Celebrity Masterchef returned to BBC1 last night, and naturally I had a look at it. Four women to pass the critical scrutiny of ringmasters John Torode and Gregg Wallace. Three of whom I'd never heard of, although I had heard of their background girl band or famous husband or comedy mum (What? See below, at the end) or whatever. And then there was the fourth - Janet Street-Porter, known to me as a journalist, TV personality, a past media boss, and one-time Ramblers Association chairperson. Also for having an outspoken and abrasive manner, put over in a distinctive London accent that I've never heard anybody else employ to such caustic effect. A no-nonsense woman who can push so hard that she gets things done. Or should that be, gets her way? Meow?
The old format is there as before. I do like John Torode's 'ingredient recognition test'. It amuses me to see John and Gregg looking alternatively kind and encouraging, then stone-faced and critical. I should think that in real life John is intolerant of incompetence in the kitchen. I should think that Gregg, mostly a salt-of-the-earth chubby guy who really likes his food - though he's slimming down nowadays - has his bad-tempered moments. Who hasn't?
But neither strikes me as the kind of loose cannon Janet Street-Porter aims to be. She isn't going to play the game. She isn't going to 'suck up to John and Gregg', as she said as a put-down remark to the three other contestants - this was after the initial make-what-you-can-of-these-ingredients test, which featured a massive red spider crab and a very limited choice of things to use with it. She was put out when John Torode disapproved of her using the big crab shell as a bowl for her orange-sauce covered salad leaves. (I didn't myself think it was a terribly bad idea, even though it was an inelegant one, as the shell was so big it resembled half a skull) Fire leapt from her narrowed eyes.
After that early confrontation, she seemed determined to put the two judges in their place. She looked constantly poised to strike, war glinting in her watchful face. To her credit, she had good technique, knowing for instance how to bone a duck, and could genuinely put tasty stuff on a plate. But I couldn't stand her manner. I hated her calling such attention to herself. I didn't like her putting the other contestants in the shade, and I did not want to see John and Gregg humiliated. I find naked power struggles unedifying to watch. But gratuitously bad behaviour is a total turn-off. I duly turned off, and wrote last night's post instead.
Was I right to walk away from the spectacle? A lot of people might think that John and Gregg do wield far too much stern power on this programme, and need the occasional feisty challenge to keep them on their toes. But a lot of what they do is just theatre for the camera. The scenes in which they sneeze, fart, trip over, rip their trousers, get the contestant's name wrong, swear, fluff their lines, descend into giggles, mess up the demo, drop the duck on the floor and tread on it, are all edited out. You simply see two unruffled, frowning and hard-to-please demigods with a taste for wicked challenges. But the show is not a sham: the contestants really do have to show brilliance, and really deserve to get whatever acclaim may eventually come their way. But it isn't a cold-blooded struggle either.
It's television entertainment. And to my mind, a cross and belligerent attitude that has elements of bullying in it doesn't sit well with the sort of show this is intended to be. I wanted to see a set of people, who might not have the time for great cookery, step up to the mark and produce something delightful and surprisingly accomplished. I did not want to see the atmosphere tainted with argument and backchat from one prickly contestant. OK, hats off to Janet Street-Porter for being a forceful and talented person. But boo to her for making me abandon the show.
At least I can step away and get on with something nicer. In this electronic age, that is increasingly an option. It's true. You can turn it all off if you want.
Think about it: the days of getting at you by knocking on your physical front door are drawing to a close. The world is now geared to streaming messages at you through screens, or by mass phone call campaigns. It's that way because it works better - whether it's a political statement, or a sales pitch, or a request for your charity, the well-crafted and glossy message will be consistent and endlessly repeatable. It's a drip-drip, wear-you-down, nag at you, keep-you-thinking-about-it technique that gets results, because if you hit a large enough number of people with the same consistent message, a lot of them will eventually react in exactly the way you want. And their conversion to the cause or product will influence those around them.
But the relentless electronic stream can be cut off if you wish. I do so wish. And have found out how. Life is more peaceful as a result.
Although pressing the 'off' button on my TV remote control remains the easiest way of shielding myself from the big television egos who want to grab my attention, going only half-way - and merely muting them - can be highly entertaining. It's certainly the best way to watch advertisements: it adds mental stimulation and interest to what you see, because you have to work out what the ad is actually all about. You can admire the photography without the distraction of the commentary. It elevates some ads, and reduces some to absurdity. In any event, it stops the message getting through as intended. Bad for business? I don't care. They only want me to spend money on things I don't need. And if some of the message is still getting through, and it irritates me, there's that lovely 'off' button.
So I don't need to hector anyone, or rant - I just press that button. And in similar vein, applying that phone call filter also does the trick.
Even saying 'no' at my front door has become pretty easy. In the past, politeness held one back. One didn't want to seem rude. But 'they' have pushed too hard. Now they can have it back in their face. With a smile of course.
That said, I would never go onto a show like Celebrity Masterchef and be unpleasant. Even if it was my distinctive trademark.
PS: In my first paragraph, I was definitely thinking that Katy Brand was comedienne Jo Brand's daughter. She's not. Nor is she the Katy Brand who was briefly married to comedian Russell Brand. I've now got this right in my head. It just shows how very little I know about the world of entertainment! I regularly commit gaffes whenever Somebody Any Ordinary Person Will Know Well is mentioned. Never mind.