The TV cookery show bankrolled by a Scottish public body

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By Kenneth Roy

Hey, we’re to have another cookery programme on the box. Terrific. Better still, it is to be a cookery programme featuring ‘celebrity chefs’. How original. They will be travelling in pairs, ‘not only competing against each other but also against the best local cooks – who are guaranteed to take the contests very seriously!’. The exclamation mark is not mine.

The eight celebrity chefs are Aldo Zilli and Silvena Rowe, Rachel Allen and Theo Randall, Jun Tanaka and Galton Blackiston, Valentine Warner and Ed Baines. Forgive me, I haven’t heard of any of them. The only one of the breed with whom I’m familiar is the owner of Norwich City football club, girl by the name of Delia, and she hasn’t been on our screens for a while.

Aldo and Silvena, Rachel and Theo, Jun and Galton, Valentine and Ed will be ‘making their way across the UK in a vintage van, complete with its own kitchen’. I do not propose to watch any of this time-filling crap, but I would defend their right to make it – if anyone is mug enough to pick up the tab (excl service charge). Though I wouldn’t carry this defence of their right to the traditional death. There are limits.

STV Productions and the BBC have got together to ‘cook up this exciting new show’. Wendy Rattray, ‘creative director’ of STV Productions, says: ‘It should be a really fun, informative show with great recipes, fantastic locations and lots of jeopardy for the chefs…’. Lots of jeopardy? What on earth is Wendy on about? Liam Keelan, ‘controller of daytime BBC’ – take me to the controller of night-time – adds: ‘It should make for compelling viewing’. I fear not.

Compelling viewing these days is what they produce in the small countries of Scandinavia, mostly not involving food; Sarah Lund hardly touches the stuff and when she does it comes straight out of the microwave.

But the testimonies to this really fun, exciting, compelling addition to the schedules don’t stop there. Caroline Parkinson says: ‘This new cookery show is an original take on the road trip theme and, in a returning slot on BBC2, is a great boost for the Scottish production team. Attracting high-profile network commissions like this showcases Scotland’s production strengths’.

Does Caroline get someone to write this stuff or is it all her own work? Also, who is she? To the ‘creative director’ and the ‘controller of daytime’ we must add a third fan of ‘Cooking Up a Storm’ – well, that seems to be the title of the new series – who claims to be ‘director of creative development’ at Creative Scotland, the publicly-funded successor to the Scottish Arts Council. You may be wondering why Caroline Parkinson, with your money, is wasting her time endorsing what she accurately calls a cookery show. The answer is distressingly simple: Creative Scotland is helping to bankroll it.

BBC and STV are free to sponsor whatever rubbish they choose. One of these organisations is financed independently, the other through a licence fee which also pays for much of genuine value. What they do with their money is their business, up to a point. But the involvement of Creative Scotland is our business. This is a quango created by the Scottish Government, its board members (including the chairman Sir Sandy Crombie) are appointed by the Scottish ministers, and it has a public duty to further the arts in Scotland.

It has strenuously distanced itself from the straightforward remit of the old Arts Council; it carefully avoids any direct reference to funding the arts. Its brief is more opaquely expressed, typically shrouded in jargon and management-speak. It thinks of itself as an ‘arts, screen and creative industries development agency’, a profile which speaks in the language of big business. If you are an artist who refuses to feel that your first responsibility is to the development of the Scottish economy, you had best forget Creative Scotland as a source of support. Go back to the drawing board and re-mould yourself in Creative Scotland’s enormously self-regarding image.

But financing a cookery series at the taxpayers’ expense in the interests of economic development – that does seem a bit extreme, even by the standards of Creative Scotland. It poses a number of related questions. Aren’t cookery programmes what the BBC and STV do anyway? Why do they need public support to turn out routine commercial tat? And if they are so desperately short of money that even cookery programmes cannot be made without a contribution from the taxpayer, why didn’t Creative Scotland insist, as part of its ‘broadcasting partnership’, that the money went to a project of artistic or educational worth?

It was a privilege for me to be part of BBC Scotland at a time when Pharic Maclaren was producing the incomparable ‘Sunset Song’. Now, there was a commission worthy of public support if anything was. The place was full of such clever, original people as Ken Cargill (who died last month, lamented by his many admirers), Matt Spicer, David Martin, Stewart Conn, Donald Macdonald, Stewart Lamont, Kirsty Wark, Alf Young, Carol Craig, George Reid….well, I could go on. None of that lot was making cookery programmes. There were more important things to do in life, and they did them. If only Creative Scotland had been around with its open purse, they might have done even more. There was a seriousness of purpose. I don’t believe it’s gone. There will be very good people at Pacific Quay who would welcome a cheque from Creative Scotland. Instead the money is squandered on ‘Cooking Up a Storm’.

If there was surplus cash to splash around, celebrity chefs in their vintage van might be just about excusable as a fluffy extra to the core activities of Creative Scotland. But there isn’t. Budgets are stretched, fine companies are struggling for survival, important artists feel unwanted in their own country. I won’t be hearing from them, of course; they are all too scared of alienating the bureaucrats at Creative Scotland and risking any marginal prospect of future funding. So the Scottish vow of silence in this matter will prevail. But it is surprising that the Scottish Government is doing so little to correct the grotesquely skewed priorities of Creative Scotland. The cabinet secretary for culture should be kicking up a storm of her own over this misuse of public funds.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review