Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Masterchef – The Professionals With India Fisher

To split up two long fulminations about things named “Mail,” I have a confession: I’ve become addicted to the BBC’s prime food porn. I remember when Masterchef was endearingly amateur and Loyd Grossman was entertainingly imitable… But then it became blokeish and rather more like The Apprentice, so despite the gorgeous voiceovers from Doctor Who’s India Fisher (of whom more in a minute), I’d left it. A few weeks ago, though, Richard put the latest version on in the background for something neutral while we cooked, and I’ve been glued to it ever since. Particularly for posh egg and soldiers.

I won’t, in fact, be posting my fulmination about the Daily Mail for a few days at least, nor many others I’ve half-written and probably let go off in the last few weeks, as I’m about to dive off up north and I don’t know where the Internet cafés are in Stockport and Manchester. What excitement is this? Seeing my parents; hopping on the train with old friends to brave the October winds at Blackpool and visit the Doctor Who Exhibition before it finally closes, like the beloved one of our youth; and to have my teeth drilled. Well, I hope the rest’ll make up for that (and hush, Lib Dem Conferencegoers who claim you’d rather have your teeth drilled than return to Blackpool. I bet you wouldn’t).

There are two key differences between Masterchef – The Professionals and the ‘ordinary’ Masterchef: first, it features young, ambitious professional cooks rather than members of the public doing it for fun; and second, and this is the key for me, they’ve got the balance of presenters right. Rather than two ‘blokes’, rough Gregg Wallace is now joined by smooth Michel Roux Junior, and they make a persuasive combination. Gregg is, if anything, a little too overawed by the famous chef: he hardly ever brings himself to disagree with him, so you can imagine how frightened the competitors are. For me, Michel is a great combination of steely disapproval and warm encouragement, with the most amazing grin when – rarely – he’s taken off-guard and delighted by something, though I suspect I’d find his style of meat very underdone (he likes it pink; I like it charcoal), and almost every dish before him seems to need more acidity. One of my few disappointments with the series has been that we didn’t see him introduce his father uncle [oops!] at the Michelin-starred high tea restaurant; Roux Senior, sitting wizened but authoritative and wielding absolute power over the pastry chefs, surely deserved younger Michel looming over the finalists to intone, ‘I hope these fancies will be perfect, for your sake. My father uncle is not as forgiving as I am’. You’ll not be surprised, I suspect, that the scariest bit about the competition for me is the way they have to do everything precisely to time…

Anyway, we’re now into the extended final all week, between Steve, Daniel and Marianna. The unceasing parade of determined, slim young men (is it just me who never quite trusts a thin chef?) finally ceased with no slim men in sight in the last round. I rather liked some of the ones who fell, though. The chunky, slightly dour French guy with the rare but nice smile who played it too safe and lost his flair in the semi-final; the tiny chap with the messy hair, rustic food and desperate eyes; the lean French-African guy with the amazing eye for invention, who I suspect Michel didn’t pass through to the next round because he wouldn’t follow the rules… And the one that really scared me, the cold-eyed epitome of the ambitious young man, who evoked the Terminator when he promised that all his work would be perfectly executed.

My money’s on Steve, who not only delivers exquisite food but is inventive with it. Despite all the scary encounters with Michelin chefs (one who cooks by touch and refuses to use timings, another who goes by the gram and the second and measures lines on the plate…), the dish that’s looked most interesting was his inspired reinvention of egg and soldiers, involving poaching, twisty concoctions and a smoke machine (with a dessert based on an exquisitely cooked ‘bag of sweets’ last night, his speciality seems to be supercharged versions of childhood treats). It was only last week, so it’s probably still on the iPlayer if you want to look. Though my favourite single moment was Marianna, praised, declaring it was “Heaven. Total heaven” – if only because I misheard it as “Potato heaven,” which just sounds fabulously surreal. Besides, you can tell Steve’s a perfectionist: look at his knifework on that designer stubble. Daniel’s beard growth varies, but Steve always looks like he’s just got out of bed.

India Fisher

And finally, the lovely India. I must dash, but Doctor Who listeners for Big Finish and BBC7 will know her as Charlotte Pollard, Edwardian adventuress, introduced in Storm Warning for many travels with Paul McGann’s Doctor, then latterly – if anachronistically – with Colin Baker. And she’s lovely. I’ve met her a couple of times, and she’s unfailingly intelligent and fun (for politics fact fans, she’s the daughter of Mark Fisher MP).

So what does she do on Masterchef?

She’s the voice. She narrates it with the perfect vocals – low, sexy, like chocolate pouring.

And there I must, literally, leave it: I don’t want to miss my train, but look out in a few days for an anecdote or two, my theory of why she doesn’t appear on TV much despite being heard so often, which of her final Doctor Who adventures is best – oh, look, it’s Paper Cuts, and it’s brilliant, but the others aren’t bad, either – and the effect she has on the straight boys…

In the meantime, you can always read the interview with her in the latest Doctor Who Magazine.

Update: …And, several days later – after seeing my parents, having another stage of root canal, and making obeisance to Kroll – I’m back, so it’s back to India. She’s an incredibly talented actor, and it’s certainly worth catching up with some of her Doctor Who work: the earliest ones with Paul McGann or her later ones with Colin Baker are probably her best, though if you snap up her final trilogy with Colin (Patient Zero, Paper Cuts and Blue Forgotten Planet) you may be surprised to find her not exactly playing Charlotte Pollard. In that, and in Masterchef, you can admire her marvellous voice… But it’s a shame you rarely get to see her.

The only time I can remember seeing her on TV, in fact, was in a dodgy wig impersonating one of the Eastenders cast on Dead Ringers shortly after Dirty Den and the Mitchell brothers had each made increasingly improbable returns from the dead (or from other channels) to the East End: wondering which villain from the past would be next for a preposterous reappearance, there was an ominous droning sound from above. India looked up and delivered a line that corpsed me completely:
“It’s the Luftwaffe! They’ve come back!”
Now, as well as having to admit that I’d call her voice sexy, and she’s one of the few women who, when I’ve met her, I can see exactly what the straight boys see in her. She looks fantastic from head to toe, as well as being witty, intelligent and awfully nice (each of which helps, I usually find). At a mini-convention a couple of months ago, I met her for the third or so time and, queuing for her autograph, told her that it’s always an enormous pleasure to hear her voice when I switch on at the end of Masterchef (“The gift that keeps on giving,” she described it on stage, adding that she refuses to read out menus for her friends). “The end of Masterchef? You cheeky sod!” she exclaimed, laughing, so I reassured her that it’s because Richard’s often not in until nine, and if I watch it I’ll already have given way and eaten before I cook for him. I’m forced, again, to admit that – having now watched most of the latest Masterchef – The Professionals series – this has turned out to be all too true. It mollified her, though, and after she’d signed for me, I was able to observe at first hand the India Effect on the heterosexual chap next in the queue. Returning to our seats and another friend not so bothered by autographs, the one who’d been behind me wailed, “How is it you could just speak to her, and I was right behind you and I melted?” You’ll be amazed that my reply involved a mime in which I talked to her by making eye contact, while [name excised to protect the guilty] stammered to two lower parts of her anatomy, which I suspect had something to do with our respective ability and inability to sound coherent. On the other hand, Gordon Warnecke was a guest on the same day, and as he played just about the first sexy gay role I saw on TV and fancied when a shy teenager, I probably gibbered a bit when I met him. Particularly as he still looks gorgeous.

The point of that little sexual reverie was to wonder just why, although India does have a very sexy voice, her voice seems to be all of her that the telly uses. Yet she’s a superb actor both vocally and physically, and – as this is often the determining factor for TV casting – I know very few straight men who’ve met her who’ve not found her fantastically attractive. So why doesn’t she get on the telly more often in person? I’m afraid the only answer I can think of is not one that reflects well on casting directors: she isn’t a stick. Like, oh, how can I describe them, real women, she has curves. And I suspect that it’s very difficult to be cast as a beautiful woman, probably, unless your ribs are showing.

Oh, and finally: Steve did win a well-deserved victory in the competition (another one with a rare but very sweet smile), and I think I was right about his speciality. In the, er, final parts of the final, too, some of his most distinctive and imaginative creations were exquisite reimaginings of things he’d loved when he was a boy. As well as being a great USP for a chef to open a restaurant on, you probably don’t have to look very far through this blog to work out why that might have a special appeal to me. How long before the Doctor Who production team commissions him to cook for them, I wonder?

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I think India Fisher's commentary is excruciatingly delivered, and appallingly written .. "Cooking doesn't get better than this"? Oh please ...

I'd like Marianne to win (no "a", I don't think), but I think Steve deserves to - there's real imagination and flair there.
Thanks for the tip on Marianne! I should have listened more carefully (or perhaps the contestants as well as the judges should get billing).

And though I rather agree with you on "Cooking doesn't get better than this," I enjoy most of India's script and, as you can probably tell, rather disagree with you on her fabulousness ;-)
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