Ready Steady Cook is back to soften the UK up for rationing

They might soon be cooking with whatever they can scavenge from the forbidden zone

Rylan Clark-Neal, Akis Petretzikis, Anna Haugh, Romy Gill, Ellis Barrie and Mike Reid on Ready Steady Cook. Photograph: Graeme Hunter

Rylan Clark-Neal, Akis Petretzikis, Anna Haugh, Romy Gill, Ellis Barrie and Mike Reid on Ready Steady Cook. Photograph: Graeme Hunter

 

“I wonder what’s for dinner today, Britain?” says Rylan Clark-Neal to his best friend, “Britain”. “It’s time to find out,” he adds and then there’s a dramatic pause before he says: “Gemma and her partner, Brian!”

It’s come to this, I think, sitting on my couch. They’ve finally resorted to eating people, live on television. Then two pleasant, admittedly succulent-looking people walk out on to the set, waving and smiling stoically. Poor Gemma. Poor her partner, Brian. At least their chirpy can-do attitude will add vigour to their people’s cannibalistic renewal.

Okay, it turns out I have the wrong end of the stick. What I am witnessing is just a soft reboot of the classic speed-cookery programme Ready Steady Cook (BBC1, weekdays), not a soft reboot of ritualistic cannibalism as practised by some of the tribes of ancient Britain, back when it was still great.

And it’s nice to have Ready Steady Cook back. I like daytime television. It has the calm yet upbeat tone of a family doctor talking someone down from a tree. It’s all bright and familiar. There are two huge wooden kitchen counters on stage, behind which are cookers and shelves filled with condiments and gewgaws. This look is called, “Your own kitchen, but nicer.” Proceedings are punctuated sporadically by low-wattage electronic musical stings that evoke for me the hum of a pleasantly medicated nervous system.

In the centre of the stage are two massive effigies of a big red tomato and a big green pepper. These are the totems of the rival cookery teams Gemma and her partner, Brian, now represent, and these will, no doubt, soon be daubed all over London by warring vegetable-themed gangs.

You might remember it from the 1990s, those halcyon days when Britain still had an empire

Rylan stands in the middle of the set, quizzing Gemma and her partner, Brian, about their lives, wielding the sort of weaponised small-talk beloved of daytime television hosts, online data farms and the secret police. He’s wearing a close-fitting blue shirt and slacks. This is the standard uniform for men on daytime television. It’s a look that says: “I am a formal gentleman who wears a suit; however, I am relaxed enough in your presence, milady, that I have forgone my tie and jacket.”

Rylan also has the kind of perfectly trimmed beard-and-quiff combo that feels like it clicks on and off like Lego. And he is exactly as louche as is permissible on television at 4.30pm, but no more louche than that. This means that he slinks but does so with good posture.

Mild lessons

What do we learn? We learn that Gemma, in the green apron, does not like to cook while her partner, Brian, in the red apron, loves cooking. Gemma, when she does cook, favours a dish she calls “Cheesy Beano”, which involves putting cheese on beans on toast. Cheesy Beano is also, coincidentally, the name of my nephew.

This is all the character detail we need, so the questions stop there. The premise of Ready Steady Cook is pretty simple. You might remember it from the 1990s, those halcyon days when Britain still had an empire (I presume; I didn’t do history for the Leaving). Each contestant is paired with a competent chef and must cook a three-course meal with ingredients they have purchased for the sum of £7.50.

The return of this concept to television at this time of geopolitical strife, systemic upheaval and global pandemic seems quite calculated. Is the national broadcaster softening the British people up for rationing and hard times ahead? Will Rylan soon be challenging people to make a meal with “whatever you can scavenge from the forbidden zone” or simply “what’s left of Alan”?

“He might as well,” says you. Yes, I’d forgotten for a moment that I’m talking to the ABC1 readers of The Irish Times who probably do their big shop in Marks & Spencer and spend £7.50 on a solitary snifter of artisan honey.

Rylan leads the audience in a countdown from 10 to one, a sound that I find quite chilling because I was in Parliament Square on January 31st, the night the UK left the EU

Gemma has chosen minced beef, strawberries, cream cheese and plantain, while Brian has gone for crab, courgettes, spinach and chickpeas. It’s now up to chefs Mike Reid and Anna Haugh (an Irish woman who will, by series two, be forced to wear a green armband) to make sense of this hellish hotchpotch. They have to do so in a mere 20 minutes because, well, those are the rules.

And so everyone begins to rush around their bright kitchen islands to the gentle delight of the low-energy studio audience. Like many daytime studio audiences, they remind me of a meadow in a mild spring breeze. Rylan dips in and out between the chefs and contestants, dropping one-liners while sporadically announcing the time they have left for the task. I’ve never before seen a man make a nuisance of himself with such grace.

Frantic finish

This scenario basically happens twice, the second time for an even more frazzlingly frantic 10 minutes. At the end of each instalment Rylan leads the audience in a countdown from 10 to one, a sound that I find quite chilling because I was in Parliament Square back on January 31st, the night Britain left the EU. The sound of massed Britons behaving like this fills me with both fear and confusion (who knew they could count backwards?).

It is not Gemma but her partner, Brian, who wins the favour of the people today. He wears the terrifying sigil of the tomato

By the end of the countdown the chefs have somehow managed to make restaurant-worthy delights from ingredients that Hieronymus Bosch would call “a little trying”. They have managed to make doughnuts and ragu and tapenade and cheesecake. Then at the end of the programme it’s the audience members, not a panel of snooty experts, who get to choose the winner. They do this without ever even tasting the food. This is no bother to British people, who are now happy to make definitive calls on all sorts of things – the coronavirus, Love Is Blind, capital punishment, leaving the EU – without any sensory data whatsoever. They make their choice by holding aloft a card containing either a bright red tomato or a bright green pepper. This is what actual conversations will look like in the not-too-distant future.

It is not Gemma but her partner, Brian, who wins the favour of the people today. He wears the terrifying sigil of the tomato. Both contestants get to keep their aprons, because the BBC is apparently made of money. The winning prize is a box of food (they call it a “hamper”). Looking at that salivating post-Brexit audience, Gemma and her partner Brian will be lucky to make it out of the car park alive.

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