Saturday, May 21, 2011

What’s cooking (Pt 2): a load of bollocks on TV served with hype and desperation. And thank you, Mr Dylan

If you want to make cheap television, go down the ‘reality show’ route. If you want to make cheap television which has the spurious aura of class make a ‘chefs/cooks competition’ show. Time was when we had simple cookery programmes (and boy did the British need them). I can’t actually remember seeing them, but the granny and grandaddy of them all here in the UK were Fanny and Johnny Craddock. Then there was someone called The Galloping Gourmet, but I can’t even be arsed googling the name to find out who he was. More recently we had Delia Smith, whose career followed the usual trajectory of the Press building her up to be the hero of our times, then to take great delight in knocking her down again as old hat. Though Delia (you only have to use her first name because everyone in Britain knows who you’re talking about) ruled the roost, there was competition — that is they all had their own TV series — from Antony Worrall-Thompson, Rick Stein, some fat Italian bloke, Keith Floyd and briefly Ainsley Harriot (who is stilled billed as a ‘celebrity chef’, although I don’t know why. Incidentally, the very term ‘celebrity chef’ indicates how bloody daft it has all become. For some reason it doesn’t actually sound quite as daft as ‘celebrity accountant’, ‘celebrity manager’ or ‘celebrity bus driver’ but it should. But as we also have celebrity gardeners’ — as in ‘my nan used to go out with Alan Titchmarsh’, I suppose celebrity I’m on a sticky wicket).
Of the younger generation there is Jamie Oliver, and then there was a whole raft of chefs who took part in Ready, Steady Cook, who were all working chefs and whose names gained greater currency because of the show, including Nick Nairn, Ross Burden, James Martin, Tony Tobin and Paul Rankin. So given the popularity of these TV shows you might conclude that the standard of food in Britain has risen. Well, don’t. It’s still usually reheated pigswill. It’s one thing watching a cookery programme and ‘gaining tips’, quite another to put them in practice. For example, despite all the good advice, the method of choice for preparing vegetables in Britain is still to boil them for half-an-hour until they show no sign of life whatsoever. And if even that is too challenging for your soap-hungry family, you can get a full meal — meat and two veg — and your local supermarket for less than the price of a pint. Of why not get something ready-prepared and stick it in the microwave for five minutes?
The irony is that meals don’t have to be prepared in under five minutes, that cooking from scratch is not difficult, and that buying fresh ingredients is not only makes for more enjoyable and healthier meals (all that ready-made stuff has to have all kinds of preservatives in it to ensure it stays ‘fresh’ until it is bought, not to mention the vast amount of salt, sugar and fat included to boost ‘taste’) but cheaper. The meal I described a few days ago — breast of lamb, leeks and new potatoes — cost around £4.50 for four.

. . .

The era of the ‘cookery show’ a la Delia and the others came to an end when they all more or less ran out of dishes to show us. I mean there are only so many times you can demonstrate how to prepare choux pastry, so the next move was to send them all abroad or give them some gimmick. Rick Stein buggered off to cook on French canals, Keith Floyd prepared soufflés on a primus stove in the Serengeti and Ainsley Harriot went back to his roots in the West Indies to bake cakes in an oil drum.
The gimmicks with which ever more desperate broadcasters tried to make their show stand out were several and each even dafter than the last: Two Fat Ladies was presented by two fat ladies who used to travel around on a motor bike and only came to and end when one of the fat ladies died. ‘One Fat Lady’ doesn’t have quite the same appeal. That seems to have led to The Hairy Bikers whose sole qualifications for having their own cookery show is that they are both hairy, bearded and fat. But neither is

The Hairy Bikers: redefining cooking for the modern world

a cook or has had any cookery experience at all, although what is in their favour is that they are ‘northern’, which, in the whacky world of TV, spells ‘sincerity’ and ‘lovability’. They also have the common touch (which always goes down well in Britain. It usually means that neither they nor their audience is in the least bit embarrassed when they wipe their noses on their sleeves and fart loudly. In fact, it shows they are ‘down to earth’. ‘My mam always used to say “Better out than in”, pet. Shall I do it again?’ Loud laughs and cheers all round.
Once the broadcasters had run out of countries to visit, and I don’t doubt they will have some pillock preparing a three-course meal on Mars just as soon as it becomes technically feasible to get him or her there, the next move was to introduce the element of competition. So now we have Masterchef, in which amateur cooks engage in a cook-off, with the prize being a job with some well-known chef or other, and, of course, the very, very inevitable celebrity version of the show called Celebrity Masterchef (now there’s a surprise). In Hell’s Kitchen, a chap called Gordon Ramsay makes life a misery for those taking part, the rationale being that there is tremendous pressure on chefs when they are working in anger (so to speak) so they had better get used to it. That show led on to another Gordon Ramsay vehicle called The F-word, because apparently Ramsay says ‘fuck’ a lot and for TV execs that kind of thing is important, darling. Typical of this latest trend is the Great British Menu, which pitches professional chefs from around Britain against each other, with the winner being asked to cook a four-course meal for — in the past — The Queen, the British ambassador to France and the Prince of Wales.
What I find so irritating about these shows is the spurious ‘excitement’ and ‘drama’ they all try to introduce into the format. Everything is against the clock and a collapsed soufflé is a tragedy. Then there’s the hype: every single fucking cook taking part is ‘passionate’ about cooking, ‘passionate’ about using fresh vegetables, ‘passionate’ about making sure they use the right size pan, ‘desperate’ to get it right, ‘unbelievably thrilled’ to have reached the third stage of the preliminary rounds and ‘completely and utterly gutted’ when they don’t. And it’s always, always, always ‘amazing’ when they beat their competitors. Oh for a modest ‘yes, I’m rather pleased I won’, ‘well, I do like to get it right if possible’ and ‘oh, well, I’ll try again next year’.
I can’t deny that were I a broadcaster and was charged with coming up with new ideas for programmes, I would also be clutching at straws, so in a sense my gentle rant is rather unfair, but has no one thought to cut back on quantity and aim for quality?

. . .

Next Tuesday, on May 24, Bob Dylan will be 70 years old, and already a round of the usual brouhaha is being published, with everything adding their usual schtick, so get ready for a welter of nauseating saccharine hagiography - ‘voice of a generation’, ‘he spoke for us all’, ‘protest came of age’, ‘redefined cooking for the modern world’ (no sorry, that’s the Hairy Bikers), ‘an earthquake in modern music’, ‘protestor, poet, propet – all the usual bollocks. The Daily Telegraph here in England, which makes it a condition that readers are over 50 and/or have served in the Armed Forces, ran a piece along the lines of ‘doesn’t matter if you have one foot in the grave – so do Dylan, the Stones, The Who and everyone else you wet your knickers/pants over 170 years ago’. Well, bugger all that. I just think he is a great songwriter, had – has – a – though admittedly unusual – voice and in a world where everyone tries so desperately to be a one-off, he is one without even trying.
To this day I get a chill up my spine whenever I hear the first chord of Like A Rolling Stone. (Another song that does that for me is Aretha Franklin’s version of Say A Little Prayer.) People often say about someone great ‘there’ll never be anyone like him’, but that’s nonsense. Of course there’ll sooner or later be someone of similar, perhaps even greater, stature, but I reckon we’ll be waiting some time.
Below are a few photos of the man himself, taken at different stages of his life are below. Incidentally, I could have written in the title to this blog entry ‘Thank you, Mr Zimmerman’, as that was his real name. But that strikes me as pretentious way beyond the call of duty.
Happy birthday, Mr Dylan.

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