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Gastropub Britain: the neoliberal agenda of BBC food programming

Culinary coverage on the BBC encourages us all to consume 'Great British' food and take part in the 'GastrOlympics'. But how do these seemingly innocuous programmes reflect the BBC's wider relationship to the forces of state and capital? 

Lucy Potter
8 August 2012

The BBC’s extensive culinary coverage underlines the conspicuous market presence of this ostensibly public service. The multi-faceted food package now offered to the BBC consumer coalesces under the textual, digital and televisual corporate umbrella – BBC Good Food. Backed by the openly commercial subsidiary BBC Worldwide, this expansionary brand includes four sister magazines (Good Food, Olive, Easy Cook and Vegetarian), three linked websites (BBC Food, Good Food and Good Food Channel) and a television channel available via Sky, Virgin Media and cable. Thanks to the 2009 public-private merger of BBC Food and UKTV Food (a Scripps Network Interactive and BBC Worldwide partnership), the Good Food channel enjoys full access to the BBC’s full archive of food programming alongside its international culinary content.

On top of the commercial status of BBC Good Food, the licensed food programming offered by the BBC relies on a neoliberal model of imposed consumptive participation – one must cook and eat well, that is consume, to be to be a ‘good’ and ‘active’ citizen. Pursuing this, on 26th April, the BBC Media Centre announced ‘a raft of new food programming’ commissioned for BBC2. This renewed culinary push sits within a wider British call for the public to consume during a time of state-driven austerity. As Commissioning Editor Alison Kirkham states, in this new age of austerity, the BBC has ‘to make sure that new commissions really earn their place’ (emphasis added).

Offering celebrity-endorsed ‘lifestyle campaigns and once in a lifetime adventures’, BBC2 certainly captures the culinary zeitgeist of the contemporary market. In each case, viewer participation is premised on sustained attention – and fiscal access – to the specialised forms of consumption the programmes promote. The tempting new menu of programmes includes: Nigella Lawson’s efficiently-produced ‘Slow Food’ in Nigellissima; culinary-colonial exploration in Rick Stein’s India and diasporic homecoming in Ken Hom and Ching He-Huang’s Eat, Drink, Cook China; shared dietary troubles and ‘foodie’ advice from The Hairy Dieters; and the quaint, nostalgic competitiveness offered by a third series of The Great British Bake Off (also due to appear at the BBC Good Food Show, London this November).

The BBC Good Food label carries the loaded, if lacklustre, adjective ‘good’ – conflating superior quality, class privilege and an unspecified moral prerogative – to make simultaneous  claims to humble culinary authenticity and exclusive modern gastronomy. This ‘foodie’ combination of accessibility and exclusivity is particularly evident in the middle-class appropriation of seemingly working-class food culture – from peasant-style cuisine to the upwardly mobile ‘gastro-pub’. Last week, BBC News Magazine placed the ‘gastro-pub’ between ‘class’ and ‘nationality’ in its self-conscious list of ‘the nation’s quirks, habits and rules’ (begging the question of where and what is ‘the nation’ of ‘London 2012’). That the public broadcaster should choose to present class-conscious Britishness via the ‘gastro-pub’ speaks volumes about the integral role played by food fashions and culinary hierarchies in general, and within the BBC’s various ventures into the lucrative domain of ‘gastro-media’ in particular.

Mobilising the simultaneously unifying and exceptionalising ‘Great British’ prefix that permeates this ‘Jubilympic’ summer, BBC2’s The Great British Bake-Off, The Great British Food Revival and The Great British Menu epitomise attempts to restore British pride in the face of economic recession, devolutionary pressure and post-imperial insecurity. Appealing to an apparently collective ‘great British public’, each programme calls upon viewers to purchase, ingest or simply ‘champion’ our ‘great British’ food – and to do so from the comfort of our living rooms. Through the televisual spectacle of food (and its commoditisation courtesy of BBC Books), the BBC offers an exclusive, domesticated form of pseudo-participation while providing patriotic consumption with an appealing glaze of democratic activity.

Mary Berry's 'suitably patriotic' Fruity Flag Tray Bake. Good Food Magazine, June 2012

Likened by one contestant to ‘a village fete on adrenaline’, The Great British Bake Off (2010- 2012) consistently domesticates and softens its own insistence on private competition within the world of public broadcasting. With its bouncy soundtrack, pastel-coloured set design and gingham tablecloths, the series aligns itself with the gentile propriety and self-conscious irony associated with 1950s-esque village baking contests. Alongside this domesticated competition, the series offers a potted history of Britain’s quirky gastronomic secrets by travelling to historic culinary landmarks to meet local food producers. Claiming the culinary heritage and local produce of all four UK nations as ‘Great British’, the BBC reveals its own confusion regarding the Britishness it purports to represent. Further, exploiting the quintessential Englishness of the surrounding (apparently perpetually sunny) Essex countryside, the programme consistently compresses the union into the pastoral idyll of rural England. The distinctly English and middle-class aesthetics of this internally-judged series significantly restrict and qualify the BBC’s appeals to public participation, democratic evenness and collective unity – encapsulated in judge Mary Berry’s claim: ’we’re all amateurs’.

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Great British Bake Off presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins (2011)

Where the Bake Off seeks (problematically) to invoke a nostalgic image of domesticity, The Great British Food Revival (2011/2012) claims to ‘rediscover’ a non-identified culinary golden age through a return to agricultural rurality. Mobilising a curiously military terminology, this programme is presented as an inclusive, yet institutional, ‘call to action’.  Entreating consumers to ‘rally behind’ traditional ingredients and artisan producers currently ‘under threat’, the BBC once again appeals to audience participation while offering no means of joining the ‘campaign’ other than through a distinctively class-based mode of consumption

With two accompanying books on the market, the Revival replicates the commodification of anti-commercialism seen in the recent profusion of grow-your-own paraphernalia. Marketing niche commodities (from kitchen garden manuals to expensive ‘heritage’ or ‘rare breed’ products) while harking back to a pre-industrial food system, this culinary trend resonates with the paradoxical logic of austerity where we must consume our way out of recession while simultaneously tightening our belts. In the first episode, renowned chef Michel Roux Jr reproduces ‘Slow-Food’ rhetoric by contrasting ‘mass-produced bland-tasting loaves’ with the ‘real’, ‘honest’ bread that ‘we used to have’. With his gastro-cratic background connecting ‘classic’ French cuisine with Michelin-starred London exclusivity, Michel Roux embodies a distinctive form of cultural capital. Akin to the middle-class purchase of countrified frugality via the ‘humble’ urban ‘veg patch’, the BBC’s bread-baking ‘revival’  offers viewers a certain culinary cache, always-already premised on privileged access to the time, knowledge and commodities that go into proving Roux’s ‘true’ farmhouse loaf.    

Michel Roux Jr, The Great British Food Revival, 'Bread' (09/03/2011)

For The Great British Menu (2006-2012), culinary exclusivity is not merely implicit but integral to the Michelin-starred competition on display. This programme’s sustained effort to conflate Masterchef meritocracy with the push for ‘Great British’ pride via internal competition gestures towards the neoliberal subtext of BBC food broadcasting. Throughout, the fetishistic and suspense-filled drama culminates in an extravagant Banquet finale. From ‘The Royal Banquet’ in 2006 and ‘RAF Homecoming’ feast in 2009 to ‘The People’s Banquet’ street party last year, each series attempts to capture and exploit its own cultural moment. Last month’s ‘Olympic Banquet’ made a claim to the public’s ‘Olympic spirit’ by emphasising ‘boundary-pushing’ dishes and post-imperial majesty. Capturing the spirit of the ceremonial Olympic opening, at least, judge Oliver Peyton proclaimed: ‘I want the chefs to demonstrate to the world the greatness of Britain’ (South West Heat Finals: 01/06/2012).

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'The Olympic Feast' in The Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich (08/06/2012)

On top of the visual display of elite cuisine, this narrative of British ‘greatness’ was presented via the aristocratic grandeur of the historic dining hall and opulent excess of plentiful ingredients. Accompanied by various references to the 1948 Games, this display of luxury exposes the incongruous commercial exploitation of post-war ‘Austerity Britain’ seen throughout this (apparently ‘austere’) ‘Great British Summer’. In an explicitly neoliberal reworking of wartime triumph, for instance, the dramatic statement ‘it’s D-day for dessert’ uses ‘D’ to represent contemporary buzz-word ‘delivery’. Ironically, this term recently became a point of satire via the amusing spoof creation of an ‘Olympic deliverance commission’ in BBC2’s Twenty-Twelve.

Conflating the language of professional cooking with that of the market, The Great British Menu repeatedly insists upon time-pressured struggle and culinary ‘risk’ (a word used repeatedly throughout the episode) culminating in apparent triumph against the odds for the professional chefs. The latest series goes further by providing this marketised culinary narrative with healthy, sportsmanlike Olympic sanction; the laboured production of innovative ‘gold medal food’ is persistently described as a ‘marathon’ or even ‘Olympian challenge’.

Where the Bake off quietly domesticated competition, gastronomic meritocracy is here glorified and justified by extending the Olympic metaphor into the home. BBC Food personality and series judge Matthew Fort writes that the ‘GastrOlympic’ ideal of ‘faster, bigger, higher, better (…) applies to us at home’ as much as to the professional chefs. In this vein, recipes from each show are made available to the public via the Good Food website. With one dish (pictured below) requiring 53 technically-challenging steps, however, the appeal to domestic emulation is more distance-forming than ‘boundary-crossing’.  The digital ‘accessibility’ of these by and large inaccessible recipes offers another example of pseudo-participation via the visual consumption of desirable, but unattainable, products and expertise – making BBC2’s ‘GastrOlympics’ remarkably similar to the farce of public participation based on enclosure and exclusion offered by the ceremonial Olympic spectacle. 

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Daniel Clifford's 'Slow Poached Chicken, Sweetcorn Egg, Spinach with Bacon and Peas', July 2012

Serving up a feast of quaint domesticity, anti-commercial rurality and high-end gastronomy, BBC2’s food programming harnesses the aspirational spectacle of food to promote the gastronomic ‘greatness’ of contemporary Britain. In doing so, the public broadcaster both relies upon and cultivates a neoliberal mode of (pseudo-)participation based on the visual, physical and economic consumption of ‘Great British’ food, even as it excludes and distances the public it claims to represent. 

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