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This week’s Big TV Picks: Stanley Tucci, Bridgerton and two classics on catch-up

Our weekly round-up of the best television stars Stanley Tucci travelling through Italy gorging on storytelling, history, and lots of pasta.

This week’s selections are delicious, delectable and easy on the eye. But, as ever, there is a side order, a soupcon, of social politics. Tuck in…

Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy – BBC2 / iPlayer

Stanley Tucci is a stylish man. A charming man. Clearly a connoisseur of clothes as well as food and drink – oh, and not a bad actor to boot. His tour of Italy, exploring the diverse history of the country as told through its culinary delights, has been a welcome ray of sunshine this spring. Escapism has never looked or tasted so good.

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The series, like so many of the dishes Tucci samples along the way, is deceptively simple. Beautifully paced, beautifully scripted, beautifully filmed and beautifully narrated. And Tucci is genial, suave, with quick wit and ready smile as he meets a cast of characters – many of them off the beaten track and absolutely not in the sort of establishments we expect Hollywood stars to frequent. 

It might feel luxurious, at a time of war in Europe, to escape into the sun-kissed delights of Tucci’s Italy. But throughout the series there are reminders of conflicts past, and indeed of the way food can become so symbolic of struggle and resistance.  

We hear how pizza was a response to poverty and plague in Naples. And how more recently, the pandemic shut down pizza vendors across the city – and how 60,000 pizzas were sold in the city the first day after lockdown. This is food so deeply embedded in local cultures, in the stories we tell about ourselves, in tradition.

We hear about prison-produced Pecorino cheese – a luxurious taste made within the confines of the local jail. And we hear about anti-fascist pasta in Rome. There is the story of how the humble artichoke became a symbol of Jewish resistance and struggle in Rome under fascism – this is gently but seriously educational.

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But there are also modern twists. Who knew offal would be reinvented, modernised – the lowest cuts of meat, which became the staple of Jewish diets, are now celebratedby a tattooed med-school dropout in Rome with magic in her frying pan arm.

This is not just a celebration of great food, but an investigation of how food that is loved in the world over came into existence, exploring why it matters so much in Italy.

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There are the young radicals fronting the homegrown Sardines movement – invoking a favourite food to fight off anti-immigration populists in Bologna. Still in Italy’s food capital, Tucci also risks a crisp white shirt while tasting balsamic vinegar that has been one family’s obsession for 17 generations and visits the People’s Kitchen, where supermarket donations are cooked up for the city’s most vulnerable during the pandemic. Food and love two powerful ingredients in fighting poverty and isolation.

Even Milan, better known for its fashion, is revealed as a foodie hotspot. Tucci meets influencers, visits underground bars but again, it is not just the new, the fashionable, the expensive that Tucci explores. Instead, he also finds ancient cheese made in the mountains and cuts loose at a lively hangout that was once the HQ of the rail workers’ union, with a Milanese menu of the people, for the people.

As Tucci tucks into plates piled high with class conscious cuisine, with storied delights, he takes such joy in the passion of the food producers. The tomato farmers who know their produce is the best in the world, the pizza producers who sleep easy at night knowing they are the best in the business, the blessed cheesemakers. That, more than anything, is what works in this series.

Bridgerton – Netflix

It’s back. Bridgerton might just be the biggest show on the planet. Shonda Rhimes has produced TV magic – a sexed up period drama based on Julia Quinn’s novels that is thoroughly modern in outlook and casting, while retaining the airs and graces, the high society manners and machinations that audiences love. This combination of raunch and Regency was received with delight around the world.

But how do you solve a problem like Rege-Jean leaving the cast after one season? Simple. Follow Quinn’s formula, focus on new romances while keeping the core cast the same. This year: Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton steps into the britches – and lands in the middle of a love triangle, heart and head, duty and desire pitted against each other. We also await with intrigue how the thoroughly modern Eloise Bridgerton will respond to being pushed into the marriage market (and how her pal, aka Lady Whistledown, will report on it).

Catch Up / Streaming

Derry Girls – All4

The Derry Girls are back soon. One of the greatest television shows of recent times returns for its third and final series. But there’s still time to prepare to say goodbye to Erin, Michelle, Clare, Orla, James, Sister Michael and the Derry Girls extended families by revisiting the previous series (or catching up if you’ve yet to watch them).

Derry Girls combines a pitch perfect portrayal of the intensity and depth of teenage friendships and obsessions with a portrait of late Troubles-era Northern Ireland that shows the laughter and fun and hope that existed alongside and despite the political turmoil. It’s skilfully made, beautifully written, played to perfection by a terrific cast and definitely worth repeated viewings – particularly for creator Lisa McGee’s talent for ending series on an emotional and comedic high note, which also augers well for the final finale, when the last series comes to a close in early May.  

Giri/Haji – Netflix

This drama originated on the BBC, and was a critical smash, while never quite finding the wider audience it deserved. A wholly original police drama is hard to create these days, when the genre has seemingly been done to death. But writer Joe Barton managed it by infusing his Anglo-Japanese thriller with arthouse touches (that dance scene!), drawing out a career-best performance from Kelly MacDonald as lonely London copper DC Sarah Weitzmann alongside Takehiro Hira as Tokyo’s finest, Kenzo Mori. Their quest to find Mori’s missing younger brother takes them deep into the London criminal underworld, and hooks them up with sex worker Rodney Yamaguchi (the brilliant Will Sharpe).

A sprawling, surprising, arthouse TV classic. Catch it now, ahead of Barton’s return to television as creator of Sky Max’s promising new sci-fi series the Lazarus Project.

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