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The funny side of food and cars

You don’t have to be a foodie or petrolhead to enjoy watching the big-ego, un-PC hosts of The Supersizers Go... and Top Gear.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

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It was strangely appropriate that the conclusion of BBC’s The Supersizers Go… series, featuring restaurant critic Giles Coren and writer and comedian Sue Perkins, should have coincided this week with the much-anticipated launch of the eleventh series of Top Gear. The programmes share an uncanny resemblance. Neither really seek to educate and to inform, and both demonstrate that when the BBC does decide to entertain – albeit in a surreptitious manner – it can do so excellently.

I have previously bored spiked readers by explaining that Top Gear, in its original incarnation, sought to inculcate the best advice on what motors viewers should purchase. (See My name is Patrick. I am a Top Gear viewer.) But since its reincarnation in 2002, Top Gear has become increasingly less concerned with proffering plain consumer advice, and it has become more obsessed with just having a laugh. The programme’s hosts do things like destroy caravans, drive cars to the North Pole, or test how many vehicles an Austin Allegro can fly over while driving backwards.

Top Gear has basically become Jackass. And so what? Jeremy Clarkson is Johnny Knoxville (albeit less handsome) – the alpha male and the crux upon which the whole programme and ‘product’ rests. Richard Hammond is a daredevil à la Steve-O or Dave English. James May is the peripheral one, representing the everyman figures of Preston Lacy, Ryan Dunn, ‘Wee Man’, and all the other occasionally and variably interesting characters who wished they were the stars of the show.

In short, Top Gear is not really about cars; it is about entertainment and narrative. This is why so many non-petrolheads love it so much. It is for the same reason that Supersizers Go… has worked so well. Because this food series wasn’t really about food; it was about ego, narrative and spectacle.

Supersizers Go… was, on the surface, supposed to be about how people ate in the old days. It was meant to investigate the history of British cuisine, revealing the horrible and disgusting fare that used to be our constants in times past.

The title is, of course, an allusion to Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, a self-confessional documentary about a man who spent an entire month eating McDonalds food. By inference, I imagine, Supersizers Go… was an investigation into whether people in the Elizabethan, Regency, Restoration, Wartime and Seventies periods had a better or worse diet than we do today, in our era of ‘obesity epidemics’. Are we eating worse than our ancestors did? Food and diet have become a very political obsession today, so Supersizers Go… seemed a natural way of historically contextualising this issue.

Coren and Perkins conclude that our ancestors’ fixation with meat and protein generally made them more constipated, and probably sent them to an early grave. The only reason we managed to survive in the olden days was because we took more exercise then. The best diet we ever had was enjoyed during the Second World War, when sausages were made out of three per cent pork and 97 per cent bread, sawdust and god-knows-what. Rationing was basically good for us. This is what every carb-loving vegetarian like me has always suspected: carbohydrates are an elixir, and protein the root of all evil.

There were some drawbacks with Supersizers Go… It’s all very well having Coren and Perkins scoffing pig nostrils, chicken’s testicles and sheep’s eyes with predictable, customary disgust. But there seemed to be some dissonance when it came to Coren’s and Perkins’ choices of diets. They imagined themselves to be, and attired themselves as, working-class when they were in the twentieth century. But in periods prior to this, Coren and Perkins imagined themselves either to be part of the aristocracy or the upwardly mobile mercantile classes. I would actually have preferred to find out what the poor consumed in the seventeenth century. This stems not from some class-based, chippy affront (for I am not working-class). I just believe in total history, and so I would rather know how both other halves lived.

But anyway, Giles Coren is a seriously televisual talent. I predict that he will become the new Jeremy Clarkson. Like Clarkson, he is a very astute and witty journalist, both in print and on the telly. Clarkson may be an auto-didact from Yorkshire who used to sell Paddington bears and made his way through journalism via the Rotherham Advertiser, and Coren, son of the late and lamented Alan Coren, may have graduated from Keble College, Oxford. But they are more similar than either would probably want to admit.

Like Clarkson, Coren is deliberately, but not contrarily and flippantly, ‘un-PC’. Their ostensible reactionary demeanours mask a deep sincerity. Mockery, sarcasm and satire are always the last resorts of cheery right-wing people faced by the horror of reality.

I don’t say this with grace, as most male journalists hate Giles Coren, merely for the simple reason that we all resent the fact that every single female journalist we have ever met has fancied him. Giles Coren has the looks of Johnny Knoxville, the acumen of Jeremy Clarkson, and the brains of his father.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

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