Mulberry was a TV comedy series in 1993 by Esmonde and Larbey that seems to have been somewhat overlooked.
I remembered enjoying its gentle story line, but wasn’t sure if I’d still like it now. So I did what I always do and had a look at Amazon, where I found a two-disc set for well under a tenner. I decided to risk it and get the whole thing, and how glad I am that I did.
I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for Esmonde and Larbey, but have only ever admitted to liking The Good Life, an acknowledged classic. Mulberry, however, is way up there with it.
It’s an unhurried story about a mysterious young man, Mulberry (Karl Howman), who arrives out of the blue to apply for a job that hasn’t even been advertised yet. The elderly, cantankerous Miss Farnaby (Geraldine McEwan), is a sour recluse who takes him on reluctantly, but gradually comes to rely on him, much to the disgruntlement of her two staff, Bert and Alice (Tony Selby and Lil Roughley).
The mystery keeps you wondering. Who is Mulberry and what are his intentions towards Miss Farnaby, who he is teaching about life while taking her out of herself? Who is the sinister stranger who seems to be urging the reluctant Mulberry to kill her? All is revealed by the end of Part 1, much to our relief.
Karl Howman as Mulberry is perfect casting. He has immense personal charm and you hope and hope that he’s not going to turn out to be a baddie after all. His scenes with Geraldine McEwan are masterpieces of dialogue and you know she’s going to warm to him eventually. How could she not?
I wondered why Geraldine McEwan (who I remember in shorts and crew cut in The Member of the Wedding in the 60s) hadn’t been offered a damehood, and found that actually she had, but declined it. If anyone knows why, I should like to hear. Her Miss Farnaby has an edge of Mrs Proudie and the same qualities that we used to admire in Margot Leadbetter – she’s steely and determined and can dig in her heels like a jack donkey - but she also has Miss Marple’s twinkle and charm. I think that’s the keynote here. The leads have charm. Not false sweet charm, but a kind of innocence. Even the sinister stranger (the divine John Bennett, another perfect casting) has it, in his dour way.
The ancillary characters, alas, do not. Bert and Alice are perhaps the weakest. Their bickering sometimes borders on the silly, and their scenes only take off when another character is present. I think the problem with them is that they are just there to be sounding boards, something for the leads to bounce off. They do add to the enclosed feel of the scenes, but they don’t quite work. I’d have preferred more interaction with Miss Farnaby’s sisters, whose scenes do work. Bert and Alice are outsiders.
Esmonde and Larbey were very fond of Mulberry and had planned a third series, in which Miss Farnaby understands what is going on. I think this would have been an excellent idea, but unfortunately the Beeb didn’t see it that way and it never happened. Quite often a series passes its natural finish (see Last of the Summer Wine, in which we start getting Compo riding down a hill in a bath for no very good reason), but I think we could have taken a bit more. Larbey appears in an interview - see below - to be quite distressed that we never got the chance. These characters get under your skin and make you want to stay with them for just a little bit longer while the story line winds to its natural conclusion. We are left with a feeling of something incomplete.
Bob Larbey discusses end of Mulberry
I was introduced to ratatouille in the seventies and have to say was not impressed by the rather sloppy vegetable stew that appeared on my plate, and wasn’t impelled to try it again until the other day, when I watched the amazingly good film, ‘Ratatouille’.
The best films about food make you want to go and eat some of it (‘Eat, Drink, Man,Woman’, for instance, should never be watched on an empty stomach), and it’s rather surprising that something cooked by a rat should actually be appetising. He does wash his paws, however, and steam-cleans his family when he conscripts them to help in a crisis.
The ratatouille here - a sophisticated layered version named confit byaldi - was far removed from the one I had all those years ago. The vegetables were well-shaped and beautifully arranged and it really looked as if it might be worth eating, so I did what I always do in these circumstances and went straight to Google. There it was, the very same, beautifully illustrated with full instructions, at Smitten Kitchen: Ratatouille's ratatouille. The reviewer was also surprised to be following a rat’s recipe.
I googled several other versions and found that, although the basic vegetables - courgette, aubergine, pepper, tomatoes and onion – remain the same, what you do with them very much depends on you. You can slice them, chop them. leave them in hunks, add thyme or basil – anything goes, more or less. Possibly the French take a different view, and I’d like to try an ‘authentic’ version, but they’re there and we’re here.
|Ratatouille - confit byaldi style - before cooking. Wikimedia Commons.|
I forgot the fresh basil, and found I’d run out of olive oil, but a what-the-hell attitude often works quite well. Reading other people’s responses shows there are a lot of folk out there who will experiment and make a recipe their own, either, like me, by not having some of the ingredients or by deliberately putting in something they like. Red wine sounds good. Harissa? Well, why not? The addition of crème fraiche is hardly authentic, but it is rather nice.
|Confit byaldi - public domain image from Wikimedia Commons|
When it’s done, put a few cubes of feta or some dollops of crème fraiche on top (Ray got himself some cranberry Wensleydale!) and either serve it with your own rice or do what we do and pop a packet of Tilda coconut and chili, or lime and coriander, rice in the microwave for a couple of minutes. You haven’t tried Tilda? It’s probably a bit pricey for what it is, but it’s good stuff, comes out right and saves a lot of time. Am I allowed to advertise? All right, then, a packet of flavoured microwaveable rice.
We were expecting something a bit bland, but it was quite a revelation and we shall certainly be having it again. I think probably the flavoured rice gives it a little extra something, so I’d recommend that, along with trying the missing fresh basil. Thyme seems to be favourite, but we find it a bit too strong, especially in a dish of restrained flavours, which is why I used the mixed herbs.
Ratatouille isn’t an in-your-face recipe, but it does have the all-important ingredient – umami. We discovered umami many years ago from, I think, an article in the Science section of the Guardian, and it’s only now beginning to creep into the national conscousness. Umami really just means ‘flavour’ and it’s often lacking in vegetarian food. It shouldn’t be, because it’s chiefly supplied by tomato and cheese with a little salt, which explains the great popularity of pizza. I have suffered quite a lot of bland vegetarian food over the years because it didn’t have umami.
All in all, much nicer and quicker to make than I’d anticipated, very healthy, and, without the cheese, suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
If you want to be fussy, it’s pronounced ‘rat-a-twee-uh’, not ‘rat-a-tooey’.
Oh, and do watch the film next time it’s on telly.
Tried another version using the fresh basil and feta that we didn’t have the frits time, and experimenting with a dollop of Patak’s Universal Brinjal Pickle in with the tomatoes. Brinjal pickle is wonderful stuff and we put it in just about everything. It’s not too strong, but it delivers terrific umami. Having been to Aldi, we tried their frozen Mediterranean veg, which worked very well, and their lemon and coriander couscous, which was even better than the rice. I put some sliced aubergine and pepper on top to make it look more authentic and drizzled olive oil over it. The result - pictured above - was indescribably wondrous.
See also Ratatouille at Vie Hebdomadaires.