Simon Hoggart

Recipe for success

Things you never hear on Masterchef (BBC1, passim).

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Things you never hear on Masterchef (BBC1, passim). The presenters: ‘Cooking doesn’t get more basic than this.’ The competitors: ‘Winning Masterchef would, frankly, make little difference to my already satisfactory life.’ And the chef in the restaurant kitchen where the contestants have to make lunch: ‘We’ve got very few people in today, so you lot can take it easy.’

What with Masterchef, Come Dine With Me and now Michael Winner’s Dining Stars (ITV1, Friday) it seems that sooner or later every amateur cook in the country is going to be rated. Nobody will just invite friends for supper any more. ‘Hi! Wonder if you’re free on Saturday to come round and award us points. It’ll be very simple — just you, us and a camera crew.’

Michael Winner’s new programme is weird. As the husband of one of his contestants said, hoping he’d enjoyed a dish, ‘I don’t think he looked too distasteful when he was eating it.’ Wrong! Though if you think Winner looks a bit naff, you should see the furnishings in his bedroom. A photographer from Hello! magazine would run away gibbering.

The format is this. Michael goes by helicopter and Rolls to visit an amateur cook in their home. He arrives in town early, which gives him a chance to go to a local professional eaterie and say how dreadful the food is. Then he phones that evening’s victim to ask the menu, carp about it, and remind them how high his standards are. There is a taking-the-mickey histrionic voiceover, overwrought music, and a tedious running gag in which he yells at his assistant.

At the house he is reasonably courteous, but at the end of the meal he retreats into another room to dictate his impressions into a voice recorder. The first hostess had two very sick children and served a soggy, tepid beef Wellington. The second host offered goat curry. Apparently, Michael is an aficionado of goat curry.

At the end of the show comes the scariest bit. The two cooks are brought down to a cinema in London. They sit in the stalls with their families. Michael is on stage in a director’s chair, a reminder to us all that he was the man behind the classic Death Wish. He plays them his recorded thoughts, which makes them resentful and unhappy. Then the families leave, as if having paid a last visit to the condemned man. Michael then administers the death penalty to their ambitions. He sent the goat-curry man away empty-handed, but awarded one star to the beef Wellington woman, not for her cooking, all of which he disliked, but purely because of her two sick children. The show ended with both hostess and Winner in tears.

As a programme it was a bizarre mixture of sentiment, arrogance, tension, humiliation and comedy. Like eating mutton with smoked salmon in a praline sauce. And Michael Winner: obviously he’s not as unpleasant as he seems, but is he quite as nice as he’d have us believe? As I said, quite weird, and I hate to admit this: I’m looking forward to the next grotesque edition.

On Expenses (BBC4) was about the fight between two people: Michael Martin, former Speaker of the Commons, and Heather Brooke, a journalist who first dragged the expenses scandal into the light, then saw the glory go to the Daily Telegraph. So a few weeks ago I was delighted to present her with an award from the Political Studies Association, though the effect was rather spoiled when my brain went blank and I forgot her name. Still, richly deserved recognition at last, and here, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, she emerged as a tremendous heroine. Meanwhile, the Speaker appeared stupid, pompous, incompetent and venal. My problem with Michael Martin was that he appeared to believe that his impoverished background was both explanation and excuse for his faults. Nevertheless I suspect this portrayal was unfairly harsh; though he had a famously bad temper, I doubt he would ever have described Ms Brooke as ‘a menopausal headcase with a grudge’. Brian Cox depicted Martin as a raging monster; I’d guess the real tragedy was that he was simply a man out of his depth and Ms Brooke was throwing him a lead lifebelt.