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Here’s my latest radio essay for the long-running RTÉ Radio show Sunday Miscellany, a short reflection on the relationship between, er, pancakes and crime fiction. OK, it’s a tad long (1,600 words, they’re looking for 750 though I suppose I could always speak faster or we could put the tape on double speed), and I’ve a problem with how to do the diagrams on the radio, but shag it – here goes anyway…

* * *

So there I was, munching a Calvita cheese sandwich and reading a battered old copy of Ireland’s Own and doing historical research for my next book, as you do, for the flashback scenes that are set in olden times, you know the kind of stuff. Olden days, fadó fadó… This week’s working definition goes something like this:

Olden Days: the time when air travel was still glamorous and foreign and fancy, long before it became Ryanairified (new word?)

And if this were a film we’d need a WAVY DISSOLVE right here…

* * *

…to a time when in-flight attendants were called “stewardesses” and were seen as more like gorgeous international supermodels rather than the overworked, underpaid, non-unionised skivvies that the poor sods have become today.

Anyway. Picture the scene… ATTENDANTS are walking up and down the narrow aisle of an ancient Boeing 720 (or at least a mock-up of one if it costs too much). They are waiting hand and foot on the PASSENGERS, who have paid an arm and a leg for their seats. Welcome to the JET SET. They rule.

“Ha! JET set? Jet SET?” That’s a noisy harrumph by the film’s NARRATOR (she’s called Kira).

“Nobody says flaming ‘jet set’ any more, Mr H,” Kira continues – and does this continuing stuff right into her bloody voiceover microphone, ruining yet another take. “Everybody knows air travel has been transformed from luxury good to mass-market product in less than a generation. JET set? I wouldn’t even go there if I were you.”

Fine. That’s the last time I’ll be using an uppity local thespian called Kira to do the v/o in one of my blog posts about my Work In Progress. Yet Kira does have a point.

Then she puts down her script and – without a by your leave – insists on booting up that invaluable online research tool called the Google Ngram Viewer on her iPhone, to trace the use of said “jet set” term in all the books on the planet from the outbreak of WWII in 1940 to around half five on 29th December 2008 (it only goes that far).

The "Jet Set" nGram - click on pic for larger version

The squiggly squiggles of the “Jet Set” Ngram – click on pic for larger version. Please note: in the radio version of this essay the main points on the graph will be read out by the NARRATOR

OK, Kira, point taken. So the jet-set term – particularly the lower-case version – took off at the end of the 1950s. It had a golden age during the 1960s, peaked in 1975 and began its steady downward descent (“Cabin crew to standby”) around 1985, the very year that Ryanair was established as a company (coincidence? I think not). But I’m still gonna use the “jet set” word for the shagging Sunday Miscellany thing.

Oh well. I take Kira to a gastro pub in town for a couple of pints. We order lunch and drinks. We tweak the voiceover here and there with a few less “jet set” mentions (and here’s me pondering whether “a few less” is grammatically correct while Kira wonders whether to go for the Chocolate Beetroot Brownie, Beetroot Crisp, Chocolate Icecream, and Pistachio Cream or have another pint of Bulmers) and we let the film script ping-pong back and forth between plenty of getting-on / taking-off / getting-off-the-plane-again sequences.

(Brief aside: These scenes are v. important, I tell Kira. The technical term for them is ECSAT – Essential Cinema Shorthand for Air Travel. I’m thinking here of the kind of airplane / airport shots that pepper all those early James Bond movies – I mean the proper classics up to and including Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and even the George Lazenby one in OHMSS (1969), before the Roger Moore rot set in. Those ECSAT sequences that say: Look, I’m on a jet, it’s fierce expensive and exotic, the weather is only gorgeous, and only jet-set people do this kind of thing, cos we’re the jet set, we’re classy, we’re how the other half lives, and any sign of Pierce Brosnan yet?)

“Hah. Jet set?” That’s Kira harrumphing again.

Right. Dissolve from a postcard to the actual location shown in the postcard. It’s a cheap trick but what the heck. An aircraft is landing. Cut to runway, to well-dressed passengers going down steps from plane, including a PASSENGER MAN. Cut to same man queuing inside the airport terminal at passport control.

He looks suave, sophisti… oh sugar! One by one his 46 suitcases are being opened – tense moment – but at least PASSPORT TWAT doesn’t realise that THE SUITCASES THEMSELVES are cool gadgets from Q that can be quickly converted into, say, a jetpack, a laser gun or a pop-up restaurant.

A tracking shot follows PASSENGER MAN out of the terminal with a LAD WITH TRULY ANCIENT LUGGAGE CART. It’s mad busy. And hot. Worse than Lidl at 9am at the start of one of its Thursday Specials for scuba diving gear. Perhaps there are palm trees and donkeys, or PEASANTS with chickens on the top of a bus – to indicate that we’re not in Stoneybatter any more. PASSENGER MAN hails a taxi and LAD WITH TRULY ANCIENT LUGGAGE CART puts all 46 cases in boot.

Evening – exterior shot – posh restaurant in town. Neon sign perhaps (if the design budget can stretch to it). PASSENGER MAN gets out of same taxi.

But I know what you’re thinking: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BLUMMIN’ SUITCASES???

We’re inside the restaurant now. It’s serving French cuisine tonight, posh nosh because the jet set don’t do (or rather didn’t do, because this is Olden Days) a batter burger and curry chips. I don’t feel too well because all the walls look like a Sixties psychedelic album cover.

A HEAD WAITER is preparing the food “tableside” as they say.

Picture this man at work. He’s assembling a steak tartare perhaps, or carving a Chateaubriand, or pan-frying a steak au poivre. Note how tableside food preparation is all the rage at the time, although it will soon go out of fashion until resurrected by Dylan McGrath.

TWO DINERS – just a pair of them mind, a male and female in a tight shot cos we’re on a tight budget – are well impressed. It has been a long day, with far too many retakes, the crew are getting ratty, these two must be starving, and bear in mind that it is free grub.

But to hell with the actors. This isn’t a theatre. It’s cinema, pure cinema. What is required right now is something far more visual, the height of sophistication and spectacle: a flambéed dessert, a searing hot FRYING PAN of flaming brandy and pancakes.

Oh-oh. Before I have a chance to decide who should play the FRYING PAN, up pops KIRA again in her best Marks & Sparks voice: Not just any pancakes but crêpes. Crêpes Suzette.

crepes

Pan camera up from FRYING PAN to HEAD WAITER again, yer man in the monkey suit and white shirt and bow tie. Waiting next to him is a man in plainer clothes with a bowed head. This is the subservient, lowly WAITER #2. Even in the waiting classes there are sub-classes – and further sub-classes below that again (e.g. the poor DISH PIGS back in the kitchen), right down almost to infinity. For example, we never hear of WAITER #2 ever again. That’s the story of his life. Fiction can be cruel.

With one hand the HEAD WAITER holds a fork and spoon in chopstick fashion to douse the crêpes in the sauce, as his other hand gets jiggy with the shiny FRYING PAN over a portable stove. His table also has bottles of plonk and glasses of orange juice and lemon juice.

See? It’s the height of bloody sophistication, yet our TWO DINERS are NOT IN AWE yet.

If anything these two are BLASÉ, or in LURRRRVE, or about to exchange government SECRETS, or having a natter about the WATER CHARGES or their CASTING AGENTS and the going EQUITY RATE or who won the 4:20 at HAYDOCK this afternoon (the Bathwick Tyres Bridgwater Handicap Chase before you ask).

FFS.

* * *

There was a time when Crêpes Suzette were unforgettable, inescapable, the… flamboyant? Wrong word? OK, the… they were the flaming perfect emblem of modern French grande cuisine around the world. Those fancy pancakes were shorthand for jet-setting and other-half-living. They were even better than an ECSAT shot.

But what gets me in all this is that while the dish may indeed have cost a fortune and been regarded as “classy” nosh for members of the jet set (or even those two paid-up members of Equity), it nonetheless has relatively humble ingredients – apart from the booze perhaps.

Crêpes Suzette are about as cheap and easy to make and assemble as, say, a good bread and butter pudding from the All in the Cooking cookbook.

So here’s the recipe…

Make thin pancakes or crêpes in the usual way. But first, while the batter is – as they might say in the theatre world – “resting” in the fridge, prep the orange butter that will eventually become your sauce. Simply combine:

  • 30 g (1 oz) of softened butter
  • 45 g (1.5 oz) of icing sugar
  • The finely grated zest of one orange
  • 2 tablespoons of Cointreau
  • 2 tablespoons of Cognac (or any brandy)

Preheat the oven to 180C. Brush a round baking dish with some butter. Put a teaspoon of the orange butter in the centre of each crêpe.

Fold the crêpe in half, then half again, so it’s a quarter circle. Put it into the baking dish.

Arrange the crêpes in an overlapping fashion in the dish. Brush their tops with any remaining orange butter. Warm in the oven for about five minutes until hot.

If the scene involves a gun – a Luger semi-automatic perhaps – ensure that it is concealed under a serviette at all times.

To serve, gently warm the Cointreau and Cognac in a small saucepan (not too hot, or you’ll boil off all the alcohol), then pour it over the crêpes.

Carefully light with a match, let it flame away for a few seconds. Plate up, switch off the smoke alarm and ring the insurance company in the usual fashion.

Or a cheat’s recipe

Doing all this at home can still be A Right Production. So here’s a bit of a cheat.

Make the sauce by gently melting the following in a saucepan, and skip all the oven palaver:

  • 30 g (1 oz) of  butter
  • 60 ml (2 fl oz) of fresh orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon of orange marmalade (thick cut if you prefer)
  • The grated rind of half a lemon

Add the pancakes, flambé the lot with some brandy/rum, ring fire brigade etc etc as before. The monkey suit, bow tie and Luger are all optional.

* * *

The waiter image, by the way, is by the brilliant American illustrator Bernie Fuchs (1932-2009). He has an amazing life story, beginning with how (as Wikipedia puts it):

…he grew up in humble circumstances with no father. His ambition was to be a trumpet player, but that ended after he lost three fingers on his right hand in an industrial accident the summer after he graduated from high school. Fuchs turned to art as a career, despite having had no formal art training…

For more on his work and inspirational life, check out this profile.

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