Weaver's Week 2013-04-14

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"I don't know an awful lot about food shows, but I thought this was a really good idea" – Simon Cowell.


Food Glorious Food

SyCo tv / Optomen for ITV, from 27 February

Let's break down this confection into its ingredients. There's an awful lot going for Simon Cowell's latest series. It's about food, which everyone loves, because everyone eats food. The name is borrowed from that hit musical Oliver!, specifically from the aspirational scene where the boys in the workhouse dream about life in the "real" world. The theme music is a bit like "Chim Chim Cheree" from the film Mary Poppins, but only a bit – enough to remind us of Dick Van Dyke and not his oh-so-accurate cockney accent.

There are other reasons to be optimistic. The regular staff includes Loyd Grossman, the well-known cookery expert. There's Geordie Stacey from one of the Masterchef shows a year or two back. There's a resident hunk in the Paul Hollywood mould, there's Anne from The Chase, and the whole show is held together by the silken voiceover of Carol Vorderman. And as if that wasn't enough, viewers will get the chance to eat some of this food themselves. What could possibly go wrong?

Food Glorious Food The crowds flock to the show.

We begin with the basic conceit: that it is possible to encapsulate the best of British in one dish, mass-produce that dish to the satisfaction of a grocery chain selling aspiration to the lower-middle classes, and for the grocers to turn an economic profit on that endeavour. It's an ambitious task, it might be a fool's errand, but we're not going to criticise people for making an honest effort. As part of the promotional push, the grocers will be gifted nine hours' of soft promotion on ITV, in a comfortable midweek evening slot.

Now, this column has a problem: a mild allergy to the sort of flag waving at the heart of Food Glorious Food. During the heats, this isn't a problem, we can treat it as a hunt for the best dish in the show, and not notice the faint whiff of demagoguery. By the semi-finals, Carol Vorderman's script was laying it on very thickly. "A dish with national appeal." "A dish the nation would like to take home." And that was just in the first minute. The scent of nationalism was becoming too much to bear. Still, we eat these shows so you don't have to, and we'll watch on.

Food Glorious Food Life inspires cooking. Or something.

The heats were conducted on a regional basis. Six of them in all, taking up residence at country fairs in Malvern, Devon, Brighton, Yorkshire, Knebworth, and somewhere in Lancashire (or was it Cheshire?). Astute readers will note that all six of these locations were in England. At each location, some competitors came into the mobile kitchen, had a short period to prepare their dish, and then had it eaten by one of the various judges. When the judge found something they enjoyed, they would award it a rosette.

Quite reasonably, this process would fill most of the episode. It wasn't all preparation, eating, and critique: a good chunk of the episode was taken up with the story behind the dish. Simon Cowell has inculcated one thing into the DNA of his company: whenever possible, go for the emotional angle. A recipe handed down from a great-great grandmother, or a relative lost at sea? Brilliant story, a human dimension to the dull cooking. Something found in a cookbook from mam? That'll do marvellously. A slightly bonkers old man who blows his whistle? Everyone loves an eccentric.

At the end of the show day, the judges considered all the dishes to which they'd given a rosette, and picked just one to make the next stage. That was an invitation to "Judges' HQ", where the food was made once more, and the four agreed upon their favourite.

Food Glorious Food Front: Stacie Stewart, Anne Harrison; back: Tom Parker Bowles, Loyd Grossman

According to the pre-show publicity, each of the judges was looking for a specialist dish. Tom Parker Bowles, the young hunk with a distant royal connection, was "on the lookout for a recipe that taps into age old recipes and techniques." Loyd Grossman, the former Masterchef presenter, sought "a modern-day favourite". Anne Harrison spent decades with the Womens' Institute, and brought all that experience to the table along with looks similar to The Governess. Stacie Stewart, a Masterchef semi-finalist in 2010, was "on the lookout for a cake or pudding the nation can fall in love with." And she's from Sunderland, and is most certainly not a Geordie. Though each had their specialisms, the critics were sufficiently flexible to accept whatever came their way.

For the semi-finals, there were just six dishes left, and the programme turned into a very simple montage of three teams cooking 150 copies of their dish to serve to some judges. A simple majority first-preference vote count told us which was the favourite of the most people, and that recipe continued to the final.

Food Glorious Food Carol Vorderman.

There was a lot of Middle England about Food Glorious Food. The locations of the heats were an obvious giveaway, as was the shop that's agreed to sell the produce. So was the high profile to the Womens' Institute, a favourite way for comfortable middle-class women to improve their communities, sell pots of jam, and/or get out of the house and meet people. Carol Vorderman is certainly an adequate host: she doesn't actually do anything wrong, but nor can we see how she advances the presenter's role.

"It really is paint by numbers telly," was one reaction to the opening show. The viewing public agreed: 2.7 million people saw the opening episode, half a million beneath Anne's other role on The Chase, and adrift of Masterchef on the Beeb, deliberately scheduled opposite. Mr. Cowell told the Radio Times that this was a "disappointing" figure, he would have preferred another million. Rather than front-page discussion in the national tabloids, he's getting press releases on page 18 of the Chipping Parva Weekly Gazette.

Food Glorious Food There will be cake.

We're not terribly surprised about the cool reaction: Food Glorious Food is television for the WI members, for the people who shop for food at Marks and Sparks, for the people who will deck their cul-de-sac for the jubilee. It's a narrowly-drawn constituency, somewhat divisive, and those who aren't included will feel very excluded. Nor is it a natural ITV audience, and we wonder if part of Food Glorious Food's aim is to break down some of the taboos: show something to attract this audience to the rest of the channel.

From our view, there's a further problem. Right now, we reckon that ITV is serving a menu of very familiar fare. Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, as familiar as fish 'n' chips, and sometimes as soggy. The Catchphrase revival is a bottle of favourite beer: it's refreshing, a brief burst of euphoria is followed by general malaise. Food Glorious Food tries to be a jam roly-poly with lashings of custard; its cake is a little stale, the sauce slightly lumpy, and we might prefer to see something less cosy. But then, we're not Simon Cowell, and if he (and ITV) don't experiment, they'll never get anywhere.

University Challenge

Group phase, match 10: Bangor v King's Cambridge

Lost one, won one, one more to play, and then this protracted phase will be over. We've no objection to a double-elimination tournament, it's just that this place in the series feels out of place.

That, and the standard of play is low: the first two starters evade both sides. Bangor prove to know their existentialist philosophers, there's not all that much to do in north Wales. No surprise that Bangor's captain gets a question about French literature, that seems to be her specialist subject. It's a slow start for King's Cambridge, they've not scored before the first visual round, on areas of Beatus's map of the world. They don't score during that round, Bangor racing to a 90-0 lead.

"Your bonuses are on asexual reproduction in plants", says our host. What are the teams going to know about that? A set on Ford, and then King's gets a starter. We like this King's side. We like this King's side a lot, we've seen them for two-and-a-half hours already and they've always brightened up our screens. It's a bit sad to see their shoulders slumped, looking down at the desk as though the game's already up. It's not even the audio round, biblical figures in oratorios, at which point Bangor's lead is 140-10.

University Challenge Heads-up for the King's Cambridge side: Curtis Gallant, Amber Ace, Fran Middleton, James Gratrex.

No-one got the audio starter, and no-one gets the next three starters. A pair of missignals cuts into Bangor's lead, and when King's has the bonuses inflicted upon them, they're just tossing out answers without a care: many of them are right. Just as in the first match, captain Fran Middleton is better at giving answers ("Smith-Wilson conjecture") than at naming the other members of her team ("Nominate, um, er, Greatrex"). Gallows humour for the Cambridge side: the second visual round is on female scientists, Bangor's lead is 160-50.

Gallows humour? Not if King's can help it, they're rubbing their hands at the possibility of a win. Well, that or making the sign of the Awkward Turtle. Nothing on that set, and a missignal on the next starter will surely have wrapped up the game for Bangor, just about confirmed when Adam Pearce reminds us of Project Gutenberg, an internet repository of free texts. Thumper asks about a differential equation, which is always a bad idea. When the gong puts this game out of its misery, Bangor's winning score is 195-70.

Next match: UCL v New Oxford, the last possible match between unbeaten sides, and set because UCL has already played the other two semi-finalists. Both of these sides are very good, both have shown chinks in their armour, and it's difficult to say which will emerge on top. Manchester would be favoured against Bangor in two weeks, but that's assuming Good Manchester turn up, and not the side that so nearly lost to Lincoln Oxford in the first round.

This Week And Next

Not content with his rip-roaring success on Food Glorious Food, Simon Cowell has announced changes to the format of The X Factor. In an interview with the Rusty Old Radio Times, Mr. Cowell said that at least one of the judges will be voted off, and that "every aspect" of the programme would change. So, that bit where they find the most middle of the road singer, make them record a sappy and predictable cover version, and see it played on Christmas Top of the Pops? Not going to happen this year: they're going to find the worst singer in the world, have them write and record a song of their own, and it'll be played at 2.55 on Christmas Day only if Mr. Cowell buys up the advertising space.

Always the most hip-and-happening of the major networks, Channel 4 has announced a new commission. Draw It is a version of the doodles-and-wordplay pastime Draw Something, an internet fad for about three weeks in March 2012. Might we interest Channel 4 in this idea we've got, where people pull letters out of a bag and try to make a long word out of them?

Nominations for the BAFTA TV awards are in. I'm a Celeb is up in Entertainment Programme and in Reality & Constructed Factual; rivals in the latter include The Young Apprentice. Over in Features, The Great British Bake Off is up for retaining its award. And in Entertainment, look for Have I Got News for You and A League of Their Own.

Nominations are also in for the Radio Academy awards, and we're torn in the Entertainment category, where Danny Baker, Greg James, and Kate Lawler are all up, and only one can win. The nominees for Best Competition are 500 Words (Radio 2), Fan Reporter (Talk Radio UK), Round Our Way on Xfm Manchester, Talk To The Animals (Absolute Radio), and Two Strangers Risk It For A Biscuit (Real Radio Scotland).

Cameron Stout is to enter politics. The 2003 Big Brother champion will be batting on the "no" side at Scotland's independence referendum vote, which will take place in autumn 2014. We also heard Ben Duncan on BBC London, talking about the death of Margaret Thatcher. A measure of her cultural significance: she was the only living person to twice be a sequence answer on Only Connect. That's unless Victoria has squeezed in another picture of Alex Guttenplan in the new series.

University Challenge A gratuitous picture of Alex Guttenplan and the Emmanuel Cambridge team.

Stella English, the winner of The Apprentice in 2010, has lost her claim for constructive dismissal; the employment tribunal ruled that she resigned and wasn't dismissed. The judgement went on to note, "There was no assurance or suggestion that the winner would receive direct mentoring from [Mr.] Sugar." An apprenticeship with no mentoring? A very strange arrangement; Ms English may have been aware of this, but was the viewing public? Her erstwhile boss Alan Sugar said that he was pleased with the result, and then launched into a blistering attack against Ms English, the tribunal system, the prospect of being held to account, and what he perceives as a something-for-nothing culture. The fact remains: this only happened because Mr. Sugar employed Ms English. She has not released a press statement to pursue her pet causes.

A couple of game shows were criticised in the most recent OFCOM complaints bulletin. Dick and Dom's Hoopla featured a game where contestants were encouraged to eat unusual foodstuffs like cold custard and mayonnaise. On one episode, a young contender appeared unhappy and reached for a sick-bucket. Though the BBC had thought about the challenge, and filming was supervised by a senior producer, OFCOM reckoned that the Beeb had underestimated peer pressure, and couldn't produce a piece of paper labelled "Risk assessment" or point to someone as an "independent expert". This column was mildly surprised to see this sort of thing on telly, and we can understand where OFCOM is coming from. We fear that OFCOM has only reached its decision because the producers haven't gone through a particular box-ticking exercise, and hope that we're misunderstanding the regulator.

Hoopla Dick, Dom, and a giant hand covered in gloop.

Both Hoopla and I'm a Celebrity were found to have breached "generally accepted standards" by OFCOM. (Who accepts these standards, by the way?) The complaint against I'm a Celeb concerned the use of Charlie Brookes's young daughter as a reward in one of the show's games. Though the daughter was hiding behind a door with Eric Bristow's (grown-up) son, she had her grandmother just out of shot. As best we can tell, I'm a Celeb has been deemed offensive because it didn't expose every string of the support network. Hoopla has been deemed offensive because it didn't make utterly clear that its contestants didn't have to eat the food, even though Dick said that in the introduction to the item.

Please say we're getting this wrong. Otherwise we would have to conclude that OFCOM believes all viewers are completely stupid and have a memory of a goldfish, and should be patronised by unchallenging television. This column is mildly offended by this implication; if we thought it would do any good, we'd be complaining to OFCOM about the minor irritance it's caused. But then, we have a life and won't get into these recursive complaints.

For the record, OFCOM has also rejected a privacy complaint against The X Factor from a contestant rejected at the first televised audition.

Ratings for the week to 31 March, and after all the time-shifters are taken into account, BBC The Voice of Holland of UK was the most popular programme. 7.45m people saw the return of Kavana start (and end), compared to 6.95m who saw Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway. Who Dares Wins had 5.35m, Masterchef 4.8m, and The Cube 3.8m. The Chase had 3.1m, barely ahead of University Challenge on 3.05m. Tuesday's football (5.2m) beat both the boat race (4.55m) and The Great British Bake Off (2.75m), with Paul Hollywood's Bread notching up 2.55m viewers. 8 Out of 10 Cats was Channel 4's biggest with 1.65m viewers, only just behind the 1.775m for Celebrity Juice on ITV2. Come Dine With Me had 475,000 on More4, and third place on the digital channels to the 310,000 for Masterchef India. Pop Idle Us was fourth, 275,000 on 5*.

This week, we'll mostly be watching the final of Côr Cymru (S4C, 6.15 Sun). There's a new run of Trade Your Way to the USA (CBBC, 4.30 weekdays), and it's a knockout week on Masterchef (BBC1, from Wed). Changes to next Saturday's shows: Britain's Got Talent runs at 7pm, Who Dares Wins shifts back to 7.30, BBC The Voice UK begins at 8.20, and The Cube's on at 8.30.

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