Entertainment media thrives on stories about how rock stars and Hollywood actors are wallowing in obscene wealth, but there’s another form of entertainment that is quietly earning big money, a place where the most elaborate special effect is choux pastry and the white powder is (mostly) icing sugar. TV cooking shows might not grab the headlines, but in terms of bang for your buck it’s considerably cheaper to pull in ten million viewers by plonking Mel & Sue in a tent full of wilting buns than it is to indulge Bono or let Tom Cruise pretend he’s some kind of Freudian space bishop.
Like anything more exciting than lawn bowls cooking has been described as “the new rock & roll”, but its true appeal is the precise opposite of the spirit that made Ozzy Osbourne bite the head off a bat. Cooking is popular because in an increasingly insane world watching somebody gently make pies on TV provides an essential, calming respite from reality. Imagine Ozzy Osbourne nibbling the end off an eclair, whilst Mary Berry plays a solo on a piping bag full of crème anglaise. Not rock and roll, but in today’s world it’s like slipping your brain into a warm bath.
The relatively low cost of producing even the glitziest cooking programme means that TV bosses searching for the next big hit are chucking around cash like Gordon Ramsey lobbing carrots at a kitchen porter. Nigella could get a blank cheque just for doing a programme where she just makes porridge in a lacy basque, and even Ainsley Harriott is able to insist on being referred to as “Mr Loverman” whilst he chops runner beans with a machete, wearing shades and furs in a TV studio modelled on Scatman Crothers’ gaff in The Shining. If you haven’t seen Heston Blumenthal in a while it’s because Channel 5 have paid him to do a ten part series on sheep offal from a missile base in a dormant volcano. Even with all this, our craving for cooking telly isn’t even close to being satisfied. Let’s see what’s next on the menu.
Cringe surprise: awkward dining experience with real people
The person who came up with the idea for Come Dine With Me deserves to be a multi-millionaire, because they’ve managed to build a TV phenomenon out of a raw material that is more common than mud, namely British social awkwardness. Unlike other reality shows, which require at least a cohort of people who think they can sing or dance, CDWM could point its cameras at any five British strangers and serve up a steaming plate of hideous social gaffes, deluded menu selections and terrible hosting practices. Thirty series in and the cellar hasn’t run dry, but it’s inevitable somebody is working on a copycat format. Personally I’d like to see a show based around disastrous meet the parents dinners, or the horrific cringe potential of boozy work-related socialising. You can almost hear George Lamb sarcastically describing the preparation of a risotto for somebody you fancied at the gym but you’re now trying to poison before they can have sex with you, or the grim, grim reality of chugging too many bellinis and realising a senior colleague has said something offensive and is waiting for you to laugh.
The Bake Off replacement: has it been in the oven too long?
The producers of Bake Off thought they were going to run away from the BBC, but it turns out that everybody bar Paul Hollywood is loyal to Auntie and they blew up the tent on the way out. There’s now a Victoria sponge-sized hole in the beeb’s autumn schedules for a gentle competition where ordinary people compete to produce something that is different enough to cakes that nobody will get sued. Legal issues aside, finding a substitute is harder than it sounds – cakes are varied to look at, require more skill than you think and have the magic effect of making you feel hungry and slightly sinful just by looking at them. Bread is rarely spectacular and pizza is all flat, so the most likely outcome for an oven-based cooking competition is that they’re just going to broaden it to involve anything that British people can conceivably cook in one – from quick starters to a five-bird roast that takes 11 hours of preparation. Yes, there will be cakes, but the people of Britain will be competing on a battlefield where pies lock swords with pasta bakes and a joint of beef will be judged alongside soufflés, sausage casseroles and sticky toffee pudding. It will be like Gladiators, but will mostly involve people getting very fat and needing to loosen their belts like a farting uncle at Christmas.
Dripping with sauce: TV with sex appeal
It’s a lot harder to pull off (steady!), but when a programme maker successfully blends food with sex appeal you’ve got a recipe for a massive thrust in ratings and some long, naughty sales in the cookbook market. Nigella is the reigning Queen of Hearts & Tarts, but eventually she will retire to her soft-focus palace to be fed eclairs by a bevy of toy boys, which will leave room for new challengers to sauce it off amongst themselves in the hopes of claiming her sticky toffee throne. The field is wide open: will the new Madame of the Macaron be another flirtatious posh lady, or will the tiramisu tiara be claimed by a hot-buttered working class crumpet? If this all sounds appallingly sexist, don’t forget that we are talking about a programme format that has a 50 year-old millionaire mum pretending to sneak downstairs in a satin nightie to dip strawberries in warm chocolate. It could be that the most efficient way to meet the “needs” of Nigella’s army of dad fans is simply to introduce a culinary element to that mainstay of the high number satellite channels, Babecast, by getting the depressed looking girls to add cookery to their repertoire of onscreen performances. Text in now if you want Sandra from Dagenham to make a meringue, or call the private number and Chardonnay will tell you how she’d poach your eggs.
A double serving of unpretentious man food, topped with bacon
My own favourite TV theme is the sub-genre of cooking shows that involve a fattish middle-aged man travelling to normal restaurants and eating things a normal fattish middle-aged man would eat, sometimes but not always given an extra dimension by being served extra spicy or in an obscenely large portion size. Man vs. Food man and Guy Fieri have become stars largely via their convincing portrayal of how normal blokes deal with that big pizza or burger that is so good that you finish the lot, even though you’re so full you might end up being sick onto the passenger seat of the car. There’s millions of those men out there (I know because I am one) so I’d like to suggest a TV series themed around me enjoying a number of beers and then purchasing a kebab, a battered sausage or some special fried rice. The budget will be less than twenty quid per episode, and viewers who can’t get enough can enjoy web-only catch up clips following the morning-after progress of my heart problems, irritable bowel syndrome and gout. It’s TV gold, I tell you.