TELEVISION / Fact is stranger than fiction - but not as funny

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The Independent Culture
FOR A sustained attack of skin- stripping vitriol, the opening scene from last night's Chef] (BBC 1) would be hard to beat if you chucked a bucket of sulphuric acid over the set.

'OK, bring me a large knife, razor sharp, this instant,' Lenny Henry announces to the lackeys in his kitchen. 'I have to castrate the person who made this sauce, and I do not wish unnecessary suffering. It is imperative the author of this atrocity is not allowed to breed anymore. If his DNA enters the gene pool, the effects could be catastrophic.'

Not since Fawlty Towers has the merciless demolition of an underling made such entertaining viewing. It is no coincidence that Chef], like its precursor, is based in the catering industry: the last bastion of the bullying bastard. Those of us who do proper jobs (writing a few words that end up the next day lining the rabbit's hutch, for instance) might consider Henry's characterisation of a man prepared to commit murder over something as trivial as bechamel a touch exaggerated. Those in the know tell us his portrayal is indeed a parody of the real thing. Compared to some of the chefs presiding over Michelin stars, they say, Henry's Gareth Blackstock is a sweetheart. Compared to the knife fights regularly broken up in the kitchens of the nation's snazziest eateries, his sarcasm carries little edge. Show a top chef like he really is and we wouldn't find it funny.

There is something about the contours of Henry's face, the curvature of his shoulders, the plod of his out-turned feet, that is soft and kind. In the first series of Chef], when he was irritated in the kitchen, you never quite believed him: a man we knew to be this nice wouldn't have made it in this profession. It seemed in those first few episodes that Henry had given himself a role he couldn't quite complete.

For this second series, he appears to have recognised that weakness and turned it to his comic advantage. Thus, when he dismissed the junior with the dodgy DNA, the youth, like the audience, didn't quite believe him and stood his ground, certain his boss would relent. This delay allowed Henry to spew out a brilliant, staccato burst of a dismissal notice; its ridiculous length both adding

to the humour and suggesting he was persuading himself, as well as the unfortunate victim, that he meant it.

'Please depart this kitchen now, instanta, at this moment in time. Go, Tariq, go. You are sacked, fired, dismissed, history. You are a was, a has- been, a finished. Please repair to the place known as 'Duncookin'. You will receive two weeks pay and your cards will be sent to you by post. You should get them about the same time table seven get their food.'

The depth of such dramatic characterisation is far beyond the wit of ordinary programme-makers. In fact invention of any sort seems, increasingly, to be beyond them. Across the channels, real life is replacing the made-up. It is cheaper, for a start.

Last night's Blues and Twos (ITV) was the latest offering from the 'if-in-doubt- chase-an-ambulance' school. This time, body cameras were strapped to paramedics as they attended victims apparently charred by volleys from Gareth Blackstock's tongue. It may sound churlish, since the Derbyshire ambulance service is clearly, on this evidence, made up of remarkable folk doing a wonderful job, but after 10 minutes Blues and Twos became thin gruel. Seeing a man fatally wounded in a fire might enthuse snuff- movie fans, but it left this reviewer, well, cold. As Lenny Henry has proved with Chef], a cunningly altered vision of someone else's life makes far more palatable viewing than the real thing.