Last night on Five, we watched a man preparing prawn and chorizo parcels, served with a wild mushroom and spinach risotto. Nothing unusual about that you might think, expect that this particular man was cooking his food in a dustbin in the middle of a German field, as part of his military training.
Combat Chefs is a new four-part series about what now seems the rather impressive business of army cooking. Like most Five documentaries, this one follows the conventions of the cable channels much too slavishly. Along with the endless self-hyping, there is, for instance, a complete fear of any light and shade which means that the narrator has to pretend everything were seeing is equally exciting.
Advertsising The Defence Food Service Training School, Aldershot he yelled at the start, in the same rapt tone held later be using to describe combat operations in Afghanistan. Fortunately, beneath its tired exterior, the programme does have some good stories to tell.
The German scenes were set at an Improvised-Cookery competition that turned out to a pretty hard-fought affair, judged by the stern figure of Major Harry Lomas. (The narrators claim, mind you, that it marked the biggest British army action on German soil since 1944 (sic) was possibly another example of the tendency to overstatement.)
Cooking the prawn and chorizo parcels were Sergeant Jay Kingsbury and his team, who followed those starters with a similarly dustbin-prepared main course of lamb stuffed with black pudding in a port and cranberry jus.
And that was just Round One. In Round Two, the teams could use proper field kitchens but the only ingredients allowed were standard army rations, most of which come in tins. Even so, Sgt Kingsbury managed to turn his unpromising supplies into a full-scale Lebanese-themed banquet, with mixed-fruit crememe brule to finish.
The one snag came when his oven door got stuck, leading the narrator to make the thrilled but perhaps unsurprising remark that, its only one thing for it: to break open the oven door. Despite this setback, Sgt Kingsbury ended up lifting the trophy even if his characteristically passionate response to victory wasnt to everybodys taste. He probably didnt need to cry, observed one officer with some embarrassment. That was a bit over the top.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, we saw the results of such training. Staff Sergeant Simon Hewart is the man in charge of cooking at Forward Operating Base Price (or FOB Nice as its known to local British troops). Once a month, though, he makes the dangerous trip to the more remote FOB Keenan, where the soldiers otherwise rely on boil-in-the-bag rations. Last night we watched him travelling in convoy to Keenan where he and two of his underlings spent 72 hours serving up a series of obviously welcome slap-up feasts, complete with groaning dessert trolley. The job done, they then travelled back. For both journeys, the dangers of attack by Taliban fighters were officially designated as severe.
In Travels with Vasari (BBC4), Andrew Graham-Dixon brought his own passionate approach to bear on the most important book about art ever written. Giorgio Vasaris Lives of the Artists was first published in 1568, and according to Graham-Dixon invented not only the idea of the Renaissance but also the whole business of art criticism. Its central theme has endured ever since: that the history of art is the story of a collective human enterprise, with each generation learning from the one before.
By this reckoning, the Renaissance can be divided into three ages progressing from the bronze, through the silver and on to the golden. Near the beginning, Graham-Dixon did have to admit, somewhat sheepishly, Vasaris one big blind spot the belief that the Gothic art and architecture of the Middle Ages were barbaric. Having got that out of the way, however, he was off, deftly combining an analysis of Vasari with a discussion of the artists in the book, and carefully tracing how the progressions took place.
At times, Graham-Dixon is touching hero-worship of Vasari maybe tipped over into special pleading especially when he argued that the books many biographical falsehoods represent brilliant fictional responses which reveal more of the truth than the truth ever could.
Nonetheless, the overall result certainly confirmed his heartfelt assertion that its a genuine privilege to be able to study Vasari and see exactly what he saw at the same time. Last nights first episode of two also ended on the BBC4 equivalent of a cliffhanger. As the closing credits rolled, we still hadnt reached the golden age