Last Night's Television: Restaurant in Our Living Room, Virgin 1
The Love of Money, BBC2
When salad days prove appetising
Alice Jolly is an author, playwrite and teaches creative writing at Oxford University. She is crowd-funding her own memoir of infertility and surrogacy with the publisher Unbound. 50 per cent of the proceeds of the book will be donated to SANDS (The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Foundation).
Friday 25 September 2009
It had to happen. The idea of people – ordinary, buffoonish, incompetent people like you and me – actually trying to have a restaurant in our home was too good to resist. TV execs were bound to make a show of it.
True, I've never actually been to one of these so-called "secret supper clubs" that form the basis of Virgin 1's Restaurant in Our Living Room – people cook a meal in their home for vast numbers of complete strangers, who then pay according to what they think the meal's worth – but they sound like fun. A double whammy of covert authority dodging and the guilty thrill of nosing around someone else's house.
Well, fun so long as you're not the one doing the cooking, that is, which is exactly what Sam, Charlie, Amanda and Graeme are doing. To make things worse, they're in competition with one another – or at least Sam and Charlie are in competition with Amanda and Graeme. They're both couples, both from London and both, apparently, exceptionally competitive. "Graeme is always saying no one remembers who comes second," smiled Amanda, through gritted teeth. "Aren't you, darling?"
It's all a little like MasterChef and a lot like Come Dine with Me, which is good news because those are just about my two favourite programmes in the whole wide world. Of course, as with most high-powered matches, the offspring is a little wonky – the narrator tries to replicate Come Dine with Me's snarky style with about an eighth of the success, and the contestants don't give quite the same impression of having just escaped from a lunatic asylum – but the result's still not bad.
The idea is for the contestants to do what they can with their £500 budget and see who makes the most money in on night. Customers pay what they think the food is worth which, depending how stingy they are, seems to rage between £10 and £20. One poor mug pays £27, but then another pays a fiver, which is just mean. I wonder if anyone will leave nothing? Probably, a few episodes in. Sam and Charlie seem like nice sorts, so I'm rooting for them. Amanda and Graeme, on the other had, are snobs – or at least she is, and he shuts up and does what he's told. "Gastro is, like, so last year," she shrugged after the couples first met to reveal what they will, at their respective restaurants, be serving. "I just think people expect a little more. After all, we're Londoners, aren't we?" That said, I do prefer the sound of her not-exactly-cutting-edge Italian-themed menu to Sam and Charlie's (and she's certainly the one doing the hard grafting on her team. Graeme might as well be wheeled out at the end like a performing monkey, useful only to entertain drunken guests), though quite why she decided to buy her ingredients in Waitrose (and her salad in individual bags), when she's supposed to be on a budget I'm not quite sure. The guests clearly aren't mollified by the gesture: "Bagged salad, with a few pine nuts and no dressing?!" squarked one. "Where's the effort in that?"
Bagged salad or no, the prize (a five-star holiday in Italy and meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant) still went to them. Boo! It's obvious why they won, though. They seated 50-something guests, while Sam and Charlie stuck to a timid 32. It's England, everyone's too polite to leave without donating something. So as long as you make sure you put something on their plate, your guaranteed £10-a-head. There, now I've worked out the winning formula, can I have a go, please?
Who'd have thought it? Guerilla dining, unemployment and an international banking crisis – and still, in seems, we got off lightly. Implausible as it may sound, that was the message in Bank from the Brink, the concluding part of BBC2's excellent The Love of Money series, in which the world's various decision makers, from Iceland to Ireland and America to the UK, outline just how close we came to a second Great Depression.
The most interesting part, as far as I was concerned, was the behind-the-scenes accounts of the US bailout negotiations: the quiet infuriation John McCain caused by refusing to back the Tarp (Troubled Asset Relief Plan) plan, the admission by Hank Paulson that the day the bailout deal failed to achieve ratification was "the worst of his life" and the secret unease felt by the British Government at the patently inadequate measures being taken across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Baroness Vadera ( or "Shrieky Shriti" as she's often called) gave a fascinating blow-by-blow account of how the Treasury made up its mind to spend it's way out of recession. Sure, she made Gordon Brown sound like a super-hero – but then that wasn't necessarily unconvincing. He, once again, gave a considerably more lucid interview that he's given anywhere else for months, and on the whole the Government don't emerge from of it too shabbily. Perhaps, they should wheel this out come election time?
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