Reviewed: Heading Out; Food, Glorious Food

The great British rip-off.

Heading Out; Food, Glorious Food

Sue Perkins, the one with dark hair from The Great British Bake Off, has written a sitcom, in which she also stars. It’s called Heading Out (Tuesdays, 10pm), and it’s about a 40-yearold vet who is too scared to tell her nice middle- class parents – and you really don’t get nicer or more middle-class than Harriet Walter, who plays her mum – that she is a lesbian.

Are you convinced by this set-up? I’m not. I mean, a friend of mine came out when we were 18, in Sheffield, in 1987, at a school where you were basically a social outcast if you didn’t look and act like Shirley from Wham! Would a funny and assertive 40- year-old vet in the south of England in 2013 who isn’t married (I mean to a man), and doesn’t have children, really find it so terribly hard to say the words “I’m gay” to her loving, if somewhat conventional (and, er, possibly blind), parents? I don’t think she would, though do feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. It may be that I am just too damned liberal for my own good.

It’s a pity the set-up is so dodgy, because it’s quite funny otherwise. The flip side of my extreme liberality is an urgent desire to laugh at people who are overly sentimental about animals – I’m a real Jekyll and Hyde type, on the sly – so jokes about dead cats and pet crematoria are, alas, right up my street. Sara (Perkins) is a superbly hopeless vet: the kind who keeps a stiff moggy in her fridge – it’s a long story – and who can barely hide her derision when soppy owners from the Liz Jones school of feline husbandry start going on about arnica and Rescue Remedy.

The show has a nice supporting cast, too: Nicola Walker (Spooks) plays Justine, Sara’s friend on the netball team, and Joanna Scanlon (The Thick of It) is the batty life coach who is going to help her pluck up the courage to tell her parents that her new boyfriend is in fact a girlfriend. Maybe, then, it’ll settle down as it goes along; maybe it’ll become so hilariously funny I’ll be able to forget all about the 40-year-old closeted lesbian aspect of it. I hope so, because Perkins is a good sort.

Certainly, she seems a better sort than Carol Vorderman, the presenter of Food, Glorious Food (Wednesdays 8pm), ITV’s dimwitted and pathetic attempt to grab a slice of Bake Off’s audience. Oh, man, this show is bad. What, I wonder, do I most despise about it? Is it that the winner’s dish – any recipe will do, sweet or savoury, and the more ghastlysounding the better – will be developed and sold by Marks & Spencer at a time when our faith in ready meals has reached rock bottom? Or is it the fact that one of the “expert” judges, the charmless Anne Harrison of the WI, admitted in the first episode that she did not know what a Staffordshire oatcake was? Or maybe it’s the realisation that her colleague Tom Parker Bowles doesn’t seem embarrassed to be described as “food-writing royalty”?

It has no drama and no focus; the standard is so desperately low, it’s patently obvious who is going to win each round and, since anything goes, you have pheasant paprikash competing against Pimm’s jelly and Welsh cawl, which is just dumb. The producers seem to have chosen contestants mostly so we can laugh at them, Britain’s Got Talent style (Simon Cowell’s company makes this series). In the first episode, we had a mother and son who wear Victorian dress full-time and apparently without irony; a woman who makes fermented cabbage by crushing it beneath her bare feet; and a woman who thinks that Loyd Grossman, another of the judges, looks like Sean Connery. (And while we’re on the subject of Grossman, he appears to have insisted his OBE be added to his name on the credits, which isn’t very cool at all.)

As for Vorderman, though she has swapped her Galaxy dress for something a little more Cath Kidston, she appears to be about as interested in cooking as I am in who wins this shameless, muddled rip-off. Honestly, I would rather wear Anne Harrison’s giant purple body warmer to lunch at Claridge’s with Brad Pitt than watch this show again.

Sue Perkins in Heading Out. Photograph: BBC

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis