Last Night’s Television: Virgin Cooks, BBC3
Three-Minute Wonder, Channel 4
A wok and a hard place
Wednesday 19 August 2009
“Britain’s kitchens are a disaster zone.” Crikey. “Our teens and twenty somethings are clueless when it comes to cooking.” It was a depressing assessment of the country’s culinary skills that opened BBC3’s latest bid to characterise the lives of our young people, and whip them into shape.
But the first episode of Virgin Cooks promised to change all that, by transforming the eating habits of a family whose teenage boys looked remarkably healthy when you considered their diet of ready meals, takeaways and tinned spaghetti.
While not so much a virgin cook as a third baseman (third base being, in my kitchen, the puttanesca-inspired pasta sauce I knock out at least three times a week) and falling inside the "clueless twentysomething" age bracket, I hoped to be inspired to shake up my own shopping basket.
But first, we were introduced to the Brennans from Enfield, a football-mad family of four who were blowing a grand a month on food that barely grazed the Formica worktops in their north London kitchen. So dulled had their taste buds become by meals consumed in random shifts in front of the TV, the youngest son, Ricky, could barely be bothered to eat: "If I eat chicken it has to be in little pieces 'cos I don't like chewing," he said.
Enter Gordon Jones, the 27-year-old head chef at Bath's posh Royal Crescent Hotel. A genial Scot making a comfortable but not brilliant small-screen debut, Jones set about delivering Ramsay-lite pieces to camera on the pavement about the scale of the challenge ahead - lots of over-animation but, thankfully, none of the cursing. And then he got to work. Mum Lyn ("she could burn beans - microwaved beans") and eldest son Jimmie would be pitted together in a contest comprising 10 challenges. The winner would cook a three-course dinner for 20 friends and family at Lord's cricket ground.
And this is where Virgin Cooks collapsed, souffle-style, by trying to combine several genres already approaching their sell-by dates (it was equal parts Hell's Kitchen, MasterChef and Jamie's Ministry of Food). The competitive element rarely threatened to provide a hint of tension, with proud Mum wanting Jimmie to win from the outset, and points awarded almost arbitrarily as mother and son crossed forks over macaroni cheese, vegetable curry and deep-fried pollock with sweet potato chips (or carrots, as the rest of the family believed them to be).
By contriving a one-on-one cook off, the Virgin Cooks almost excluded Ricky, a bright spark who showed promise on the chopping board on the rare occasion he was allowed into the kitchen. Dad, meanwhile, was never invited to swap armchair for oven. We were told the recipes were on the website but the programme itself offered little by way of instruction. Jones was a more than qualified coach, but while we saw fleeting glimpses of onions being chopped and batter being mixed, any attempt to train was drowned in a mess of tired formats.
In the end, Jimmie triumphed over Mum and got to wear the whites at Lord's, but while his three-course lunch went down pretty well, one component Virgin Cooks failed to include was the update. Have the Brennans rediscovered their dining-room table and locked the takeaway menu drawer, or not? And, finally, what is it with chefs and quenelles, those dainty dumplings of anything squidgy that they create with two spoons? Fine for a liver parfait back in Bath, but a quenelle of mushy peas in Enfield? Come on.
You'd think Channel 4's long-running Three- Minute Wonder strand would have found a new lease of life in the YouTube age of viral videos and mini clips. The breeding ground for documentary-makers still keeps a low profile, often barely getting a mention in the schedules. But channel-hoppers in search of something decent to watch at eight are often rewarded with glittering gems like Microsoft Babies.
By landing a fly on the wall of one of the country's few corporate crèches, at the software giant's Reading campus, the series of films, which ends tomorrow, explores the lives of harried employees and their time-consuming charges. Last night, we followed Dax and his son, Calum, as they drove to work. "What does that sign say?" asked Dad as the pair approached the office. "Mi-cro-soft," Calum replied. "It's the best nursery 'cos it's bigger than yours - and it has a sleep area." Formerly deprived of his son's company by his workload, Dax, whose own father had been absent, could finally get to know his son. He was almost dreading the boy's imminent move to primary school.
It was a touching insight but Monday’s episode was a mini masterpiece. With no dialogue to speak of we watched young Ellie as she struggled to find friends in a strange environment. She leaned awkwardly against a wall as everyone else played games, became fascinated by a clock, and stood transfixed as water dripped from a tap. Her face only broke into a smile when Dad returned from his desk. Beautifully shot with a spare but hypnotic soundtrack, director and producer Martin Hampton delivered more in three minutes than many could manage in an hour.
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