The Weekend's TV: Gordon Ramsay: Shark Bait, Sun, Channel 4
Comic's Choice, Sun, Channel 4
Master chef bites back
Monday 17 January 2011
Sharks have far better reason to fear humans than we do to fear sharks.
While only a tiny handful of humans disappear down a shark's gullet every year, staggering numbers of sharks fall victim to human appetites and, to add to the indignity, we throw most of the shark away. It's the gelatinous bits we value, namely the fin, an expensive delicacy that was once the preserve of emperors but is now accessible to millions, most of whom are paying wildly over the odds so they can flatter themselves that they're having an imperial experience. In Gordon Ramsay: Shark Bait, the sweary restaurateur set out to explore the shark-fin industry and the effect it was having on shark numbers in the wild. "Jaws: the Real Victims" would have been a suitable title.
He started in Chinatown, where quite a lot of menus feature shark-fin soup, but not many people want to talk about it. Having been booted out of a couple of restaurants, he invaded a nearby supermarket, blustering his way behind the desk of the manager while she looked on astounded by his impertinent sense of entitlement. It was a method he was also to employ later in Costa Rica and Taiwan, barging his way into people's factories and living spaces on the track of a trade that seems to hover amphibiously between outright illegality and tactical reticence.
The thought did cross your mind that there was a certain amount of cultural arrogance at play here. Ramsay's restaurants, last time I looked, serve quite a lot of foie gras, a foodstuff that has also been the source of moral indignation in some. How, I wonder, might he react to a Taiwanese chef, film-crew in tow, attempting to barge his way into a private room at Petrus to question his clients about their knowledge of goose welfare? I somehow doubt he'd be as politely forbearing as the maître d' he was seen trying to outwit in one sequence here. I guess he's in the clear with regard to caviar – having already made a film about more eco-friendly sources of that Western form of culinary ostentation – but wherever he's getting it from now, the sturgeon still end up dying.
That said, the trade he was reporting on here is indisputably horrible, largely because of "finning", the practice of cutting the valuable bits off a still living shark and then dumping the body back in the sea. Despite regulations that prohibit the landing of fins without the bodies they were once attached to, Ramsay found evidence that the practice was widespread. And such is the market for shark's fin that population numbers have crashed, threatening the marine ecosystem's "apex predator". Given what we've seen in the other programmes in Channel 4's fish season, I would have thought we humans occupied the top spot on the predator pyramid, but in fishy terms, sharks are still number one and their disappearance could have unpredictable effects on everything beneath them.
Ramsay's arguments were a little muddled. At some points, it was the waste he harped on about, as if it would be fine to kill this many sharks as long as we ate every bit of them. At other times, his reasoning was more emotional, a response to the beauty of the living animal. And flavour seemed to play a larger part in the case than was entirely consistent with moral logic. Ramsay sampled some in a top-end Taipei restaurant – it looked like a well-boiled breast implant – and announced that it was substance without taste. Again, if he'd found it delicious, would that have made it all right? The programme concluded with Ramsay persuading several London restaurateurs to take the dish off the menu. You have to start somewhere, I guess, but the thought did occur that their noble gesture had just put the price up at the restaurant next door.
On the face of it, Comic's Choice looked as if it was going to be negligibly mediocre. It had the kind of jaunty animated title sequence we've seen a hundred times before, and the pre-broadcast description indicated that it was yet another clip-show, one of those comedians-talking-to-comedians affairs that can occasionally make contemporary broadcasting look like a vast job-creation scheme for underemployed stand-ups. The saving grace here is that one of the comedians (the presenter one) is Bill Bailey. Not only can he play his own signature tune but he's got a manner that somehow makes the format work, which is handy for Channel 4, since it's on every night this week, as a curtain-raiser to the British Comedy Awards this coming weekend.
That's the premise. The British Comedy Awards do flavour of the month, while this short series explores more durable supremacy, with each guest nominating and selecting their best of the best in various categories. Last night, Alan Davies was in the selector's chair, and quickly demonstrated one problem with the structure of the programme, which is that there's no proof in comedy. Davies had nominated Dave Allen as Best Male Comic, on the strength of a live West End performance he once saw. But, of course, there was no clip of that, and even if there had been it may not have made his case for him. It doesn't hugely matter, though, because Bailey is affable and funny enough to fill the gaps – on great form last night pretending to sulk about one of Davies's other nominations, the "sexy little jazz weasel" Noel Fielding, who once bumped him off a captain's slot on Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
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