called having a good support system. And a wife.

On arriving home, I discovered that Jo had gone out and bought a new mattress for our bed. It's made of memory foam: perhaps she thinks it will somehow impregnate my brain.

Friday, January 21, 2011

And Now The Good News

The conference in Salford, near Manchester, was about the future of regional broadcasting. An appropriately timed event, for on Wednesday our esteemed, if sometimes mispronounced, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced his proposals for local TV. A new network, with a dozen or more stations located in major cities opting out for two hours a day: not quite the vision in the Conservative election manifesto, of 80 multi-media city stations, but it’s better than no local coverage at all. Or is it?

“News 3” should have gone on air a few days ago: supplying not only ITV’s regional news here in the North East, but England’s first totally integrated local news operation. The journalists on our regional daily newspapers, The Journal and the Evening Chronicle, would have worked alongside experienced television colleagues on an integrated, layered, truly local news operation in print, radio, television and online.

Sadly we’ll never know if our Independently Financed News Consortium, of which I was proud to have been part, would have been successful. It was a groundbreaking concept but, because it was subsidised by the BBC licence fee, Mr Hunt cancelled it.

Now he’s proposing Channel Six, a network dedicated to the provision of local news and content – and subsidised by the BBC licence fee. Independent companies based in a dozen regional cities, using a central hub of network programming, with a couple of hours of local opt-outs? Sounds familiar? Of course: it’s exactly what your local ITV station was set up to be.

I remember Tyne Tees Television when it launched on Channel 8, fifty two years ago this month: the medley of local folk songs which started the broadcasting day, from Bobby Shafto to the Blaydon Races; “Wacky Jacky” Haig in the One O’Clock Show; those terrible local shopping commercials; and Tom Coyne on the well resourced local news.

The first seeds of destruction of ITV as a regional provider were sown in 1991 by the Conservative government. Now that demolition is complete, how ironic it is that a Conservative minister is trying to resurrect a similar model.
Will it work? Well there’s a big difference this time: there’s no money.

The teams of professional journalists will be supplemented, or supplanted, by enthusiastic amateurs – community producers, without training in scriptwriting skills, the basic principles of libel, or even the mystic art of how to entertain mass audiences. The cost of a libel writ, or defending a referral to Ofcom, is huge, yet the stations’ budgets will be minuscule: a fraction of what the broadcasters currently spend on their regional news.
And they expect us to watch, or log in, simply because it’s local? I think not.

Britain is proud of quality journalism, and this takes training, resources and commitment. Quality is derived from the skills of many lifetimes of professional experience and that doesn’t come cheap.
However local Channel 6 aims to be, it will fail unless it gets the proper funding our journalists and communities deserve.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Forgetory

This New Year my resolution lasted about an hour and a half. That’s not untypical of me, but this time I forgot it almost as soon as I made it.

You see, my avowed goal for 2011, in order to be more attentive to my darling wife, was to remember what she says and what I’m doing from one minute to the next. Far tougher than dieting, or giving up cigarettes, or any similar run-of-the-mill seasonal torture: this is well-nigh impossible.

Of course I could blame it on my ageing frame – don’t older people have trouble remembering their car keys and glasses? For me, it’s an art form. I don’t just walk round the entire house looking for something, then completely forget what it is I am searching for. I have raised the missing item game to a higher level.

By the time I’ve been scouring the house for ten minutes, I will be carrying an armful of other things that have distracted me en route. Eventually I sit down and wait. Jo, who remembers everything I forget, which is everything, will find me and say: “Izzy is still waiting for her shoes,” and I will gaze down at the assorted screwdrivers, lightbulbs, unopened bank statements and gardening magazines which have accumulated in my lap. Meanwhile I will have left cupboard doors ajar, fridges wide open, taps running, and gas burners smoking on the stove: I am a walking “forgetory” as my Mum used to call me.

And I know it’s not old age that’s at fault, for it’s happened since – oh, I can’t remember. Certainly since I realised, as a young director, that I possessed this gnat-like memory. It was something I hid from my colleagues.

I was known for my live directing skills. My BBC general election coverage was the biggest live show ever made: my control room had monitors fed with images from 250 separate cameras all over the country. I ran the show like a mad conductor – hair flying and screaming: coming to you, Oldham North, standby Mrs Thatcher, 2 minutes to Downing Street, and so on. That was easy: it was all happening in front of me, and the adrenalin helped me balance a thousand plates in the air. But if the plates had to land in a predetermined order, I was useless.

When I was directing dance programmes I realized I wasn’t really up to it. “5-6-7-8”: how could they always remember to jetée on the 5 and land on the 7? I sat next to the choreographer with reams of paper and little diagrams – tiny arrows showing where they went and when they jumped. I won all the international awards for my directing, but it was down to bravado and a good vision mixer: my brain was always one step behind.

But now it’s driving Jo mad. She calls it “selective memory”, combined with the selective hearing that afflicts all married men, of course. I deny it, and point to the fact that I am invited by large organisations to make long, witty after-dinner speeches and never seem to forget my lines. “So why did you forget to buy the yoghurt, then?”

On Tuesday (or is it Wednesday, I forget?) I have to speak to hundreds of delegates on the future of the BBC. I know exactly what I’m going to say: scrap the current channels and come up with a new blueprint; make the average age of commissioners reflect the average age of the country; and make the output come from the whole of Britain, not just London. It will last exactly fifteen minutes and I could recite every word. Yet there’ll be no script, just four key words written on the back of card the size of a train ticket.

I should be fine – if I’ve remembered to bring my glasses.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Travels with Izzy - Part Three: Home in Style

I’m pleased that on Wednesday BBC2 launches a series that aims to improve the quality of service in Britain’s restaurants. It’s about time standards were raised, not only in catering, but throughout our leisure and travel industries. Isn’t it ironic, though, that the host of the imaginatively titled “Service”, Michel Roux Jnr, is a native of the country with the most aloof, indifferent, and unenthusiastic waiters in the world?

I’m sure the staff in Le Gavroche are terribly polite, can polish cutlery to a sparkle and open silver domes in perfect synchronicity, but there are only two places where I’ve consistently found people on the other side of the menu who genuinely care about their customers: Los Angeles and the north east of England.

Sure, with some exceptions, waiters in our part of the world have precious little training in the niceties of restaurant etiquette – many don’t know which side to set a wine glass – but at least you’ll be greeted with a genuine smile, nothing will be too much trouble and, even though you’ll be interrogated about your life story before you’ve been offered a bread roll, you’ll leave with a warm glow and an exhortation to have a nice day. In LA they do the same, but expect a 20 percent tip in return.

Happily, I divide most of my time between these two locations, so when I tell you that this week I experienced the ultimate in good service, I write with some authority. It happened not in a restaurant, but at the British Airways check-in desk at Los Angeles airport.

It started when Izzy dropped her dummy. It normally takes her about 45 seconds to progress from “uh-oh”, via a shriek of “Binky!”, to a full scale eruption. However, no sooner had the offending item – which we only use for emergencies like travelling in public – hit the terminal floor, than a wonderful institution called Philip Williams, who has run BA’s customer service operation there for more than thirty years, leapt across the baggage conveyor, snatched it up and rushed off to wash it in the staff restroom. We gazed at his departing form in shock: Philip has looked after every celebrity on the planet as they pass through his exclusive VIP lounge – now he was washing our child’s dummy.

“How old is Izzy?”, he enquired, having restored clean binky to grateful mouth. When we revealed that she turned two later that very night, he frowned and studied his computer. We had planned our itinerary carefully: we wanted to stay in the sun as long as possible – sorry, England, but this weather is beyond a joke – however children can only travel on their parents’ laps till their second birthday. So the cost of staying just one extra day would have been a first class ticket for her: more than $8,000. Oh, and before I’m accused of being a secret banker, you should know that our own flights were virtually free, courtesy of some soon-to-expire air miles. Fifty thousand dollars worth of tickets for the cost of one economy return. We had to use them or lose them, so we were going home in style.

“In English time, she’s already 2 years old”, Philip calculated, “so of course she must have her own seat”. With a few dexterous taps on the computer, he rearranged the first class cabin, moved the celebrities and businessmen to the back, and, free of charge, created a private nursery for us at the front of the plane. To be honest, I think Philip realised that the consequence of Izzy not having her own seat would have been far worse for the other passengers. Nobody would have got much sleep with Izzy trying to squirm her way off our laps for ten hours.

After a couple of hours playing on the floor, Izzy fell fast asleep in her first class bed, complete with goose down duvet and pillow, clutching her favourite toy Baa-Bo. It’s an absurdly cute sheep made by Cheeky Moo, a tiny family business in Boldon Colliery. Which, by coincidence, is just a few miles from Birtley: birthplace of the wonderful Philip Williams.

I mean, with service skills like his, where else could he have come from but the north east?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Finger Food

It was the veal stock that started it: that and my hangover from the night before. In a bleary 6am haze the morning before Christmas, my finger got confused with the carrot I was trying to slice. Luckily veal and human blood taste pretty similar when they’ve been simmering together for a few hours.

Los Angeles brings out the chef in me, which is surprising, because most people here see little point in cooking. The choice of restaurants makes it a foodie paradise: from the heavenly In-N-Out burgers to the incredible range of steaks, sushi, Italian and Mexican. I guess that’s why many of our friends’ magnificent designer kitchens house brand new, unused utensils. Why bother to cook when you can sample the entire world’s cuisine just down the road?

Izzy's diet has now been enhanced with chocolate milk, green and pink yoghurt, pancakes with Oreos and an overwhelming range of what she calls "coo-keys".

However, for Christmas lunch I had to make an effort. And because Gelsons, America’s equivalent of Waitrose, sells veal bones, I had the chance to prepare something I can rarely serve back home: a proper jus to go with the roast duck a l'orange, made with fresh duck stock combined with that most important weapon in the cook's arsenal - rich, dark, almost glutenous veal stock.

I’ve never understood why in Northumberland, which otherwise has a fine selection of homegrown ingredients, it’s almost impossible to get hold of veal. Butchers look at me with disbelief when I request it, yet I defy anyone to make a rich reduction, exploding with meaty flavour, without home-made stock derived from roasting then simmering fresh veal knuckles for hours so that the marrowfat oozes out and the kitchen fills with meaty vapour. Don’t believe Marco Pierre White in those Knorr ads: his veal stock, which appears in most of his classic recipes, takes a whole 12 hours to make and the aroma is more penetrating than the rarest perfume.

Knorr chicken stock cubes (or "bouillon", as they call them over here) taste of what they are: salt mostly, then a nutritious addition of palm oil, monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed corn protein, hydrogenated beef fat and soybean oil, a sprinkling of sugar and, hidden way down the ingredients list, a little cooked chicken "meat". That’s why I got up at dawn to start the vegetable chopping: but I hadn’t reckoned on the sharpness of the pristine knives in the kitchen drawer.

The queue for the emergency clinic stretched out the door. Holding my middle finger in the air, in case the wound should reopen and drip blood on the carpet, I felt like an imposter.

“Look”, I protested to Jo, “it says Urgent Care on the door. I just have a cut finger: let’s buy some more Band Aid and go home.”

“No way”, she said, “I’m fed up with mopping up blood all over the house.”

The emergency room was a bit like a British NHS Walk-In Centre – except there’s a hefty bill before you walk out again.
I surveyed my fellow patients. One woman clutched a tissue tightly in her palm: that must be another cut hand, I thought to myself, secretly hoping my own cut was deeper. The man next to me was using a tissue to wipe a tear from his eyes: he must be in some pain, I surmised, though I couldn’t detect the source. Then a man in his sixties shuffled in, wearing open toed sandals.

“Write your previous ailments here,” instructed the receptionist, handing him a form. “Not enough room on the page,” he moaned, then coughed through a catalogue of illnesses that would fill a medical journal. I looked at my bandaged finger and felt a complete wuss. It wasn’t even bleeding anymore, so I gave it a little squeeze to restore the flow. I didn’t want the doctor to accuse me of time-wasting, even if his wasted time was paid for.

In fact, he seemed genuinely pleased to see me, called my cut a "laceration" and prescribed four stitches and a tetanus jab.

“I’m glad you’ve come”, he said, “You’re my first urgent case this morning.” What about the full waiting room?

“All colds and flu”, he said, “there’s nothing I can do for any of them, but, as they all have insurance, they can’t stay away. They think they’re dying, but we give them paracetamol and send them home. Now, about those stitches?”

With that he popped his needle directly into my open wound. I shot out of the chair.

“Sorry, that anaesthetic has taken a while to reach the tip”, he said. “Your fingers are as big as…”

“Carrots?” I suggested, through the pain.

[For those interested in real food, or who have more time than sense, here's my recipe for Christmas Duck for 8 people. Allow 2 days to make, and make sure you have loads of pans, including two stock pots, and adequate medical insurance]

Roast 5lbs veal bones in a little oil for an hour or so. In a separate roasting pan roast two chopped duck carcasses. They should brown but not burn. Pop them into two separate stockpots and cover with cold water. Bring to a simmer, skimming regularly with a skimmer. If you don't have one, go and buy one. Scum and stock don't go together.

Chop a pile of carrots (careful - they look like orange fingers), celery and onion. Soften them with oil in a pan (again, don't burn them, but make sure they are properly soft), then stir a big glug of tomato paste. Cook for a couple of minutes, then divide and pour into the simmering stockpots. Keep skimming.

In a fourth pan, put a huge pile of sliced button mushrooms and colour them with some oil. Then pour in a quarter of a bottle of Madeira and reduce fast till the mushrooms have reduced down to a delicious sticky pulp. Pour into the veal stockpot (not the duck one). Add 2 bayleaves and a sprig of fresh thyme to each pot.

At this point you need to make sure both stockpots are at a simmer, not boiling. Boiling makes the stock cloudy. Leave for at least 9 hours, preferably 12. Use this time to go to the emergency room if necessary.

Neighbours will now begin to start coming round inviting themselves for lunch. The smell will have stretched at least two blocks. You're one day away from duck heaven.

Strain both stocks into separate pans. Reduce both by half. Cool and store overnight in a fridge. They'll keep for a few days if you want.

On Christmas morning warm the stocks up (they'll have congealed nicely in the fridge) and prepare the ducks. One duck serves only two people, so I used four for our Christmas lunch - we had some vegetarians too, so I compounded the mess by pan frying some Atlantic salmon steaks and popping them on a bed of sweet roasted peppers: they looked very festive with fresh homemade mayonnaise on top.

Salt and pepper the ducks inside and out and stuff them with orange and lemon wedges: tie them up with string. Put them in a low oven - around 250 degrees Fahrenheit for just 25 minutes. Then take them out and let them settle breast side down till you're ready to roast - about 2 hours before you want to eat (ducks take about one hour and a quarter at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, then they need to settle down for about 45 minutes - though you can keep them warm for a couple of hours if necessary - use the duck fat from the bottom of the pan to roast your potatoes).

As the ducks roast, you can finish your sauces:

Combine half the veal stock with all the duck stock and reduce down together. Take the remaining veal stock and measure it. Then, in another pan, pour in some red wine, preferably Shiraz, with some sliced shallot - you need one quarter of the volume of the remaining veal stock. Reduce the wine till it goes a bit syrupy - it will smell sweet - then strain, and pour into the veal stock. Reduce it down very slowly till it turns into a wonderful black faux-demi-glace jus. That's sauce number one finished - it goes round the edge of the plate and makes your guests cry with joy and admiration, and beautifully complements the orange sauce which you haven't finished yet.

Carry on reducing the duck/veal stock combination till there's about 450ml left - that's what you need for 8 people. Meanwhile, in yet another pan, make some orange zest confit: you make a syrup (sugar and water boiled together), then add strips of orange zest. Cook gently with the lid on till it all goes sticky, then cool and strain. This stuff keeps for ages in the fridge, but you'll be throwing it into the duck sauce at the last moment.

When the ducks are cooked, take them out of the roasting pan, pour all the oil into another pan for the roast potatoes (par-boil them for just a couple of minutes first, then fluff them up in a saucepan covered with a colander, add salt and pepper, and make sure they're coated with the duck fat, cook at 425 degrees till brown and caramelized all over), and finish the sauce.

Pour a large glass of Grand Marnier into the hot pan, and stir up all the sticky black duck stuff. Put the pan on the stove and boil up the Grand Marnier for a few seconds to remove the alcohol. Strain into the duck stock. You won't believe the flavour, but you haven't quite finished yet. The sauce will be glutenous meaty (that's the veal stock) and gamey (duck) and already taste like oranges, even though you only add orange juice, lemon juice and the confited orange zest at the last moment.

Pour over the carved duck and wait for wild applause.

I served mine with sprouts (as it was Christmas, but caramelized with butter and a few capers thrown in for interest), roast potatoes and mustard mash (Colmans, cream and butter!), crispy roast parsnips to remind me of my vegetable garden, and the best wine my brother-in-law could afford. Friends brought yummy homemade pies for dessert and the whole meal was rounded off with a sound sleep during the American Football.