In Monday's first episode of Big Chef Takes On Little Chef, it was impossible to say who was kidding themselves the most. Was it Little Chef's chief executive, Ian Pegler, a little bowling ball of a man, who can barely open his mouth without expelling some flaccid executive cliché about "blue-skies thinking"? Or was it Heston Blumenthal, who genuinely appeared to believe that sticking an oyster into a Lancashire hotpot and flavouring the smoked salmon with Earl Grey would transform the fortunes of a wilting brand? The first was demanding a "wow" factor but didn't seem to have any plan as to how to pay for it. The second hadn't even begun to grasp the deep conservatism of the Little Chef's core market, for most of whom "wow" is synonymous with "poncy". But Channel 4, at least, knew precisely what it was getting into by pairing off Britain's most experimental chef with one of the country's most predictable chains. It had signed up for an effectively unloseable each-way bet. Either Blumenthal brought it off, in which case we could marvel at the coming of age of the British palate, or the collision of cultures would turn explosive, in which case they got three episodes of argy-bargy and quite a bit of snickering at the yawning gap between a Michelin-starred menu and one that has to have photographs on it for customers who can't read. What it may not have reckoned with was how sour a taste this might leave, as you watched the culinarily privileged mocking a form of social deprivation.
Last night, I'm glad to say, everybody was waking up and smelling the reportedly undrinkable coffee. "I can't try and find a cook within Little Chef," Blumenthal acknowledged, "because they're not cooks, they're not trained chefs." The fact that they don't actually have pans in the kitchens might have been a clue here. He'd grasped, too, that, whatever Ian Pegler might want in the way of foodie fireworks, the British public prefer something that isn't going to go off in their mouths. "What's your favourite starter?" Heston asked, doing some vox-pop research on potential customer appetites. "Chips," replied one man. Followed, one assumes, by more chips with something on the side. As Michael, a Little Chef employee so loyal he probably bleeds brown sauce, put it: "Duck à la banana we are not." So Blumenthal ditched the fancy stuff and set out to really boost the quality of some British basics. Ian Pegler, meanwhile, was finding out that Heston isn't someone to mess with in the hope that you'll get a bit of free publicity for your relaunch. Discovering that they were rolling out a new menu without consulting him, Blumenthal stormed a board meeting and gave him an ultimatum. Either he backed a broader experiment or he would walk. Ian looked as if a very big chunk of a Hawaiian burger had gone down the wrong way and the only man capable of administering the Heimlich manoeuvre had just left the room, but they're both back tonight, so I assume somebody must have caved.
If it hasn't yet come to your attention that we're in a spot of economic bother just now, the BBC can't be blamed for not trying. In addition to hourly bulletins about fiscal catastrophe, it has also been running a series of one-off documentaries about people on their uppers. There was Skint, which revisited the winning Vernon Burgess, a man so cheerfully upbeat in his fecklessness that people have started sending him money through the post, though never quite enough to stay ahead of Vernon's capacity for getting further into debt.
Then there was Repossessed and, last night, Bust, which examined three cases in which what was coming in was nowhere near matching what was going out. The consistent thread, through all three programmes, was the lethal availability of credit, without even a minimal check on the ability to repay. Tracy and her husband, Melvyn (in Bust), faced eviction from their home because they'd consolidated their credit-card debts and put the house up for security. Meanwhile, Maria, a doughty and determined single mother, was sinking under a pile of hire-purchase agreements and easy-access loans that eventually lead to her applying for bankruptcy, a process that, in an irony worthy of Dickens, requires the indigent to scrape together nearly £400 in court fees in order to formally declare that they're broke. In several cases, these people had made unwise decisions and spent money they didn't actually have. They acknowledged as much. But that didn't really soften the humiliation and distress they were enduring now.
It seemed unfair that the thoughtless bastards who'd persuaded them to sink even deeper in the mire had no presence on screen. People who knew a great deal about finance had sold overpriced and inappropriate loans to people who knew nothing about it, so you had to ask yourself, who were the real delinquents here, and who deserved to share the pain?Reuse content