A national embarrassment

Never mind the food, Delia Smith's on-screen manner is hard to stomach

<strong>Delia</strong> BBC

It would be easy to crack jokes about Delia Smith's new series for the BBC, but I am going to resist: having watched it, I don't much feel like laughing. How could Delia have failed so spectacularly to judge the times? And why has she been allowed to get away with doing so? Though there has been the odd barbed comment about her new-found love of tinned mince, the mood in general has been respectful and forgiving. If anyone else tried to fill the nation's heads with approving thoughts of bagged salads and ready-made cheese sauce, they'd be the object of derision. But Delia we leave indulgently alone.

In the first part of her series (10 March, 8.30pm), her friend Nigel Slater was wheeled on to give her bizarre new ethos the thumbs-up. Slater, a cookery writer who is always extolling the virtues of farmers' markets and seasonal ingredients, smiled sweetly for the camera and suggested that, in effect, we had "permission from Headmistress" to go wild in the freezer cabinet.

Forgive me if I find this confusing. I have written before about the strange disjunction that exists between the food we eat and the food we watch being prepared on television, but when I suggested that it would be nice if someone tried to close this gap I didn't think that they would just throw in the towel and hurry off to Iceland. Of course, this is not exactly what Delia has done: it's much weirder than that. She isn't in the business of simply heating through a plastic tray of shepherd's pie; no, it's her contention that even playing at cooking is better than not cooking at all. So, instead, she wants us to buy the "cheat" ingredients for a shepherd's pie - tinned mince, discs of frozen mashed potato - and faff about with those instead. Why? I watched her prepare her hot smoked salmon and quail pie - pre-cooked salmon, pre-boiled quail's eggs, cheese sauce in a tub, more potato discs - and wondered why she didn't just serve the salmon with a jacket potato.

I'm not going to harp on here about the number of calories and additives in pre-prepared food, nor about obesity, salt, industrial processes, packaging, air miles and the corrupting power of our supermarkets: I'm supposed to be writing about television, not doing an impression of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Let's simply note that Saint Delia's recipes do carry a certain ethical load whether she likes it or not.

Did it, however, strike no one that this stuff is unappetising? Food programmes are - this is a cliché, but true all the same - a kind of pornography, the oozing yumminess on offer satisfying desires that we didn't even know we had. But these dishes were horrible. The Peruvian concoction that she rustled up from "lightly spiced" frozen potato wedges, eggs, walnuts, chilli and peppers was hilariously bad. Not since the saveloy on lychees served by Aubrey, the restaurateur in Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet, have I seen anything I wanted to eat less. Was the food stylist suffering from a migraine at the time, or is someone taking the mickey?

I have a hunch that Delia and her team know this is dodgy, not to say surreal, ground. Smith is a touch pursed during her demonstrations; I would think she was defensive if I hadn't heard her on the radio telling us how into factory-farmed chickens she is.

Her director, meanwhile, uses the gaps between the recipes (when the nation reaches for a glass of water and a nausea remedy) to profile Smith, perhaps thinking that if he reminds us of her status as a national treasure we'll forget all about the mash discs. So, we get to see Delia's shed, which contains 35 years' worth of Pyrex casseroles, and we get to meet her husband, Michael, who is Very Influential. We also see Delia in the locker room at Norwich City, in which she is a major shareholder. Dear me. Her flirty ways with the players are excruciating. Not since my mum claimed to have a crush on the man who came to kill the rats in our drystone walls have I felt so mortified, and I was 15 then. Delia's glottal stop is almost as ersatz as her "ingredients" - and that's really saying something.

Pick of the week

The Passion
16 March, 8pm, BBC1
James Nesbitt is Pontius Pilate. No, I can’t imagine it, either.

Gavin and Stacey
16 March, 9pm, BBC3
Hurrah. Return of the incredibly sweet award-winning comedy.

The Curse of Steptoe
19 March, 9pm, BBC4
First in a series about comedy icons, with Phil Davis as Wilfrid Brambell.

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 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us