Saturday 22 October 2016

Too many cooks serve up the same old boring dishes

RTE offers up two more cookery shows this week, neither whets the appetite

Donal Skehan
Donal Skehan

THERE are times during the year, summer mostly, when it appears that RTE doesn’t exist for the purpose of entertaining and/or enlightening the people who foot the bill for its existence — the licence payers — but to supplement the income of a select group of favoured celebrity chefs.

It was only two years ago that RTE finally got around to appointing a dedicated head of comedy, Eddie O’Connor, after more than half a century in the TV broadcasting game and a lengthy roll call of ignoble failures, largely made by people who knew nothing about comedy.

Yet, for a long time, the national broadcaster has been giving cookery shows top priority, throwing one after another of the things at viewers with the enthusiasm of a medieval peasant hurling rotten fruit at a prisoner in the stocks.

I don’t have a problem with cookery shows per se. Every channel, everywhere in the world, has them. They’ve been a comparatively cheap source of schedule-filler material pretty much since television’s year dot.

The first cookery programme in the world, called simply Cookery, went out on the single-channel BBC way back in 1949. It was presented by Philip Harben and episodes lasted just 10 minutes. With Britons still enduring post-war rationing, which wouldn’t be phased out until 1954, Harben — who had a long career as a TV chef, author and food columnist — often had to bring his own ingredients to the studio.

What I do have a problem with is the sheer number of them commissioned by RTE, which grants them a prominence far out of proportion to the size of the viewing audience in such a small country.

RTE’s food website features six pages devoted to cookery shows, and it’s still a far from a complete list. The section on chefs, meanwhile, contains an astonishing 33 pages featuring profiles of dozens of RTE familiars.

It all adds up to a bewildering concentration on a genre that many of us would consider visual Polyfilla.

The hotplates have barely cooled following the latest series by Kevin Dundon and Rachel Allen, who, at this stage, has had more programmes than Microsoft, yet this week, RTE1 offers two additional cookery shows in as many nights.

A new series of Kitchen Hero featuring boyish Donal Skehan, whose swift rise to RTE stardom is one of the more baffling TV phenomena, began last night, while tonight sees the start of Home Chef with Neven Maguire. The most remarkable thing about both of them is the lack of anything remarkable.

Skehan’s series sees him travelling the country, meeting food producers and whipping up dishes using their natural ingredients. Maguire does much the same, but using natural ingredients grown by RTE’s Aine Lawlor in her Wicklow allotment.

They’re practically interchangeable concepts, offering little or nothing we haven’t seen before in any number of previous RTE cookery shows.

Food-related television doesn’t have to be this boring vanilla-flavoured. Consider Jamie Oliver, who’s used his celebrity to lead a global campaign for better food standards and education, which, in turn, provided the basis for several extremely watchable documentary series.

Gordon Ramsay, in addition to using his combustible personality to turn ailing establishments around in the entertaining Kitchen Nightmares, fronted a very fine documentary on illegal shark fishing.

If variety is the spice of life, it’s an ingredient missing from RTE cookery shows.

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