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.

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.