Television: The raw and the half-baked

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The Independent Culture
Whatever has happened to Food and Drink (BBC2)? I stumbled across it last week, for the first time in a year or two, and I was shocked. It used to be an agreeably middlebrow, Middle-England sort of affair, amiably presented by Chris Kelly, a man any Rotary Club would be proud to call its own. There was also a little deft cookery by the chappie who invented Classic FM, and robust consideration of an issue or two.

In fact, if your visit to the loo was carefully timed to coincide with Jilly Goolden's preposterous rhapsodies about Tesco's marvellous new cabernet sauvignon with its unmistakeable whiff of blackcurrants, kippers, stewed telephone directories and rusty scaffolding, Food and Drink could sometimes seem positively intelligent. But Kelly and the Classic FM man have gone, leaving silly old Goolden at the helm, with the ubiquitous Antony Worrall- Thompson as her right-hand gnome.

Food and Drink is a flagship of sorts, but a flagship that has been holed beneath the waterline. It goes out on BBC2, not BBC1, so it has no obligation to the Lowest Common Denominator. Yet it shirks the opportunity to be insightful and distinctive. Last week, for example, Worrall-Thompson showed us how to make zabaglione. For four or five years now, it has been hard to switch on the telly during daylight hours and not find Worrall-Thompson, or Ainsley Harriot, or Brian Turner, making zabaglione. The BBC's flagship food and drink programme should surely look for other fish to fry. Or other puddings to whip. Or be really radical, and eschew recipes altogether, like the excellent Food Programme on Radio 4. At the very least, it should try to get along without Ainsley Worrall-Turner.

Consider the evolution of Food and Drink. It is a parable for these TV times. The title was thought up years ago by the restaurant critic Fay Maschler, who envisaged a series she could co-present with the admirable Jancis Robinson, well-known vinophile. They made a pilot programme, on which, among other things, Robinson demonstrated the correct way to open a bottle of champagne. But this was deemed far too highbrow. Maschler was paid pounds 500 for the name, and the BBC lowered its sights in search of a different target audience. The sights have been getting lower ever since. I winced last week to find Worrall-T performing a half-hearted comedy double-act with someone called Emma, who was pleasantly chirpy but decidedly amateurish. "Do you think she's a work experience presenter?" my wife asked, sweetly.

Food and Drink today has only its name in common with Maschler's original conception. Or to put it slightly differently, Bamber Gascoigne has mutated into Paul Gascoigne, which is rather the way of things these days. Although on University Challenge (BBC2), Bamber has mutated into Jeremy Paxman. And last week Paxo suffered the discomfort of presiding as his old college, St Catharine's, Cambridge, was emphatically stuffed by Oriel, Oxford. Not that he looked particularly uncomfortable, investing that curt "nope" with equal scorn whichever team he was patronising.

For those of us with young children who insist on getting up to welcome the dawn, there are precious few good reasons to remain awake after 11pm. But an in-form Paxo on Newsnight (BBC2) is one of them, and Ali G on The 11 O'Clock Show (C4) is another. Friends of mine have been raving for weeks about the faux-naif, mock-rapper Ali G, but I have ignored them steadfastly and, as it turns out, stupidly. After all, television needs all the originality it can get, and there aren't that many faux-naif mock- rappers about.

More significantly, Ali G, or rather his improbably-named alter ego Sacha Cohen, is a class act, witness Tuesday's hilarious encounter with the unsuspecting former head of the CIA. But when Ali G is missing - which, alas, is most of the time - The 11 O'Clock Show is patchy. Its presenters, Iain Lee and Daisy Donovan, are slick, and engaging, and attractive, but there is an undergraduate feel to the thing, filling me with vivid though not unpleasant memories of sitting through hit-and-miss university revues at the Edinburgh Fringe. Ali G provides the only original touch. Otherwise, the show covers ground long since trodden by The Day Today, Not The Nine O'Clock News, even The Two Ronnies. Take last week's news item about the 80-year-old who forged a prescription for Viagra. The Two Ronnies reached the same punchline about 20 years sooner, announcing that an escaped convict had fallen into a cement-mixer ... "police are looking for a hardened criminal".

There is nothing hardened or even criminal about the alleged hoax perpetrated by Binjamin Wilkomirski, just something both disturbed and disturbing. Wilkomirski wrote Fragments, a haunting memoir about a childhood spent in the concentration camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz. The book was likened to the works of Primo Levi. The Latvian-born Wilkomirski became a celebrity. And in Los Angeles he was reunited with another child of Auschwitz, Laura Gribowski. He said he remembered the shape of her face. She said that reading his book had finally set her free.

But Wilkomirski, it now appears, is an elaborate fantasist, born Bruno Grosjean in Switzerland. Christopher Olgiati's riveting Inside Story (BBC2) presented compelling evidence, based on the research of a man whose father really did survive Auschwitz, to suggest that Wilkomirski has never set foot inside a Nazi concentration camp except decades later as a tourist, and that he is not even Jewish.

The programme interviewed Wilkomirski at length. His heaving sobs, as he recalled the sights and sounds of Auschwitz, seemed genuine enough. But apparently they did not tally with reality. "I have talked to dozens of survivors, and I never saw any tears," said Wilkomirski's unmasker, Israeli-born Daniel Ganzfried. Pressed on why he had devoted so much time and energy to exposing the hoax, Ganzfried added, "If you let it [the Holocaust] be invented, you can let it be denied." How marvellous to be so eloquent and wise in a foreign language. Some of us would settle for being half as eloquent in our own.

But what, meanwhile, of Laura Gribowski? Surely she would be devastated to learn that Wilkomirski had misappropriated her pain? But no. Amazingly, astoundingly, Inside Story discovered that she was a fraud, too. I actually gasped to learn that she was plain Laurel Wilson, born and bred in Seattle. And I don't do much gasping these days. For example, my reaction to the startling denouement of Dance, one of the films in Channel 4's Shockers season, was more of a mild yawn.

That said, Dance was a well-crafted drama thoughtfully written by Kate Maravan and Sophie Vaughan. A single father, excellently played by Douglas Hodge, had an affair with a young woman (Christine Tremarco, also excellent) he met at tango class, who turned out to be the illegitimate daughter he had never seen. But regardless of the plot, it is always heartening to find a concise one-off drama, with a beginning, middle and end, for very few of them make it to the screen in this era of balance sheets and focus groups. Kathy Burke once told me that her ambition to act was born in front of Play for Today. Future Kathy Burkes will have to find their inspiration elsewhere.

Of course, before we start lavishing too much praise on Channel 4 for rolling back the years, it is also worth bearing in mind that Dance made it to the screen not just with the help of a beginning, a middle and an end, but a beginning, a middle, a fairly explicit spot of cunnilingus, several nipple shots, and an end. The nipple, in fact, may even be more ubiquitous on television than Antony Worrall-Thompson. United, they could eat the airwaves.