Monday, September 3, 2007 by Jack Kibble-White
So who won the last series of Hell’s Kitchen? This particular reviewer turned his back on the run somewhere near the beginning of week two. The contestants were thoroughly unpleasant, the format grinding and confusing, and the contrived machismo of Rhodes and Novelli pathetic. With Angus Deayton hung out to dry front of house, Hell’s Kitchen went from premier reality telly to only a bit better than The Farm.
In time, viewers’ memories of that second series dissipated in much the same way no one can remember ever having watched Shattered. With the odd It Shouldn’t Happen To … type clip show gently keeping the first Gordon Ramsay helmed series in memory, the table was subtly set for a return to the “celebs in a kitchen under one chef” format.
With Ramsay out of the picture, Marco Pierre White was perhaps the only gastronome of sufficient status ITV could approach. Imagine, Anthony Worral Thompson, or Jack Dee look-a-like Heston Blumenfeld helming the show. It just wouldn’t work. White’s casting succeeds because of his pedigree as mentor to the aforementioned Ramsay, but more importantly, because he hasn’t previously sullied his “art” by taking part in something so trivial. He is free to look on the celebrities with the kind of disdain self-proclaimed artists reserve for those in the entertainment industry.
So with a charismatic chef in place, the casting of the kitchen hands took on less importance then they might in, say I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!. Mind you, on paper the 10 they’ve gathered together have the potential to generate some interesting television moments. You sense Brian Dowling’s inclusion is a masterstroke on the part of his agent, giving viewers an opportunity to reconnect with his USP (which is definitely not his ability to present late night phone-in quiz shows). Jim Davidson fulfils the Les Dennis archetype of comedian on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while Anneka Rice and Barry McGuigan should hopefully turn out to be the likeable contestants who you never quite root for.
After the first episode though, it’s difficult to get any sense of where this is going and what it might be. It all began in pretty much the conventional mould, with the 10’s initial attempts at cooking roundly criticised by White. Afterwards, though, that palpable shift through the gears which marked Ramsay’s reign somehow failed to happen. The sense of foreboding before the commencement of the first service was muted, with the evening itself feeling as if there wasn’t very much at stake.
What worked so well in the first series was the impression after the disastrous opening night the celebrities had an almost impossible mountain to climb. It gave the viewer a stake in the programme, and a direction to follow. By comparison, the first service in White’s kitchen concluded with all the dinner guests fed, and clocking up reasonable reviews to boot. So where do we go from here? The journey from pretty competent to excellent dinner service is just not as compelling or classic as the complete against-the-odds victory Ramsay produced with his crew.
With BBC2’s The Restaurant providing some textbook scenes of caterers crashing into oblivion, ITV’s brasher, bigger series is looking a little tame in comparison. It doesn’t really help that White seems pretty much detached from the whole thing. Encouraging the celebrities to cook to impress themselves is bad news – prompting them to internalise their experiences, rather than push themselves for the sake of an inspirational leader and an embattled team.
As Deayton provided his reasonably crafted, but never surprising links from the restaurant itself during tonight’s episode, there was a palpable lack of tension in the action going on around him, suggesting tomorrow’s edition isn’t going to be much more exciting. With the only testosterone on offer at present being that found in the “glands” accompanying the pig trotters, series three of Hell’s Kitchen, from this first serving at least, looks very far away from igniting into the kind of very special reality series cooked up three years ago.