For those of us who find Nigella Lawson difficult to watch, The Taste is sheer hell

Nigella Lawson’s new reality show <em>The Taste</em> is a phoney, derivative reality show with no charm or drama.

Here it is at last: Nigella Lawson’s new reality show. She doesn’t present it alone. Beside her are two fellow judge-mentors, Anthony Bourdain, the bad-boy author of Kitchen Confidential, and Ludo Lefebvre, an extremely Frr-rrr-ench chef who runs an acclaimed restaurant in LA (no freedom fries on his menu). But let’s be honest. It’s Nigella who’s the big draw, especially since all that happened shortly before Christmas, though the series was filmed in October, several weeks before her dramatic monochrome sweep into Isleworth Crown Court.

The gimmick here is that the contestants must present their dishes in the form of just one spoonful: picture the porcelain number with which, long ago, you used to scoff sweetcorn soup at restaurants called Canton Garden or Bamboo Orchard, only minus the dragons and the sweetcorn (an ingredient even less fashionable, these days, than sun-dried tomatoes and kiwi fruit). My hunch, though, is that most of those who tuned in won’t have given a fig (glazed and served with duck breast and cavolo nero) for the challenge of such extreme portion control. They’ll have been more interested in Lawson and her lovely, unreadable face.

For these viewers, The Taste might be just about endurable. She is on-screen a lot and does more talking than the men. One has the impression that the producers regard her as carefully aged fillet and the blokes as a couple of decent burgers. For those of us who have always found her difficult to watch, the series is sheer hell. I can’t remember the last time I was presented with a format so phoney, so derivative. It has no charm, no drama and a soundtrack so bullyingly melodramatic you expect Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless to appear at any moment to smoke a salmon with a ray gun or something. Even the set is awful. With its artfully arranged “rustic” crates, it aspires to be a touch Martha Stewart. In the end, it’s as if the long-running and somewhat wobbly Yorkshire TV show Farmhouse Kitchen had been exhumed – though Dorothy Sleightholme, that programme’s redoubtable long-time presenter, would have had no truck whatsoever with Ludo and his tendency to shout “Putain!” at every boiling pan.

The Taste is a bit like The Voice (the judges don’t see the cooks until they’ve eaten their food); a bit like The X Factor (each judge selects a team of cooks to mentor through the series, thus they compete against each other); and a lot like MasterChef (they’re after “gutsy” sauces, the “heat” of chilli, a “balance of textures”). The competitors are a mixture of home cooks and professionals. So far, the home cooks are doing better than the pros because they don’t overthink dishes the way chefs do – by which I mean they’re less likely to show off. How Channel 4 found them is a mystery to me. By now, you’d have thought that every half-decent cook in the land had already entered a television cookery competition. The only four people left in Britain not to have done so are me, the editor of this column, Julie Burchill and William Hague.

The Taste originated in the United States and it shows. If the judges had been made to marinate in Coca-Cola for a week, it couldn’t be more sickly. Ludo is the petulant one, the stage baddie. His “evil” chuckle is straight out of Theatre of Blood. Tony is the cool one, who drinks beer on-set and tells a sobbing 18-year-old that he needs to “toughen the f*** up”. Nigella is the kind one and, sometimes, the disappointed one. When confronted with the kind of cook who buys ready-made sponge fingers, she is prone to look let down.

What to say about this? All I can tell you is that I hate the way her performance (and a performance is all it is) obscures her intelligence, her wit, her particular kind of diffidence. Oh, she’s willing to play the game. Talking to the camera, she sounds as if the judging process were the most fascinating experience of her life. But you sense that she is not at ease, that this is an effort of will rather than a (somewhat weird) vocation. It’s for this reason that I doubt the show will be a hit. Clever women make bad fools and reality shows need a measure of authenticity to fly.

The judges for The Taste: Ludo Lefebvre, Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson. Photo: Channel 4

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.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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