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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The City of London was never the same after the "Big Bang"

Michael Howard reviews Iain Martin's new book on the legacy of the financial revolution 30 years on.

We are inundated with books that are, in effect, inquests on episodes of past failure, grievous mistakes in policy decisions and shortcomings of leadership. So it is refreshing to read this lively account of a series of actions that add up to one of the undoubted, if not undisputed, successes of modern ­government action.

Iain Martin has marked the 30th anniversary of the City’s Big Bang, which took place on 27 October 1986, by writing what he bills as the inside story of a financial revolution that changed the world. Yet his book ranges far and wide. He places Big Bang in its proper context in the history of the City of London, explaining, for example, and in some detail, the development of the financial panics of 1857 and 1873, as well as more recent crises with which we are more familiar.

Big Bang is the term commonly applied to the changes in the London Stock Exchange that followed an agreement reached between Cecil Parkinson, the then secretary of state for trade and industry, and Nicholas Goodison, the chairman of the exchange, shortly after the 1983 election. The agreement provided for the dismantling of many of the restrictive practices that had suited the cosy club of those who had made a comfortable living on the exchange for decades. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the changes made in the early 1980s that equipped the City of London to become the world’s pre-eminent centre of international capital that it is today.

But it was not the only one. There was the decision early in the life of the Thatcher government to dismantle foreign-exchange restrictions, as well as the redevelopment of Docklands, which provided room for the physical expansion of the City (which was so necessary for the influx of foreign banks that followed the other changes).

For the first change, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, at the Treasury at the time, deserve full credit, particularly as Margaret Thatcher was rather hesitant about the radical nature of the change. The second was a result of Michael Heseltine setting up the London Docklands Development Corporation, which assumed planning powers that were previously in the hands of the local authorities in the area. Canary Wharf surely would not exist today had that decision not been made – and even though the book gives a great deal of well-deserved credit to the officials and developers who took up the baton, Heseltine’s role is barely mentioned. Rarely is a politician able to see the physical signs of his legacy so clearly. Heseltine would be fully entitled to appropriate Christopher Wren’s epitaph: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

These changes are often criticised for having opened the gates to unbridled capitalism and greed and Martin, while acknow­ledging the lasting achievements of the new regime, also explores its downside. Arguably, he sometimes goes too far. Are the disparities in pay that we now have a consequence of Big Bang? Can it be blamed for the increase in the pay of footballers? This is doubtful. Surely these effects owe more to market forces, in the case of footballers, and shortcomings in corporate governance, in the case of executive pay. (It will be interesting to see whether the attempts by the current government to address the latter achieve the desired results.)

Martin deals with the allegation that the changes brought in a new world in which moneymaking could be given full rein without the need to abide by any significant regulation. This is far from the truth. My limited part in bringing about these changes was the responsibility I was handed, in my first job in government, for steering through parliament what became the Financial Services Act 1986. This was intended to provide statutory underpinning for a system of self-regulation by the various sectors of the financial industry. It didn’t work out exactly as I had intended but, paradoxically, one of the main criticisms of the regulatory system made in the book is that we now have a system that is too legalistic. Rather dubious comparisons are made with a largely mythical golden age, when higher standards of conduct were the order of the day without any need for legal constraints. The history of insider dealing (and the all-too-recently recognised need to legislate to make this unlawful) gives the lie to this rose-tinted picture of life in the pre-Big Bang City.

As Martin rightly stresses, compliance with the law is not enough. People also need to take into account the moral implications of their conduct. However, there are limits to the extent to which governments can legislate on this basis. The law can provide the basic parameters within which legal behaviour is to be constrained. Anything above and beyond that must be a matter for individual conscience, constrained by generally accepted standards of morality.

The book concludes with an attempt at an even-handed assessment of the likely future for the City in the post-Brexit world. There are risks and uncertainties. Mercifully, Martin largely avoids a detailed discussion of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and its effect on “passporting”, which allows UK financial services easy access to the European Economic Area. But surely the City will hold on to its pre-eminence as long as it retains its advantages as a place to conduct business? The European banks and other institutions that do business in London at present don’t do so out of love or affection. They do so because they are able to operate there with maximum efficiency.

The often rehearsed advantages of London – the time zone, the English language, the incomparable professional infrastructure – will not go away. It is not as if there is an abundance of capital available in the banks of the EU: Europe’s business and financial institutions cannot afford to dispense with the services that London has to offer. As Martin puts it in the last sentences of the book, “All one can say is: the City will survive, and prosper. It usually does.”

Crash Bang Wallop is not flawless. (One of its amusing errors is to refer, in the context of a discussion of the difficulties faced by the firm Slater Walker, to one of its founders as Jim Walker, a name that neither Jim Slater nor Peter Walker, the actual founders, would be likely to recognise.) Yet it is a thoroughly readable account of one of the most important and far-reaching decisions of modern government, and a timely reminder of how the City of London got to where it is now.

Michael Howard is a former leader of the Conservative Party

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood