TV UK, 29 April

Bad scallops and failing schools.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Tim was an incredibly bad chef in a pretentious restaurant in a little town in Yorkshire. If things had been allowed to follow their natural course, he would have been made redundant as soon as his not-too-bright employer ran out of money, and that would have been the end of it.

And if Gordon Ramsay had really wanted to save Bonaparte’s, he would have told said employer to sack him tout de suite, and that would have been the end of it too. Instead, Tim was kept in place so that we could be entertained by the antics of a head chef who couldn’t tell when a scallop is off, couldn’t indeed tell the difference between beef and pork, and who had never cooked an omelette until Ramsay suggested it.

This is a good example of ‘casting’. It’s a controversial issue in documentary: clearly film-makers have to find people willing to take part in their programmes, but there is always a temptation to cast someone who is simply a good character, rather than someone who is representative of the subject at hand, thereby distorting the story. But Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (Channel 4, Tuesday’s at 9pm) is ‘factual entertainment’ rather than documentary, so such epistemological niceties don’t really come into it.

Instead, the ethical system applying is that of reality TV. In general, my view is that people who are stupid enough to sign up for programmes like Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity… deserve all the humiliation they get, but it does seem a bit rough to take a 21-year-old aspiring chef and prolong his disastrous career for the amusement of the masses. What was really heartbreaking was that he clearly idolised Ramsay, imitating his f-ing and blinding for the camera, and even managing a token spit when his hero was throwing up after that dodgy scallop. We can only hope that he will have learned more about life than he did about cooking.

School Day (BBC1, this coming Wednesday at 10.35pm) is a proper documentary with a large cast representing various aspects of the British school system. The programme was filmed on 15 January this year, the day the school league tables were published, and the sense of a profession under siege is palpable. The star of the show is Mo Laycock, a ‘superhead’ at a comprehensive in Sheffield, who complains that some people seem to want to lay the blame for all the ills of society on schools. Rather than putting the discussion in context, though, the superhead simply insists that everything in the garden is rosy.

Superheads are supposed to sort out failing schools – it’s a bit like being Gordon Ramsay, but with less swearing. It seems to involve walking around all day reprimanding pupils for running in the corridor, and occasionally barging into classrooms to check the kids are wearing their uniforms properly (It isn’t clear how the teachers feel about this.) Apparently this has something to do with ‘ethos’, but Laycock is also keen on ‘teaching and learning’, which for some reason are always pronounced together, like ‘gay and lesbian’ or ‘black and Asian’; a whiff of professional dogma, perhaps.

What we see of teaching and learning is not encouraging. On her first day at a rough comprehensive in Liverpool, student teacher Claire Borrill explains with alarming candour that kids like these can’t be expected to read textbooks and work through exercises: ‘They just…can’t.’ This is not the jaded voice of experience, mind you, but someone fresh from teacher training college. ‘You have to be this all-singing, all-dancing entertainer on a stage in front of the classroom’, she says.

After her first lesson with a class of 15-year-olds, though, Borrill feels she hasn’t pushed them enough. This is a fascinating twist on the familiar story of the bright-eyed new teacher being ground down into a cynical trooper, but then it is only her first day. Unlike poor Tim’s culinary career, this one could be worth following up.

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