The other day there were four cookery programmes in prime time on the terrestrial channels. Why? What on earth makes this subject of such relentless fascination? At least on the similarly ubiquitous antiques shows you can look at the antiques. But so far you can’t taste the food, though no doubt they’re working on that as the next big thing after 3D. Instead of buying HD-ready televisions, we’ll get oven-ready sets. ‘Press the red button for venison in a raspberry coulis, or the blue button for turbot in a beurre blanc...’
The latest is Out of the Frying Pan (BBC 2) in which contestants who didn’t quite make it on Raymond Blanc’s The Restaurant try to succeed in the real world, or in a world as real as anything surveyed by camera crews ever can be. James and Alasdair were celebrated on The Restaurant for being talented but liable to tremendous screw-ups. They were invited to a stately home where they were supposed to make three meals for 14 people from a tiny kitchen with an Aga so old, so small and so rusty that it would have given a Joanna Trollope unfaithful wife the dry heaves.
The host and organiser explained that it was a shooting party and that the guests were used to the very best, adding, ‘If anything goes wrong, that reflects on everybody.’ I had high hopes. James and Ali were going to be the new Laurel and Hardy. The dinner would end with the guests holding their stomachs as they ran to the loo, Ali scratching his head and the host ordering the pair out before they killed anyone else.
It didn’t work out like that, though it did start promisingly with at least one member of the party feeding lovingly prepared venison sausages to a dog. Also the salmon was underdone. But the meals turned out disappointingly well. In the end it didn’t matter, because the show wasn’t about food at all, but about class. The family might have good accents, but they were nouveau. They served as an aperitif fizzy wine with flakes of gold in it, the vinous equivalent of mauve acrylic fingernails, they had over-the-top interior décor (real nobs have shabby furniture, chewed by dogs) and they had invited a TV crew in the first place. When the wife chose the moment before the dinner service to complain about the state of the kitchen, you realised we were dealing with people who were less U than James and Ali themselves.
Class permeates almost every British television programme at some level, obviously in reality shows such as Wife Swap, but it’s bubbling under the surface everywhere. Will the girl who works in the hair salon beat the headmaster on The Weakest Link? When people bring their grandmother’s brooch on to Flog It! they release signals about their class in the same profusion as an octopus squirting out eggs. In Outnumbered Ben, the middle child, counts chavs from the top of a bus. One reason we have so many Irish presenters on British television is that, being foreign, they are not earmarked, tattooed with class. A Masai can tell everything he needs to know about a neighbour from the state and the quantity of his cattle. We are doomed subconsciously to analyse class indicators in the same way, all the time, so much so that we scarcely notice until it’s dragged before us, like a retriever with a pheasant.
If you can, catch White Collar on Bravo. It’s like an American version of Hustle, only with a tormented, craggy FBI agent and a handsome, relaxed con man. It’s sharp and funny. And, as the title implies, it, too, is about class, but American class. Quite different.