No matter how hard the press tries to be decent, sober and responsible – and, my goodness, there are plenty of incentives to do so these days – there are some news stories that it finds difficult to take seriously. So when the TV chef Antony Worrall Thompson (not everyone's cup of cappuccino in the first place) was found to have shoplifted some cheese and wine worth £70 from a supermarket, headline-writers at the nation's biggest-selling tabloid went into overdrive. "Ready Steady Crook" was The Sun's opening gambit, and it followed this up, in the light of Worrall Thompson's subsequent apology, with "I've been Edam fool, but I'll be Gouda from now on". Not surprisingly, as news broke of the incident at Tesco in Henley-on-Thames, the Twittersphere was no more sympathetic. "Worrall Thompson arrested for shoplifting," said one post. "A full list of the ingredients he stole is available on the BBC website." Someone else tweeted: "Dear Antony, sorry I can't make your cheese and wine party. But I guess neither can you." You get the idea. Twitter, as a barometer of public opinion, is as unforgiving as the most robust tabloids.
It was hard not to feel a soupçon of sympathy with a good dollop of pity (sorry, I couldn't resist it) for Worrall Thompson on reading his mea culpa. "I've been stupid and irresponsible, I'm devastated, I've let down my friends, my family and Tesco, I don't know what came over me, and I'm going to seek help." That was the basic gist of his public statement, and it was left to the rest of us to fill in the blanks. In an interview, the chef blamed exhaustion, saying that, over the holiday period, he'd personally flambéed every Christmas pudding at his restaurant. He also cast around for other reasons, like giving up smoking, an inability to relax, the death of two friends, the rigours of moving house, and his age (he's 60).
But whatever the cause, it is perfectly reasonable to assume Worrall Thompson was, or is, suffering from stress. You don't need to have psychiatric training to believe the decline of his restaurant business – in 2009, his chain of six establishments was put up for sale – was surely a contributory factor. He was one of the first chefs to surf the wave of the modern phenomenon that turned cooking into a branch of showbiz. In the 1990s, he was everywhere – his own TV show, a restaurant opening every other week, commercial endorsements, adverts – and, along the way, made one or two enemies, notably Gordon Ramsay. So, as his empire began to crumble, there was the distinct smell of Schadenfreude in the air, which may explain the general reaction to his latest misadventure.
Another, seemingly more trivial, question remains. Why would someone in a delicate state use the self-checkout at a supermarket? The stress of that is enough to make the best of us behave in a "stupid and irresponsible" way.
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