Julia Child is having a moment, again. The cook, who brought French cuisine to the American masses, is the subject of a new feature-length documentary, plus a competitive cookery show called The Julia Child Challenge, in which archive footage of Child will serve as a Wizard of Oz-like instructor from a giant screen. And now, there’s Julia (Sky Atlantic), a dramatisation of Child’s move from cookbook author to television pioneer. Though Meryl Streep’s turn as Child, in the 2009 film, Julie and Julia, may have helped to spread her global fame this century, she remains more of an American institution than a British one, though I do hope there is still room in the food biopic canon for The Mary Berry Story.
Julia is charming and warm, with all the appeal of comfort food, as unrefined as that can be. Sarah Lancashire is fabulous as Child, managing to neither replicate Streep nor do a surface impression of the real woman. It begins in 1961, just after Mastering the Art of French Cooking has been published and is about to be a huge success, and by the time the story kicks off in earnest, Child is famous enough for people – women, mostly, though also men speaking on behalf of their wives – to stop her as she goes about her business, to tell her that she has transformed their eating habits.
At its most basic, Julia is about a successful woman’s rise to even more success, against the odds. This is a Mrs Maisel-esque world, in which men tell Child what she can’t do, and she goes ahead and works out a way to do it anyway. She has the idea to move into television after performing a spot of guerrilla omelette-making on a chatshow about literature. She is introduced as a departure from the presenter’s usual points of interest, “Steinbeck, Capote, Heller or even Rand”, and there is a frequent, occasionally laboured theme running throughout, that domestic pursuits are not frivolous, and women’s work is just as valid as that of the bookish, snobbish men in Child’s world.
But there are more layers, with greater depth. David Hyde Pierce is Paul Child, whose career is dwindling as his wife’s continues to grow. While supportive of his wife, he is also one of those snobbish men, and Child’s subtle calculations about how to care for his ego struck me as an honest and complex portrait of a marriage. As Child goes through the menopause, she pushes even harder for her television show to be made. “I want to feel relevant. I want to be relevant,” she says, in a rare moment of vulnerability; it may be Paul who is railing against “the slow train towards death that is forced retirement”, but both of them are fighting the sense that they might be written off as they age.
A young, black, female producer, Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford) has to fight the Joan Holloway fight in order to gain respect for herself and Child in the workplace. Child’s editor, Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott), must argue for Child’s relevance, at the cost of lunch with John Updike and the respect of her colleagues in the literary world. But Child’s show does get made, as we know, and it is a huge success, as we also know. That story alone would lack tension, however. Instead, there is a scrappy feel, to the first episode in particular. It has a skittish mood to it, lightly skipping between scenes, a dash of something here, a spoonful of something there, as if to force the narrative to dance.
It settles in by episode three, and begins to feel like an indulgent treat, even if it remains a little uneven. The performances are wonderful, almost old-fashioned, reaching for a classic cinema feel. The script is wordy and busy, which adds to the effect. Isabella Rossellini appears as Child’s French co-author, and a testy exchange on the phone between the two of them is a lot of culture-clash fun. James Cromwell is Child’s father, John, whose suffocating expectations of what his daughter should be provide meaty family drama. “I am a lady, Dad, just not your type, and that’s OK,” says Child, tenderly.
In among all the family and workplace dramas, and the fight for recognition, a much-needed lightness of touch comes from two places. It lingers lovingly on the food, and the pleasure of eating, and I’d be curious to know how many viewers can get to the end of this without making a snack. And while it is not quite as camp as I had hoped, there is still plenty of room for an innuendo or four. Child knows exactly what she is doing when she talks of “the best coq I ever put in my mouth”, and truly, everyone should witness Lancashire haughtily declaring that she will not be upstaged by a quiche.