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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 22 January 2009

You wait eighteen years for a TV series on beer and then two come along at once

I posted recently about the Neil Morrissey/Richard Fox series on Channel 4, with a mixture of criticism, praise and barefaced envy.  Now it's Oz Clarke and James May's turn.  Oz and James aren't brewing their own beer, but are travelling Britain in search of the 'drink that best speaks for the country'.  Which is beer of course, but they need to keep the concept broad enough to include whisky, cider and the occasional vineyard.

So putting even greater jealousy over this one to one side (because I was talking to someone about doing something very similar the day before it was announced this series was being made) what's the series like? 

As with Morrissey Fox, I've spoken to many in the brewing industry who see it as childish, laddish, flippant, and not that educational about beer.  After the first episode this was the camp I was in.  It's on the BBC, so instead of Morrissey/Fox's fucking cunts we have lots of flipping fatheads instead.  When they visited Thornbridge, they used more footage of the boys pretending to get lost on the estate and having to turn the caravan around than they did from the seven hours they spent filming with the brewers, talking about hops and sampling their amazing beers.  The bit where they got pissed on a succession of Yorkshire train stations served no televisual purpose whatsoever.  And after the 100th time, Oz's shit pretend Yorkshire accent really started to shred my nerves.

I watched the second and third programmes because I felt I had to.  And as the series settled in, I found myself utterly disarmed.  This is the third series on drink the pair have done together, so they must be doing something right.  And the thing is... their on-screen chemistry really works.  It's very, very funny.  James May is obviously a far more intelligent and thoughtful man than the persona he portrays onscreen, and his comic timing is brilliant.  I hope for his friends and family's sake that Oz on-screen is also an exaggeration of Oz in person, but put the two together and they play off each other wonderfully.  

So far, it's true, I've learned absolutely nothing I didn't already know about beer.  I didn't expect to.  You come away with a vague knowledge of brewing ingredients and processes, and that's it.  This is disappointing to those already knowledgeable, because they believe that people just need to be educated about beer and then they'll love it.  This series is an opportunity to do so, but it's taken a very lackadaisical approach to the task, preferring instead to focus on laddish larks around breweries and in a caravan.  I've even picked up several errors and inaccuracies in the brief descriptions of beer styles and processes.

But I have enough failed and rejected TV pitches under my belt to know that the days of informative lectures on screen are dead.  First and foremost TV has to be entertaining, because if it's not people will switch over.  As I've often said on here, you might not like it, but that's how it is.  And Oz and James Drink to Britain is very entertaining.  And more than that, it's entertaining in a beery way.  You come away really fancying a pint.  

I've always argued that beer's cultural role is far more interesting to the average punter than its taste profile, especially if you're in a situation where you're talking about beer rather than drinking it.  In today's neo-puritanical age, here are two blokes making a series about how much fun it is to drink during the daytime.  They get to a stage where they're clearly feeling the effects, but not behaving like twats.  They may not tell you much about how to seriously taste beer, but the entire series is suffused with the warm glow, the buzz, the feeling of what it's like to have had a few pints and be content that, in your little corner of it at least, everything is right with the world.  In that sense, it's the best publicity for beer I can possibly imagine.    

I went along to the launch of the tie-in book this morning down at the Market Porter in Borough Market.  The place was rammed and it was difficult to get near the two stars.  When I did, they answered my questions about beer in a very flip and entertaining manner, clearly more interested in taking the piss out of each other than talking about which amazing micros stood out in their minds months after filming has finished.  When I first started writing about beer, this is how I said we should be selling it to those who are not currently convinced.  I'm grateful to them for reminding me of the true value of beer.


       

11 comments:

Fatman said...

I only saw episode 3, and on the very annoying i-player. But I liked it enough to download and watch again without all the interruptions.

It was certainly a tonic to see beer being enjoyed, in real life, on television.

Jeff Pickthall said...

...and no mention (yet?) of the C-word. That ain't gonna go down well in St Albans.

BLTP said...

I liked it, as I 've said before any critisism is really a justification to make more and varied shows about beer a couple of series can't do it all.

They did make some beer in the second show, did they ever get to drink it?
I missed the last one was in the pub.

I'm assuming the finished their tour with Britian,s greatest beer, a nice glass of Pride!

Tom Fryer said...

Minor quibbles aside, I think they've pitched it about right. OK, I'm not expecting to glean vast amounts of beer knowledge from it, but that's not the point - it's an entertaining programme about beer. Let's face it, a televised lecture on the history and practice of brewing interspersed with colourful tasting notes might be very worthy, but nobody except us hardcore beer geeks would watch it so it'd vanish without a trace. Or maybe they're saving that angle for series two ;-)

Sam Tana said...

Why is James May (can we call him Captain Slur?) continually in a foul mood? Why do both of them continually dish out "facts" that aren't actually factual? Why does the BBC think that this stuff is amusing? Why do you think it's "very, very funny", when it clearly isn't?

Sid Boggle said...

Sam, it's not Open University. There's a pleasing dynamic between these two, and if the casual viewer won't learn too much, they will at least probably have a laugh at the expense of either of the participants. The BBC probably neither knows nor cares about the entertainment value of this until viewijg figures come back, but they'll know that Oz 'n' James got an audience for wine. I'm happy they're Ozzie and Harriet (who? Ed) in the pursuit of beer...

Pete said...

Sam, I said it was very very funny because when I watch it, it makes me laugh.

That's all.

Good Burp said...

I just found your blog, and I love it. I envy the UK beer scene. You ar a lucky man. Although a little difficult to get here, I am a huge fan of English Ales.

I sure hope to find James May's new show here in the states. I get Top Gear on the BBC. It is quite possibly my favorite show.

You have a new follower.

neil the freelancer said...

Top Gear suffers from the exact same problems these days. It seems to be a trend designed to get more people watching 'factual' shows. Once it becomes annoying to enough people, hopefully programme makers will reset the balance between entertainment and useful information.

Paul Gibson said...

I'm afraid the pair of them just came across as arse-holes in my opinion, but that's possibly as they were taking a bit of a swipe at my one true love (sorry dear - eh-hem, one of my two true-loves) - real ale and the great british pub (damn that's probably three true-loves ...)

Any road up, I appreciate all that's said about being entertaining as well as informative, albeit in a laddish way, but I do feel they've missed a huge golden - glowing - once every Sheffield flood - never to be repeated - get it now missus - opportunity, to help a) the micro-brewers and b) struggling real ale pubs in general.

Their sloppy presentation and lack of historic and factual detail, coupled with an over-emphasis on their own opinions has left most of the viewers I have spoken to bemused, frustrated and a little let-down.

On a side note - a certain pub they visited up north is a favourite haunt of mine, and the good folk there report that James May had to be literally carried back to the waiting transport at the end of the filming, as he was so scattered from drinking free ale all day. Not surprisingly neither he or his companion were actually staying in the dubious and somewhat pointless caravan either, but in the plushest hotel in a nearby town.

I think with a little more respect for the subject, and a little less irreverance - however well-meant, the series could have been so, so much better.

6 out of 10 boys - try harder next term.

Paul Gibson said...

I'm afraid the pair of them just came across as arse-holes in my opinion, but that's possibly as they were taking a bit of a swipe at my one true love (sorry dear - eh-hem, one of my two true-loves) - real ale and the great british pub (damn that's probably three true-loves ...)

Any road up, I appreciate all that's said about being entertaining as well as informative, albeit in a laddish way, but I do feel they've missed a huge golden - glowing - once every Sheffield flood - never to be repeated - get it now missus - opportunity, to help a) the micro-brewers and b) struggling real ale pubs in general.

Their sloppy presentation and lack of historic and factual detail, coupled with an over-emphasis on their own opinions has left most of the viewers I have spoken to bemused, frustrated and a little let-down.

On a side note - a certain pub they visited up north is a favourite haunt of mine, and the good folk there report that James May had to be literally carried back to the waiting transport at the end of the filming, as he was so scattered from drinking free ale all day. Not surprisingly neither he or his companion were actually staying in the dubious and somewhat pointless caravan either, but in the plushest hotel in a nearby town.

I think with a little more respect for the subject, and a little less irreverance - however well-meant, the series could have been so, so much better.

6 out of 10 boys - try harder next term.