Julia, review: Sarah Lancashire cooks up a storm in this tasteful new drama

Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child - HBO
Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child - HBO

Everyone likes comfort food and Julia, HBO’s new eight-part drama (showing here on Sky Atlantic) about the American celebrity chef Julia Child, sticks to flavours we all know and love.

In Britain, our knowledge of Julia Child comes mostly from the 2009 film Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep, but in the US Child is a revered figure who taught a nation to cook. Lying somewhere between Elizabeth David and Delia Smith, with a pinch of Nigella Lawson thrown-in, she practically invented American cookery programmes with The French Chef (1963). As such (and thanks to at least 10 autobiographies) her story should be well known.

Julia attempts a modicum of revisionism, focusing on Child’s character and relationships as much as on the genesis of her all-conquering TV shows. But despite this slight reassessment, the manner of the telling is very much by the book.

This is no bad thing; in an age where television is becoming increasingly bombastic and grandiose (scared, basically, of viewers switching over to some other tech behemoth’s wham-bam whizzo new show set in space), Julia’s old-fashioned style is a welcome virtue. It takes its time and relies, appropriately, on the staples of good cooking – that if you use quality ingredients in the right measures and follow a tested recipe, you’ll serve up a satisfying meal.

The series begins with Child, whose 1961 book Mastering the Art of French Cooking has already caused a stir in the US, taking her first steps on to television. Subtly, in so doing Julia maps the story of mass-market television itself. Child's husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce doing a superannuated Niles from Frasier, but doing it oh-so well) believes that the medium is essentially frivolous and his wife should be above such things.

But Child ploughs on. The subtext is that not having had a baby of her own, America’s matriarch instead chooses to give birth to a TV genre instead. She pitches a prototype to the public broadcaster WGBH and then against all the odds wows viewers with her can-do charisma. Looking back now it was a role she was born to play – it’s just that at the time nobody knew what a TV natural looked like.

The prime ingredient here is of course Sarah Lancashire as Child, in a performance that makes me both delighted and extremely angry, because it must have set back the final series of Happy Valley by several years. Lancashire is terrific, magnifying both Child’s narcissism and her neuroses in her weepy eyes. She is both redoubtable and full of doubt.

If on occasion Lancashire over-eggs it, well, I suspect Julia Child was a woman who was never knowingly under-egged.

Presentation is often as important as ingredients and Julia’s early 1970s America looks good enough to eat. Questions about the purpose and importance of public television are sprinkled on like seasoning but never overpower the dish.

Lancashire alongside David Hyde Pierce as Paul Child - HBO
Lancashire alongside David Hyde Pierce as Paul Child - HBO

The storytelling, likewise, is delivered with impeccable pacing, mapping the contours of a later-life marriage as well as the arc of later-life celebrity. It’s a Chesterfield sofa of a series, finely crafted, likeably old-fashioned in its aesthetic, beautifully made.

Therein perhaps lies Julia’s sole weakness. At one point Child and her French co-author argue about the essence of good cookery – is it, as Child puts it “exactitude” that elevates a dish or do you need some “je ne sais quoi”?

The opening episodes are a model of exactitude, with everything in its right place. That’s comforting and wholesome and it makes you want more – but thus far there are no surprises, just resplendent competence. Some diners will be hoping for more of the unexpected in the episodes to come. This patron, however, rather likes the set menu.

Julia is on Sky Atlantic and Now