TV review

Flash in the pan

The Times

October 30, 2009


The Restaurant

The Event: How Racist Are You?

Cutting Edge

Wonderland: The British in Bed

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Oh good, The Restaurant is back. This is like a long limber up for The Apprentice. It is shot in the same way, has the same dramatic scheme – bit it’s about cookin’ not sellin’. Raymond Blanc (or “Mr Blonk” as one of the contestants called him) is Sir Alan, and Sarah Willingham and David Moore his Nick and Margaret (or Nick and Karren, as we are going to have to learn to call them; hope the papyrology’s going well, Marg). Nine couples, then, all wanting to open their own restaurant, Mr Blonk and his sidekicks will fund the ones with the jazziest jus.

The first task was to cook a dish that stands for each duo’s dream venue. But the standard of food provision in Bristol, where this is set, is lacking: Daisy and Nadine can’t find goat for their Nigerian main dish. Shaun and Janet lament the lack of “graa-arv-ardlax”, and buy some boring smoked salmon. There’s a mum and son from Devon; she does the cooking, he doesn’t know what day of the week it is.

But if they are unimpressive, mother and daughter team Sandy and Natalie are thrown out of the competition without recourse to end-of-episode cliffhanging twang-twang music, for life-endangering crimes against kitchen implements. Blonk and Sarah look on horrified as the pair attempt to crack a coconut with a large kitchen knife (and rolling pin), taking inspiration from Anthony Perkins slashing at the shower curtain in Psycho. The same weapon was then wielded to open a tin of coconut milk until Mr Blonk showed them the electric tin opener. Their coconut mousse is as runny as tap-water and they are booted off.

Every season of The Restaurant includes at least one chef who looks as if one badly parboiled potato could send them over the edge. This time that role is filled by the ex-army chef Barney, whose execution of a sirloin steak was conducted in the spirit of Taxi Driver rather than Delia. This year’s instantly dislikable twerps? JJ and James (above), who run club nights. They wink at Blonk (“Why you wink at me?”) and want to start a picnic food company, promising such delicacies as “Scotch eggs with a twist”. Monsieur has taken against them already, and on account of their constant hair swooshing, so have we.

The problem with world-famous tests designed to show white people’s innate racism, and black people’s innate victimhood, is trying it out on the stubborn British public in 2009. In The Event Jane Elliott’s test — to get a group of brown-eyed people to persecute, for no reason other than their eye colour, a group of blue-eyed people — didn’t really map out as well as it did on American schoolchildren in the 1960s. Elliott has been accused of being a bully and she played the part well. The blue-eyed Brits didn’t accept their victimhood, and a couple of the brown-eyed people didn’t see themselves as immediately superior; one ultimately sabotaged the test. Some of the black participants absolutely got Elliott’s point — that just having a different skin colour visibly sets you apart — and resented the group’s failure to grasp that.

But Elliott’s test didn’t take account of the fact that while her thesis may be sound, the mechanics of racism and the ways that agencies and individuals have been trying to dismantle it have had their own effect. That and in today’s victim culture, everyone feels persecuted for one reason or another. Stroppy,whiney British nature defeated Elliott.

Katie Piper’s fortitude was of a different magnitude: we watched her in Channel 4’s Cutting Edge trying to get some kind of life back after an ex-boyfriend arranged an attack in which sulphuric acid was thrown in her face. Before this heinous crime, she was conventionally beautiful and living a full life. After the attack she was disfigured and became scared of every knock at her parents’ door. She couldn’t see the point in carrying on. By the end she had managed her first tentative steps down to the shops. Piper’s honesty was bracing, her bravery inspiring.

The British in Bed was a cavalcade of wittily shot couples in bed talking about their sex lives. However, the arch laughs — the older couple bickering, the middle- aged couple considering how little sex they had — were thrown into jolting relief when it emerged that the older woman had survived a concentration camp (“I never watch war films”) and the middle- aged woman said that she didn’t know her husband still desired her. He may have thought it, but never expressed it.

Yet again, a perfect episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm: Larry must somehow keep his promise to cast his ex-wife (and true love) Cheryl in the role of George’s ex-girlfriend in a Seinfeld reunion. The problem is that Jerry Seinfeld (below, with Larry) just promised the part to Meg Ryan. Larry’s encounters with the cast inevitably provoked a perfect storm of misunderstandings and enmity. His innately troubling participation would have been most welcome in The Restaurant and How Racist Are You?.