"I am now at the outer limit of my publicity potential," whinnied Rachel sister-of-Boris Johnson mid-way through The Lady and the Revamp. Johnson, freshly appointed celebrity editor (celeditor?) of The Lady and not-so-secret weapon in the magazine's campaign for new readers – codename "get Rach on sofas" – could have been forgiven for thinking she'd done enough of the hard sell what with those perky appearances on BBC Breakfast and a 5,000-word profile in a Sunday newspaper. Not quite, Rachel. There's still a Channel 4 documentary to go. Still, if this hour about her attempts to give the blue-rinsed magazine a 21st-century makeover frequently came across as another plea for readers, it didn't make it any less enjoyable.
The Lady, doyenne of the women's weeklies, has traded for some 125 years on its reputation for being simply the best place to find one's nanny or butler and the Queen's favourite read. Now, several hundred soft-focus cat covers on, it's losing readers (many, not to put too fine a point on it, for all eternity) and burning through cash at a most undignified rate.
"Around the 1950s," said Ben Budworth, great-grandson of The Lady's founder, Thomas Gibson Bowles, "we started to lose our way." Tasked with turning the magazine's fortunes around, Budworth took an aristocratic stance and hired Johnson to do the hard work for him. "What the heck is the point of buying a dog if you're going to do the barking yourself?" he demanded. Quite right, old bean.
Johnson took to her attack dog role with great gusto, sacking the literary editor (the only staffer to send her a welcome note) in a knuckle-chewingly awkward first conference, gamely asking the Queen's bra fitter what size Her Maj was for a feature and describing her predecessor Arline Usden as a "norovirus". Though her qualifications were outlined as little more than a stint editing a student magazine and those old media clichés, ambition and a bulging contacts book (they skipped over the 20 years of journalism), Johnson brought in several rather canny innovations, including a new masthead, hiring the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire as an agony aunt, getting rid of page-long features on the history of the cucumber and, shock horror, introducing some male columnists. The new broom only swept so far, though. Articles about the Kennedy Space Centre and mental illness were sniffily deemed a little too "leftfield" for the lovely Lady.
Johnson's Holy Grail – as it is in far less quaint newsrooms across the land – was attracting new readers without alienating the old faithful. By the end, you felt that she was fighting an uphill battle without a Stannah stairlift. Not least because her proofs were read, week in, week out, by Mummy Budworth, wielding her red pen from the comfort of the country pile and keeping a beady eye out for "marmalade droppers", or anything that might give the old dears a shock. A funny old picture of a not-quite vanished English eccentricity.
Over on BBC4, we were unmistakably in France. The relentlessly excellent Storyville documentary strand turned its lens on the patisserie Olympics in Kings of Pastry, following three pastry chefs on their quest to become one of the Meilleurs Ouvriers (Best Craftsmen) de France. The competition to become a MOF (a title which manages to sound at once deliciously French, insouciant and a little bit rude) and earn the coveted tricolore collar comes round only every four years, is attended by Nicolas Sarkozy and culminates in a gruelling three-day final in which pâtissiers must confect around 40 sweet treats, from delicate sugar sculptures to lollipops, cream puffs and wedding cakes, for a panel of exacting judges – or, as I like to call them, the luckiest men in the world.
With the camera salivating over row upon row of pastel-coloured macarons, marzipan birds of paradise hovering over icing flowers, filigree chocolate sculptures and shiny mobius strips of sugar, this was gastroporn of the highest quality from venerable film-makers D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. There were tears from judges and competitors alike as the making of sugared pink roses and caramel teddy bears was elevated to a matter of life and death. Exhortations to "be a man!" and "go for it!" were cut with whey-faced resignation ("I made a mistake with my cookie cutter") and the last moments were as thrilling as any Olympic final. Who would have thought that the fate of a sugar sculpture could be heart-stopping? Exquisite.
I can't help wondering what Gregg Wallace – shouty MasterChef judge and self-avowed pudding man – would have made of his confrères' toothsome creations. I imagine his surprised face (you know, the one he uses to pretend he's never heard anyone say that they're passionate about food before – eyebrows raised to the apex of that boiled-egg skull, Cheshire-cat-that-got-the-cream grin) would probably have gone into overdrive. The production company isn't releasing advance discs of the current MasterChef, presumably because they already know that they have a winning recipe. Still, I can say with confidence that last night's heat will have involved scallops with either a minted pea purée or pan-fried black pudding, or both; some lovely big flavours and creamy sweetness/salty crunchiness; and someone falling at the final chocolate-fondant-shaped hurdle. COOKING doesn't get more FORMULAIC than THIS. And I, for one, wouldn't have it any other way.Reuse content