If television is the idiot's lantern then the subjective opinions of someone unqualified to write about television must surely be the idiot's lectern.
Ready, Steady, Cook
BBC2, every afternoon
It seems to have been around forever but I’d never actually seen it before. BBC2’s perennial cookery feast "Ready, Steady, Cook" has been the edible version of Countdown since it was first made legal to show television programmes during those parts of the day when housewives should be busying themselves with household chores and not being distracted by moving images. There are many reasons why I’ve never fancied watching it and but one reason why I broke my duck this week.
I’m not, if we’re honest, in the least bit interested in cooking. I see people doing it and know I can’t do it but nothing about it makes me want to learn. I simply don’t understand food. I mean that literally – I can’t make sandwiches because I don’t get sandwiches. It follows that anything more complicated than a sandwich is far beyond me. Take a stir fry – I understand you put stuff in a frying pan and stir it. But what you put in the pan, how you stir it and why you should want to do this is a mystery. My idea of a recipe is adding cheese to bread and putting it under the grill. I get that – the bread alone would be toast (which is good) and the cheese makes it cheese on toast (which is better). I don’t see any need to make it more complicated than that.
Somehow the things above become the things below and I cannot imagine how that can be.
The second is that most cookery shows do tend to feature rather a lot of animal flesh and that appals me. It isn’t just the idea and the killing which I find so unpleasant – it looks horrible too. All that flesh and blood and fat and yuck. This particular episode spared me much of that (see below) but from the way they kept banging on about how novel it was to cook vegetarian dishes I don’t think it is something they do very often.
Finally, I’ve seen the ultimate cookery show and there is nothing they can do which can possibly be as good. Light Lunch – about which I can enthuse for hours and which I do genuinely think is the finest programme ever made – took a not dissimilar formula and made magic. It was television alchemy and the secret was lost when that great show was axed.
So I would never have gone near Ready, Steady, Cook if Digiguide hadn’t alerted me to the fact that one of the guests was Doctor Alice Roberts. Readers of these missives may have come away with the idea that I am obsessed with Zoë Telford. This is not true – I fancy Zoë Telford to an absurd degree but I am obsessed with Alice Roberts. Obsessed to the point where I’d analysed her marvellous series "Don’t Die Young" to look for clues as to whether she was indeed a vegetarian. She seemed the sort and she didn’t eat anything meaty in the series but that wasn’t proof. In the end I tracked down an interview where she confirmed it. Double hurrah – she’s on the show and it won’t be horrible.
So – the format – a couple of celebs come on with bags of ingredients. A bit of cheese, some mushrooms, a bit of pastry and a couple of vegetables – that sort of thing. The chef then looks at them and differentially diagnoses the perfect recipes. 20 minutes later, they serve a three (or more) course meal. It seems somewhat unlikely – a culinary version of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" – and I’m jaded enough to think that the twenty minute time limit is achieved in the edit rather than the kitchen. That said, daytime telly is often rushed through in the studio so they can record a dozen shows in a day (I might be exaggerating but not by much – those "Countdown" sessions are brutal) so it could be done in real time for all I know.
They like their chefs to be characters. I don’t know any names and research isn’t going to happen save for taking screen shots of Doctor Alice but there was the young one who ran marathons and was terribly energetic (a handy characteristic if one is to run said marathons) and the old one who told curmudgeonly jokes and tried to be a bit of a Victor Meldrew. Then there was Ainsley Harriot, a man I may actually never have seen in anything except guest spots and caricatures. I was expecting him to be camp and give knowing winks at the camera after every mild innuendo. Instead I had a man who played it straight (bubbly but straight) and such innuendos as there were were actually ignored by everyone, including the studio audience.
Sidebar, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more moribund small group of people as that audience. They only woke up to do the countdown at the end of the contest and that was after prompting from the Harriot.
Alice looked lovely. She always looks lovely, that’s hardly insight, but she looked especially lovely on this day of all days. She went with the 21st century hippy look and few can carry it off so well. Swoon. She was the token vegetarian – perhaps they have to have one in each series – and her bag contained the usual veggie fare of cheese, mushrooms and soil. Ainsley quizzed her on her vegginess and she made a somewhat surprising confession. She’s been vegetarian for 16 years but last year there was an episode involving venison. I’ve done a bit of research (I didn’t lie above – I’ll research Alice all night if I have to) and the story goes like this. A wild deer was killed in a road accident while Alice was staying with some chums in the country. Like the good anatomist she is, she took the chance to dissect it. The meat was put in a freezer while everyone had a good old think. She decided that since the animal died by accident and there was no cruelty involved in either its rearing or its killing that she would eat it. She happily admitted it was delicious. Sadly, this was not an in-depth interview (who knew Ainsley was no Jeremy?) and he didn’t ask if she’d eaten meat since. I hope not because she seemed very sincere about being vegetarian. And it isn’t like virginity where you can’t get it back. Indeed, I’d have even more respect for her if she did it once under such controlled circumstances, liked it and still stayed meat free. That shows a real willpower and commitment to her beliefs.
All of which is a bit serious for here so I’ll direct you to something of a parallel column here and insert another image.
Ainsley was out of his depth debating moral issues so he brought up another pre-arranged anecdote – Alice winning a food processor in a BBC food magazine competition many years ago. Her entry had been to describe a cake she had made. But she hadn’t really made it. Ainsley laughed. The banter on Team Alice was far better than the banter on Team Flesh. They must’ve squeezed three minutes out of a misshapen (but not rudely so) carrot and the other "celebrity" only brought with him a story about burning some chutney. Plenty of meaningless references to chutney followed. It was like getting to know a group of people on holiday and then meeting them years later and all you have to talk about are a couple of slightly amusing things which happened on that holiday. They latched onto the chutney and weren’t letting go. They were buffoons and I’m not just saying that because they dismissed Team Alice’s recipes as "lentils and all that rubbish". They also won the game which is unacceptable.
Just when you think it’s over you find out it lasts more than the half hour you might’ve expected from a show which makes it quite clear that stuff only happens for twenty minutes and that’s it. There is a second half – oh god – and it involves more or less the same thing but with the two chefs working together and the celebs cast aside like soiled gloves. I fast forwarded through it because I’m not paid to watch bad telly.
Not that this is really bad telly – it is just aimed at an entirely different person to the one writing this. I watched it because I fancy Alice Roberts. I’d watch Eastenders if she was making a guest appearance (possibly to dissect someone or tell them how their kidneys process all that Queen Vic ale) but it won’t make me a soap addict. Ready Steady Cook just reminded me of the good old days with Mel and Sue and that made me sad. Its ten damn years since they lit up lunchtime. On the plus side, Alice has made a second series of "Don’t Die Young" which will be a treat.