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The human factor

Successful programmes often become bloated, and MasterChef (BBC1, Wednesday) is headed that way.

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

Successful programmes often become bloated, and MasterChef (BBC1, Wednesday) is headed that way. They are now increasingly focused on the human interest rather than the food. What a long way it has come from the days of Loyd Grossman, and his catchphrase ‘deliberated, cogitated and digested’ as he contemplated some appalling dish of liver in a gooseberry jus, served with individual mackerel and yam pavlovas. In those days contestants were hoping to prepare a half-decent dinner party; now they want their lives changed.

I am sure many lives are changed, though most winners seem to disappear, from our ken, at any rate. But the hype is needed to evince the emotion. Contestants weep with gratitude if they make the last 20; others weep if they fail. There was a woman called Josie in this week’s starting episode. Her eyes were damp with tears as she plucked and pleaded to be kept on. ‘Baht — you’ve got lumps in your mashed potater!’ said shouty Greg Wallace in the manner of Torquemada spotting a new heresy.

‘I promise, promise it’s not usually like that, promise, just starting-up nerves, I’ll be fine from now on, promise,’ the poor woman begged. The pair threw her out anyway and moody music struck up as the camera held a close-up on her distraught, wet face. She left the room and John buried his head in his hands. Engulfed by her grief? Or stifling a laugh? I thought that showing the incident and the woman’s misery was nasty and exploitative.

Here’s my suggestion: they could get viewers to vote, as in The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. This would allow them to bring in well-loved celebrities who can’t cook, whose dishes would be spat out by the judges, but who would be voted back every week regardless. Pointless — of course, but that’s the way reality shows are going these days.

Sky Atlantic has begun to show Treme (Friday), pronounced Truh-MAY, named after a neighbourhood in New Orleans. This is a massive serial, made by David Simon, the man who created The Wire, which aficionados will tell you was the greatest television series of all time with the possible exception of The Sopranos. We follow the lives of people three months after Hurricane Katrina — musicians, mothers looking for their missing children, a restaurateur trying to keep her business going, a raging civic leader and a bad-tempered disc jockey.

Simon’s style is to ignore elaborate set-ups; the camera appears to arrive at random as if it had been wandering around the city looking for something: a barbecue, a gig, a marching band, a couple having a quarrel. It seems to stay with the situation until it gets bored and drifts elsewhere. There are no smooth endings or cliffhangers. Some of the characters speak a form of English unrecognised by most of us; I suspect their accents mean that even many Americans would value subtitles.

This all gives a very naturalistic air. As in life, sentences tail off, events are half-finished, turn out to be inconsequential, or reveal their outcomes later. You could disappear to make a cup of tea, and pick up the threads straight away. Two problems, though. In one scene the civic leader is infuriated by a sneering, snobbish British television reporter who would have been thought discourteous in the Bullingdon Club, circa 1934. Since he is so bizarrely unlike any British reporter we have ever seen, never mind in the past ten years, he makes us ponder why, if Simon gets this so wrong, we should trust anything else?

More importantly, I wasn’t really interested in any of the characters. I didn’t need to like them, but I did need to care what happened to them. And I didn’t. American audiences for Sky Atlantic’s other mega-production, Boardwalk Empire, halved in mid-series. I fear the same will happen here to Treme.

Most people must have assumed that Ricky Gervais’s insults to the stars at the recent Golden Globes ceremony were carefully designed to raise his profile and reach his target audience of young American persons who would be delighted to see Hollywood’s monstrous, insecure egos put down. So how would Jonathan Ross (statute law now states that he must host all British ceremonies not already hosted by Stephen Fry) react to the challenge at The British Academy Awards (BBC1, Sunday)?

He didn’t. There were some sharp gags, but he always stayed carefully on the right side of the plump, satisfied, complacent crowd in the ROH, all happy to be part of that self-congratulatory business that we call show. Occasional cutaways focused on a few grumpy people, which was good, but I longed for someone to cut through the sticky nougat and thank their ‘difficult, moody’ casting director, or pay tribute to their ‘kind, but frankly plain wife’.

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