A kitschy homage to Americana

America on a Plate took a refreshingly positive look at two of America’s most demonised totems: roads and food.

David Bowden

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It is routinely observed that the one recurring feature of English literature is the stately home – from the eponymous ones of classics like Wuthering Heights and Brideshead Revisited to those featured in more recent, self-referential works like Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. The confined, rarefied environs of such places provide a perfect setting for the great themes of British society, from class division to the decay of empire and its replacement with a genteel conservationism.

The thesis of the enjoyable BBC4 documentary America on a Plate, which aired this week, was that the roadside diner provides a similar icon of twentieth-century America. As ever, what is distressing and disorientating politically – the apparent disintegration and confusion of the last remaining Western superpower as it navigates economic strife and foreign-policy malaise – at least has the added side-effect of producing some jolly entertaining television.

Forming part of BBC4’s ongoing series of films exploring the cultures of the world’s leading nations (last year, it focused on Germany), Stephen Smith’s romp through the literature and film featuring diners felt like a definite statement of intent. It stood out clearly against the more traditional morsels on offer (Andrew Graham-Dixon on art, Melvyn Bragg on books, Ian Rankin on LIFE magazine). A decade ago, at the height of anti-Bush fervour, who could have anticipated the BBC commissioning a sensitive and enthusiastic investigation into a topic which seems to combine two of America’s two most loathed totems: roads and food?

As it was, America on a Plate was a suitably free-wheeling essay celebrating the aspirations and possibilities afforded by America’s rise in the twentieth century, with an excellent set of cultural illustrations. A particular highlight was the bit about how 1946 noir classic The Killers found a way of turning the diner into a modern form of Wild West saloon bar, pre-empting the rash of cinematic cowboy films. Overall, this was an eclectic documentary packed with little gems: Suzanne Vega singing her hit ‘Tom’s Diner’ a cappella over a coffee, mixed in with flashes of Tom Waits; John Updike reflecting on key life decisions made in the most banal of places; civil-rights activists struggling simply to be allowed into this most American apple pie of institutions.

Admittedly there didn’t appear to be much of a point to the film, and the denouement recorded in an extant film-set diner reminded you that this was a topic focusing on the most superficially kitsch aspect of Americana without offering much critical insight. Yet compared to the growing trend for documentaries which stretch out a simple premise as the basis for an extended advertorial, the freedom here simply to explore an engaging topic for an hour – drawing on a rich cultural resource – felt somehow exhilarating, despite its lack of substance. Much like a slice of apple pie and strong black coffee, one imagines.

That said, perhaps the film’s appeal lay in a much-needed burst of sunshine into a particularly drab week for TV viewing. That some of the most discussed televisual events of the past few weeks have been the quality of the Christmas adverts is an indication that we are going through one of the great fallow periods as broadcasters unload their schedules in anticipation for the festive treats. Given the continual grumbling provoked by the sense that shops prepare for Yuletide earlier each year, this is certainly a scheduling curiosity which once again reminds you how out-of-step terrestrial broadcasters are with mainstream culture.

Thank heaven, then, for the return of Danish crime thriller The Killing, back after the runaway success of its first season shown earlier in the year. For those who have thus far avoided the hype, or perhaps (quietly) still refuse to invest the concentration required for several hours of viewing an impossibly bleak, slow-paced and subtitled slice of Scandinavian police procedural, do tune in. The streamlined second series, screened on home territory back in 2009, has received rave reviews and there are indications already that it is shifting into an agreeable political thriller.

This is a reminder that you don’t necessarily need American glamour to cast a bit of light over the gloomy winter evenings. Then again, given the amount of core scenes which seem to take place in Copenhagen’s coffee shops and car parks, perhaps The Killing‘s real strength is that it’s learned from some of the best of US drama.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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