Television Review

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The Independent Culture
GREG DYKE, so media analysts were fond of saying in the weeks before his appointment, was the strongest candidate to become the new director general of the BBC because he understood the medium of television. Better than almost anyone else in the industry, they claimed.

History will judge whether or not this is the case, but either way, it seems an appropriate time to mention Ainsley Harriott. Not, you understand, as Dyke's potential successor, but because of his latest series, Ainsley's Big Cook Out (BBC1), in which he is undertaking some sort of surrealist barbecue tour of the Americas. Having mentioned Ainsley Harriott, I am aware that TV reviewer etiquette demands that I sneer and present a snappy deconstruction of his buffoonish excesses, but frankly, I'm not inclined to.

Like his new boss, he understands that television is essentially a hybrid and that in televised cookery, the camera in your face is more important than the food on your plate. Understatement is as much of a taboo as overcooking your vegetables. The hapless Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of the River Cafe missed the point in their Channel 4 series - they concentrated on the quality of the balsamic vinegar ("pounds 35 a litre and worth every penny") but were as wooden as a grove of olives when they stared at the camera.

Nigel Slater got it right. In his Observer food column he resembles a pasty-faced vegetarian. For his television show and mandatory accompanying book, he grew a goatee beard and started salivating, dribbling over firm, luscious breasts of chicken and getting off on cheese ("I can think of few sexier things to have in my mouth," he said). He has also claimed that his favourite recipe for mashed potato is so sensuous that it makes him want to bury his face in it.

While some might feel that a plate of mashed potato is the perfect place to bury Ainsley Harriott's face, he certainly understands the rules of the game. This former stand-up comedian has embraced TV's theatrical nature and has perfected a cartoonish persona combining Louis Armstrong, Frankie Howerd and Buzz Lightyear.

"Hee, hee, hee! Gluggy, glug, glug!" Harriott guffawed at one point, splashing white wine from a few feet up. As he did so, his wide eyes mirrored his own grasp of the medium, looking like two television screens. Harriott also has a trademark tic that comes into play when he is dashing a dish with liquid - typically olive oil: he spreads his feet, shoots his left arm out for balance and lets loose with a light-green downpour, like a surfing maitre d'.

There was a rather surreal moment when our host sat with a chef from Scunthorpe, cooking cod's tongues in the drizzling rain on the shore of Dildo Island, Newfoundland. Ainsley, as you might imagine, caught the spirit of the occasion. "Bit of tongue! Ho, ho, ho!" he thundered.

There is a line in Woody Allen's Celebrity about how one can learn a lot about a society from whom it celebrates. That we have chosen to celebrate Ainsley Harriott isn't a bad thing - it's only television, after all.

Robert Hanks is away

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