Last Night's Television: The Business Inspector, Five
The Man Who Ate Everything, BBC4
Thursday 18 March 2010
I'm not sure I'd want to launch my career as a media business troubleshooter in the teeth of one of the worst recessions for years, but I suspect Hilary Devey is made of stronger stuff than I am. Some time back she sold her house and car and moved in above a chip shop to fund her entry into the world of haulage – not notorious for its welcoming attitude to female novices – and she made that mark so effectively that her company is now worth some £100 million. Having graduated with honours from The Secret Millionaire's audition camp for telegenic plutocrats, she's now got a show of her own – The Business Inspector – in which, much in the manner of John Harvey-Jones and Gerry Robinson before her, she descends on the little fish of the business world, to mentor them in the art of being the eater and not the eaten.
She called first on Donna and Ann, who did an evening class in floristry, persuaded some loving relatives to bankroll them and then set up a small business in Milton Keynes that has very effectively been losing them money ever since. It may offer you a clue as to how this happened to learn that Donna and Ann didn't even appear to be aware of this fact until Hilary pointed it out – the Bank of Mum and Brother being unusually forgiving when it comes to interest rates, repayments and basic financial tracking. Hilary gave them a fearful dressing-down – pointing out that their fecklessness would actually be a criminal matter if they were a publically quoted company – and then sugared the pill with acid. "The good news is that you've done it that badly that it's not that difficult for you now to follow the path of righteousness." Anything better than utter incompetence was going to satisfy Donna's "constant quest to upskill".
Hilary's other patient wasn't in intensive care – an events organiser called Gary who seemed to have grasped the fundamental principle that more money should come in than went out. Gary was convinced that his Perspex table decorations were going to make him a fortune if he could roll them out nationwide. Thinking like the Dragons, with their almost neurotic concern for copyright, I fretted that Gary's idea could readily be replicated by anyone with access to some glitterballs and LED lighting, but Hilary seemed to like it. She tore up his existing licensing agreement – which had all the protective strength of a damp doily – and persuaded him to find a less pedestrian branding. Gary, naturally, resisted. He also didn't seem keen enough on the hard sell to guarantee a rosy future in international commerce. Having invited several contacts to a franchising launch party he began by virtually begging them not to feel in the least obligated to invest.
Donna and Ann had been encouraged to pitch for a regular contract at a nearby function rooms. "She may not fit our client base," said the underwhelmed manager tactfully, after being subject to Donna's presentation. You could see that he was a little worried they might just buy the flowers at the nearest ring-road service station, but after a stiff pep talk and a visit to an upmarket London florist, Donna upped her game sufficiently to get in the door. "We are primarily creative artists," she told the manager when she went back – a profoundly ominous remark that for some reason didn't appear to queer the deal.
In The Man Who Ate Everything, Andrew Graham-Dixon offered an affectionate – and occasionally infatuated – portrait of the late Alan Davidson, the moving force behind The Oxford Companion to Food, a wonderful encyclopaedia of culinary culture. Davidson, a career diplomat, got his start in food writing by producing a guide to help his wife shop for fish on a posting to Tunisia. But the Oxford Companion was his monument – a treasury of food-related information that runs from Aardvark ("the reputation of the aardvark as a food for humans is good") to Zebra ("incomparably the finest meat available in a bush veldt camp"). Graham-Dixon ate quite a lot in pursuit of his subject, including buffalo skin in Laos ("like a buffalo-flavoured jelly baby"), eggs cooked for 24 hours in Turkish coffee and olive oil (one of Davidson's early experiments) and Davidson's favourite trifle recipe. But he didn't even come close to eating everything, mysteriously passing up the opportunity to sample the eyeballs of the giant catfish of the Mekong, which Davidson described as "among the most highly esteemed parts of this highly esteemed fish". The woman in the Laotian fish market where Graham-Dixon came across the giant catfish said she had never seen one for sale before and she'd worked there all her life. And yet instead of buying the head instantly and arranging for it to be cooked he just walked on. If Davidson was watching, I don't think he'd have approved of this missed opportunity.
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