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.