The Street That Cut Everything, BBC 1
Jamie’s Food Revolution Hits Hollywood, Channel 4
Preston residents get the Big Society vibe in a BBC experiment, and Jamie Oliver targets pink slime
Sunday 22 May 2011
The cuts are coming! But despite the best efforts of George Osborne, they probably won't be quite as bad as those inflicted on The Street That Cut Everything.
Yes, in this BBC "experiment", presented by Nick Robinson, ordinary Preston residents have to do without any council services (except emergency ones and schools) for six weeks.
They're all cut, from the stuff you take for granted – bin collections, streetlights, local parks – to housing benefits and care for the elderly. Despite early harrumphing about how the council doesn't do much with their hard-earned cash, The Street – as they are collectively referred to with audible capitals – soon change their tune and start singing its praises.
Despite this, the 90-minute two-parter doesn't feel like it's hammering home just one message: while residents may whoop when council lorries finally return their bins, they also show the sort of Big Society, help-thy-neighbour spirit that would have David Cameron boasting "I told you so". A pensioner's pants get ironed, kids are given lifts to school, someone lends someone else a torch.
It is as domestic as it sounds, and while the Beeb has clearly tried to squeeze out some drama, it was probably a bit of a struggle. The 52 residents are given back council tax of £52.90 per household, and could choose to pool it, or not. They pool it. The programme makers sneak in various "challenges" – which makes it sound like we're in the Big Brother house or about to do an I'm a Celebrity bush-tucker trial, but actually involve working out how to dispose of fly-tipped fridges. Hardly thrilling, though judging by Robinson's gleeful grin, he's really quite enjoying dropping litter.
Back to the fiscal challenges, and there is a bit of predictable sniping when single mum Tracie needs child care, free school meals, university fees and housing benefit. One resident's suggestion that the mother-of-two should have had fewer children "weren't very much PC by a long way", as another resident brilliantly puts it. But in the end The Street is understanding and opts to pay the lot. It does mean they are broke, however, and their makeshift streetlights have to go dark. At least they've got that torch handy.
But it's when one resident's elderly father, whose care The Street has also opted to stump up for, gets a real letter from the real council telling him his care is going to be cut, that this semi-reality TV show really lets reality bite. This might be a mock-up of worst-case scenario, but it also convinces that best-case isn't going to be much better.
The Street – and most of The Viewing Public, one suspects – are left glad they're not the councillors having to decide where to let the axe fall.
In the light of all this, Jamie Oliver's campaign for better school meals might sound less urgent than when he launched the great Turkey Twizzler take-down of 2005. Probably a good thing, then, that he's off lecturing Americans again; this time, Jamie's Food Revolution Hits Hollywood.
Not that LA appears to give a flying French fry. Even the stunt of filling a school bus with sugar, to show what's pumped into kids' weekly milk, is attended by all of about 12 people. Oliver gets very frustrated at being thwarted in his attempts to inspect school food, though when parents bring examples in to his kitchen, you can see why he's been banned. Brownies are considered a breakfast item.
Oliver is undoubtedly right – what we eat does matter. Consider his grim expose of burgers made of "pink slime": unusable cuts of beef, spun to remove the fat then rinsed in ammonia. But why does he always have to add about as much sugar to his programmes as they do to their flavoured milk? The moment when he delivers a rousing speech over hopelessly syrupy music, while holding some random baby, insisting this "is not reality TV, this is a campaign", seems to tip a genuine desire to galvanise into stagey evangelising.
And all the rhetoric about "The Food Revolution" (hear those caps again) seems, given recent political events, a somewhat tactless phrase. Though with diet-related disease being the US's biggest killer, I guess he'd argue this really is life and death stuff.
Oliver may be served a mega-meal portion of indifference in this first episode, but presumably this is just to ramp up tension. That cheeky charm is sure to have school boards panicking about pink slime before the summer's out.
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