The fourth series of Celebrity MasterChef began with the usual ritual of florid and dynamic introduction: Joel Ross, Michael Obiora, Jan Leeming, Rosie Boycott, Jayne Middlemiss and Joe Swift. And you just thought: Who are these people, and why are they doing this? Not much information is ever given on exactly who the contestants are. They are celebrities, so too much in the way of elaborate explanation would be a contradiction in terms.
But one gleaned, in the most obscure of these particular cases, that Joel Ross was a DJ, best known for being one half of JK and Joel, whoever they may be, and that Michael Obiora was an actor, best known for his role in the television drama Hotel Babylon. Joe Swift, presumably, was the one who has been roped in, John Sergeant-like, because he was on the BBC's roster already, as a presenter on Gardeners' World. The rest were defined in terms of what they used to do: Jan Leeming, former newscaster, Rosie Boycott, former editor of several newspapers, including this one, and Jayne Middlemiss, former Top of the Pops presenter.
Of the six, by the end of the show, four were former Celebrity MasterChef contestants as well, while two were set to advance to the glories of the quarter-final. Like cooking itself, Celebrity Masterchef seems quite labour-intensive, with 24 numinously public faces assembled in order that within four telly hours they can be reduced like a sauce to eight. And they have to do a lot to earn their stripes as well, first cooking two courses from ingredients given to them in the studio, then working a lunchtime service in a busy and high-toned restaurant, and finally cooking another two courses, this time of their own choice.
I understand that these people are largely motivated to take part in these shows by a desire for cash, and a need to maintain their "profile". But the almost touching thing is the naked need for praise and approval that so many of them display. Michael Obiora, who in the first round displayed an almost incomprehensible inability to pan-fry a piece of sole, was quite dumbfounded when praise and approval were not forthcoming.
"It's a strange feeling to be told: 'That wasn't good enough'," he mused with admirable yet scary honesty. "I don't think that's happened in my life, ever." He eventually exited the competition, quite certain that he had been robbed because the brace of judges, Gregg Wallace and John Torode, were too strait-laced to comprehend that whacking a load of luminous green food colouring into a pancake was not a fabulous idea. Bless.
The real psychological revelation was Rosie Boycott though. She has enjoyed a long and successful career as a journalist, reinventing herself several times along the way. You'd imagine that she was therefore pretty secure and confident. But her inability to confine the joy that suffused her face every time a compliment looked like it might be coming her way, belied her attempts to present herself as a low-key contestant who was merely along for the ride.
Boycott couldn't contain her excitement when round three, and the participant's own menu choice, came along. "We serve this at dinner parties," she boasted excitedly, "and people go nuts." People go nuts at my dinner parties too, but only when they already have underlying mental-health issues. Boycott's sole, by the way, had been deemed by the judges as perfect. "You should be very, very pleased with yourself," she was told. By the end of the round, victorious, Boycott had come round to their way of thinking: "I'm really pleased with myself," she confirmed. She's got to be the early favourite. The will to win is formidable.
The second play-off also obliged people to show off their prowess by cooking a bit of fish, this time tuna. Jan Leeming's looked like a horrible piece of thick, bland cardboard, and so did Joe Swift's. He explained that this must have happened because he had put it in the oven after cooking it, and was eager to redeem himself in the restaurant round. "Not one has come back from Chef. Not one," he declared with pride and wonder.
Jayne Middlemiss, who had at least shown herself able properly to sear a bit of tuna, looked like she was in danger of combusting in the restaurant, charged as she was with roasting to order dozens of bits of duck. When she eventually won her heat though, she behaved as if this had been the most powerful and thrilling vindication she, or anybody else, had ever experienced. "Never trust what your head says," was the advice she had shared with the nation earlier in the competition. It's an interesting perspective, that one. Do you believe your head when it tells you ignore it? Or do you ignore your head when it tells you to believe it?