Friday, February 11, 2011

Calder on Air: Come Dine With Me, Service and Andrew Neil

My column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

TV Torment

Our relationship with television has changed. When I first attended Liberal Assemblies in the 1980s, most delegates, when approached by a camera crew, would feel intimidated and back away. At modern Liberal Democrat Conferences everyone is able to give a polished sound bite on demand.

It has changed more than that. Embarrassing Bodies invites us to believe there are numerous people, too bashful to visit their doctor, who are nevertheless prepared to display their naughty bits on evening television.

A different ordeal is suffered by contestants on Come Dine With Me (Channel 4): their homes, cooking and characters are dissected by the snide voice over of Dave Lamb. Yet there is no shortage of people to appear on the show, and last week one of them was Alex Foster, a councillor from Nottingham and one of the editorial team that runs the blog Liberal Democrat Voice.

I asked Alex about the experience. “Why did I apply? Because I like the show, and I was fascinated to see how it was made. I'm very glad I did it, and it was an extremely interesting experience.” But not all was as it seemed on screen. As Alex told the Nottingham Evening Post, guests were sometimes kept waiting in taxis for 90 minutes before making their entrance to the host’s house. “Then after the two courses, they would spend over an hour recording interviews before dessert.”

As the week’s winner (not Alex, I am afraid) told the Post: “The nights start at around 6 p.m. and the majority ... finished after 3 a.m. It was so tiring ... if I knew ... what I was in for I would never have let my friend submit my name.”

Alex found what many have found before him: that television is a reducing medium. If you are interviewed by a newspaper you can be surprised how long a piece they can make out of it, but it is not like that on screen. Alex was “amazed by how much did not make the final cut,” including a trip to a windmill to buy flour for his bread. And of 20 minutes filming him bell-ringing with his guests (a very Alex touch) “only about 10 seconds was shown.”


Stories like this make it safe to conclude that nothing on television is as it seems, but maybe there are exceptions. Michel Roux Jr’s Service (BBC2) came across as being about as real as reality television ever gets. On any other series, you suspect, Jamal would have been kept in because he was “feisty” and “made good television” – think of the way Alan Sugar kept Stuart Beggs in The Apprentice for so long – but Roux quickly divined that he had no wish to be a waiter and slung him out.

Service in terrible in Britain, says Roux. And as with many unfortunate phenomena here, class is behind it somewhere. As one of the other professionals in the series observed, in France being a waiter does not make you a servant – it is a profession.

And the programme did emphasise what a divided society we are. Some of the trainees, Roux said wonderingly at one point, had never been in a restaurant before. This reminded the viewer of another recent programme on the class divide, Andrew Neil’s Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain (BBC2). During it, Neil went back to his old school (the former Paisley Grammar) to talk to current students. What was most depressing was their assumption that a top universities like St Andrews were not for them.

You can blame lack of aspiration, but what is the cause of that lack? Neil’s own explanation for our widening class divide is hard to ignore: “Almost uniquely, Britain has developed a largely egalitarian non-selective state school system alongside an aggressive, highly selective private system. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the top jobs are once again falling into the lap of the latter.”

1 comment:

oneexwidow said...

I enjoyed Service and noted with interest at the end that, aside from the three winners a number of the other participants had also gone into the industry too.