Tuesday, 26 April 2011
TV: William Morris MasterChef
‘Cooking, Morris’s skills at’ runs an entry in the index to Fiona MacCarthy’s biography, and J.W. Mackail backs her up: ‘to Morris cookery had an important place among the arts of human life, and he knew a great deal about it in theory, and something also in practice’ (I, 223). So we might expect Morris to be an enthusiastic viewer of Gregg Wallace and John Torode’s BBC ‘MasterChef’ series; and perhaps his daughters Jenny and May, in a moment of family mischief, might even have put his name forward as a potential participant.
What would a Morrisian analysis of the ‘MasterChef’ TV series look like? No doubt Morris would have admired the inventive culinary skills on display, the concern for excellent ingredients and presentation, and the cooperative endeavours of the amateur cooks on the many challenges they are given to face during the programmes. On the other hand, he wouldn’t care much for the programme’s occasional forays into ‘molecular gastronomy’, he would loathe the rampant social snobbery of some of those challenges (cooking for the Duke of Bedford in his big country house), and, most crucially of all, he would surely deplore the competitive nature of the programme’s basic format.
For it is here, above all, that we receive a subliminal cultural training in the values of a capitalist society. We don’t particularly mind the over-the-top competitiveness of the repulsive young entrepreneurs who enter Alan Sugar’s TV show, ‘The Apprentice’, for this just is capitalism pure and simple; what you see is what you get. But when so many other cultural and social activities are turned into competition too – cooking on ‘MasterChef’, dancing on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, singing in ‘The X Factor’, and even just living itself as in ‘Big Brother’ – then capitalist values are insidiously colonising our entire life world.
So we must imagine a new version of ‘MasterChef’ altogether, in which our amateur cooks, like the craftsmen at work on the medieval cathedral for Ruskin and Morris, would express their individual culinary creativity in ways that also contributed to a satisfying and spectacular collective project. If there still is TV in utopia (for Morris, there probably wouldn’t be), this is what we would then be watching.