Sound and screen reviews
‘The Hardest Harvest’ sends a Cork farmer to witness the drought-inflicted trials of the Maasai in Kenya; Rory O’Connell makes us believe we can cook as well as he can; and ‘Legion’ may well be the most visually inventive show on the box
There are many stark differences to observe in The Hardest Harvest (RTÉ1, Wednesday, 9.35pm), a programme that sends an Irish farmer, forester and fisher to tough it out in sub-Saharan Africa across successive episodes. Those who work in agriculture in Ireland and southern Kenya have radically different challenges, for instance. How many Irish dairy farmers worry about drought or hyenas?
More startling is the difference in livestock: marbled and serene in Paula Hynes’s Cork dairy farm; skeletal and infirm after a year of drought among the Maasai tribe she joins for a fortnight. The more sobering comparison, though, is to recognise that her well-fed Irish cattle enjoy a higher quality of life than this Maasai boma, a village of nomadic warriors. The wellbeing of their cattle sustains the boma – and these cattle are far from well.
What impels Hynes to make the journey is not something the programme makes entirely clear. To present it as a personal challenge, for instance, risks trivialising rural African hardship as an extreme kind of tourism. A better purpose, with a sadly patronising ring, would be to “raise awareness” for the consequence of Kenya’s drought, in the way that the visitors of Comic Relief show the privations of Africa through European eyes.
Whatever motivates Hynes, she is certainly not averse to a challenge: she runs a dairy farm and has three children.
That makes her a natural colleague for the women of the Maasai, because they appear to do everything. Among them, Hynes will milk, build, haul 20kg of water from a borehole, watch the slaughter of a goat, attend a hunt, and later bring two cows to a distant market to facilitate their sale. It is not a holiday.
A calm voiceover explains the etiquette of living with the Maasai, noting, “Paula is expected to drink the blood warm,” without recalling the gross-out dares and exoticism of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here. A more awesome association is that drinking cow blood was a survival tactic during the Irish famine.
Hynes makes for a good travel companion – dauntless, good-humoured and so reluctant to show emotion that, when she does, it hits you with full force. “It was quick and painless, at least,” she says of the goat’s slaughter, momentarily overcome. “My cows leave in a lorry.”
Although Hynes’s final task of selling a cow and her calf at a distant market is presented as a kind of game – “This is going to be the toughest, toughest thing I ever did” – the programme intimates that it is really a matter of life and death.
That Hynes sells only one of them, at a price below what we understood to be rock bottom, is held as a grand achievement, and before leaving she is christened Nasula by the village chief, meaning “winner”.
It’s a touching scene, like the mutually teary goodbyes among women, yet nothing budges the memory of a conversation with her liaison, William, who calmly contemplated the village’s annihilation. “I don’t think life will be okay,” he says, anticipating the complete loss of their cattle, perhaps within a month. “I cannot predict how we will survive.”
“That’s horrendous,” Hynes says, weeping. Not every demise can be quick and painless.
His eyebrows rising gently over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses, Rory O’Connell addresses the viewer across his kitchen table with a soft apology. “These graters have gone slightly out of fashion,” he says in his appetisingly posh voice, “but they really have an important place in the kitchen.”
In truth, he could be talking about himself: a polite, well-seasoned male chef in an age of cooking shows that favour the brash and boyish.
O’Connell – cofounder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School with his sister Darina Allen – does not go in for showmanship, product-placement or experimental genre-hopping formats on How to Cook Well (RTÉ1, Tuesday, 7pm), now in its fourth series.
Instead, he walks you through honest recipes with a sincere, donnish enthusiasm that makes you believe, against all evidence to the contrary, you could actually cook as well as he does. Hell, two of this week’s dishes don’t even require cooking – you got this.
The first is a chilled cucumber and grape soup, whose pale green concoction is enlivened with elderflower cordial and bursts of colour: the red pop of sliced radish and pomegranate seeds, the rich amber of marigold blossoms and the delicate green of broccoli flowers.
Director David Hare lets the camera glide serenely around the table corner, but he’s acutely attentive to the sounds of cooking – the harsh brush of the old-fashioned grater, the sharp sizzle of the oil later used to fry spiced chicken, or the vigorous corporeal punishment of a wooden spoon on the backside of a pomegranate – all worthy of the tingly appreciation of an ASMR sub culture.
On the other hand, the show’s gentle nostalgia couldn’t be more Chekhovian. In a Big House with a sprawling garden, bathed in dreamy natural light, O’Connell will wistfully refer to the elderflower orchards or pleasantly admonish modern fripperies.
“Few things seem as frivolous as popsicles,” he smiles. “You might prefer to use their old-fashioned name: ice lolly.” Honestly, he’s so charmingly quaint that when he announced his intention to slice the radish with a mandoline, I half expected him to reappear with a lute.
O’Connell is fixed to the future, though, if only as far ahead as your dinnertime.
‘‘ Rory O’Connell is a polite, well-seasoned male chef in an age of cooking shows that favour the brash and boyish. He’s so charmingly quaint that when he announced his intention to slice the radish with a mandoline, I half expected him to reappear with a lute
Everything he offers is reassuringly achievable and gloriously summery, from the flavoursome fried chicken and salsa to his strawberry frivolities – even if he does say so himself.
“It’s another of what I like to call my ‘good things’,” he says, as a tray of curled almond tuiles emerges from the oven. He adds a sprinkling of diffidence. “It’s an expression I know I use too often, but it’s a good thing.”
Fine by us. Go on, Rory, you good thing.
The simplest way of describing Legion (Fox HD, Tuesday, 9pm), a show that resists simple description, is as a kaleidoscopic mind game. It is based on a character from the X-Men comics, the mentally troubled son of leading telepath Professor Xavier, and was developed by the mischievous Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley into a Marvel property mercifully unlike any other. No masks. Little fighting. Way more psychedelic hallucinations.
The protagonist, David Haller (Dan Stevens), began the first series confined to a psychiatric facility in a fug of medication. This, he discovered, was an awful ruse, using schizophrenia to disguise his awesome mutant powers. Whisked away to another facility, a kind of 1960s utopia called Summerland, David scoured his memories for what was real and what wasn’t. Then things really went haywire. Gorgeously designed, with counter-culture fashions and a psychedelic colour palette, the metaphor was even more gripping than the effects. You read his awesome mutant powers as a vivid camouflage for addressing schizophrenia.
Given an even freer rein and what looks like
a much bigger budget for the second series, Hawley has used it to ensure there’s nothing on television more visually dependent, inventive or distinctive than Legion. The screen is likely to dissolve into animation, to shrink or expand its frame, slam into a dance sequence, or retreat to a goofy cafeteria where food floats by on a river of miniature slow boats. Inspirations abound, from David Lynch to Stanley Kubrick, manga to musical theatre, nudging at what is real and imagined. (The wordier Westworld is similarly obsessed, but nowhere near as spry.)
“You’re inside the maze now. Welcome to madness,” announced a voiceover that could only belong to Jon Hamm as the series began, later explaining the birth of distorted ideas and psychosis. That is where the second series strands most of its characters, and a growing stretch of the human race, all trapped in the mazes of their own minds. It’s up to David, a frantic detective in mental labyrinths, to try and free them.
But the woozy pleasure of the series is to make the audience consider the borders of its own reality, with all its gaslighting weirdness and monochrome implausibilities.
“Beware of ideas that are not your own,” goes a polite recorded message through the corridors of Legion’s Division 3. In these deluded days, that seems like pretty good advice.
Clockwise from main, Paula Hynes tends to a dying cow in RTÉ’s The Hardest Harvest; Rory O’Connell is charmingly quaint on How to Cook Well; and Fox’s Legion (pictured is Dan Stevens as David Haller) is the most visually dependent, inventive and...