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Hell’s Kitchen UK

Hell’s Kitchen UK is back on and I’m strangely unexcited.

For most Australian viewers, Hell’s Kitchen means Gordon Ramsay giving over-confident American chefs a bollocking, and spray-tanned women desperately flirting their way to screen time. Whoever survives until the end is given a job (or, at least, a flashy title and some publicity for a casino). The original Hell’s Kitchen, whilst it still featured Ramsay and some bollocking, was slightly different.

In 2004, ITV broadcast a short, snappy cooking competition that was broadcast every night for a couple of weeks. It featured eleven celebrities prepared to put themselves at the mercy of both the Ramsay “temper” and the public vote. Despite the fact that the British celebs were largely unknown to me, it was enjoyably entertaining. There were some dramatic meltdowns, quite a few of the contestants quit, sous-chefs Ange and Sarge played effective “good cops” to Ramsay’s “bad cop”, there was a sweet European hyphenated maitre d’ and Al Murray made a fish pie that made me fancy the idea of fish pie (although not enough to have ever tried making it). To add even more fun to the proceedings, Angus Deayton hosted as though he was paying homage to Douglas Adams by channelling a hybrid Arthur-Dent-Max-Quordlepleen, and one of the contestants was Edwina Currie. Who’s not going to enjoy seeing John Major’s former squeeze being screamed at by a bad-tempered Scot?

After the first season, the idea was picked up by Fox and Ramsay was whisked off to LA and the format changed to the “real” aspiring chefs/sacking/huge prize that’s still going strong after what seems like several thousand seasons.

I’ve never seen the second season of the UK and I’m not sure whether its change to a non-celebrity cast was inspired by the American version, but it wasn’t a format that lasted. After Gary Rhodes and Jean-Christophe Novelli had their time in charge for the second season, it seemed that the show might be over.

Not so. ITV revived it in 2007 having managed to entice Marco Pierre White out of retirement to step in as the ruthless chef. The celebrities were, again, not necessarily household names over here (although some had been, at one time or another – Kelly le Brock, Paul *80s sigh* Young): Lee Ryan (filling the Boy Band spot pioneered by Matt Goss) was the only quitter while Jim Davidson saved himself from the indignity of being voted out… by being removed by the producers for being a homophobic twat. It wasn’t really about the celebrities – more than enough drama was created by the calm menace of Marco to make it great viewing. The episodes featured snippets of interviews with Marco, sitting in a cosy study, sharing his philosophies (“mother nature is the artist”) and unsuccessfully trying to soften his fearsome reputation (his explanation that “I didn’t make Gordon [Ramsay] cry. Gordon chose to cry” heightened, rather than defused this). In the kitchen he promised to take his charges by the hand and guide them through service, which seemed pleasant enough. Somehow, though, even stating this intention calmly created an atmosphere of breaking-point tension and this was played off beautifully by Angus Deayton.

When I discovered that Hell’s Kitchen was coming to the Food channel – and that Marco was coming with it – I was very pleased. With only four fast-paced seasons in six years, HK UK hasn’t earned contempt via over-familiarity as the US version has, churning out six long-winded and increasingly repetitive seasons in a shorter time. It’s been almost two years since the last outing. In the interim, the US version of the Chopping Block attempted to capture the Marco magic but lasted only slightly longer than Dance Your Ass Off did here. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that the first episode (on Monday night) felt lacklustre, muted. I blamed the celebs, but then remembered that it’s never really about the wattage of the contestants. I held Claudia Winkelman responsible for some of the loss of energy; she is no Angus Deayton. Then I blamed the lack of screen time given to maitre d’ Nick. I blamed the structure: the first episode went from sandwich making to “the restaurant opens in an hour” to end of service and demotions to front of house, without ever explaining what the menu was and how the diner comments could be related to the performance of the chefs.

I will keep watching. Indeed, it’s only a half-hour or so, once a week, in an uncompetitive time-slot.

If I give up, I will miss Marco saying things such as: “Anyone who gets in my way… will not survive for long… trust me”; “They hold the gun. I just pull the trigger”; “Do not fear the stove. If you fear the stove, you’ll never cook anything”; “You’ve been watching all night and learned nothing”. I will miss seeing the how the new format – Marco sacking contestants up until the final four, which reverts to public vote – works out.

If I give up, I might miss Bruce Grobbelaar trying to negotiate a fee for throwing the competition. I might miss Adrian Edmondson reverting to Vyvyan. I might miss Linda Evans bursting her trout pout. I might miss Niomi “Miss Dynamite” learn not to sass Marco. I might miss Marco finally reach breaking point and start hacking at celebrities with a cleaver.

I will keep watching.

5 comments

1 Reality Raver { 08.14.09 at 9:26 pm }

Who do you rate as better Marco or Gordon? Also who do you think is the better cook?

2 Injera { 08.15.09 at 4:50 pm }

I find Marco more interesting – there’s more than one level with his TV persona where Gordon seems stuck on “high” all the time. And there’s the strange tension… A screaming Gordon is a given during any service, whereas Marco is so calm, so calm, that theres an air of expectation: when will he crack, and how?

As for their cooking, I really can’t say. There’s been a lot more of Ramsay on TV; Marco had “quit” before the TV deals started. Still, I watched the first episode of Marco’s Great British Feast last night and he was great in front of the camera in “celeb-chef” demo mode, as well as highly entertaining in an eccentric way.

He did take the opportunity to laugh at a “Gordon” joke (a beef producer mentioned that they’d called one of the cattle “Marco” but realised it didn’t suit, since it had no balls, so changed the name to “Gordon”) but he doesn’t seem to go out of his way to initiate the rivalry. It was funny to see an old “Friends for Dinner” episode with Gordon cooking a dessert from one of Marco’s books… then calling him a twat (or something similarly disparaging).

3 Reality Raver { 08.15.09 at 11:56 pm }

Oh man I seriously need to get the food channel. I am missing out.

4 Coco { 08.18.09 at 8:11 pm }

Having watched the entire season, it was thoroughly enjoyable and a superior product than the dross that was oz masterchef. Give Claudia a chance, she does improve.

5 Injera { 08.19.09 at 8:06 am }

Thanks, Coco. I’m still watching – have enjoyed previous iterations of HK-UK so am unwilling to write anything off. There hasn’t been much see-the-celebs-in-action time yet – does that improve?