Have you noticed that they're not making cooking programmes any more? I haven't taken leave of my senses. I realise that the schedules are groaning with shows vaguely food-related; I'm talking about straightforward, instructive programmes made by enthusiastic experts for people who already know a little about cooking.
It's an old-fashioned format, I know, but you'd have thought there might be a demand for such a thing, what with us being a foodie nation these days. Instead, food TV seems to have subdivided into three categories: programmes for people who want to spend as little time as possible in the kitchen, and are quite possibly phobic of cooking; elaborate restaurant food that we are never, ever going to cook ourselves; and, the main category, cooking as a competitive sport.
Much as I admire him, I am no more likely to cook one of Heston Blumenthal's dishes than I am to launch my own Mars probe. The same goes for Valentine "First, take your crayfish net" Warner. Likewise, Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Panto, Get That C**t Out of My Kitchen and other series were fun, and we've all enjoyed Jamie Oliver's outreach work with stout Northerners, but I can't say I remember all that much about the food, can you? Clearly there is a gap in the market for a new food-television star, someone who had ambitions beyond grilling salmon with a Spice Girl, showing people how to boil water, or helping disenfranchised battery hens. It was time for a cooking show for people who wanted to spend more than an ad break in the kitchen, who wanted to learn the hows and whys of cooking better, and didn't want to do it with Ainsley Harriott standing behind them with a stopwatch.
Clearly the world was ready for new food-TV star: me.
Despite the fact that my only previous experience of working in television was a stint as a runner on The Bill in 1994 (career highlight: fetching a sausage sandwich for DI Burnside), I was totally serious, and explained my plan to my wife. "But Michael, you're not famous," she said. "They'd never give you your own show. I don't mean to be negative, but you're not all that, you know, charismatic. I love you and everything, but you have a different kind of beauty, don't you?"
I call her my rock.
"Well, Delia's hardly a firecracker is she?" I said. "And Valentine Warner is unlikely to grace the cover of Men's Health any time soon, and, besides, who on earth is he?"
I genuinely had no interest in becoming famous. That looked an almighty pain to me, what with the sex addiction and having to be friends with Christopher Biggins. I just wanted to make the kind of food programme I – and my hunch is many others – would want to see. I never expected it to be easy.
I'd recently read a rant by baking guru Dan Lepard in The Guardian about the Hairy Bakers series. He had pitched virtually the same idea about the British baking scene to the BBC and was clearly indignant at what he saw as celebrification of his idea, and television's light-entertainment approach to food. "Ten years ago [TV producer] Pat Llewellyn reinvented the TV cooking show with Jamie Oliver, but that whole lifestyle format has now become the establishment," he told me. "Valentine Warner only got around 2.3 million viewers a show, sometimes as few as two million, and to be judged a success on BBC2 you really need to top three million. Gordon Ramsay is curiously static, too, and I wonder how much longer we are going to be interested in his relentless expletives. What we need is a new, younger Pat Llewellyn. It doesn't have to stay the way it is now. There is another way to do it without turning yourself into a panto star. Besides, you can spoil what you had. Just look at John Torode on Masterchef."
Ouch. Lepard feels the problem is not just TV's fixation with celebrity, or the aeons it takes to turn around a new series (where are the credit-crunch cooking shows?), but that the people who make the programmes don't actually like the genre. "I have a friend who has just made a series for the BBC. The producer actually said to him, 'I don't know why I'm producing this, I hate food!'"
Talk to TV people about food and Llewellyn's name inevitably crops up. As the boss of Optomen Television she invented the staged, scripted, personality-led lifestyle cooking show with Jamie Oliver [and provided the interrogating voice behind the camera], played cupid to the Two Fat Ladies, and unleashed Ramsay on the world. (She also brought us John Burton Race, but everyone has an off day.) In 2003 she told The Daily Telegraph, "It's time for a change. So many series have been concentrating on the presenter in recent years – it's getting a little bit tired." Her latest is Warner.
I asked her what she looked for in a food-television star: "I want someone different. They need to be charismatic, of course, but if they don't have the recipes, I'm not interested. It just seemed the right time for Valentine, because Bill Oddie's Springwatch and Autumnwatch had been such big hits on BBC2, and Valentine brought nature, the country and a warmth which seemed right for now."
As a food writer, I was curious to know whether companies such as Optomen took a cut of their shows' book tie-ins. "Look, I don't know who the hell you think you are," she said, suddenly turning angry. "But I don't discuss things like that." "Oh, I'm sorry," I said, taken aback. (I had inadvertently touched a nerve: Jamie Oliver left Llewellyn when he moved to Channel 4, and I guess she's still smarting.) "I wasn't trying to imply anything shady." "It's not shady, it's complicated," she snapped.
TV-related cookbooks are among the biggest sellers in publishing. Jamie, Delia and Nigella are virtually guaranteed number ones with every series. But when your advance runs to many hundreds of thousands of pounds, it takes more than a listing in Radio Times to sell enough copies to repay it, as several lesser-known TV chefs have recently discovered. According to one publisher I spoke to, Warner received more than £400,000 for a two-book deal connected to his series. "He will have to sell hundreds of thousands of books to make that back," she told me. "And I don't see that happening. I was offered it, but his appeal isn't broad enough to sell in Tesco and Asda." (The same publisher assured me that Optomen did get a sizeable cut of Warner's advance – perfectly reasonable considering that the company essentially created his brand. In this way, the book deal underwrites a large chunk of the cost of producing the series. Very clever.)
My latest book, a memoir of a year spent training to be a chef in Paris and my first painful steps slaving in the city's top Michelin-starred restaurants, came out in February. My advance had been very generous, but nowhere near that of a TV tie-in. It had been "Book of the Week" on Radio 4, serialised in The Mail on Sunday and received good reviews everywhere else. However, when my agent told me that Oliver was selling more books in a week (60,000) than I would sell, well, ever, my visions of the brand new Molteni stove I always felt was my birthright began to fade: further motivation for getting my "characterful" face on the TV. And yes, I was envious and bitter, since you ask.
I had the cooking knowledge and experience, but – if my wife is to be believed, at least – I needed to somehow acquire a personality, charm and charisma. Llewellyn has also talked in the past about how important it is to have an element of jeopardy in her shows, so my idea needed to be real, risky and, as they say in the trade, "itchy". Above all, I needed ' a gimmick. Ramsay has Tourette's and takes his top off; Jamie Oliver has his gor-blimey schtick; Nigella makes sausage rolls seem pornographic. I came up with what I thought was a pretty good angle: to open a modern British restaurant in Paris (where I lived), to try – and probably fail; they love that, don't they? – to bring British cooking to the most sniffy diners in the world. I'd be the plucky Brit masochist chef! Admittedly, it wasn't the straightforward cooking show I was yearning to see, but I hoped to be able to share the secrets and techniques I'd learnt during my chef's training along the way and, maybe once I Trojan-horsed it to the other side of the screen, they'd let me do something simpler.
The next step was to persuade an agent to represent me. On a friend's recommendation I contacted Kirsty Mclachlan at David Godwin Associates, a literary and TV agent based in Covent Garden. We met in March and she immediately lined up appointments with some of the country's leading independent production companies. The first, Silver River, went for it. Its boss, Daisy Goodwin, was on the phone to Channel 4 before I had even left the office.
"Channel 4's head of factual [Sue Murphy] loved the idea and wants to see more. We'd like to shoot a taster," Goodwin called to say later that day. This would be a kind of TV tease, to give the channel an idea of the irresistible nature of my allure. It needed to show a little of how the series might be and, of course, reassure Channel 4 that I didn't look like Peter Beardsley. (Clearly I'd have to stay out of direct light.) I arranged a dinner party at my home so they could film me cooking and serving food to a half-dozen or so very self-conscious friends, then spent two days being filmed walking up and down the streets of Paris while trying not to look as if I was being filmed walking up and down. Cooking and talking while someone dances around you with a camera up your nostrils also turned out to be trickier than I expected. But it was weirdly exciting, and having the attention of two people – the producer and cameraman – at the same time was dangerously addictive. Already, on-screen Michael was starting to feel somehow more important, more interesting than off-screen Michael.
But it seemed I was the only one to pick up on this. About a month later, I had heard nothing. I phoned and emailed, but no response. Eventually I got through to an underling. "Oh, didn't you hear? Sue Murphy at Channel 4 decided she was looking for something more rural," he said. Eventually we got to see the footage ourselves. It wasn't bad, but seeing yourself as others really see you is never pleasant. "You know how sometimes you see famous supermodels' siblings?" my wife said after seeing it. "And they are always a bit, you know, not quite the same. Don't take this the wrong way, but you look a bit like Michael Bolton's younger brother." Back to square one.
My TV agent – as I took to referring to her even in conversations that had nothing to do with television or food – arranged a few more meetings with independent production companies, all of them based in London. Everyone loved my new ideas: a series about ice-cream; another about cheese; and another to tie in with my next book, about a food odyssey through Japan with my family.
Early on, one producer had given me a golden insight into the mind of the TV commissioner: "They don't want anything new," he'd said. "They just want the same but slightly different. When Top Gear started, for six months all I heard in meetings was, 'Can't we do a food/gardening/current affairs show, but kind of like Top Gear.' Then it was 'kind of like The Apprentice'." I became a super-slick pitcher. "It's kind of like Top Gear crossed with Dragons' Den but with food," I told the next round of companies who, again, responded with unbounded enthusiasm. But still no commission. Someone with a more balanced outlook, someone more self-aware and rational, would probably have started to take this kind of repeated passive rejection personally, but I ploughed on.
My agent suggested I get some real TV experience. Coincidentally, I had been invited on to a cable-TV show called Market Kitchen to plug my new book. The researcher had rung to ask if I wouldn't mind doing a demonstration, "You know, something quick, the slot's about five minutes." I suggested frying a steak and using the brownings as the base of a sauce – it's a simple process, but there are some key things that can go wrong that I thought worth showing.
The day of the "shoot" (as we call it in the TV world) arrived. Nice ladies gently shepherded me into a waiting-room, then make-up and finally to the set – a kind of fake garden-centre café – where presenter Tom Parker Bowles was busy filming a "segment" (don't worry, you'll pick up the jargon soon) with a Michelin-starred chef. The chef was demonstrating how to make a cauliflower soup in under five minutes.
Mr Bowles was charming and friendly, and did his best to set me at ease, complimenting me on my book in a way that suggested he had actually read it. We stood behind a counter and began the demo. Halfway through I realised that Tom, who was cooking along with me, wasn't at all concerned that his steak was charred and his sauce entirely evaporated, and I was distracted by a celebrity guest chef who interrupted with a critique about my use of butter. We had a good-natured row, during which I jokingly offered him outside for a fight. Everyone seemed to like that very much. It was "a bit Gordon".
The producer came to visit me in the green room (insider revelation: it wasn't green!) after the show and I mentioned the charred steak. "Oh, no, don't worry about that, that won't show," she said. "I loved that argument you had halfway through with the other chef, though. That was brilliant!"
Afterwards, as I walked to my car, I felt triumphant. As I opened the car door, I felt a bit dirty and sad. As I sat behind the wheel, I got a call from my agent telling me the BBC were keen to meet, and I drove off happy and deluded into the sunset.
The BBC have expressed an interest in two of Michael's ideas. Watch this space – but don't hold your breath...'Sacré Cordon Bleu' by Michael Booth (Cape) is out now. His next book, 'Sushi and Beyond' (Cape), is out next May. For more details, visit www.michael-booth.com
'Now chop your veg like so': Three chefs who took over our TVs
'Fanny's Kitchen' (ITV: 1955, 1957, 1961)
The show: Dressed in an evening gown and accompanied by her bumbling side-kick husband Major John, Fanny Cradock used her ground-breaking cookery show to inject glamour into Britain's austere post-war cuisine, and in doing so created the UK's first celebrity chef. Audiences tuned in in their millions to watch the prim Cradock offer cheap but sophisticated recipes influenced by her obsession with all things French. Such was her popularity that she presented shows well into the 1970s
The signature dish: The prawn cocktail, which she is credited with creating
The angle: A forbidding, bossy approach combined with a keen eye for limited household budgets of the time – Cradock regularly used catchphrases such as "This won't break you" and "This won't stretch your purse"
'Delia Smith's Cookery Course' (BBC2: 1978-1980)
The show: Shot in a BBC studio in a straightforward, low-key manner, this Delia Smith series held no surprises but was a massive success, thanks, presumably, to its lack of pretension and easy-to-follow recipes. It made Smith a phenomenon; the accompanying book sold millions of copies
The signature dish: Delia's take on lasagne al forno.
The angle: Too busy with your early-1980s lifestyle to learn the kitchen basics? Enter Delia, the no-nonsense, housewife-next-door
'Floyd on Fish' (BBC1: from 1985)
The show: Introducing the idea of the roving TV chef, Keith Floyd's first programme turned him into an overnight sensation with his lively, opinionated trip round a fishmonger – and spawned a further 18 eponymous series. Floyd's shows focused on the fun around the food; he constantly bantered with Clive the cameraman, knocked back copious amounts of plonk and snacked on his grub mid-preparation
The signature dish: Mussels in champagne
The angle: The Oliver Reed of TV chefs was typically seen with a knife in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, acting like the wild bon viveur he was.
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