by Andrew Cobby
"Masterchef was a better programme when it was tucked away on a late Sunday afternoon and was won by a retired librarian from Nether Wallop."
You know that feeling you get when you’re rummaging through the freezer looking for something to eat and your eye lands delightedly on something nice that you didn’t know you’d bought? ‘An Asda chicken korma with pilau rice’ you might find yourself saying, ‘I don’t remember buying that. I’ll have that for my tea tonight.’ The people at the BBC must have the same feeling whenever they trawl through their televisual archives. ‘This programme showing Fanny Cradock teaching us how to make vol-au-vents’, they might find themselves saying, ‘I didn’t know we’d made that. It’s well overdue a transmission so we’ll bung it on BBC4 during the long winter months’.
And so it came to pass that, one Christmas not so long ago, BBC4 showed Fanny Cradock doing a bit of cooking in 1975. I couldn’t tell you what she was making because I was distracted by Mrs Cradock’s imperious attitude towards her assistant. Yes, TV chefs had assistants then. The ethereal blue backdrop was off-putting too. It made it look as though she was cooking in heaven’s kitchen. I half expected to see Johnnie flutter by with a harp in one hand and, shamelessly, a bar of Fairy soap in the other.
When it comes to cookery programmes I always view Fanny Cradock as symbolic of what we had then, in the 1970s, compared with what we have now. If you listen carefully while watching that infamous clip from The Big Time, in which Mrs Cradock mercilessly ridicules an amateur cook, you can just about hear the sizzle of a TV career being burned to a cinder. Had she taken the time to look up from her cookery books she would have seen that television had become more democratic since she first donned an evening gown to show us how to boil an egg.
Poor Mrs Cradock. You don’t treat anyone the way she treated the splendidly-named Gwen Troake but, television being the unforgiving medium that it is, you especially don’t do it when there are cameras around to record your lack of respect for future generations to see.
What we had then, besides Mrs Cradock, was Delia Smith, Farmhouse Kitchen, Graham Kerr aka The Galloping Gourmet and Mary Berry. And that was it. Delia Smith has never left TV land but Mary Berry is proof that, if you stick around long enough to see it, everything comes back sooner or later. I remember her providing culinary relief on Good Afternoon during my days off school, then she disappeared for twenty odd years, reappeared on The Great British Bake Off and she has been making up for lost time ever since.
I am all for democracy, of course, but there are only so many good recipes to go around. Masterchef, for instance, was a better programme when it was tucked away on a late Sunday afternoon and was won by a retired librarian from Nether Wallop. It was thoughtfully scheduled so that, if you didn’t want to watch it, you didn’t have to but now there is no escaping its high-powered descendant. We have wall to wall Masterchef five nights a week, at peak viewing time with repeats on BBC2 and bulletins on the Six O’Clock News discussing the latest evictee. There is no stopping it. It has begat offspring such as Junior Masterchef, Celebrity Masterchef and Masterchef – The Professionals, each of them filled with calculating individuals with a maniacal passion for food and a ruthless ambition to own every single restaurant in the world. We get what we deserve in life and it won’t be long before someone takes the implicit link between food and sex, renders it explicit and serves up Masterchef Does Dallas (and I wouldn’t want to do the washing up for that one).
I have an uncomplicated relationship with food. As long as it goes in here (points to mouth) and comes out here (points to backside) without causing too much trouble here (points to stomach) then, as far as I’m concerned, it’s job done. What I have found from watching food programmes is that, with the odd exception, those who appear in them takes themselves far, far too seriously. Sometimes I think that, for all tasty recipes on display, the only thing being fed is the chef’s own ego. What’s that you say, Chef? You’ve recently opened your third restaurant since 2010? Well Chef, that’s nothing. I’ve recently opened my fourth bag of Dorito’s since lunchtime but you don’t hear me bragging about it.
As Keith Floyd has sadly moved upstairs, my favourite telly chef is Raymond Blanc. This is for no reason other than he once sabotaged Saturday Kitchen’s ludicrous omelette challenge by taking his time to produce a proper omelette, instead of the usual runny mess. The most satisfying part was when he whipped a piece of truffle from his pocket and lovingly grated it over the completed omelette.
There are two reasons why Saturday Kitchen should do away with the omelette challenge. I have never seen the point of a contest to see who can make the most mess in a frying pan in the least amount of time. The other reason to get rid of it is that your average TV chef’s idea of comedy is to pretend to hit his opponent with the frying pan, sometimes across the body, other times across the pate. Come on, chaps, it’s embarrassing having to witness this week after week. I accept that, where frying pans are concerned, it is hard to conjure up some original comic business but I am disappointed that not a single one has put a pan over his head and attempted a Benny Hill salute. If the pan were full with a runny omelette at the time then so much the funnier.
Now that James Martin has departed the Kitchen it would have been the perfect opportunity to inject a bit of humour into proceedings. The late, lamented Chef from South Park would have brought a touch of levity and soul to Saturday mornings. He would also have sorted out that bloke who visits supermarkets up and down the country recommending wines to accompany the dishes served up during the programme. This wine expert is a long-time resident of TV land. The seasoned viewer knows this because he has that annoying TV trait of over-emphasising everything he does. He doesn’t just enter the shop, he does a little shimmy, followed by a twirl of which Anthea Redfern would have been proud. He doesn’t just walk to the booze aisle, he points exaggeratedly in its direction, as if on an expedition in uncharted territory. I wonder what the cameraman thinks of all this.
What they don’t show on Saturday Kitchen is the out-takes in which the expert makes a nuisance of himself among the wines and spirits. I may have had a bit too much cooking sherry at the time but I seem to remember he was responsible for a memorable televised incident at a Waitrose somewhere in the home counties. ‘Security required in aisle 10’, said the tannoy, ‘there’s a drunken show off helping himself to the wines, uttering pretentious descriptions about their bouquet and annoying other shoppers with theatrical, over-dramatic gestures. He’s all yours, lads.’
This oenologist, and there really is no other word to describe him, has probably lost count of the number of supermarkets he has been frogmarched out of but he should think himself lucky that Fine Fare is no longer with us. He wouldn’t have made it out alive from one of those.
With Floyd and Chef from South Park declaring themselves unavailable, I think Glynn Purnell would be a good replacement for James Martin. He seems a likeable, down to earth Brummie and I have enjoyed watching his previous stints in the Kitchen. Instead of a regular face, though, the producers have opted for a different presenter each week. I like to think I am quite tolerant of those who appear before the cameras (and by that I mean that I’m not, and I know fine well I’m not, but I like to think I am) but I hope never again to witness the hosting skills of Gennaro Contaldo and Antonio Carluccio, either singly or in tandem. Between them, with their long pauses and their forced attempts at humour, they produced the worst telly I have seen all year. They were so bad that, rumour has it, Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood have been drafted in to pass on tips on how to present a TV show.
After doing such a good job in the Kitchen I would have thought the world is now James Martin’s oyster. He has come a long way since I first saw him on Ready Steady Cook wearing a bandana on his head. Watching Saturday Kitchen now, I miss him, and I never thought I would hear myself type that. As Joni Mitchell wistfully sang, don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Or, as my dad used to say, more prosaically, whenever he spied a bandana-clad Martin, ‘Oh God, it’s bloody Tonto’. Take your pick.
Earlier this year I was surprised to detect a Teesside accent on one of the chefs appearing in Saturday Kitchen. He turned out to be Michael O’Hare, chef extraordinaire (I hold the copyright for that rhyme, just in case. I know what these TV gourmets are like). He comes from Eston in Middlesbrough and, judging from his appearance, he is no shrinking violet. Dressed in a black and gold bomber jacket, topped off by a mullet and bottomed off by gold boots, I think he was going for the maverick, enfant terrible look, patented by Marco Pierre White before he settled down and started doing TV adverts for Knorr Stock Pots.
The man certainly talks the talk and, as a Michelin starred chef at a restaurant in Leeds, he obviously walks the walk too. During his time in the Kitchen I seem to remember he made some sort of burger, encased in a red bun to celebrate Middlesbrough FC’s promotion to the Premier League. Chef O’Hare showed up again recently on the long-running Great British Menu. This is a favourite in our household where it is well known that, where more than one chef appears in a telly programme, there will inevitably follow naked envy and barely concealed competitiveness. The beauty of this programme is that it whacks the heat all the way to up to gas mark 11 by introducing some awkward male bonding as well. They have to pretend to like each other, even to the point of offering mutual assistance, but regular viewers will know that each would gladly sell his soul to ensure that his food ends up on the menu. Elimination from the series is greeted by diffident handshakes, not so hearty high fives and awkward hugs while the eliminated chef consoles himself with the fact that, now he has been on telly, he can put his prices up. The surviving chefs are, of course, as pleased as punch that someone else has been booted off.
In this instalment of the Great British Menu, Chef O’Hare was sedately dressed in white chef’s smock, grey drainpipe jeans and leopard skin boots. I am pleased to report that his mullet and swagger were still intact. As a previous victor in this competition, he got to judge other chefs as they attempt to outdo each other and provide a course fit for inclusion in a royal banquet held for various worthies and other similarly deserving members of the British public. I am the first to admit that I haven’t done much with my life but, at the rate this programme is going through royal banquets, I am expecting my invitation to drop through the letterbox any day now. I would be an amenable guest. My dietary requirements are meagre and I would be quite willing to be seated next to Prince Edward.
Three chefs were battling it out for the honour of representing Northern Ireland. One of the three under scrutiny produced a course consisting solely of potatoes, for which he immodestly awarded himself a mark of nine out of ten. Don’t you just hate it when a man’s high opinion of himself is supported by cold, hard facts? The cold, hard fact of it is that Chef O’Hare agreed that his dish was wonderful and gave him ten out of ten. If this fact had been any colder and harder it would have been that blancmange my wife was inspired to make recently after watching Ina Garten in The Barefoot Contessa. Another thing I have learned from watching TV cuisine is that it’s a bad idea to try and reproduce any of the recipes because they never end up the same and heartbreak is sure to follow.
I don’t doubt that Chef O’Hare was correct to award top marks to Mr Potatoes, not because of his judging skills but because I am not stupid enough to disagree with anyone who comes from Eston.
While I am on the subject of Teesside culinarians (I am all out of synonyms for the word chef, can you tell?), for those who like their food spiced with a bit of crime fighting I would highly recommend Pie in the Sky. The late, great Richard Griffiths’ Teesside accent is a little harder to spot as it would have been all RADA’d out of him but I always give a little cheer whenever I see him on the telly. He enjoys himself greatly as police inspector cum kitchen supremo Henry Crabbe, scourge of villains and dieters alike. He provides an hour or so of gentle, undemanding television and has three advantages over the culinary artists that usually grace our screens – he’s fictional, he’s entertaining and he wouldn’t dream of charging you fifty quid for a burger and chips.
Andrew Cobby 2017 for Television Heaven