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A slow drive back from Castres and it feels like summer used to feel–a season fully committed.

Flaming June, going on July, bursting out all over!

The sunflowers are showing thick and healthy on the ground this year.

Green and medium build at the moment but growing fast. I spotted one in flower but shy–just peeping out in the clump.

Rain and sun in equal measures have made them strong.

They’ll be a picture in a couple of weeks just as the Tour de France moves south–days to go before “the off “.

It’s always great to see the TV shots of the pelaton, a multicolored snake strung out along a stretch of road–half hidden behind a field of yellow tops, enjoying their moment of fame.

Garlic gath’rers pass,

 Leaving the scent in the air;

 It’s that time again.

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Men stripped to the waist (as if that’s going to help)–why not wait until the sun retreats? It makes no sense to labour thus in a sweltering 30 degrees.

The workers’ cars compete for shade under the fully-leafed walnut trees, already ladened with green fruit.

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(I shall be ready in early October and on the prowl–but hunting walnuts rather than hares and rabbits.)

The youngsters, Ben and Midnight, lie full length in the shade beneath the fig in the courtyard–their black coats soaking up the heat–just too much effort to move indoors.

Young Midnight jumped from a first floor window into the driveway this morning–startled by a sudden human presence. He hesitated a nano second, Meredith says, then decided there was no alternative and leapt.

Cats can do such leaps, she says, and land on their feet uninjured–and I have to believe it. Nine lives and all that–but just writing about it gives me vertigo.

But there he is under the fig–no worse for wear, more bothered by heat than heights!

I need him in the kitchen. Just spied a tiny mouse sheltering from the heat. He spotted me at the same moment and disappeared into the fireplace.

Not a safe place for mice here! Stay put, Mr. Mouse–there’ll be a quiet time later when you can  move on safely.

Cats generally don’t fly in the dark–though one shouldn’t second guess a cat called Midnight!

* “back in the days”

Father’s Day

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Dad with my brother Jack

Dad was tall (6′ 3″), handsome and difficult to know.

I never heard him talk about himself–but then I probably never asked him.

He had a raffish mustache, grown just before the Second World War, which prompted mention of David Niven and Errol Flynn.

He laughed easily–which revealed his devastating smile.

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We’d egg him on to tell his favorite joke–about a soldier on his way to Aden in the war who started his journey in the north of England on a troop train heading south.

The compartment was sealed and the journey was non-stop–there was no access to a toilet.

By the time he got to Portsmouth he was desperate.

Going up the ship’s gangplank he shouts to a sailor, “Where the nearest toilet, mate?”.

“Portside!” came the reply.

Then we’d all groan–and repeat the punch line with him:

“COR BLIMEY–DON’T WE STOP AT GIBRALTAR!”

(The soldier thought he’d said Port Said in Egypt.)

He was good at maths and loved music; he played the ukelele and piano.

He’d stand in the living room conducting classical pieces playing on the gramophone with huge commitment and knowledge–his version of the “air guitar”, I suppose.

The gramophone was his pride and joy–and was state-of-the-art then in the fifties; we had no TV.

Anthony Gerald Ellis was born 4th November 1915.

He would have been a 100 this year.

“Tony” was adopted by my grandmother, who’d been widowed in 1912 at age 40.

He grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London with his sister, Mary–also adopted, but not a blood relative.

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They fell into the butter dish!

My grandmother came from a middle-class Birmingham family. Her brother was head of the Civil Service. She married into a family of wealthy Leicester coal merchants.

They lived modestly, but photos from Mary and Tony’s youth show them thriving.

He went to private schools and always gave me the impression of being bright (he completed the Guardian cryptic crossword every day)–but there was a diffidence about him that made me think he’d never fulfilled his dreams.

Perhaps that diffidence had its origins in his adoption–not knowing where he came from, never feeling completely comfortable in his skin.

Perhaps he’d wanted to be a doctor or a musician–but the war got in the way.

He married my mother, Molly, in April 1938.

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I was born in 1942. The the commitment to a growing family meant he had to stick to his day job as an administrator with British Railways.

He was a good and present “dad” who loved to be on the touchline at school football matches and in the audience at first nights.

He gave me an appreciation of music, an understanding of right and wrong and the obligation of doing things to the best of one’s ability.

He was firm, but not stern and never stuffy.

In 1944 he’d spent a year in America training to be a fighter pilot in Arizona.

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He came back with an enduring love of the United States and its people and culture. He received Arizona Highways magazine for years. He enjoyed American country music and Broadway musicals. Roy Acuff and Jimmy Rogers often featured on the gramophone along with South Pacific and My Fair Lady.

He was outward-looking and open-minded–and by example encouraged these qualities in his three sons (two of whom married Americans; my late brother Peter settling in Los Angeles).

He took advantage of concessionary rail tickets to take the family to Europe on holiday and instill in us a love (rather than a fear) of “a world elsewhere”.

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With brothers Peter and Jack (a babe in arms) and me (age 13) in 1955. Dad was 40.

In his mid-sixties, he lost an eye to cancer and wore his eye patch with characteristic élan! Sadly the disease moved to his liver and he died in November 1983 at age 68.

With my brother, Jack

He’s buried in the churchyard at Brill–the Buckinghamshire village where he and my mother spent their final years.

Thinking of you, Dad–who never knew your own father–on this Father’s Day.

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Sardines for lunch. Well, it’s summer–almost.

Tomorrow is the Solstice.

I was in Castres market by 7h30 this morning, as it came alive.

Late arrivals still unloading last night’s pickings–manoeuvring their vehicles between the early punters, bantering with their neighboring marchands, already set-up and selling.

It’s the best time to go on a Saturday–before the throng chokes up the passageways.

Peaches, raspberries and strawberries confirm the season–only one stall now of asparagus.

Green beans are in–but expensive.

Courgettes and shiny black aubergines! Tomatoes look tempting but are bound to disappoint. The sun hasn’t had time to do it’s magic. Still with a swirl of best olive oil, they’ll complement the sardines and help us with the gear change into the new season.

Officialy summer–but who knows these days…?

Two weeks ago it felt like August in Florence–32C/90F.

To filet a sardine (not for the squeamish, perhaps!)

[Video versions below]

You’ll need a chopping board and plenty of kitchen paper.

Have a pair of scissors to hand and a plate to receive the fillets.

The fishmonger scales the sardines. Check that there are no scales left on the fish, then with the fishhead in your left hand and the body in your right, gently pull the head off–drawing out as much of the innards as possible.

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Use the scissors to snip along the belly,

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then with your left thumb coax out the rest of the innards.

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Place the fish, belly down, on the board and press gently up and down the backbone with both thumbs.

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Flatten the fish.

Lift and snip off the small fin, discarding it.

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then snip the backbone at the tail end…

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…and, with the left hand, peel it gently away from the body, taking care not to take too much of the filet with it.

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Voila! You have a butterfly fillet!

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12 firm and fresh sardines–butterflied

The stuffing:

100gms/4 oz wholewheat breadcrumbs

Mix in:

1 tablespoon parsley–chopped

2 garlic cloves–chopped fine

1 tablespoon of capers–chopped

a pinch of dried oregano (optional)

1 tbs olive oil

salt and pepper

set oven at 180C

Cover a shallow oven tray with foil and lightly brush it with oil.

Lay out the butterflied fillets.

Cover them not too thickly with the stuffing–a teaspoon lends a helpful guide.

Bake on the top shelf of the oven for ten minutes–less or more depending on the size of the sardines.

I like to finish them under a hot grill for about 30 seconds.

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And now here’s the video version of how to butterfly a sardine:

And Part Two illustrates how to stuff the butterflied sardines:

from Minnesotta, North Carolina (via Rome), Rhode Island, California, Virginia, North Yorkshire, Tipperary (Ireland), New Zealand, Brixton (S London)–for the two cooking workshops.

Not quite back-to-back! We’ll be trying that out in September and October. This time we took a few days to fly to Florence to celebrate Brother Jack’s 60th birthday (he’s performing in a show there at Teatro del Sale).

Here’s a short photo diary of the good times we had.

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late May Bravehearts with host Dominique on the right.

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Mid- June Braveheatrs–looking enthused

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Eager aprons waiting to be claimed

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Minnesotans–togged up and ready to break eggs

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Tossing the salad the Italian way–36 times!

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What do we think? A touch more vinegar?

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Friday morning coffee break and “food” chat

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Friday morning starter–the unexpected curried apple soup

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Friday supper (work-free delight)–Chez Valérie

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Simone–the essential ingredient, without whom…

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“Showtime” Sunday lunch–with Cecile and Polly–first time around

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“Showtime” Sunday lunch–second go-around (where’s the hat?!)

300px-The_Good_Soldier_First_Edition,_Ford_Madox_Ford   It is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Ford Madox Ford’s pre-First World War novel, The Good Soldier, a seminal book of the 20th centuryIt opens with this sentence: “This is the saddest story I ever heard,”–spoken by the narrator, John Dowell—my part, in the Granada TV adaptation filmed in 1980. It was poignant for me to retrace my steps, 30 years later, from the fountain in Bad Nauheim, where I had once been greeted by Roger Hammond as the Grand Duke: “Good morning, Mr. Dowell!”.

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Revisiting Bad Nauheim, 30 years after the filming.

I am the sole surviving actor of Ford Madox Ford’s doomed quartet —who made the film of The Good Soldier 35 years ago. Jeremy Brett, Vickery Turner (r) and Susan Fleetwood (l)–all died too young. Susan was only 51! All had so much more to give. Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 10.09.02 AM Meredith and I were in Germany to pursue another project, but passing so close to Bad Nauheim, on our way to Frankfurt, we couldn’t resist the short detour from the motor-way.

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Bad Nauheim has an association with Elvis Presley, who lived there while stationed nearby during his military service with the U.S. Army.

Meredith admired the film and knew Susan. I had spent three intense weeks there in the autumn of 1980, much of the time as elegant set-dressing (so it seemed to us!), for this extraordinary Edwardian spa town. We walked and walked, in line of four, dressed in pre-war finery without–it seemed–a care in the world. Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 10.20.43 AM     Bad Nauheim is still a spa town, but the beautiful Sprudelhof bath buildings (built between 1905 and 1911 in what the Germans call the Jugendstil style) are open only for special guided tours–and sadly none were available over the days we were there.

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Despite its proximity to Frankfurt and Hitler’s command complex, Bad Nauheim was spared from Allied bombing allegedly because President Roosevelt had fond memories of his visit there.

However we managed to slip into one of the bath houses, opened by maintenance workers for cleaning, and it looked exactly as it had 30 years ago–indeed probably as it had 100 years ago. Elegant bath cubicles line the corridor (where Florence took her cure). Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 3.56.39 PM

Pretty interior courtyards and reception rooms are decorated with shells, mosaics, stained glass and wrought iron–every fitting finely-crafted in the art nouveau style.

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Until director Kevin Billington sent me the script, I was unfamiliar with The Good Soldier.  I later regretted that my first contact with the story was via the screenplay, rather than the novel itself—thereby missing out on the mystery angle of the story—the gradual way Ford peels his onion, slowly revealing what lay beneath the facade of the four elegant walkers, “all good people”.

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Ford Madox Ford changed his name after WW I, reportedly because he thought Hueffer sounded too German.

The adaptation–loyal to the novel–was written by the English screenwriter and playwright, Julian Mitchell. Filming took three months, on location in England and Germany (extended by a labour dispute at Granada TV involving the shooting of Jewel In The Crown–which delayed our schedule too). I had recently played another diffident American, Robert Acton, in Merchant Ivory’s production of the Henry James novel, The Europeans. Perhaps Kevin saw it. Though there are comic possibilities in playing innocence–three months is a long time to spend with John Dowell— someone so blindly and determinedly, out of touch with the truth.

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Almost by definition we could not film the book in sequence and Kevin helped us all hang on to the arc of each of our character’s complicated and intersecting narratives. He had a firm grip on the ‘unpeeling onion’ and we were grateful to him for that. Yet while admiring his exigence and his quest for perfection, we found the endless “clothes-horse” aspect of the filming difficult.

The scene where the two couples meet for the first time, in the dining room of the hotel, for instance, was filmed FIFTY-SEVEN times from every conceivable angle! The local German extras, initially excited to be in a film, decided by lunchtime that they never wanted to be in another one–not even for ready money!

The film does look sensational though–brilliantly shot by Tony Pierce Roberts. The pace and style evoke so well the pre-war era–soon to be killed off and changed for ever by the coming carnage, launched on August the 4th– Florence’s birthday, wedding day and the day on which she commits suicide. No coincidence!

Filming back in England hopped from one “Great House” to another. Some retained the faded charm of the period—of a class feeling the pinch, if not exactly on its uppers. In one, there was a strong reminder of the devastation the First World War wreaked in social and human terms. The large brick-walled kitchen garden was still visible, as were the magnificent greenhouses—but dilapidated and neglected since the twenties–the men who had made them flourish, all slaughtered in France.

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Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939)

Writing in 1915—one hundred years ago—Ford Madox Ford foresaw that this was the end of an era. Edward Ashburham’s world–complacent and arrogant—was doomed. Strange that John Dowell, the unconvincing Quaker and “casual Yankee”, was so much in awe of it—and indeed joined it.

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Jeremy Brett, later famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, played Edward Ashburnham, the “Good Soldier”.

The strain of the long shoot, began to take its toll towards the end. It was the day of Nancy’s (Elizabeth Garvie) departure and we were filming the buggy ride to the station. “Pony’s going well!”

A little too well I thought–given that Edward/Jeremy was driving it and not the horsemaster!

The director wanted a shot of us driving over the hump-backed railway bridge, on our way to the forecourt. It would certainly have had a poignancy to it, but I could only picture the frisky pony taking off down the steep descent, and Jeremy not being able to control it.

Memories came to mind of a near-fatal accident, while filming the BBC series Poldark in Cornwall. The coach I was in, turned over on a rock on Bodmin Moor and the cameraman, who was tied to the side of it, was lucky to escape with a broken leg. I was in shock and couldn’t speak for three hours afterwards without bursting into tears.

Kevin insisted that it was perfectly safe. I found myself getting out of the buggy and demanding loudly whether he’d allow his young children do the shot. “Yes– of course,” he replied. I stomped down to the platform and into the waiting room; where I stripped off my costume, and that was the end of the buggy ride.

Perhaps after months of being unassuming John Dowell, something of Robin Ellis had to be let loose again! You can watch the entire film of The Good Soldier on YouTube now!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=10&v=zA0PjehNE9Q 

 

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…would have been 80 last Sunday.

His plays and films for television were transformative and innovative in the methods of their telling.

In Pennies from Heaven actors mime the words to popular songs.

In The Singing Detective the action spins into multiple layers from the mind of the central character lying in a bed suffering from psoriatic arthritis–a condition that plagued Dennis Potter himself.

In 1978 I was cast as John in Blue Remembered Hills, a film about group of children in the West Country during the Second World War, whose fathers are off at war and who terrorise first a squirrel—then one of their own, whom they christen Donald Duck.

The trick here was that we ADULT actors were to play the seven-year-olds.

Potter’s view of the children’s interaction was dark and the ending is cataclysmic.

Our gang consisted of Colin Welland, John Bird, Michael Elphick, Helen Mirren and Janine Duvitski (whose daughter, Ruby Bentall, touched hearts recently as Verity in Poldark).

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Poor persecuted Donald Duck was played  by Colin Jeavons.

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Before filming started, we spent time observing children–mostly outside school playgrounds–trying to remember ourselves as seven-year-olds.

I learned how quickly children can change mood–be distracted–shift focus.

It was valuable.

Nobody questioned what we were doing, peering through the mesh fence of a school playground—but they might have felt it odd to see a group of grown-ups showing such an unusual interest in children at play.

We couldn’t do it now without going through hoops.

After a week’s research and rehearsal, we assembled for the read through with Dennis Potter in attendance.

We were nervous about this first essay at being seven-year-olds–especially doing it in front of THE AUTHOR.

In rehearsal, we thought our research was paying off—and at least vocally we were finding our “inner” seven-year-olds.

The physical stuff we HOPED would follow from finding the voices.

As the reading ended, seven eager, animated faces turned towards Potter’s end of the table.

“Well, you’ve got it all to do!” was his only comment.

He was right–though a little on the nose–brutal even!

As developing seven-year-olds we got over it quickly and moved down to Mere in Somerset, standing in the Forest of Dean–where Potter grew up and still lived.

On location we looked a strange crew in our boy’s shorts and girl’s dresses.

Michael Elphick and I would saunter down to the local pub after the unit lunch to have a half pint of Guinness, perhaps subconsciously stocking up with a bit of Dutch courage for the no-holds-barred fight we were scripted to have.

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Helen and Janine played at being mums wheeling an old pram around taunting the boys.

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Colin Jevons skulked in the barn–lonely and miserable, missing his dad.
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In a retrospective review for The Guardian in 2008, critic Peter Bradshaw enthused about the film and singled out Colin Jeavons performance.

Ten years after it was first shown, Meredith and I were getting married and our bridesmaid was to be seven-year-old  Cait–Meredith’s niece.

Poor Cait wasn’t keen to wear the bridesmaid’s get-up and she had no playmates to keep her entertained.

So to distract her we put on the video of Blue Remembered Hills–all those seven-year-olds, just her age, albeit no Disney film!

It worked–in fact on the morning of the wedding we came downstairs at seven to start making breakfast for visiting family from the States and there was Cait sitting quietly on the floor in front of the television rewatching the film.,

We clearly convinced Cait–but did we ever convince Mr Potter?

 

The scuttlebutt on guinea fowl is that it tends to end up dry.

This wonderfully simple and quick way defies that received wisdom, keeping this tasty alternative to chicken moist.

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The guinea fowl here are usually smaller than chicken and so take less cooking time.

for 4

1 guinea fowl–about 1k/2lbs

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2 tbs olive oil

half a lemon

sprigs of thyme

a garlic clove

salt and pepper

Set the oven to 400F/200C

Place the bird in a oven pan

Pour the olive oil over the bird and spread it well in by hand or brush.

Put the lemon, thyme and garlic into the cavity.

Season generously with salt and pepper.

Put the pan in the middle of the oven.

After fifteen minutes take the pan out and carefully tip it to collect the juices.

Spoon these all over the bird.

Return it to the oven.

After a further 15 minutes repeat the process.

This is the secret of succulent guinea fowl–regular basting.

Fifteen minutes later take the pan out–it should be nicely browned–and test for doneness by poking the  tip of a knife into the place where the leg joins the body. If the juices run clear, it is done.

If not–baste it again as before and roast for a little longer.

Remove the bird to a warm plate and let it rest covered with foil for fifteen minutes.

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To make a little gravy, tip the pan and spoon off most of the fat, add a good splash of white wine or stock and carefully up-end the bird over the pan, tipping out any juices that have collected inside the cavity.

Heat the juices gradually, stirring and scraping the while.

Carve and serve.

We had it the other night with Fennel Gratin from Healthy Eating for Life.

 

 

 

 

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