Eddie Izzard once said coolness isn’t a spectrum, it’s a circle: horribly uncool sits right next to untouchably cool, and one can easily slide into the other. How much you care and how hard you try determines which direction you travel in. Let’s Have a Party! The Piano Genius of Mrs Mills (Sunday BBC4) showed light entertainer Gladys Mills cruising the cool/uncool border and, in hindsight, we might have had her fractionally on the wrong side.
For the benefit of people under 45, Gladys Mills – always known simply as Mrs Mills – was a pianist and singer who was a fixture on variety TV in the 1960s and 70s. A hulking, middle-aged sunbeam made of gin, Silk Cut, hair lacquer and white bread, she was one of Morecambe & Wise’s favourite fall-back guests, and her scores of albums all sold buckets.
Mrs Mills did pub-style piano knees-ups, her left hand leaping from octave to octave to keep up a relentlessly perky beat. When she appeared on TV, audience members with wet comb-overs and thick wool suits sang along heartily to Roll Out the Barrel and the like.
As one of the contributors to this disarming hoot of a documentary explained, when people were throwing a party they would buy a Mrs Mills record – almost all of them had “Party” in the title – stick it on, and have a good time. No posturing, no hunger for something new, just pure enjoyment.
Mrs Mills tapped into the postwar phenomenon of families and friends, in austere times, gathering round a piano and cheering themselves up. When TV arrived, swathes of viewers didn’t want it to do anything fancier and Mrs Mills was there, always happy, coping effortlessly with interviews too despite the then-acceptable fat gags. An appearance on a Derek Nimmo chat show was especially unpleasant: “Do you find it difficult, being rather plump? What about clothes?” Mrs Mills was impervious. She said she’d got her dress “from Rent-a-Tent”.
Cynical 21st-century viewers were waiting for the film to reveal that Mrs Mills had privately had twelve unhappy marriages, an amphetamines problem or a criminal conviction for torching kennels. This never came. She was what she was.
Her ease, however, was hard-earned. Experts sat at pianos to demonstrate the difficulty of the “stride” technique, where the bottom hand mimics both a rhythm guitar and a bass: one of them couldn’t do it at all. Rick Wakeman and Bobby Crush could, but they were still appreciative.
Crush was in Abbey Road Studios, playing Mrs Mills’ piano. She was on Parlophone, which in 1967 released both Sgt. Pepper and Mrs Mills’ less critically acclaimed Look Mum No Hands. While she wasn’t dented by The Beatles or any other countercultural shift, they were fans of hers, and the Mills piano – carefully doctored by EMI engineers to sound metallic and knackered – is the one used on Penny Lane and With a Little Help from My Friends. Cool.
The appeal of Mrs Mills’ music wasn’t complex enough to fill an hour, so the film fell back on analysing her album sleeves. Mrs Mills’ Jumbo Party saw her feeding bananas to an elephant; Anytime Is Party Time was “just half a dozen shots of Mrs Mills with different hats on”; for Another Flippin’ Party she was in a penguin enclosure. Maybe someone was having a laugh, or maybe Mrs Mills just didn’t need to worry.
Nigella Lawson has called her first cookery show in two years Nigellissima (Monday BBC2), which seemed to herald the point in a titular chef’s career where all the obvious programme names have been used up.
It’s not just another flippin’ series, though. The familiar Nigella method of being both cartoonishly posh (“I am a princess in a castle with gold cutlery!”) and inclusively down-to-earth (one of her new recipes is an egg poached in tinned tomatoes) is there, but with silly trimmings like her old cab rides to Waitrose left out, and a genuine love of Italian cuisine infusing every dish.
Nigella’s charming, doomed attempt to convince us that we could live like her was summed up by a scene where she sat in front of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and compared two Sicilian cookery books’ recipes for pesto trapanese, observing that one of them used mint and expecting us to agree that one associates mint more with Sardinia. She was mostly filmed from the side, putting us where we’d probably be if we were hanging around in a richer, more attractive friend’s kitchen, watching them cook.
Lawson’s sauce is less rich than the days when she’d slink around in silk gowns, ostentatiously tittering about “midnight feasts” and scoffing sausage from the fridge, overworking to present a fantasy of indulgence on all fronts. In Nigellissima she’s relaxed, slimmer and, for the whole first episode, wearing a plain black 60s-Italy dress in which, apparently without trying, she was hotter than ever.
Let’s Have a Party! The Piano Genius of Mrs Mills and Nigellissima are available on BBC iPlayer.