Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Hungarian Goulash

If I’ve been silent these past few weeks, I’ve had good reason. In fact, I’ve had more than one good reason. My lap has been heavy with good reasons, my pockets full to overflowing with good reasons. I’ve even had good reasons coming out of my nostrils, good reasons coming out of my ears. There hasn’t been an orifice that hasn’t been excreting good reasons. And all for a good reason.

‘Richard, I’m worried about you,’ said Mrs. Madeley one morning about a month ago.

‘Me?’ I said, looking up at her standing at the top of her step ladders. Judy was applying a coat of green emulsion in the shape of giant fig leaf to the new mural we’d had painted on the dining room ceiling. The naked figure of a recumbent Jonathan Ross was the product of some misguided artistic licence on behalf of our decorator. The resulting eight feet run of Jonathan’s limp manhood had been far too lifelike for Judy’s tastes and she’s been unable to overcome the feeling that it was going to crush her whenever she sat down for dinner.

Judy’s elbow worked the roller as she spoke. ‘I worry about how you’ll survive on TV once I go down to Cornwall to write my erotic novels based around my heroine, the buxom eighteen-century courtesan, Jemima Flirt.’

‘I’m glad you ask,’ I replied, putting my glass of brandy to one side and folding my newspaper. ‘I’ve been giving some thought to the adventures of Miss Flirt and have come up with some jolly romps that I’d like to run past you. Now close your eyes, Jude... Well, perhaps not close them completely, given you’re atop that ladder, but imagine, if you will, that it’s late in the evening of 1734 and the local poetaster, Sir Clive Jameson, has just finished composing his latest dirty limerick in his rooms, when who should come to his door with a newly cleansed spittoon but the buxom Miss Flirt... “Come hither with my snot bucket, wench!” says he...’

Judy paused, her hand inches from Jonathan’s glossy spheres. ‘You don’t honestly think you’ll be helping me write my books, do you Richard?’ She pointed a fig-leaf-green finger my way. ‘Stop thinking that you can write. You’re staying on TV where your smouldering good looks might still earn us a few quid.’

I breathed a sigh of relief. To be honest, my enthusiasm didn’t lie in erotic novels and never has done. Not only do I find their prose rather flat but I also find that the pages tend to be stuck together wherever the action has hotted up.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘there’s always those wildlife documentaries I’ve always been keen on making...’

‘Wildlife?’ asked Judy, wobbling on her ladder. ‘What kind of wildlife?’
It was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. Rarely does my wife take a real and active interest in my ambitions, so over the course of the next fifteen minutes, I outlined my plans to make a documentary about my second favourite mammal.

‘And that’s why I want to go and be the first man to film the Giant Hungarian Ferret,’ I said in conclusion.

Judy had climbed down from her ladder and was now sitting at the head of the table examining the brochure I’d had professionally printed for occasions such as this. It covered the whole proposal for any potential investor, including the kind of funding I’d need to complete the documentary and the estimated audience who’d enjoy watching it. Judy seemed impressed by the figures. She mumbled a few questions and I did my best to answer them until, eventually, she closed the brochure and looked out at me from beneath a relaxed brow thick with green paint.

‘I think it’s an excellent idea,’ she said.

‘You do?’

‘If it means that you won’t be hanging around the cottage telling me how to write my book, then I’m all for it. In fact, the sooner I get you over to Hungary, the better it will be for all of us.’ And with that she whipped out her chequebook and scribbled out a figure well in excess of the amount I needed to get my project started.

Well, that truly excited me. To have Judy’s support in an endeavour this big: is there any wonder why I haven’t had time to write this blog? Not forty eight hours passed before I had packed my bags and I was meeting a documentary team at Heathrow for the flight to Budapest.

Now, I realise that I should have blogged from my travels through the heart of Hungary. It’s what Fry would recommend, probably dressed in Tweed and Twittering all the way. But I got so caught up in the events that I only had time to jot down a few notes in my diary at the end of each day. Until the documentary is finished, this will have to do. I have withheld most of the geographical details in order to protect the location of the ferrets. I have since returned to Hungary twice but this is the account of my first painful visit. Other episodes might follow depending on how the British public takes to the ferret, which remains one of nature’s greatest wonders, to rank alongside the blue whale, the Yellowstone National Park, the continued popularity of Phillip Schofield among women of a certain age.

Extracts Taken from The Madeley Diary. March 2009.


We’re in Hungary. Not so keen on the food (I swear the goulash is made from real ghouls, ho ho!) and we’ve already lost our cameraman to one of the local bordellos. The director sent the sound recordist in to bring him back but neither of them have returned. I am now stuck in my hotel room, minding the equipment, while the director goes to bring the two of them back. I wish he hadn’t taken the researcher with him. I’m alone and the hotel owner keeps knocking on my door and making kissing noised through the keyhole. I wouldn’t mind but he’s not a day younger than eighty.


The giant ferret hunt begins! We’ve been told there have been many sightings of the giant ferret in the woods of Eastern Hungary, so that’s where we’ll begin our search. This morning the director, researcher, cameraman, and sound recordist all returned from the bordello looking refreshed by their adventures. I, on the other hand, spent the day irritable after having locked myself in the bathroom all night. The hotel owner returned after midnight with the key to my room and proceeded to spend the next eight hours lying in my bed. I suspect he wanted to make more than kissing noised through my keyhole. Today I still have the impression of a communist-period hot water tap in the small of my back and the ring of a World War 2 plughole pressed into my right buttock. It’s like that scene out of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Should you be able to read Russian, you could make a replica of that plug just from the details on my behind.


We’re now in Eastern Hungary, close to the border with Romania. Striking camp tonight, we were approached by a local who claimed to know of one of the ancient ferret herders. He has offered to take us to see an old man who apparently has a way with the animals. I asked if the old man is bearded and can communicate with owls. Surprisingly, the answer was yes. I’m excited by the prospect of tracing Bill Oddie’s heritage this far east. I’ve always suspected that there’s a bit of Greek Orthodox in the Oddie mix.


Tonight I saw my first giant ferret! We’d all retired for the night when, around 1AM, I made my usual visit to the bushes. I had scraped a shallow hole in the ground but, unfortunately, the darkness prevented me from seeing some thistles upon which I proceeded to park myself. No sooner had I yelled out in pain when, from the depths of the woods, there was an urgent reply. One or the other scream woke the camp and after I’d explained what had happened, our guide told us that my cry had been identical to the distress call of the giant ferret. The echoed cry of alarm had come from a nearby animal. It was indeed fortunate for the advancement of science and the prospects for our documentary. I tried to repeat the cry but with no luck. Finally, after much persuading and a few threats, I was encouraged to sit on another thistle. My scream was genuine and effected an immediate response from the woods. The hunt was on!

After an hour, we managed to track down the ferret in a clearing about a mile from camp. We saw him for only a fleeting moment before he disappeared into the deeper wood but it was enough for me. This morning I’m sore and somewhat red and irritated down below but I am happy to have seen such a rare and magnificent beast.

I am about to have more ointment applied by the sound recordist who has the longest fingers in the team. Those thistles dig deep.


We met our ferret herder and told him about our experiences of the previous day. He seemed impressed and had a novel cure for those parts of mine which have become greatly swollen. You might well laugh but he has smeared goulash over my wounds! The soothing is remarkable but there’ll be no more calling ferrets for me, I’m afraid! Luckily, the old herder showed me how to make a similar noise with the horn of the native Hungarian yak. (Our herder does bear a striking resemblance to Bill Oddie, though when I pressed him on the subject, he became somewhat reluctant to talk about it.)


What a day! Thanks to the herder, I rode my first wild ferret! I’m still sore and all that bouncing on the ferret’s back did little to help my swelling but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Beat that, Stephen Fry! I rode a ferret or, as they say here in Hungary, the ferret rode me. They are easier to ride than horses but far more skittish. Thankfully, I’ve spend years handling Judy’s miniature show ponies so I knew the ropes. The seemed drawn to me and I suspect it’s because I was rich with the smell of goulash. I think the old ferret herder knew what he was doing when he smeared me with that stuff. (The herder’s name, Billish Oddeski, furthers my suspicions and I must look into this on a later visit.)


We’re back in Budapest. Sad to be going home in the morning, despite the old hotel keeper already having been back to my keyhole twice this evening. I will leave with many good memories and some BAFTA award winning footage in the can. There’s even some footage of me in the can, though I doubt if it would be BAFTA award winning. Or who knows? If Alan Carr can be nominated, I’m certain there’s room for a man with goulash smeared around his privates. I’m just excited that the first part of filming is over. I rang Judy and she says that the BBC are already sniffing around the project. Again, I suspect that the goulash has something to do with it but it bodes well for the future of this project.

When I do come back, I think I’ll choose a different hotel.

Coming Next Year to ITV...