INTERVIEW / A taste for the masses: Loyd Grossman: Born in Marblehead, he speaks like he ate the place and critics hate him. But he draws the audiences. Geraldine Bedell reports

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The Independent Online
GROSS Loyd man, the rest of the staff used to call him when he worked at Harpers & Queen. Things haven't changed much: he has moved out of magazines and into television, but he is still the butt of jokes, still the man people love to hate. Television critics quip about 'irritable vowel syndrome' and marvel that so oleaginous a figure continues to get so much work; food and design writers question his authority. Yet not only does he continue to work, but the programmes he presents draw huge audiences.

Next weekend he will present the final of Masterchef, a BBC cookery gameshow with 7.8 million viewers - conservatively more than twice the audience for any other food programme ever. He is also midway through another series of Through The Keyhole for Yorkshire TV, which regularly attracts more than 10 million viewers.

British audiences may not have taken Loyd Grossman to their hearts, but they clearly don't find him so repellent that they switch channels. So why the disdain whenever you mention his name? Perhaps it derives from a kind of xenophobia: 'He lacks team spirit,' says Ann Barr, who was deputy editor of Harpers when Loyd was there. 'We used to say that if he had been to a British school, he wouldn't behave like that.' Or perhaps it's distaste for his populism: 'He is a great reductionist: he makes his living by treating food as a joke,' says the food writer Paul Levy. 'He takes a lowest common denominator approach, and contributes to the sad lack of seriousness about food in this country.'

Loyd is evidently clever - he graduated cum laude from Boston University, took an MSc in economic history at the London School of Economics, and considered becoming an academic historian - but he sees no shame, no abuse of intelligence, in presenting gameshows. 'Yes, I think that probably is American. I'm intensely distressed by this British notion of cultural hierarchies - the idea that Everest is novel-writing, and the foothills of Everest is the film business, the flatlands is journalism, and death valley is television. I think that's so stupid: I hate that. And that's a very very pervasive English idea, that television is not culturally legitimate.'

Perhaps some of the incredulity at Loyd's success derives from simple, and not unreasonable, distaste for his television persona. He is intensely mannered: it is not just the soaring and dipping vowels, the exaggerated hanging on to words long after he should have let them go. He lifts his eyebrows, bobs up and down, and over- emphasises: 'Helen threaus herself enthusiastically into aerobics,' he tells us about a Masterchef competitor. This leaves you not quite sure if he is on Helen's side, or being a bit snide.

He gives the impression of being somehow self-created, a feeling enhanced by his decision to wear glasses on the BBC but not on ITV. And as someone who talks freely about being a fan of juniper, he cannot help but come across as a something of a sophisticate. Yet he doesn't look sophisticated: the suits could hardly be less stylish. He sometimes looks as if he has put himself together from a kit - in which case, you wonder why he didn't choose one with a bit more warmth.

LOYD GROSSMAN was born in 1950, in Marblehead, Massachussetts, 'an eccentric New England village, full of yacht clubs - historic and extremely beautiful'. His father, who was 59 when he was born, dealt in American antique furniture. 'We had a large amount of seriously fantastic furniture. If I want to look at what I grew up with now, I have to go the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.' And so architecture and design became two of his interests.

His parents were also keen on food. 'They took me out to restaurants a lot, even when I was in my Moses basket.' When I suggested lunch for our interview, he chose The Ivy, where the food is exceptional but where the celebrity quotient is invariably high: to see and be seen is an essential part of the experience. Loyd kept a weather eye on the other celebs: 'Oh, look, Melvyn's having a bit of a tour now,' he noted when Melvyn Bragg got up from his table. 'Normally only chefs do that: 'did you enjoy it?' they say. Do you think Melvyn's saying that?'

He is good company, Loyd. He puts himself out to be charming, and is frequently self-deprecating - claiming for example that TVam contacted him to present the original Through The Keyhole because someone had been told to track down 'that restaurant critic who wrote for a glossy magazine and had a funny name'. He says they wanted Bevis Hiller.

But if Loyd has passions, if his enthusiasms are heartfelt, you would never know. When his black risotto arrived, he exclaimed: 'Oh, that's pretty]' and then, in a self-parodying growl, 'very designer]' This perhaps, is what most irritates his rivals, that he doesn't appear to take seriously what they so care about. When he reviewed restaurants for Harpers & Queen, it was sometimes difficult to get much sense of the food. 'My whole premise about restaurants was and remains that you don't go for the food. If you walk out of a restaurant happier than when you went in, it doesn't matter if the sauce fantaise was curdled. And if that means writing about the furniture or the other customers, then so be it.'

When he was still at Marblehead High School, Loyd had discovered Humphrey Littleton's restaurant reviews in Queen, and 'decided that some day I was going to write about food'. He dabbled in restaurant reviewing at Boston University - 'a Methodist university basically for people who want to be in Boston and haven't managed to get into Harvard'. He read history 'when I wasn't seeing Jethro Tull five nights in a row'.

Ann Barr remembers Loyd arriving to write for Harpers & Queen when he was still at the LSE. 'He was scholarly and charming. He charmed everyone, especially the editor, and ended up with about three jobs, including gardening editor. He was quite ruthless about working the system. And he was clever, but without many roots. He could rewrite a long piece he had written in an hour, and he never wrote about himself.'

After a couple of early articles about the architecture of the London Underground and millenarian movements in history, and 'for reasons which remain unclear,' Loyd says the magazine asked him to write regularly about design. Not long afterwards, he became restaurant critic, determined to do away with 'that restaurant reviewer's convention of saying 'my companion': I always named names, and often I talked about the person'. He denies that this meant he had to eat with people readers might have heard of - 'I just ate with who I wanted' - but inevitably, the effect was to focus the column on personalities, not least his own.

He moved to the Sunday Times magazine, 'assuming I would go on being a journalist. My friends were here, and so was my career. But I didn't think about television, because it seemed so unobtainable'. Sally Angel, who worked on the original Through The Keyhole, recalls that 'even when Loyd had no experience, he was consummately professional. He never knew whose house it was in those days, but he always thought of something perceptive to say. And if he was kept hanging around, he never complained. Crews liked working with him.'

Part of Loyd's attraction for programme makers is that he stands outside the class system; he can comment on pebble dash or Kiwi fruit without sounding either snooty or chippy. Few Englishmen could have made such a smooth transition from being a clever clogs on a Sloaney magazine to prime time television, where he says, he is 'deliberately populist. I am aware it's a mass medium'.

His much-mocked voice, he says, 'is sort of 90-plus per cent Boston . . . it's gone a bit more English'. It is actually Boston out of Harpers & Queen: his brother, who runs a restaurant in Covent Garden, speaks considerably less tormentedly. Loyd thinks his voice is so derided because 'it's a sort of trademark, and people either hate it or like it. My view is that if 60 per cent of people like it, I'm happy'.

In 1985, Loyd married Debs, who had featured frequently in his restaurant column. She is David Puttnam's daughter, worked at TVam, and is, friends say, 'extremely forceful'. They have two daughters, Florence, three, and Constance, one, and are reputed to be very content, and very social. Loyd says he makes a point of working from home as much as possible. He does all the cooking.

He has had stabs at other careers: he was briefly Jet Bronx and The Forbidden, a punkish heavy metal band who got a single to number 47 in 1977; he was a partner in a restaurant called Columbus, which was appallingly reviewed and failed, to the ill-concealed schadenfreude of many. But on television he seems unstoppable. Perhaps one day he will become that much- loved British institution, a treasured eccentric. Now, though, his apparent affectations, his woodenness and lack of easy warmth seem alienating. Americans are supposed to lack irony. But Loyd Grossman is so ironic, so overlaid by self-mockery and amusement, that it is hard to be sure quite what he feels about anything.

(Photograph omitted)

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