Jamie’s Great Britain: processed food-TV

Jamie Oliver’s latest formulaic cookery show: it’s not that great and it’s not that ‘British’.

Justine Brian

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I had vowed not to watch the latest Jamie Oliver vehicle on Channel 4, Jamie’s Great Britain but I was drawn in like a moth to a light, helpless. Makes a change from me watching endless episodes of Come Dine With Me, I guess.

Given the food mood at the moment is all about promoting local, regional and national food in the name of celebrating authenticity and reducing ‘food miles’, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that Oliver should finally pay homage to the British, having done so much to promote the food of Italy over the years. (There is now a chain of 23 Jamie’s Italian restaurants open, with three more opening next year.) Perhaps he’s a tortured soul; having trained in Italian cooking at London’s River Café, maybe he feels it’s about time he paid attention to the food of this ‘gorgeous, crazy island called Britain’. Or maybe Channel 4’s programming department just recognise an easy and unchallenging Jamie Oliver TV- and book-marketing vehicle when they see one.

So Jamie sets off in an old army truck, with a shed on the back fitted out as a portable kitchen/dining space and complete with wood-fired oven. He’s named his mobile restaurant the ‘Cock in Cider’. Ooh, he’s a one, that Jamie Oliver. The seaside-postcard humour is reinforced by the revelation that Oliver was conceived at the end of Southend pier. Along with lots of mentions of cockles and winkles, it seems this series must have been scripted by the people who gave us The Inbetweeners.

In the first episode, Jamie starts in Essex, but in true television time-wasting, aerial-shot style he really starts in east London, his ‘old manor’ apparently. He celebrates the new by meeting the owners of a Vietnamese food stall who make a French-inspired paté and pork baguette; he pays homage to the past at a pie-and-mash shop; and then he visits London’s legendary Meatwagon burger van as a nod to the ever-so fashionable street-food scene. Oh, and he says ‘cockerknee’ more times than I care to remember, reminding me that no self-respecting Londoner I’ve ever known has ever referred to themselves as such. After this, he cooks a really nice looking pie in his shed on wheels and names it after Kate and William, of royal-wedding fame. Confused? Me too.

Off to Essex, Jamie spends time explaining just how Essex he really is. This involves having furry dice in the windscreen of his Cortina, picking cockles on the shore and cooking some sole with more cockles in a boathouse. Finally, he holds an Oliver family barbecue on the Southend shingle, rustling up a nice foil-wrapped sea bass number. That’s right, Southenders are always on the beach, rustling up a bit of foil-wrapped sea bass.

Tiny snippets of history about food are thrown in, like the fact that pie is Egyptian, not English, but these are added as sparingly as a garnish rather than being the heart of the dish. In truth, it’s purely token; he could be talking about anything, anywhere, just as long as it fits around the new Oliver recipes.

So, this is a confused piece of cookery programming. At one point, Oliver states he’s doing the programme because ‘I wanna see what the modern day communities are like’, but spends most of the show talking about himself. He wants to show us how vibrant ‘our’ food culture is, whilst reminding us that none of it is really ours. This is really muddled, lazy food-programme making. If you’ve seen any of the recent crop of TV chefs asserting their love of British food, there’s nothing new here for you to see. Move along now.

But there was one element in the programme that Oliver gets right, and that’s to highlight what a magpie food nation Britain is, happily eating anything which is tasty, regardless of whether it’s ‘authentic’ or not. He was right, too, to highlight that the vibrant and diverse food culture our cities enjoy is as a result of generations of migrants and the new foodstuffs they bring with them, all modified and developed to local tastes.

Indeed, in previous shows, Oliver has had a dig at those who remain stuck in the past. In Jamie’s Italy, for example, he despaired of Italians who wouldn’t try flavouring their delicious, freshly caught fish in unfamiliar ways. In contrast, Britain has tended to be much more open to trying new things. The tragedy is that Oliver’s experimental and enthusiastic approach to cooking is in stark contrast to the predictable, formulaic programmes he makes as adverts for his latest cookbook.

Jamie’s Great Britain is, perhaps, his most contradictory effort yet, but it shows he would be far less irritating if he stopped moralising and crusading and stuck to what he actually has some expertise at: showing us new ways to make tasty food.

Justine Brian is national coordinator of Debating Matters, the schools debating competition. She is chairing the debate Are we turning our children into food faddists? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 29 October.

David Bowden is away.

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