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French Leave

Thursday, November 20, 2003 by

And with that, they were gone. The departure of the Burton Race family from our screens will leave a poignant gap in the schedules. Derided by the critics, this show has managed to turn their petty words into straw with contemptuous ease. Running after the wonderful, brilliant Tales From River Cottage, this hour on Channel 4 has become must-see viewing for the discerning viewer. That the schedules are (what feels like) chock full of shows featuring couples escaping England’s green and, perhaps not so, pleasant land or pairs of over-waged egoists purchasing charming holiday homes in the Dordogne or the Costa Blanca, it’s to the credit of the filmmakers that this show in particular has managed to breath a much needed breath of life back into the ailing genre.

Rightly described by one critic as “a weekly free commercial for the Languedoc tourist board”, the gripping unfolding of events chez Burton Race has developed nicely into a wonderful homage to the rural way of life in France. Picture postcard scenery, impossibly arched stereotypical behaviour patterns that even Richard Curtis would shy away from, this – initially – had all the classic hallmarks of just another escape from the rat race showcase for an unknown wannabe. Yet in spite of this – perhaps even because of – the tale of one family’s year out in the French boondocks turned into a thoroughly charming and utterly entertaining slice of television.

Forget the laughable assumption that this was yet another formulaic tale of an Englishman abroad. Sing that line, however softly you will, and you’re missing the fundamental point of the show. Which was that this was a man who was an unashamed Francophile putting his love to the test. In an age of increasing Europhobia and a growing distrust of Johnny Foreigner, here was a man prepared to wear his heart on his sleeve, and sink or swim in the arms of his heart’s desire. I am all too aware that the selective editing and willful disregard for the actuality conveyed a version of the truth for the viewing public – but, oh! What a version!

After managing to lose the annoying habit of referring to himself, in the third person, as a world famous chef, the edges were continuously and consistently being knocked off John Burton Race from around the third episode of French Leave. The loss of self-induced tension and the innate sense of falling deeper and further in love with his adopted homeland were particular highlights of this programme. The love for his family, for France, for cooking and for the terroire were wonderfully conveyed. Sure, disagreements occurred, tears flowed and curses cursed. But life, by its very nature, ground on and situations were addressed with candid honesty and, occasionally, more than a soup├žon of naked aggression.

The warmth of the show was evident in every frame. Like Hugh in the slot before him, John clearly believes in – and proselytises – the provenance of his ingredients. Whether it was bangers and mash (with Toulouse sausages) or garlic pie, Burton Race was clearly fascinated in – almost to the point of obsession – exactly where his produce came from. And, once again, just like Hugh, his insistence that livestock was responsibly treated and plants allowed to develop naturally was a delight to behold. Patently subscribing to the theory that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, John managed to effortlessly translate his love of rustic French cooking with consummate ease.

The recipes and ingredients were but a strand of the show, the real stars were the family themselves. From the tears on arrival in their strange, eerily hostile new surroundings to the tears on departure from their beloved adopted home, the weekly dynamics were raucously good viewing. Watching John get lost in France, then get half-canned in a local bar as he made increasingly drunken calls to the trouble and strife explaining his predicament was joyous. The scenes of him camping out with his son and cooking freshly caught fish were both touching and moving. The dynamics between the family were also hugely entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the arrival of the mother-in-law with a suitcase confiture packed with junk food. There were faint echoes of the atrocious Lenny Henry vehicle Chef here. But only faint.

Like all good television, this was brilliant as a result of its simplicity. There were no grand designs, arch antics or deeply, meaningful insights. Just a series of simple but mouth-watering recipes, simple but honest adventures and a beautiful backdrop of some of the most delightful drop-dead countryside France has to offer. A cast of extras that would have elevated the god-awful A Year in Provence into the realm of good television proved that reality is, indubitably, more entertaining than televised fiction. Truffle sniffing dogs, cherry picking nuns and wild boar hunting locals were, most definitely not, from central casting. The open-air markets were wonderful and, as so rightly commented on by John, a necessary antidote to the evils of supermarket shopping.

One can only hope that this experiment will have a lasting effect on the Burton Races. Clearly, as a family unit, they had learned to like each other again and attain a level of love and affection that had been missing before. This was an intimate, moving portrait of a family that saw out the great dream of their slightly demented, but roguishly lovable, leader. For them, you would hope that the future will return them to the beguilingly beautiful Languedoc region. If fate is so kind, then I pray that the cameras will follow them back to their promised land.

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