Giles Coren with the Robshaw family in “Back in Time for Dinner”.
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496