Jamie Oliver and Brian Cox

TV's Brian Cox

Brian Cox, presenter of BBC 2's Wonders of the Universe

Jamie Oliver and Brian Cox are both presenters who I love. First up, last Wednesday but for me on Friday on the iPlayer, was Jamie’s Dream School in which he attempts to do for failing pupils and teachers what he did for failing parents and cooks in Jamie’s Ministry of Food. In the Ministry of Food he showed people who thought they couldn’t cook how to do so, and how to cook things that are relatively cheap, wholesome and most importantly made with your own two hands in your own kitchen.

In Jamie’s Dream School Oliver is trying to save a state education system that is creaking under the weight of great expectations and minimal or misdirected resources. He is also, I believe, trying to help young people otherwise known as pupils. Oliver or the programme makers cannot be particularly concerned with teachers, otherwise why ask a bunch of experts in different subjects to teach when all the evidence is that teaching is a profession in its own right, with rules and training and its own particular expertise not least in classroom discipline. In other words, David Starkey may be a good historian (although Ben Miller’s skit on a reverent TV presenter arsing up priceless objets d’art is much better) but on the basis of last week’s Dream School, Starkey is terrible with people and is not a good educator of half-interested teenagers. He merely insults them.

I guess education is about consensus: willingness to teach and willingness to learn. Nipping things in the bud; if the class feel they can muck about, talk amongst themselves and use mobile phones then they will do those things. If the class never feel they can do those things they won’t or not to the same extent. When I was at school we only had pens and paper and eye contact to distract us but we did muck about. We still got qualifications, though.

Which brings me to my final point about Oliver’s Dream School. Channel 4 has made the same mistake it did with Gareth Malone who started out on TV in The Choir teaching children to sing as a way of combating various frustrations in life, none of which originally had anything to do with singing. Malone ended up trying to teach boys how to read and write better and was, to my mind, out of his depth. We will see how the Dream School narrative develops but I suspect it will not directly affect average achievements levels in schools. It has got us talking more about achievement in state schools and that is partly what television is for. But with reference to a previous C4/Oliver campaign, for better quality chicken in our supermarkets, I cannot resist noticing that Tesco were selling chickens for what looked like about £1.24 last week for a whole bird. So much for the drive for organic meat reared with love and understanding. Supply still tends to meet demand.

Elsewhere, on Sunday, Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe concluded with the popstar Prof’s personal theory that life represents the universe attempting to understand itself. A thought so profound that even my partner sat back momentarily in admiration. Up to this point my partner has only sneered at Cox’s looks and palpable success as a qualified professor and TV science presenter. So Prof Cox’s statement about life and the universe was pretty profound. To understand it you’ll have to watch the Wonders of the Universe programme and CONCENTRATE. I brushed against understanding and some burrs of information stuck to me on the way. I gathered that the odds in favour of disorder or things falling apart vastly outweigh those in favour of order or things magically coming back together again. But I could have told you that based on my experience of household appliances breaking in quick succession in the last few months and their inability to repair themselves without external help i.e. money.

I also learned from Cox that in a random universe that has existed for 14 billion years (long time) there comes a millisecond and a miniscule chance of something like life developing. That moment is now. We are right in the mix, folks, as the most knowing, mobile, communicative species on our planet. The nature of time and overwhelmingly chaotic odds mean we’re all moving towards apocalypse in, did he say, 6 billion years’ time. But for now – and these are my thoughts – we owe it to each other and ourselves to make the best of our lot on this craaaazy world which has been around for about 4 billion years and which can only exist while the sun still shines. Not too hotly.

In other words, our “forefathers” were onto something when they said: “Make hay while the sun shines.” Carpe diem, for those who took Latin at school.

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Final part of Jamie’s Ministry of Food

Jamie's Ministry of Food

Regular readers (bless you!) will know that I rate both Jamie Oliver and this series. It’s turned out, perhaps predictably, to be quite controversial and I’ve had a look at the ‘Jamie Go Home’ blog which is vituperative in its loathing of Oliver. I think he’s that sort of a celeb: you either love him or hate him.

But I defy anyone to remain unmoved by scenes of one of Jamie’s Rotherham proteges and a star of the programme, Natasha, breaking down in tears after realising she could hold her own in front of a row of Hull town hall officials. The woman who could not cook a thing a few months ago staged a cookery demonstration in the intimidating atmosphere of Hull’s panelled banqueting hall. Afterwards, having forgotten that it was all “too posh” for her in there, Natasha reflected on how her life wasn’t necessarily over after having kids at 15 and failing to learn to read and write properly. She’s found something she can do – cook – and, at the end of the programme, Oliver revealed he’d helped get her a place at catering college.

The editing of the programme was clunky, spinning out the possibly jeopardy of Rotherham town council not funding Jamie’s Ministry of Food shop for another year after the celebrity had left town. The sequence of events with Natasha also seemed awry – as if she knew she was going to catering college when she was doing the demo in Hull, which we the audience didn’t know until the end of the programme, although there was a laden conversation on a park bench between her and Jamie about whether she wanted to “take the next step” or not.

But aside from editing and Ian Jury’s, sorry, Timothy Spall’s commentary, it was a good series so thanks, Channel 4.

Amusingly, I have had reason to email Jamie’s PR today with a tiny query on a feature I’m doing, and got an ‘out of office’ reply back because the PR and presumably Jamie are “on business in Europe”, which may mean there’s some truth in the idea that Jamie’s trying to sell the Ministry of Food concept to Germany and the Netherlands.

What brought me up short, though, was the PR’s reminder that “if your email is about wanting to send Jools some baby stuff” you should send it to a certain address. Companies or individuals really do that? Send things to celebrity people they know are pregnant? This will really stoke the ‘Jamie Go Home’ brigade.

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Eli Stone, Jamie Oliver and some of Griff

So much to blog about, so little time. First, the quickest of updates on recent telly watching. Eli Stone on Sci-Fi was disappointing. Yes, it has Johnny Lee Miller and George Michael in it, two of the sexiest men in the world. (What do you mean, one of them’s gay? Like we would be riding off into the sunset together if only THAT weren’t an obstacle.) But when it came to it, My Big Fat Michael only appeared in a couple of scenes and I’d seen them all on t’interweb beforehand anyway. His music and fleeting appearance were cheap ruses to lure me into what was otherwise a standard, schmalzy, glossily-shot American comedy/drama. The ruses worked, but I went to bed halfway through the second ep of the double bill. At least I can now say I’ve watched the Sci-Fi channel at least once.

Secondly, the second ep of Jamie’s Ministry of Food. It’s still a good programme and a lovely idea – that the nation will learn to cook, one unto another, by passing on recipes that don’t involve packets of crisps or chips with cheese. I like the characters we’re meeting in the show: Natasha, who seems to have left the pawn shop behind her now and started growing vegetables amid the Pitbull turds in her back garden. I also like the miner who’d never picked up a pan until he met Jamie and now can’t stop tossing pasta in a creamy sauce in his wife’s beautiful, white kitchen. And of course I love Jamie and I wish he’d ask me what’s the matter when I come out crying from an ultrasound scan.

But I was brought up short by AA Gill’s criticism at the weekend of the basic premise of this programme and of Oliver’s Pass It On movement. At first I thought Gill’s critique amounted to the standard right-wing rantings of a reactionary who, in his words, believes TV is a “show and tell medium, not a look-and-learn one”. It seems Gill doesn’t think TV can or should change anything – as if Jamie’s school dinners has not at least started a process by which Turkey Twizzlers will be eradicated from school meals.

But then he made a crucial and perhaps irrefutable point. That the idea that working people traditionally handed down culinary skills from mother to daughter is a fallacy. That working people have traditionally been too over-worked and poor in other ways to cook at home, preferring to eat at cafes and stalls, just as they graze from McDonald’s and kebab shops today. If true, it puts us bleeding heart liberals back in the corner of the blue kitchen, having to accept people as they are (see my post Let Them Eat Cake TV) rather than trying to change what can never be changed. Resignation not revolution. Pragmatism rather than idealism. The way things are, rather than the way we’d like them to be.

Compare Robert Yates writing in The (left-leaning) Observer who exemplified the bleeding heart liberal desire to change a status quo that bleeding heart liberals don’t like (that some people don’t cook, are poor and unhealthy). The right-wing pragmatists like Gill say it’s always been thus and ever will be. I dunno, I’m just watching the programme and cooking tea like I always do for the kids.

Finally – and thanks for bearing with me, this is saving me a lot in therapist bills – why o bloody why was the second and final part of Losing It with Griffy Rhys Jones inexplicably withdrawn from the BBC iPlayer? This has done nothing for my tentative steps towards better anger management. I was liderally halfway through watching the second ep – we’d got to the Buddhist nun and I was thinking I’ve never heard of one of those before – when the thing stopped dead on my laptop. The next day the entire downloaded programme was deleted from my computer by Big Brother BBC. It is no longer available on the iPlayer.

Could it have anything to do with Griff apparently losing it bigtime during filming of World’s Greatest Cities which airs tonight on ITV 1? I don’t know coz I didn’t get to see all of the friggin’ programme but if I meet anyone from the BBC in the next couple of weeks I will punch them hot dang on the dingy. How’s that for not losing it?

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Jamie Oliver, God love ‘im

So I was one of the 264,000 people watching Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food on Channel 4 +1 last night, after Mutual Friends on BBC 1 clashed with both Jamie and Griff Rhys Jones Losing It on BBC 2. I told you there was lots of great TV on in the autumn. Thank god for the iPlayer, +1 channels etc etc. Although it all feels terribly piecemeal and difficult to navigate. Come on, Office of Fair Trading, just give our jolly old broadcasters the go-ahead for Project Kangaroo and everything will be available immediately after TX online. Won’t it?

But back to Jamie. I do fancy him, probably because he reminds me of an old boyfriend. Cripes – two terrible confessions in one line. I digress. Whether you find Oliver and his outsize tongue strangely attractive or not, you’ve got to admire his sense of higher purpose. Not content with making millions from the sales of his cookery books (it’s the books, publicised by the TV, which have made the man), he really wants to put something back into society, first by changing the way schools serve hot food and now, with his Ministry of Food, by getting real people to cook and eat real food. That way, he reckons, real people won’t be so fat and unhealthy.

And who could possibly argue with that? Needless to say there’s a four-part series documenting this self-initiated movement (he didn’t want to call it a campaign, when talking about it at the Edinburgh TV Festival in August – it’s a movement coz it depends on people doing this for themselves, not on government money or anything like that).

The first ep of Jamie’s Ministry of Food aired last night and it was a belter. Families on benefits spending 12 quid a night on takeaways then pawning jewellery to pay a bill. Jamie wouldn’t walk away coz he could tell he was changing their lives by showing them how to cook meatballs with spaghetti in tomato sauce. And he did change them, especially the woman with an eight-burner cooker who never switched the thing on. She was panfrying salmon in a basil sauce by the hundredweight within a few days.

Thing is, when Jamie from time to time had to leave Rotherham – where his real-life Ministry of Food was focussed for a full six months – the eight cookery novices he’d recruited went back to their bad old ways, ordering in chips n cheese n kebabs for the under fives.

This programme has it all – real life, as lived by people who might as well be a million miles away from those who make TV and snack on bags of mixed Fair Trade nuts; it mirrors our contemporary obsession with food, whether it’s relatively cheap and nasty or relatively cheap and home-made; and it has Jamie Oliver, leading the charge for better eating and wearing all manner of hoody tops and sneakers in the process.

Who else is doing this? Who else – apart from RDF, makers of Wife Swap, and maybe Gillian McKeith of You Are What You Eat – has bothered to go into several kitchens in Rotherham, where local mums famously revolted against Jamie’s drive to improve school dinners, and seen the two fridge trays packed to the gunnels with sweets to be thrown at the kids whenever they start squawking?

Changing the day-to-day eating habits of the masses (my father would call them the great unwashed) is a massive task. But Jamie Oliver’s attempt to tackle Britain’s obesity rates from the grass roots up by teaching ordinary people to cook and asking them to teach others, as mums once taught their families, is admirable in the extreme. Rock on, Jamie, I’m with you and loving your chicken/lemon zest/cheese/proscuitto number, which I learnt from the demo up in Edinburgh.

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