Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The f-Word

[Last night I cooked in the kitchens of our local gastropub]

Torturers in faraway dictatorships probably already know this, but I can definitively report that raw garlic rubbed into an open wound hurts even more than red chili peppers. This little experiment was a result of just one little accident in my first, and last, day as a professional chef.

I confess that for the last ten years I’ve been a cooking bore. Just because you’ve taken a course with Raymond Blanc, you think you’re an expert. So my girlfriend organised the perfect birthday present for me: a whole day working in a real professional kitchen. No ordinary kitchen either, but one of the best gastropubs in Northumberland, the Queen’s Head in Great Whittington. Steve Murray was chef at a Michelin-rated restaurant in Glasgow before relocating to the North East and he’s brought with him a career packed with experience at the highest level. I brought with me a brand new chef’s jacket, and a few handwritten recipes.

I don’t know how Joanna persuaded Steve to put his reputation on the line, but he even let me add some of my own dishes to his menu: like spiced belly pork, scallops with sweet chilli sauce, and my famous (well, famous to my friends, they’ve had it so many times) butternut squash risotto. Add to this mint pannacotta and Gary Rhodes’ bread and butter pudding and you’ve got most of my repertoire. Also on the menu were regular Queen’s Head favourites like fillet steak sourced from the rare Galloway cattle you can see from Steve’s kitchen door.

You’d have thought twelve hours was enough to get ready for one dinner. However the time flew by as we chopped, strained, baked, reduced, whisked – and from time to time stopped to find another blue catering plaster for my cuts. We baked bread, rolled out pasta, and every ingredient was sourced locally.

It wasn’t plain sailing. The suppliers sent vine leaves instead of lime leaves for my belly pork; they sent one packet of watercress for our soup when we needed a boxload; we had planned a wonderful foie gras terrine, except it “split” as it about to be poured into the moulds. As it lay in the bin, we sadly wiped it off the specials list. But, as 7pm approached and the first customers could be heard in the bar, we seemed to be under control.

As the first scallop starters went out, topped with my very own chilli sauce, I cheered.
But then a party of 11 booked at 8pm decided to have an extra drink in the bar and collided with another party of 10 who’d come early for their 8.30pm; three tables of two appeared from nowhere and very soon there was a line of little tickets stretching round the kitchen. That’s when the professionalism kicked in. In the tiny galley kitchen, in front of twelve burners and two giant ovens, Steve and his team coped with the mountain of orders, and a novice in their ranks. And not one Ramsay-type expletive all night. Well, a couple maybe.

There are loads of professional shortcuts which the amateur cook knows nothing about, like part-cooking the rice for a risotto and keeping it chilled until an order comes in. Except that when hardly anybody orders the risotto (I just wanted to run into the dining room and get everyone to taste it), and everyone wants scallops, and one person wants his steak well done at the same time as his partner wants it rare, there’s nothing to fall back on but experience and skill. Of which I have neither.
Steve, DT and Charlie had asbestos fingers and, despite my inadequacies, kept smiling throughout. They certainly needed a sense of humour.

I learned so much last night. Like how to cook a blue steak. I had always thought that “blue” meant uncooked, except for waft under a flame at the last minute. But actually, a blue steak takes longer to prepare than a well-done one, because the middle of the steak should be warm but uncooked. This means the steak has to sit at the bottom of the grill (or in a very warm place) for a good while as the others, medium-rare and so on, go into the pan. The man who ordered it said it was the best blue steak he'd ever eaten. I sent his congratulations to the grill. By the end of the evening I felt like a blue steak myself. I was warm inside and glowed all over.

It all seemed to go down very well (people were still drinking in the restaurant at 1am, and the takings were three times the Tuesday average). Plus Keith Hann sent me a copy of his review for tomorrow’s Newcastle Journal. I was too originally too modest to publish it here, but I thought, 'Hell, I’ve explained that it was all down to Steve, so I’ll bask in his reflected glory'. And my scallop sauce.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Puppets on a String

[Britain came last in last night's Eurovision Song Contest]

We used to be good at the Eurovision Song Contest. We rank second in the winners’ league. Only Ireland (7 victories) has won it more often. So last night’s result, with the UK at the bottom of the pack, ought to be a national calamity, akin to our failure to reach the finals of Euro 2008. Except this time we don’t really care.

Mind you, our entry was exceptionally dire. I don’t know which was worse, the singer or the song. We deserved nul points, so scraping fourteen was a bit of an achievement. But even if we’d resurrected Cliff Richard and persuaded Andrew Lloyd Webber to get a spare ditty out of his bottom drawer, I doubt we would have fared much better. We haven’t won Eurovision since the first day of Tony Blair’s government. That was on May 3rd 1997, when Katrina and the Waves gave us Love Shine A Light. It’s been downhill ever since. Not that we can entirely blame New Labour. It’s the fragmentation of the former communist bloc that did it. Isn’t it symbolic that Germany, Britain and Poland came joint last? How the power base of Europe has changed since 1939.

I don’t this think was just political. It was cultural voting. Those former communist states that voted together genuinely like those terrible jaunty songs. There are now two voting blocs controlling Eurovision: the Balkans and the Vikings. We only have a tiny blocette with Ireland. If their puppet turkey had got through to the final, he would certainly have had douze points from us. It was a protest song, and we would have got the joke. The Balkans take Eurovision seriously, whilst we have Terry Wogan. There’s the difference.

The song contest began as a symbol of European unity. Now that Europe is finally together, it’s showing us the cracks. Music, that great reflector of national spirit, is laying bare Europe’s cultural differences. We and Ireland, for all our Euro talk, are still islands off the far Western shore. Our popular music may sell around the world, our record industries matched in scale and diversity only by America, but at the end of the day, we don’t like the oompah band one little bit. And those Balkans adore it.

Watching the ghastly interval wedding-funeral songs from the Belgrade house band, we could have been sitting in some strange taverna, wondering why we’d booked the holiday, and counting the hours till we get back to nice British Easyjet. It takes something like the Eurovision Song Contest to remind us of why we like home so much.

Of course, if I’m wrong, and all this is just political, then we should be really worried. Despite the fact that Eurovision is just a lot of tosh, it should wake us up to an uncomfortable truth: Europe really doesn’t like us at all.

Terry Wogan says he may not do it again next year, because “it’s no longer a music contest”. Now that would be a national tragedy. Terry’s ironic comments have always been the only reason to watch this terrible, dull three-hour Eurocharade. It’s a waste of a good Saturday night, of a lot of licence fees, and of thousands of pounds worth of telephone votes. But we can’t pull out now that we’ve finished bottom: that would just be sour grapes.

It would also be the end of the contest. Britain, with Germany, France and Spain, pays 40% of the costs of this nonsense. Without us, the Serbians couldn’t have afforded the lighting bill. Ironically, we’ve let all these other countries into the contest in order to keep it alive. Now we feel like gatecrashers at our own party.

Anyway, I’ve got the solution. Let’s divide Britain up into counties, and give each one an entry. Then at least we’ll have 86 sets of douze points to throw around. That’ll show those Balkans.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Embryology Debate

Tomorrow in the House of Commons, members of Parliament will be debating a genuinely life-changing topic. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has proved to be one of the most difficult pieces of legislation for years and, with a free vote on several of the more controversial aspects, there’s going to be a lot of heart-searching in Westminster.

For once Newcastle is right at the centre of this national debate, because it’s here that a team of scientists is working at the cutting edge of research into currently incurable conditions such as Alzheimer’s. In the last decade these researchers have succeeded in moving science forward so fast that the law, last debated in 1990, is now out of date. They are seeking a legal framework within which to continue their revolutionary work. And one of the key elements is the ability to utilize animal eggs (with 99% of genetic material removed, and a single human cell nucleus added) to replace a chronic shortage of human eggs.

Last week Joanna and I came face to face with one of the reasons for this shortage. For some time she and I have been trying to have a baby, and we have now turned for help to the fertility specialists at Newcastle’s Life Centre. As a result, not only are we waiting on tenterhooks for news of whether or not our current round of IVF treatment has been successful (sadly, there’s only a 25% chance it will be), but also we are now proud owners of six first class frozen embryos. During the IVF process, however, the treatment caused Jo to produce over thirty eggs. We happily signed the clause on our clearance forms to donate our unused eggs and embryos to enable the Newcastle researchers to continue their work. I doubt there are many readers of this blog who have not experienced close family members afflicted with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or some form of cancer. We believe we owe it to our children and grandchildren to do whatever we can to support genetic research to enable science to conquer these terrible afflictions.

However, the consequence of Joanna generating so many spare eggs (we jokingly dubbed her the “mother hen” for the first couple of days after we learned the news) was that she ended up in unbelievable pain, potentially life-threatening discomfort and a spell in the Royal Victoria Infirmary. Jo was suffering from Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS), an affliction which affects a small proportion of all IVF patients, and which can even prove fatal. It’s not something I would wish to inflict on my worst enemy, and it was frightening to see Jo, her stomach distended as if she were seven months’ pregnant, doubled up in agony, her blood dehydrating by the hour. In order to prevent women enduring this dangerous side effect, the fertility experts are trying to reduce the number of eggs produced during the IVF process. However this in turn reduces the number of spare eggs that can be used in medical research. Hence the vital importance of this part of the legislation being debated today.

Reactionary religious leaders tend to set themselves and their congregations against anything that seems to challenge the biblical account of creation. Others fear giving power-crazed scientists a charter to meddle in things spiritual. But this bill has come about because the scientists in Newcastle and elsewhere want boundaries to be set. It’s a debate about regulation, not permission. I do respect the views of those who oppose it on religious grounds, but to describe it, as one reactionary clergyman has done, as “endorsement of experiments of Frankenstein proportion” is to miss the point.

This law has been created with the sole aim of saving lives. The moral argument in favour is overwhelming. I hope our MPs are persuaded to vote for the proper regulation of a science that is dedicated to the alleviation of human suffering. For the sake of all our children.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Respect to the Viewers

[Yesterday the BBC announced that one of its divisions, Audiocall, had failed to pass on £100,000 of revenue from viewers' phone calls to Children In Need. On the same day, Ofcom fined ITV £5.67million for the premium rate telephone call scams discovered across a range of its entertainment programming]

I used to think broadcasting was such an honourable profession. When I joined the BBC straight from university, it was one of the blue-chip careers, like the Foreign Office or Reuters. The day we arrived at the BBC Journalist Training School we were told what an honour it was to join. Sitting below a portrait of Lord Reith, our instructor said: “you will all become heads of departments here, provided you don’t commit either of two crimes: bounce a cheque at the BBC cash office, or forget to pay your licence fee.” For two years our training was about the right way of doing things – writing news bulletins, constructing balanced programmes, filling in our expenses forms. Above all, we were taught how important it was to respect our viewers and listeners. They funded our salaries, so their faith in our self-governing organisation was paramount.

Cut to 2008. A BBC division called Audiocall has “kept” £100,000 of viewers’ money that the public thought it was donating to charity through its telephone call revenue.

I could detail chapter and verse on this sad decline in standards, but it would fill up an entire book -- I'd best save it for my never-to-be-published autobiography. Suffice it to say that I, and other producers who rose through the ranks in the 80s and 90s, including my immediate contemporaries like Mark Thompson – are to a certain extent guilty, for we should have seen this coming.

It was in the early 90s that “premium rate telephone calls” were introduced. For an independent producer like myself, the opportunity to earn some extra profit by popping a viewers’ competition into a show was a godsend. You know the kind of thing: “Today's the Day that on 12th May 1971, Mick Jagger married his first wife. Was she called a: Doris, b: Charlie, or c: Bianca? Phone 0898123123 and you could be entered in our prize draw to win a round the world air ticket”. No matter that we made thousands every day from the call revenue and the actual cost of a bucket class round-the-world ticket was just £750. And we only gave away one ticket every 200 episodes. However, we knew it was fair because the whole thing was overseen, approved and run by BBC Audiocall, which was specifically set up to ensure veracity.

Except Audiocall wasn’t just there to make things fair: it was there to make money, because someone had the bright idea of making it part of BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s arms-length commercial organisation. That’s where the rot started. Television is about public service, not exploitation, and when the dead hand of easy money starts scratching away at editorial content, you’re just an arm’s length away from moral bankruptcy.

If the BBC was tempted by this new source of free cash, commercial television gulped it down. Soon entire programmes were being funded by call revenue. It was close to, but not quite, a lottery, and all perfectly legal.

But even in the dark days of GMTV’s absurdly simple multiple choice competitions, or the pointless “viewer surveys” on daytime television, producers would never actually cheat. Sure, we’ve occasionally pulled the wool over the eyes for dramatic effect (did you really think there were three separate holidays in Cilla’s envelopes on Blind Date?), but we never faked a winner.

So the recent revelations mystify me. Could greed have spread so quickly through the television industry? Or is it that we have promoted young people so fast, even allowing presenters like Ant and Dec to call themselves “executive producers”, so that the traditional wise heads are no longer running the ship? Well, probably a bit of both.

The catalogue of dishonesty, deception and downright fraud literally makes my blood boil. I’d like to apologise to you, the viewers, on behalf of my entire industry. Except I know that isn’t enough. It took the BBC decades to build up your trust, and I know it’ll take more than an apology or a fine from Ofcom to rebuild it.

Monday, May 5, 2008

End of a Dream

[Labour managed its worst performance in 40 years in this week's local elections]

The second of May is a significant date in Labour’s history book. It marks the beginning and the end of the dream. It’s the date when, in 1997, the united army of Blair’s New Labour marched into power. It’s also the date when, in 2008, Gordon Brown’s bedraggled forces lay defeated, washed up on the arrogance and complacency of its tired, uninspiring leadership.

With a certain nostalgia, I looked up some of Labour’s party political broadcasts from that first triumphant battle. In one of them, Anita Roddick said, “Whenever I’ve spoken to Tony Blair, what comes through is conviction, a sense of what Labour will give. Finally, a politician that is not arrogant. I like the way he looks exhausted. I like the way he’s working.”

On Andrew Marr’s programme yesterday morning, the leader of Labour’s dispirited troops certainly looked exhausted. Yet, extraordinarily, Gordon’s arrogance still shone through. You’d have thought there’d be a modicum of humility, a tiny scrap of shame for the devastation he has caused. But no, this was a man still blind to the mood of the nation. He claimed to be “listening and leading”, but he wasn’t hearing a thing.

“People need to know we have a strong sense of direction, that we’re putting in place the big building blocks of the future”, said Brown, convinced that the cause of the rout was neither his leadership nor the insensitive and ill-timed decisions he himself had taken, but instead the failure of Labour to explain the big picture, “to get its arguments across to the public”. Boris Johnson got it in one: pompous, overblown, bonkers Boris, now mayor of all London, said in an interview immediately after his acceptance speech, “Brown should go, and Labour should replace him with David Milliband”. Spot on, Boris, though “Dave” Cameron will hardly thank you for endorsing the one man who could keep him from Number 10.

Actually, thanks to the events of May 2nd, there’s now a second man who could keep Cameron from power, and that’s Bonkers Boris himself. To have such a loose Tory cannon as Mayor of London is just about the only piece of hope Brown can cling onto between now and the next election. He must be praying for the first pratfall.

Mind you, it’s going to be hard for even Boris to make living in London a worse experience that it is at present. I still have to travel down there once a week, and count the hours to my return. The tubes are packed, hot and unreliable; in the area where I used to live three women have been mugged outside their own homes in the last month; the congestion charge, which worked for a bit, now fails to curb the jams at all; Heathrow remains one of the most unpleasant airports in the world and blights the lives of half the city’s population. Boris promises to tackle all of these problems. He even wants a new airport in the middle of the Thames Estuary. Hopefully not run by BAA.

I remember the evening of Labour’s first May 2nd very well. I was at Television Centre in London, watching the map of Britain turn red. There was an air of great moment – like another May night when Thatcher first came to power. In 1997 like all Labour supporters I basked in the victory. The tide had turned for good.

This year, for the first time in my life, I voted Conservative. Why? Because the only person who bothered to contact me was my Tory candidate. Veronica Jones, you got my vote because you sent me a questionnaire asking for my views on the problems of my area. You then wrote and said what you were going to do about them. None of your opponents sent so much as a handout. I’ve never met you Councillor Jones, I haven’t a clue whether you’re any good, but you do appear to be listening, and in 2008, that’s a trick that all our politicians need to learn.