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Fear of Fanny

Monday, October 23, 2006 by

You know how it is. You’re gorbing down chocolate Hobnobs at three in the afternoon while watching Pocoyo, or maybe just blasted to the gills on G&T, and the phone rings. “Darling, I’ve got you into the most wonderful thing on BBC4 …”. Well, actually, probably only about 0.0000001% of the population fortunate enough to have sesames to publicly-visible media roles know how that is, the sort of scandalously unaccountable people responsible for utterly forgettable TV like Fear of Fanny. The rest of us just cope, cling on and pray, rather like the hapless, cash-strapped post-austerity hostess-housewives that Fanny Cradock (the subject of this rather sneery, leery comedy drama) attempted to buck up by transfiguring the drabness of British grocery basket with its Wonderloaf and Fry’s and tinned victuals into an illusion of continental culinary sophistication between the mid-’50s and mid-’70s.

It would be hard to name a programme so smugly located within a media demographic as this interminable and unfunny waste of 90 minutes, and also so indicative of decaying standards in TV comedy and drama. Picture the scene; Hampstead or Hoxton, a loft or a bar, Pulp or (if you’re lucky) Goldfrapp on the stereo. Someone with no hair called Ben is probably in attendance. “Right, people, ideas, please. Let’s have some camp nostalgia, lots of lovely prop work. Offbeat gay icon. What else? Plus, hey, it’s about TV, the media, ie. us. Two rather overrated actors from rather overrated TV comedies to fill mediocre roles that any one of 1000+ unknowns in Spotlight could fill, and who need the money considerably more than Julia Davis and Mark Gatiss as Fanny and chipboard-stiff sidekick and ‘husband’ Jonny.”

Well, hurrah! Treble pretend-absinthes all round! Jackpot!

Jack shit, actually. Nancy Banks-Smith in the Guardian got it right, because nobody who watched the programme could possibly miss it – the props outdid the players and the action. Brand names – Birds, Bisto, Kenwood – were everywhere. Won’t the designers do well at the Baftas? This was television not as drama or comedy – or comedy-drama – but college common-room chat circa 1991. “Hey, remember Amazin’ Raisin Bars?” The violent, food-colouring mood of the sets seemed as irritatingly show-offy, postmodern and out-of-touch as a polytechnic arts degree project from the same era.

Julia Davis as Fanny was brittle and shrill by turns (what, really? you don’t say!), phoning in a performance based seemingly on whizzing up a coulis of Patricia Routledge and Penelope Keith in a blender. Gatiss, as Jonny, didn’t exactly have a Lear-esque emotional gamut to play with in the first place, but one senses he missed even the open goal of playing a man as interesting as moss. Uncomfortably, one imagines that Cradock – the real Cradock – will linger longer in the memory than Davis, Gatiss or this show.

“Wasn’t it all just terrible?” the subtext went. Well, yes it was, but a better fist could have been made of showing us why than simply drawing a crude cartoon of petit-bourgeois snobbery. The very best TV drama is often snidely patronising – cf Mike Leigh – but crucially, it’s funny and original too. Leigh does not use cruelty for its own sake, especially that bestowed by hindsight, and rarely judges in the way that self-satisfied television like this (subsidiary subtext: “God, look at that inedible, proletarian shit”) cannot help but be. This is feel-good TV for people successful enough not to have to be reminded to feel good. On-screen superiority, and often misplaced, too.

Sorry, but just flicking bogies at the tastes and practices of one’s parents’ generation in this way – oh, baked Alaska, it must have been priceless!- just isn’t actually, ipso facto, very funny. I remember the day my dad fell over in the bath in 1973 and pulled down a quasi-Art Nouveau shower curtain. It was piss-funny at the time, but I wouldn’t even recreate it on YouTube. Davis and Gatiss and, more pertinently, those responsible for this fluff, can. it seems, scribble whatever graffiti they like over the past and have it onscreen for large sums of money in next to no time.

Watching this plate of leftovers – as empty a creation of networking and buddy-buddying hype as Heston Blumenthal’s food – was to be reminded of the splendidly venomous words of Terence Davies in the press last week . His merciless flaying of “third-rate” Ricky Gervais and Peter Kay seemed to ring truer and truer. All you need to get a film made, Davies bitterly descanted, was to be a TV comedian – never mind the quality, feel the reputation. True, Fear of Fanny was several centuries ahead of Sex Lives of the Potato Men – Davies’ ne plus ultra of naff comedian hegemony – but once again, good money chases good money, or at least the perception of same, and the result is strangely unedifying.

In a decade, Fear of Fanny will be the answer to a question in a pub quiz. One hopes that the rather fine and elegiac commentary, The Way We Cooked, will still be fascinating media studies students, and rightly so.

Cradock’s career collapsed after her onscreen butchery of the hopes of a na├»ve young tyro chef on Esther Rantzen’s proto-reality series Big Time (1976), the lifestyle equivalent of a Serengeti lion disembowelling an innocent zebra. Gordon Ramsay without the f-word, but with aspirates and a terylene floral-print. One thinks of how BBC commissioning editors must now approach scriptwriters – “No, no, you fucking idiot. This is for Catherine fucking Tate and Bob fucking Mortimer, don’t you fucking remember, you prat?”

Fanny’s marmish M.O. in the telly kitchen was also shortly to be usurped by the witty and emollient likes of Keith Floyd and Madhur Jaffrey. Let us hope that the cult of dolling up workaday fare with the garish decoration of comedians like so many frills on an overdone turkey is also due the televisual chop.

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