So Cask Ale Week launched yesterday at the Betjeman Arms in St Pancras. The first thing that struck me about the event was how stunningly beautiful Melanie Sykes is in the flesh. The second thing that struck me is that the only journalists in attendance were me and a bloke from The Publican.
Tag: oz and james
So in the face of total and utter indifference from the British press and, it seems, the beer community, let’s have a caption competition instead. The winner receives a free copy of my new book Hops and Glory, on publication date – now a mere eight weeks away.
(Oh by the way, the less attractive person in this picture is TV’s Oz Clarke).
Away you go!
I know not everyone likes the second TV series to hit our screens in 12 months, but I found that on balance it was quite entertaining. Two episodes ago, when the wheels fell off their caravan, their larks were very funny.
Tonight, I’m afraid the wheels fell off the whole series.
They went to Burton on Trent. I was always going to find this one hardest to watch because this is the one the producers were considering having me on, and I’ve had my head stuck in Burton’s story pretty constantly for the last two years. I’m so relieved I wasn’t involved now. They talked to Steve Wellington, head brewer at the wonderful White Shield Brewery. As it was a special occasion, Steve took them down into the old beer cellars and at James May’s request, opened one of the 40 remaining bottles of Ratcliff Ale, the oldest surviving drinkable beer in the world, brewed in 1869. I’ve been lucky enough to share a bottle of this, the story if which makes it into the new book, and it was one of the greatest taste experiences of my life.
James May thought it was shit. Not only did he think it was shit, he made it very clear how shit he thought it was, saying it made him want to throw up. You can’t expect everyone to like it, but to have shown some graciousness or at least an understanding of how privileged he was to taste it might have been nice. His attitude was simply insulting – there’s blokeish unpretentiousness, and there’s being fucking rude to someone you’ve just met who’s given you something extremely valuable for free.
Apparently they spent five days in Burton. But on the show, after insulting Steve… they left Burton on Trent! Nothing on White Shield itself, nothing on Burton’s history apart from a brief bit of Oz’s inane ramblings which are now so self-caricatured in search of laughs that they just fade him out. Nothing on IPA. Nothing on the Burton Unions at Marston’s, which are, at least, telegenic I would have thought, and curious enough to engage non-beerophiles while techy enough to delight geeks.
If this was a programme in search of the best wines in France, it would be like going to Bordeaux, opening a bottle of vintage Margaux, telling the chateau owner it tasted like gnats piss, then sodding off back to Calais without exploring anything else in this, the most famous wine-growing region in the world. Not just insulting to the makers, but doing no service whatsoever to the viewers.
After this they tasted Samuel Adams Utopias. Oz Clarke, supposed beer expert, had never heard of it before, let alone tasted it. This time they both said it was shit, undrinkable, ridiculed its ABV, and called it a joke, novelty beer. I once had a bottle of it here with friends. I thought it was fantastic, but then I’m a beer snob. Two of my friends had never liked beer before, and they found it so amazing they booked their next holiday to Belgium in a camper van so they could explore and stock up on interesting, flavourful ales. America’s top sommeliers have judged this beer blind against wine, brandy and sherry and found it superior. But Oz knows better than anyone – he must do, he’s on the telly.
This was clearly the ‘extreme beers’ programme, because next we had a PR exercise where they tasted the most expensive beer in the world – the new one from Carlsberg, even admitting it had nothing to do with ‘British beer’.
Then they went to a pub and got pissed – it looked like it was fun for them. But have you ever been in the situation where you’ve had to listen to a drunken conversation while sober? Yawn…
Every beer ‘fact’ on this episode was incomplete or just plain wrong.
And flame me for this if my bitterness is getting too tiresome, but the beery bit that made the most sense – James’ precis of Oz’s (inaccurate) ramblings about how lager came to Britain -sounded an awful lot like he was reading it from Man Walks into a Pub.
I stand by my positive judgement of the early programmes in the series, but this one was just risible.
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.