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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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times