Coyness

Jamie Oliver in New York. Channel 4

Had I but world enough, and time, I might have written about the following in the past few weeks.

Heston Blumenthal‘s return to Little Chef on Channel 4 to see if his new menu and the new-look restaurant, trialled at the A303’s very own Popham services, was a success. Clearly, this allowed for plenty of footage from the original series to be repeated. But we gathered that yes, new things are working for Little Chef and they’re rolling out Heston’s menu and the modern decor across the chain’s main sites. But that stuffed shirt of a Little Chef chief executive is still as painful to watch as he ever was. That’s enough now, please.

Then there was Jamie Oliver road-tripping around America. I particuarly enjoyed his take on New York which included very few actual Americans (whoever they are) and lots of first and second generation immigrants. As a result we saw a side of New York that didn’t feature in Friends and, as Jamie himself said, we might have been inspired to find out where our own local Egyptian or Chilean restaurant is. I have a short answer to that. Not in these parts.

And finally Spooks has returned to BBC 1. Better than it was after the quality dip that came after the first two brilliant series. But still chock full of corny dialogue which just stops short of Nanoboy-esque “only five minutes to save the world”. Good fun though. Last night’s episode about potential black-outs as British gas supplies dry up made me doubly appreciative of my open fire. Happy Autumn.

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Television. Hmm

Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. BBC

Hmm. What have I watched this week? Nothing, really. Not great for a TV journalist. I tried a bit of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on the BBC iPlayer the other night, but just didn’t find it funny. And he was talking about television. Far better was part two of Eddie Izzard – Sexie, which had been on the radio somewhere. Now he knows how to do stand-up comedy. Even on radio where you can’t see the ‘stage business’.

And, other than that, there’s literally been nothing that takes my interest this week. Monday: nothing, including C4’s The Great Sperm Race, “the story of human conception brought to life as people, playing the part of sperm, negotiate hostile terrain”. Sounded like a Guinness ad gone horribly, badly wrong. Tuesday: bloody Heston Blumenthal again on C4; Mistresses on BBC 1; Horizon on BBC 2 doing earthquakes; and Holloway prison on ITV. No thanks.

Wednesday: The (new series of the) Apprentice on BBC 1. Despite the fact that this show gets more and more popular, it is just another reality TV show in which we’re supposed to get to know the contestants and live their (unscripted therefore supposedly close to real-life) ups and downs as they struggle to win the approval of SirAlun’s gimlet eye. I can’t do it, I just can’t.

So to tonight and more of ER on More4. I like the sound of The Mentalist on Five, but that may just be the title. In our household the term ‘mentalist’ is used with approval, as ‘it’s mental’ was back in, oh, the 80s or something.

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The good, the bad. And Heston

Heston Blumenthal. Channel 4

What is it about Heston Blumenthal? The more Channel 4 appear to be in love with the guy, the more I decide I hate him. I wasn’t sure about him in Big Chef Takes on Little Chef. He is basically a poncey chef, who finnicks around in his Berkshire restaurant with slivvers of gold leaf. So what he was doing trying to serve hearty fodder to the road-weary desperates who call in at Little Chef was anyone’s guess. Truly car crash television. Although Blumenthal eventually made a relatively good fist of a new menu, I never warmed to him as a personality.

Just a few short weeks later and he has been back on C4, with a Victorian Feast last week on 3 March and this week with a Medieval Feast. Bad timing that his celebrated gaff The Fat Duck has recently had to close with epidemic numbers of people complaining of feeling ill after eating there. So bull’s testicle plums seem like even less of a good idea than they might have done when the programme was commissioned.

I should rise above the personal criticism, but there’s something about Heston’s slightly wraparound specs which can’t do anything to hide the fact the lenses magnify his eyes, about his shaved head, about the suspicion that he’s not really as clever as someone at C4 thinks he is that irritates the HELL out of me. I caught some dildo action in the Victorian episode. But watch the Medieval feast, I did not.

Also managed to miss the most talked-about drama of the past week, Red Riding, with part two on C4 tonight. But judging by this thread, it was a bit tough to follow – even if you’ve read the books.

One highlight of the last week – not for me but for my life partner – was the first episode of Al Murray’s new sketch show last Friday (6 March). How he laughed at Gary Parsley, the 70s pop star who bears no relation to either Elton John or Gary Glitter; how he guffawed at Barrington Blowtorch (just the name, never mind the sketch); how we both loved the mobile phone “sales” boys complete with irritatingly etched facial hair. Overall the show was more of a boy thing than a girl thing, but at least there’s something to follow QI on a Friday night now. You just have to switch to ITV 1 at 9.30pm to find it.

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Big chef Heston crashes into Little Chef

Heston Blumenthal in Big Chef Takes on Little Chef. Channel 4

You knew there was going to be a car crash from the moment you saw chef Heston Blumenthal glancing over his shoulder to talk to the film-maker on the back seat as his shiny black BMW sped up the motorway to Sheffield, Little Chef’s HQ.

Blumenthal, owner of the ridiculously poncey and expensive restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray and creator of dishes such as snail porridge and eggs and bacon ice cream, has been parachuted in to try to save ailing roadside restaurant chain Little Chef. It’s a moot point as to whether this has been arranged by the company’s managers or by Channel 4 for the purposes of its series, Big Chef Takes on Little Chef, which started on C4 last night.

Suffice to say, the inevitable car crash TV ensued. Heston correctly identified Little Chef’s existing menu as a bag of shite, something its customers have known for years, and played it relatively safe by coming up with new menu ideas that were essentially British, iconic but with just a touch of the “magic” that he is renowned for in the world of haute cuisine. Hence the oyster and lamb thyroid Lancashire stockpot.

Needless to say, Little Chef customers didn’t like what was on offer and continued to plug away at the Olympic breakfasts and Hawaiian burgers sponsored by Allied Carpets.

The only point of interest in this story is what Little Chef managing director Ian Pegler wants out of the whole process. An over-stuffed suit full of business cliches, he says he wants “blue-sky thinking” from Blumenthal and suggested the lamb stockpot and chocolate ice cream with an “aura” of dry ice weren’t enough. But if he wants something even more radical he is clearly more out of touch with his few remaining customers than a visit to any Little Chef on the A303 suggests. Popham, the first Little Chef you meet heading south on the 303, is barely useful for a loo stop.

Perhaps the MD was playing a long game over the summer when this was filmed. By allowing Heston to make such a fool of himself, he might hope the chef will be hounded out of the chain so that Pegler and his band of grey-faced businesspeople can continue ruining the Little Chef business themselves.

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