John Walsh: How can you 'dumb down' a cookery competition?

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The Independent Online

Criticism doesn't get any more ludicrous than this.

The new series of MasterChef, which kicked off this week with a shiny new set, coolly nightclubby lighting, a platoon of nervous contestants and a lot of weeping, has come under attack. According to the Daily Mail, "loyal fans" were incensed that BBC1 was "dumbing down the programme by turning it into a hideous X Factor-style competition".

The revamp kicked off with an "audition" in which some of the 20,000 applicants were shown having their dishes assessed and rejected by the two-man jury of John Torode, the shouty Australian restaurant owner, and Gregg Wallace, the bald former fruit 'n' veg stallholder. This came in for censure. But as X Factor viewers know well, the first wave of auditions is invariably the most entertaining part of the show, when the howlingly inept and grossly overconfident are ridiculed and rejected. On the new MasterChef, it was a shame that weeping mother of three Josie was turned down because of her lumpy mash, and that the pneumatic Charity's "deconstructed trifle" melted, but if your dish doesn't work, it means you're not a terribly good cook. That is the way le biscuit crumbles. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the haute cuisine.

Other criticisms were equally foolish. "Contestants had to listen to a critique from the judges before facing a loaded pause and tension-inducing music while their future on the show was deliberated", did they? But contestants had to face this very mild ordeal six years ago – before The X Factor was invented.

To consider a TV cooking competition capable of being "dumbed down" is itself pretty dumb. MasterChef, as its makers would be the first to point out, is not Civilisation. It's about people combining bits of food over sustained heat, and other people putting the result in their mouths and commenting on whether it's nice, nasty or something in between. You can hardly get more basic than that. One might as well complain about the "dumbing down" of Tom And Jerry or Top Of The Pops.

MasterChef started life in 1990 as a quiet affair, in which three contestants shyly knocked up a gourmet three-course meal and served it to Loyd Grossman and two guest judges. (I can hear Grossman's strangled vowels declaring: "This is seau evorcative of an eauberge.") It was dropped, for poor figures, in 2000, made over with Gary Rhodes, dropped after a year, owing to lack of interest, then reborn in 2005 with Torode and Wallace. The Aussie larrikin and the Cockney slaphead have been a winning combination ever since – but what MasterChef's history proves is that the BBC will do anything to keep its audience. That it now reaches an audience of 5.5 million shows that its makers have got the format about right, rather than that it has plumbed new depths of vulgarity.

What, though, about the show's new interest in the contestants' families and friends? In a programme ostensibly about food, is there a place for interviews with the participants' parents, and footage of air-punching relatives and lachrymose grannies? For heaven's sake. The point about MasterChef has never really been the food; it's the people.

When I had the pleasure of going on the show last year (as one of the guest food critics), I was later ticked off by friends for being "rather horrible"/"rather negative"/"a bit cruel" to one or other of the contestants. I hadn't been anything of the sort. I'd merely remarked that the salmon was undercooked or the celeriac oversalted. But viewers of MasterChef really care about the people who perform magic feats with their roux and mirepoix. They believe, in some quasi-mystical way, that what Greg Wallace forks into his perma-hungry gob isn't just food, it's an expression of the contestant's personality and soul.

MasterChef elevates a modest talent for roasting lamb or puréeing peas into something shamanistic or priest-like. And no amount of fancy lighting or fatuous carping can change that.

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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