Has 'Masterchef' had its frites?

Once BBC1's amateur cooking show ruled the roast. Now its future in the corporation's schedules is uncertain
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The Independent Online

It was once billed as the Olympic Games of home cooking. Now, the BBC can't even agree a venue or a time for it. Masterchef, it is feared, may be off the menu.

It was once billed as the Olympic Games of home cooking. Now, the BBC can't even agree a venue or a time for it. Masterchef, it is feared, may be off the menu.

The showcase of competitive cuisine, which for millions fills the gap between Sunday lunch and Songs of Praise, Masterchef looks like becoming the latest casualty of the ratings war that has raged at the BBC ever since the arrival of its new director general, Greg Dyke.

One possibility under consideration is the removal of the programme's long-time presenter, Loyd Grossman, and his replacement by celebrity chef Gary Rhodes, best known for his cordon bleu sticky puddings and his shaving brush hair. Rhodes currently fronts a version of the show on US public television, but retains various business interest in Britain, including an award-winning chain of restaurants.

A shift more seismic in its significance would be that from the sunlit uplands of BBC1 to the shadowy, twilight world of BBC2 - a move that, in the eyes of many, would only confirm the reinvention of "One" as an exclusively mass-audience entertainment portal and of "Two" as a platform for minority, niche-productions.

Most surprising of all, were it to happen, would be the disappearance of the distinctive competition format that, from the programme's inception in 1990, has been the mainstay of its appeal. Instead of three amateur cooks taking part each week in the preparation of competing three-course meals, Rhodes and a panel of guest chefs might be asked to demonstrate a range of dishes from Britain and around the world.

Not everyone is happy with the idea. " Masterchef without the competition would be like Mastermind without the points," one insider commented ruefully.

Grossman himself is unlikely to have any truck with such a change. He regards the existing programme as a "classic", and any attempt to "shoehorn" it into standard BBC2 format would, it is understood, go down with him like a bucket of warm chablis.

Already, the alarm bells are ringing. The corporation "cannot say whether Masterchef will or will not be commissioned for a further series". Nor does it deny the possibility of a move to BBC2. Peter Schnabel, Grossman's agent, laments the fact that, with autumn approaching, "they still haven't made up their mind".

According to Schnabel, "the BBC is in such turmoil, they won't commit to anyone". Commissioning of a new series to be ready in time for the winter schedule would have to be agreed by September at the latest - "and so far we haven't heard a thing".

Should Grossman be axed, his famous mid-Atlantic vowels, combining Boston Brahmin with Belgravia barman, would not necessarily be lost to the nation. He is a busy man, who successfully markets his own range of marinades and sauces. He has worked with David Frost on Through the Keyhole, a daytime gameshow in which celebrities try to guess whose hapless home Grossman has violated with his spare key and digital camera. Last year, his name was - wrongly - linked to the chairmanship of English Heritage.

On Masterchef, it was his mannerisms on which most media attention focused. His long-drawn-out mmmmms as he drooled over a sauce; his provocative emphasis on the American pronunication of bay-sil; his singular, almost reluctant relationship with his fork, as if, perhaps, supping with the devil.

Rhodes has worked hard over the years to transform himself from someone handy in the kitchen to all-round television performer. Rhodes Around Britain, in which he toured the country seeking to improve traditional regional dishes, made his name. But it was his hair, sticking up vertically, four inches from his skull - the crew-cut that time forgot - that became his trademark. He dared not alter it in case people didn't recognise him, and now, in his mid-thirties, he is stuck with it. Once, he was the new kid on the chopping block. Today, in spite of the success of his various restaurants, in London, Manchester and Edinburgh, he has been overtaken, on a scooter, by Jamie Oliver, the Naked Chef. And it hurts. Masterchef, with him as the centre of attraction, would give him the chance to reoccupy the herbal high ground, and put young Oliver in his place.

What, though, of the contestants? An army of proud chefs is out there, waiting to strut its stuff, and if the BBC removes the field of battle, someone else could easily step in.

The format is owned by Union Pictures, an independent production company, which is known to be considering a variety of changes to ensure the programme is not decomissioned. So has Grossman had his chips? "Absolutely not", says Union's Brad Adams. And will the programme move to BBC2? "That's absolutely wrong. It's simply not the case." And what about Rhodes? "He is already fronting Masterchef in America. We have no other relationship with Gary."

So that's all right, then.

Next month, on the Bank Holiday Sunday, Masterchef will be back on our screens with a one-off celebrity special, in which Grossman will referee a cook-off between Ulrika Jonsson, Rick Wakeman and Jenny Agutter, with expert commentary from Jamie Oliver (who else?) and Raymond Blanc. Beyond that, who knows? Certainly not the BBC.

For would-be contestants, it could be a lean future. No more blue, red and green stage kitchens; no more lovingly guarded kitchen implements; no more etoliated "cogitations" from Loyd. The series is in fact sealed and delivered in two-and-a-half weeks, but due to the time distortion of television, it seems to last all winter.

This year's millennial - and possibly last - Masterchef winner was Marjorie Lang, a Scot, now living in St Andrews. Her victory was, one learns, a blow for the Queen, who had backed Isabel Radford, former buyer for the royal kitchens. Support for the programme, it appears, goes right to the top.

Should Grossman fail to keep his place as the impresario of British cuisine, or should Rhodes fail to displace him, neither should despair. The Government has just announced that, as part of its NHS reforms, it is looking for top chefs to work a little bit of magic on hospital menus. Now there is a challenge.