Column: Do our TV shows reflect the times?

Our columnist John Dickie compares two very different UK television shows
Our columnist John Dickie compares two very different UK television shows

Our columnist John Dickie compares and contrasts two very different competitions which featured on television this year...

What is wrong with television and, by extension, the country?

The BBC on Wednesdays for a number of weeks has presented a curious contrast, could be considered a metaphor for our times. Much of it has entertainment value of a sort. There are two competition programmes that are both supposed to be aspirational and, at the same time, entertaining. They represent much of what is good about this country, but also what is dreadful.

MasterChef: The Professionals is a programme that pits young professional chefs against each other. It is likely that the successful chefs will be able to find much more lucrative careers either in more prestigious restaurants or indeed opening their own restaurant.

What those young chefs demonstrate is an awe-inspiring range of talents. I’m not sure that many of us watching have the sophisticated palate to enjoy the complex, delicate and fiddly confections that they bring together. However they all demonstrate a high level of competence and professionalism. I’m quite surprised that a programme that relies on such high levels of technique and skill can win a mass audience, after all most people will never sample the meals demonstrated and high dining is the exclusive end of the catering industry. Most of us are used to grazing on more mundane food.

Perhaps my only criticism of MasterChef is that while is enjoyable to watch them cook for a crowd of firefighters or nurses or even museum guides, what is less edifying is to watch a group of well-stuffed shirts pontificating at an exquisite table. But that in fact is a mere quibble; one is delightful about contestants in the kitchen and the camaraderie and cooperation they show each other on a number of tasks. They help out each other, they congratulate each other and they behave in a highly admirable way.

It is obvious that working in a busy kitchen is cause for cooperation and understanding of each other; restaurant kitchens are hot, stuffy, crowded and very noisy. It is interesting how the BBC show has large, well- equipped kitchens, a far cry from what most catering workers know.

MasterChef is one end of the Wednesday competitions. At the other end is The Apprentice with a bloke called Alan Sugar.

When he started the series he was only Sir Alan, now he is Lord Sugar. He is a businessman and is always telling people he started from scratch, apparently selling TV aerials from the back of a van. From humble beginnings he built a huge business empire, the centrepiece of that was Amstrad home computers.

It is no coincidence that The Apprentice crossed the Atlantic where it was presented by Donald Trump.

If the British programme is a metaphor for arrogance, greed and selfishness, then the American version has to include stupidity and probably complete ignorance.

In MasterChef the young men and women have levels of talent and skill.

The competitors in The Apprentice have levels of ignorance (one of them thought that Australia was in Asia) and a particular skill in self-promotion to the extent that the most prized skill seems to be to be able to humiliate and put down the other competitors.

Most of them were there only to get their hands on an investment of £250,000 from Lord Sugar.

It is a programme predicated not on any particular skill or talent, but a nauseating level of aspirational greed.

The two programmes serve as a metaphor for our times: a group of talented young people cooperate and work together with a common set of aspirations against a group of bucket heads whose aspiration extends only to kicking each other when they’re down and grabbing the loot.

You may see in these two programmes a mirror: one is what is really happening in this country and the other is what we hoped would be happening.

I hope things will change in 2019.

By John Dickie