In the 1990s there was a rather splendid TV programme that went out on Sunday mornings in Italy, and Giovanna and I always watched it if we were in. It was called “Sunday in the Village” and was introduced by a friendly, chirpy man, full of witty one-liners and warming bonhomie, who went to a different Italian village or small town every week, cooked some of the local specialities and interviewed some of the local personalities against spectacular scenery.
Week after week, north and south tried to outdo each other to show off their wares and the breasts of their womenfolk. Shortly after Bill’s visit, we had another houseguest. His name was Richard and he was an old schoolfriend of mine. “Sunday in the Village” was coming, that week, from Vico Equense, and so we took him along to watch the show being filmed. The experience was something of a revelation. First of all, it was blowing a gale that nearly snapped the palm trees in half, and the sky was a dirty yellow colour that indicated the presence of Sahara rain.
The good people of Vico Equense, however, eager to show those pale-skinned, mousy-haired northern sissies that this was the land of the sun, refused to film proceedings indoors and insisted on setting up tables, complete with ingredients, out in the open where the wind lifted and swirled them around the terrace before hurling them contemptuously into the sea. The presenter, who we shall call “Paolo”, was having a right old prima donna-style tantrum about the wind. “Porca miseria! I simply can’t work under these conditions!” he wailed. “And get these fucking people out of my way! I need space, for fuck’s sake!” By now, it was starting to rain and everyone was being spattered in a layer of sand. Richard’s black leather jacket looked as if it were made of brown suede.
One of Paolo’s delightful assistants came along and asked if Giovanna, Richard and I would help set up a table on the terrace (where the great man was due to cook up some pasta and potatoes) and then sit on the ingredients and hold onto the wine glasses etc. so that they didn’t fly away. Well, of course we would! After all, it would give us a great vantage point from which to observe the Italians running around like recently beheaded poultry. Paolo was walking around, smiling only when the camera was on him and looking surly and uncooperative the rest of the time. At one point, he interviewed the mayor, and my heart sank. Whenever I see an Italian in official dress about to speak, I just know that something long, contorted and painful on the ears is about to occur. I imagine that audiences at Queen gigs used to feel the same way when Freddie, John and Roger walked off-stage leaving Brian to play a 25 minute guitar solo in the middle of “Brighton Rock”.
In the meantime, somebody had set up an electric Baby Belling stove on our table, fetched a saucepan of water from the swimming pool, and was heating it up as Paolo stopped at tables ever closer to ours to ask about the goodies spread out on them and, perhaps, cook something. Then, the moment we had all been waiting for arrived as he strode up to our table, security guards pushed us into the background, and Paolo was once again all wit and smiles as he tossed ready-chopped ingredients into a pan of ready-heated oil and read religiously off an autocue, suggesting that, perhaps, he didn’t know quite as much about cooking as weeks of “Sunday in the Village” had led us to believe. Once he had finished, he pushed past us towards the cake table, where a huge cake in the form of Vesuvius had been set up – another cake, with icing depicting the programme’s logo, had come to a sorry end in the tempest. The idea had been to light fireworks inside the cake and then fire them out of the crater as a spectacular finale to the programme. But the wind made it impossible to light the touch paper and so they just filled a silver foil dish at the rim of the carter with spirits and set fire to that instead.
One of Paolo’s assistants hurled the now useless pasta-and-potatoes-cooked-in-swimming-pool-water over the cliff, but the wind blew it straight back at her and she ended up covered in gunge as we watched the man himself wrap up proceedings, while biting into a speciality biscuit from a Vico Equense bakery. “Thank you, thank you,” he was saying. “It’s been wonderful to be here in Vico. Thank you for coming and buon appetito!” Music, applause, smiles all round. Cameras off. And Paolo hurls what’s left of the biscuit disdainfully over his shoulder and stamps back to his trailer, pushing little children out the way while 1000 Neapolitans dive onto and demolish the sweet table. A cynical, boorish, bad-tempered man, and an utterly splendid fellow.
The strange thing is, we were all convinced that Vico Equense had blown it. What with the wind, the rain, the total chaos and disorganisation, we were certain that this would be the worst “Sunday in the Village” of all time, and that the northern sissies would all be laughing their nuts off at us stupid southerners, trying to cook pasta and spuds in a hurricane, rather than simply admit that the weather can be bad down here too. But when we saw the final result on TV, we were gobsmacked. There seemed to be very little sign of the wind at all, apart from the swaying palms and a jolly Paolo telling us that it was a “bit breezy”. They had interspersed the day’s events with bits of film obviously shot some days previously when the sun had been shining. The overall suggestion was that here was a place where, even in the middle of November, people went about their daily business while wearing traditional lacy clothing, dancing traditional dances, singing traditional songs and eating hot, buttered crab under nodding palms in the middle of the street, without even so much as a car to spoil the peace. Even the mayor’s speech had been judiciously pruned and was almost eloquent. You have to take your hat off to them: it was smooth and seamless, damn close to perfect. Isn’t television a wonderful thing?