Thursday, April 27, 2006

Frances Grant: A long way from home

Blink and you missed Anzac Day on the mainstream channels. TV One, however, made a nod to the season of remembrance with a local documentary the night before, Our Lost War: Passchendaele.

The war memorial arch in Queenstown, with its stout declaration of "service above self" can strike an ironic note these days, sited alongside the hustle of a town dedicated to the pursuit of the tourist dollar.

Our Lost War, fronted by genial actress Robyn Malcolm, went a long way towards reinvigorating the meaning and sacrifice behind the memorial's maxim.

Malcolm told the story of her great-uncle George Salmond, a God-fearing Queenstown lad with a strong sense of duty to the mother country, through his war experiences to his death in one of World War I's most notorious battles.

The story was the more powerful for its typicality.

Salmond wasn't a war hero, just one of the many ordinary soldiers who faced the hell and terror of the Belgian trenches for months on end.

Malcolm fleshed out the sparse comments in his diary by following his footsteps through training camp on England's Salisbury Plains to the boggy hell of Flanders, wheeling out local war experts on the way.

The documentary was moving - how could it not be? - and informative, although its modern packaging was a little distracting.

Malcolm, staunchly lugging her baby son around the battlefields, dressed and looked like she'd had a hard night's mothering most of the time, a casual note which seemed slightly incongruous for a story about a generation who believed in respect reflected in personal presentation.

You had to wonder, too, what the "Service above Self" generation would have thought of Malcolm's emoting over gravestones and personal reflections playing such a large part in someone else's story. Still, that didn't detract from the sad paradox of the nobility of the sacrifice and the futility of the war.

To young men, slaughter and OE of a much more trivial, modern kind: Jamie Oliver has come a long way from the young geezer with an MTV-style cooking show, banging on about pukka tucker.

He made the smart move of growing up fast and delivering a much meatier watch with his reality show in which he tried to turn unemployed kids into chefs.

It was Oliver's coming to grips with the notion that you can offer somebody the big chance but you can't make 'em grateful which made it such an entertaining watch.

The same can be said of Jamie's School Dinners, in which he upped the ante even further. Disaffected youth were pussycats compared to intransigent school dinner ladies and kids screaming blue murder over the loss of their chicken nuggets.

At first glance, his latest show, Jamie's Great Italian Escape, with its silly swank about wanting to "just let me be me", looked like a lurch back to the days of being an awful young blister.

But the series has been a fascinating clash between a culinary culture entrenched in glorious tradition and a foreign upstart with a desire to experiment.

Oliver's strength has never been his powers of description or charm: it's the challenges he sets for himself and determination to go out of his comfort zone.

It's not easy going out to kill a lamb - Oliver looked positively traumatised - as the locals do, cooking it and having granny tell you that "it stinks", or laying on a meal for a town in which everyone is a food expert, or facing down a line of grim Italian mamas with their wooden rolling pins determined to beat the hell out of you in a pasta-making competition.

The Italians are giving him no quarter which makes his odd victory all the more sweet.

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