Giles Coren with the Robshaw family in “Back in Time for Dinner”.
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Which is worse: working at KFC in 2015 or toiling in a 1950s family kitchen?

Rachel Cooke reviews The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop and Back in Time for Dinner.

The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop; Back in Time for Dinner
BBC1; BBC2

There’s something heartbreaking about The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop (Wednesdays, 9pm), which goes behind the scenes at KFC’s British operation. I think this has to do with the staff, who remain relentlessly cheery no matter how long their hours or how abusive their customers. “It’s very much like the Oscars,” said Dom, the manager of the Havant drive-through, of the company’s annual awards dinner, a festival of coloured bow ties and Jim’ll Fix It-style beribboned medals. Inspired, he returned to Havant more determined than ever to shift deluxe boneless feasts – buckets of fun that would, he explained, be turned out by his ace head chef, Chad, a loyal employee of seven years. Luckily, Chad doesn’t remotely mind spending his days elbow deep in dismembered poultry. “I used to be an undertaker,” he announced, ducking into an ominous-looking cold room.

The colonel arrived in Britain in 1965 and made straight for Preston. Since then, his empire has grown far beyond Lancashire. Today, there are 865 restaurants in the UK; the plan is to open 35 every year until there are 1,300. There’ll always be naysayers, those puritans and Nimbys who sneer at Popcorn Nuggets and Wicked Zingers. But what do they know? Have any of them ever been inside a KFC? In Middleton, in Greater Manchester, it was clear that a local residents’ association wasn’t well acquainted with the colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices. Not that this made its opposition to KFC’s arrival in the next street any less valid. Who, after all, would want to see a giant, illuminated beard rising above their laurel bushes? Even the company’s acquisitions manager hedged when he was asked how he would feel about living opposite a KFC.

“If we win this, we’ll sit in that garden with a bottle of champagne and get bladdered,” said Irene to her friend Pat as they planned their campaign. Alas, the champagne turned out to be as much of a mirage as the hope that the council would listen to them. At a planning meeting, KFC did a weasel move, promising to close its new restaurant at 9pm, after which it received the green light. The film cut to KFC HQ in Woking, where the acquisitions manager could be heard telling his boss triumphantly that this compromise did not “close the door” on later opening hours in Middleton in the future. Poor Irene. Poor Pat. What
use are their garden loungers now?

It was instructive watching The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop in close proximity to Back in Time for Dinner (Tuesdays, 8pm), in which an “ordinary British family” pretended it was the 1950s, with a fridge-free kitchen, a tub of dripping and a five-ounce serving of liver (the series, presented by Giles Coren, is in six parts and will move through the decades accordingly). As is the way with this kind of TV, the idea is to patronise the past as much as possible, the better that we might feel good about our own times – or, at least, about how we own a dishwasher. And so it proved. The Robshaws hated everything about the 1950s. The subsidised brown loaf made them ill; a cake made from dried eggs tasted almost as bad as it looked; even the tin opener was rubbish. Rochelle Robshaw struggled under the weight of the 75 hours a week of housework she was expected to put in and seemed to feel joy only when she was finally given some fish fingers (they arrived in 1955).

Now, rationing was disheartening and, in the 1950s, many women did feel life to be just one long round of chores. But is working for the minimum wage in KFC any less demoralising than using a mangle? Beth, a sweetheart who puts in 14-hour shifts at the Denton Rock branch in Manchester, didn’t seem ecstatic to be there, for all that her smile was as wide as the M60. Pilchards are indeed rank. But is a KFC Twister – don’t even ask! – really more appetising than dripping on toast? Dripping is on all good hipster menus these days. The diet of austerity Britain was close to sugar free, which isn’t something you can say of the KFC menu.

The past isn’t, as the Daily Mail likes to suggest, better than the present. Still, I’d be wary of insisting that it was worse on every measure. Better soggy cauliflower and pink blancmange than a Big Daddy burger and a Skittles Krush’Em.

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 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear