It's ready, steady, go to a prime slot for Fern and her TV chefs

Television/ cheap and cheerful

Decca Aitkenhead
Saturday 03 June 1995 23:02 BST

TAKE one TV presenter, two contestants and two chefs. Add two surprise bags of groceries worth pounds 5 each. Cook on a low budget for 30 minutes, and you have an afternoon cookery game show so successful that next week it transfers to prime time TV. The rise and rise of Ready Steady Cook bears testimony to the new-found sex appeal of cooking, the enduring attraction of the game show, and the public's insatiable appetite for celebrity chefs.

BBC2 first commissioned the half-hour programme last October for the 4.30pm slot, hoping to help build afternoon audiences for a new Esther Rantzen show at 5pm. Ready Steady Cook outdid Esther, went daily and has just completed its 93rd episode; only 24 were originally planned. Ratings topped three million. For the next nine weeks, it will go out on Friday night at 8.30 on BBC2.

Ready Steady Cook's concept is simple. Two contestants each present a bag of groceries they have bought for no more than pounds 5 to a celebrity chef. Armed with these ingredients, plus a standard household larder and a fridge stocked with eggs, milk and yoghurt, the chefs have 20 minutes in which to rustle up a gastronomic delight. They have no warning of what is in the bag, and the deadline is non-negotiable; there is no editing after the event and no here's-one-I-made-earlier. The contestants offer humble assistance - at times to questionable effect.

The studio audience votes for each concoction; the winning contestant departs with pounds 100, the loser with a gourmet hamper. To date, no chef has departed with egg on his face.

This is cheap television. "We're making it for practically nothing," says the producer, Linda Clifford. The set is gaudy, the contestants jolly and the presenter, Fern Britton, reassuringly homely. It is also bizarrely compelling.

The spectacle of first-class cuisine emerging from a cheap bag of vegetables, with a clock ticking in the background and Fern small-talking over the onions, has a surreal and irresistible quality. "The beauty of the show is that it removes that ghastly mystique from cooking. It has universal appeal. People realise they could do it too," says Fern. Between basting and blanching, the chefs provide a running commentary and impart golden nuggets of kitchen craft.

In one show viewers will see Ainsley Harriott, resident hot-shot chef on Good Morning with Anne and Nick, transform vine leaves, olives, feta, chicken and plum tomatoes into a dish of thin chicken fillets, rolled around melted feta, wrapped in vine leaves, fried and served on a tomato, garlic and olive sauce on a vine leaf bed. It doesn't always go to plan - Anthony Worrall-Thompson, of Dell 'Ugo in Frith Street, Soho, claims a goat curry became an English breakfast one week. In another show, Steven Saunders - Harriott's predecessor on Anne and Nick - conjures a banana souffle on a bed of hot sugared pineapple and apple from a bag of fruit. He has also had to tackle a bag of bulgar wheat, haricot beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, home-made yoghurt and tahini paste; in another episode he pulled off fresh linguine. Steven, chef at the Pink Geranium at Melbourne, near Cambridge, says: "Not many chefs could do it. It's good fun, but every time I go on, I put my restaurant's reputation on the line. With all the interruptions from Fern, it's not very easy."

And what interruptions. Fern's dinner guest in the kitchen manner elevates the show above the standard fare of cooking shows. She is all agog to see what's coming out of the bag and out of the pot, and is winningly amateurish about cuisine.

"I'm so dim, I'm coming from a direction that only knows tins of baked beans," she trills. "I bet you get some funny stories in your job, don't you?" she asks a registrar of births, marriages and deaths. The registrar reels off funny name anecdotes while frantically ribboning carrots.

The success of the formula relies heavily on the showmanship of the people doing the cooking. Sixteen star chefs pit their culinary wits against one another. Their performances under pressure have earned the show its prime-time spot and boosted their celebrity status.

"When I was stopped for speeding, the constable asked for my autograph," says Steve Saunders. "I get fan mail from young girls wanting to know if I've got pets, from gay men, from young women in short skirts, the lot." Ready Steady Cook is now the most popular daytime show for housewives, and its student cult status was celebrated recently on Channel 4's The Big Breakfast.

The phenomenon of the chef as entertainer began with Fanny Craddock in the 1950s, but it is only recently that chefs have graduated into the pseudo-pop- star league. The appeal is not clear but, like their dishes, it is proving irresistible to viewers.

'Ready Steady Cook' will be broadcast on Friday at 8.30pm, BBC2.

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