Magazine article The Spectator

Playing It Safe

Magazine article The Spectator

Playing It Safe

Article excerpt

It's funny how much television depends on repetition. Daytime, especially. The same house is always being auctioned, the same chinoiserie discovered in the attic, the same boxes being opened on Deal Or No Deal. Even the new Countdown has eschewed new letters. It might have been fun if they added a few Greek ones. This repetition is comforting, and it only applies, so far as I can see, to television. The last film I saw was The Reader, and somehow I doubt we'll ever see The Reader II. Even the James Bond franchise goes in for variety -- for example, Casino Royale was very good, whereas Quantum of Solace was rubbish.

The last play I saw was August: Osage County at the National, and while it was funny, sad, and full of sharp observation -- if a little long -- I doubt I'll go to September: Osage County if Tracy Letts gets round to writing it. Whereas on television, they would have commissioned a 13-part series with the same wacky characters. ('How about they all go to Disneyland, and Ma is caught popping her pills on top of Space Mountain?') I was reflecting on this while watching Masterchef (BBC2), which appears to have set down leylandii-style roots, like The Weakest Link. It is on four times a week, 30 minutes with an hour on Thursdays, for the foreseeable future. I love it. I especially love the repetition. Suppose someone came on and cooked a meal as well as Heston Blumenthal? It would spoil it. Suppose the two hosts, John Torode and Gregg Wallace, stopped shouting and spoke at normal decibel levels? Suppose they had the scene in the real restaurant kitchen, and the real chef didn't scrape someone's first offering into the bin?

All the dishes -- and there are a dozen in every programme -- blur into one: avocado whelks followed by lamb shank with a raspberry ragout and chocolate-dusted beetroot millefeuille . . . 'You have THIRTY SECONDS!' the presenters bellow. The contestants stand by for the judgment, proud but justifiably nervous. 'The problem IS! Carpaccio of pork is DISGUSTING!

I've never seen smoked salmon and liver on the same plate, and do you know why? It's HORRIBLE!' Every contestant says how winning Masterchef will transform their lives, and they all have the same brave little smile when they're thrown out, as 23 are every week. …

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