Friday, April 30, 2004

The Ugliest - and the best of - Television

Now that Easter has passed, we seem to be into Summer scheduling, which means tons of new programmes on the telly, and, unsurprisingly, half of them are reality shows; the children of Wife Swap, What Not to Wear, and Jamie's Kitchen.

Actually, the three I watched this week were exactly that. The worst, Ten Years Younger, was a cruel antecedant of Trinny and Susannah's excellent appearance's programme. But where the emphasis in that programme is always on working with what we have, and proving that there are many many ways to make any body look good, despite what Heat magazine might tell us, Ten Years Younger began with the unpleasant idea: if you wanna look good, you're gonna have to work at it. And they don't mean go shopping with a list of 'fashion rules' in it. They mean botox, hair extensions, more make up than you see on a night out on West St (although not as much as the girl who runs the No. 5 stand in Boots by Churchill Square. Really. Go see). This week's participant (victim?) was a prison warder with a grade A nicotine habit.We had to guess how hold she was.

By weighting the survey with young kids who, frankly, wouldn't have a clue, they managed to get her average (perceived) age up to 51 (some youngsters had been squinting and saying '67?'). Both myself and Vic both said 45 immediately. She was 45. In order to get her looking 41 they gave her 60 botox injections. She would have smiled, but her face was set.

And where Ten Years Younger drew on WNTW for inspiration, Jamie's Kitchen, the big reality hit of a couple of years ago, where Jamie Oliver had 12 weeks or something (these programs don't work without an arbitrary timescale, for some reason) to train 20 teenagers with no cooking experience to be chefs in a busy London kitchen, was clearly the main influence behind another, rather better show which just aired on C4.

Gordon Ramsay, who swears inventively and often, was up against the same challenge as Jamie, more or less, in this week's excellent Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares, except the know-nothing star had persuaded a misguided restauranter to call him 'head chef', and the restaurant itself, Bonapartes, was in Yorkshire. Cue much Northern stereotyping from Ramsay, who used to play in goal for Celtic and should know better, and lots of closeups of bald pensioners salivating over Gord's own Beef and Ale Pie.

Fun to watch though Ramsay was, the real star was the young 'head chef'. He was a genius. A comic genius, I mean. He began by indicating that he hoped to one day run three restaurants (London, Paris, New York, of course), then poisoned Ramsay with an off scallop, revealed he couldn't cook an omelette and finally that - despite it all - he couldn't cook a damn thing. Worse, nor he could he empty a fridge. The show seemed to segue seemlessly into another reality show, How Clean Is Your Kitchen?. His was not very clean at all. He was given every opportunity, and was, eventually, fired.

The reality show, when it is good, makes you really root for the participant, really hope he can pull it off. Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares was like an exquisitely plotted episode of Poirot. Only at the end do you discover the murderer - and it was the chef all along! But we liked him!

Not any more. Twenty minutes in you're praying that he'll come up to scratch. After thirty you're grimly fascinated and neutral. With quarter of an hour left I was baying for his blood. What a cretin! Never one to pass up the opportunity to take something too seriously, he was protesting that it was a stich up by the time Thursday's Guardian went to press. Front page, too.

If the rest of the series is half as good as this week's episode, it will be perfect.

Almost as good again was last night's Fairy Godfathers. Ostensibly the child of Wife Swap and America's Queer Eye For a Straight Eye, it was not only hilarious and touching but downright fascinating. Two (ahem) godfathers (for which read gay men) move in with two old-fashioned husbands and their wives move out. Before long the neandethal men are ironing, whisking their lovers away for romantic weekends, and look ten years younger (with no botox involved).

What made this week's debut episode so winning, however, was not so much the slow dawning in these men that they have turned their (ridiculously pretty, how did they manage that???) wives into doormats and slaves, but the genuine and tender relationship that developed between one of the 'godfathers' and his charge; a pleasingly hefty, affectionate but unreconstructed farmer. They fell in love, if only in a 'you're my new best friend' kind of way. Lovely.

Much lovelier than Ten Years Younger, that's for sure.

There was another programme on earlier in the week and it was, in fact, better than all of the above. It was entitled One Life, and in it an air hostess, Ros Pryer, met up with other people, children and adults, who were born with prominent birthmarks on their faces. Ros, who was in her mid 30s, had covered her face in camoflage make-up since her teens, and was terrified of being seen with her port wine colouring. Eventually she met a younger version of herself, a young mother, who persuaded her to go out without the warpaint. Had she seen Ten Years Younger the night before filming I bet she wouldn't have dared - it was a programme which insinuated that behind every smile was the utmost unkindness, and without extreme beauty - or a disguise - we were lost.

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