Sarah Lancashire Brings a New Julia Child Back to Television
Vermont, and Upper Valley, ties for Child and Jones
Recently I learned of, and wrote about (click here), the connections between the State of Vermont and editor Judith Jones (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The Diary of Anne Frank). Jones, who died at her home in Walden, Vermont five years ago at the age of 93, is a central character played by actress Fiona Glascott in HBO Max’s new production, Julia. It’s a multi-episode work about the famed rise of Julia Child in bringing cooking to television. Julia Child herself was no stranger to Vermont (click here and imagine her showing up on your doorstep!); she was interviewed live on ABC while celebrating her 85th birthday at the Quechee Inn at Marshland Farms here in the Upper Valley. Below is my review of Julia.
HBO Max’s Julia is the story of Julia Child just as she was launching herself into a career as the famous television personality who put kitchens and cooking shows on the television programming map.
“Launching herself” is more than apt. While Julia, her husband Paul, and junior PBS producer Alice Naman believed in the concept of teaching America to cook by televising the author Child in the kitchen (Mastering the Art of French Cooking was already a success), few others at PBS shared their enthusiasm. Child began as a guest on a bookish show at a Boston TV station, where she broke stodgy protocol by dragging a hot plate onto the set and cooking an omelet on air. The public—defined in that era as 27 letters from viewers to the station—adored it and her. The PBS brass were so opposed that Child succeeded in talking them into producing a pilot of The French Chef only through her charm and cunning, and more to the point, by offering to finance the entire production herself.
So much is known about Julia Child that there were questions about whether this current HBO production was even necessary, especially after Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her in the film Julie & Julia (2009). But there is a newness to this presentation of Child, acted superbly by Sarah Lancashire (Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley). Anyone who has ever seen the real Julia on TV knows that she stood outside of traditional notions of a TV celebrity: overly tall, distinctive piercing voice, a certain general awkwardness, a self-described (in a poignant moment in Julia) “face for radio.” Her self-confidence comes through, but this is a more nuanced portrayal. Despite her tenacity in pushing her dream through the PBS bureaucracy, there are more than a few moments of self- doubt and second-guessing. Lancashire’s acting of those moments make Julia Child, if possible, even more relatable.
Likewise, David Hyde Pierce (Frasier) infuses a little realism into the character of Paul Child, legendary stalwart supporter and loving husband. And maybe just a tad controlling of his wife as he struggles with his own dislocation due to unintended retirement from the foreign service. It’s a marriage of equals with its prickly bits, including Paul’s disdain for television—no TV set in the Child household—which he thinks is a fad that will fade. His sins may be forgiven, though, after a touching scene between Paul and Julia’s father (a perpetually disapproving James Cromwell), when Cromwell’s character wonders aloud why Paul ever chose to marry Julia if not for her money. Paul grabs a photo of Julia and in defending his wife delivers the best line of the entire episode.
The friendship of the women, though. Forget the foursome of Sex in the City. Bebe Neuwirth as Avis DeVoto, Fiona Glascott as editor Judith Jones, and Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford) get in on the gig early and stay, supporting their friend Julia by scheming around Paul’s and PBS’s naysaying. In the pilot-shooting episode, Avis and Alice crouch invisibly behind the kitchen counter to complete tasks like switching out raw for cooked onions when the live cameras are momentarily focused elsewhere. And they help to recover that chicken leg that supposedly slipped from Child’s grasp and hit the floor, prompting her famous response, “When you’re alone in the kitchen, who’s going to see?”
Other gems include a peek behind the curtain of early television, particularly early public television. As with all new technologies that beget new institutions, producers struggled with defining what public television ought to be and do. Early shows looked like radio transported to a screen, where talking heads of men discussed the great ideas of the day, and bored their viewers to smithereens in the process. Few, if any, saw public television’s mission as including “cookery shows.”
As with all programs set in the early 1960s, the role and treatment of women is ripe for inspection. The junior TV producer Alice courageously treads water throughout her workday amidst a sea of men in suits, then comes home to her mother who (lovingly) badgers her about why there’s no boyfriend in her daughter’s life. An intelligent and independent Julia feels the need to be charming, even as she confronts the reality that many powerful men, including her own father, don’t find her so. Yet the women do not give up; they—as women do—persist. A refreshing pause in the gender power plays is the position of Blanche Knopf of Knopf Publishing (played by Judith Light), and a young Judith Jones’s insistence in dumping a hand-holding luncheon with author John Updike to tend to Julia’s needs.
So, did there need to be a new portrayal of Julia? Maybe not. Is this one better? Definitely yes.
The first three episodes of Julia are streaming on HBO Max, with a fourth scheduled for April 7 and a new episode premiering each Thursday through May 5.
A personal note: When I was a law student, I lived around the corner from Julia Child in Cambridge MA. We both shopped regularly at Savenor’s (a local market mentioned in Julia) but alas for me, not together.
(Photo, top, of Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian, courtesy of Wikicommons. Photo of Sarah Lancashire courtesy of creative commons.org, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=Sarah+Lancashire&title=Special:MediaSearch&go=Go&type=image)
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And in case you are wondering . . . Susan B. Apel shuttered a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.