Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A Song for Masterchef

THOSE not familiar with the MasterChef phenomenon seem to think that the programme is just another Ready Steady Cook. How wrong they are. There is nothing so simple as a meagre green pepper or red tomato here. There are, however, Heirloom tomatoes and Anaheim chillis- the kind of capsicums that sit well outside the pitifully amateur box.

MasterChef’s audience follow the programme with an avid, impassioned pride. They love it with the same pride which scorns Big Brother and The X-Factor, in fact, the only other reality television programme people who watch MasterChef make time for is The Apprentice. This is middle-class televisual snobbery at the highest level.

But what is it that makes MasterChef such compelling viewing? I would argue that there are three (possibly four) factors. Firstly, the toothy grin and outlandish sayings of presenter Gregg Wallace can’t fail to raise a smile, particularly when accompanied by a growl from his bumptious, po-faced partner John Torode. One of many examples came during the Semi-Final, when the contestants were whisked off to Thailand for an authentic experience away from the sterility of the MasterChef kitchen. “What a punch round the face of chilli that was” exclaims Gregg. “For me that needs more chilli” John replies, to which Gregg says “What are you, inferno mouth”, in that way that rotund uncles do when they’re struggling for a metaphor. Gregg’s vicarious habit of describing food not as food, but as an out-of-body experience is arguably one of MasterChef’s most enjoyable features. Telling contestants that they’ll have to cook two puddings to be judged by three chefs, Gregg shouts into the camera: “this is a day for heroes”, leaving everyone in the room showered with spit but ready for action. Nuggets of linguistic genius from previous series include: “This is the bland leading the bland”, “Love an icing bag me. You know someone’s serious when they get an icing bag out”, “It’s summery, it’s fruity, I’d stick my face in it” and “I wouldn't marry your rhubarb, strawberry and ginger crumble - but I'd love to take it away for a dirty weekend”. Indeed.

That said, my second factor, the combinations of food and startling array of ingredients, leaves me wondering whether Gregg is perhaps justified. This isn’t home cooking, and the contestants producing gasto-pub fodder are sent packing in the early weeks. This is a show for those with strictly Michelin-starred aspirations. There’s a beauty in seeing bouncers who you’d cross the street to avoid tossing peashoots and pomegranate seeds onto a square piece of pristine white china with all the elegance of a sugarplum fairy. Stick me in Fortnum and Masons for a month and give me an unlimited budget and I still wouldn’t dream up dishes like Andrew’s chocolate, orange and coriander tart with chocolate-hazelnut mousse, pear and fennel ice cream and candied fennel.

Factors three and four are the humility of the contestants and the occasional appearance of Michel Roux Jnr., pastry impresario and God to whom all men should aspire. These four factors, though there are probably many more, cannot help but keep feasting eyes glued to the screen. I for one will be holding out for next series, waiting for more hilarious puns, charismatic contestants and crazy-but-it-works dishes.

This piece was published in Exeposé in March 2012

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Postgraduate Funding Gap

Perhaps now that I'm in my final year and juggling dissertations, essays and the small matter of graduate employment, I should stop making excuses for not blogging tout suite and accept that there may simply be more pressing matters. Regardless, here is a little blog that I've written which exists solely to moan about the funding gap of glacial proportions that prevents mere mortals from undertaking postgrad courses. Enjoy! (and then weep...)

There was once a time when undergraduate degrees were prized, and gave individuals a much worked-for first step on the ubiquitous ‘career ladder’. Without wishing to sound as if I’m lusting after a bygone era, these days are a thing of the past. Undergraduate degrees have become a pre-requisite for those wishing to enter the ‘professions’ and CVs that do not boast a degree often aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

So how can students ensure that their applications stand out from the crowd? The solution has become, ironically, to stay in higher education and complete a postgraduate qualification. With graduate unemployment at a 16-year-high, it’s unsurprising that, according to the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU), there was a 7.4% rise in the demand for Master’s degrees in 2009/10. Many graduates see the addition of a postgraduate qualification to their CV as worth its weight in gold, literally.

The average cost of a Master’s degree in English hovers around the £4,500 mark, depending on the institution, whilst the price the Mathematics equivalent is marginally higher. Vocational Master’s courses often cost a lot more. My ambitions of pursuing a career in journalism experienced a vicious setback when I realised that the qualification would cost me £8,000 in tuition alone.

With the hike in undergraduate tuition fees receiving vast amounts of media coverage, it seems that postgraduate students, despite their rise in number, have all but been forgotten. The undergraduate notion of a ‘student loan’ is a thing of the past for postgrads, for whom there is simply no such thing. The government provides no funding for Master’s courses and most are forced to take out commercial loans, whilst the lucky ones turn to their parents for financial support. Limited numbers of scholarships are available to the brightest and best students but, as is increasingly obvious, when a Master’s qualification is the norm, small pots of funding just aren’t enough.

As if this pressure on the postgraduate student’s purse wasn’t enough, it seems likely that Master’s courses are going to bear the brunt of further fee rises. With Master’s course fees currently remaining uncapped, they’re the obvious target for universities hoping to recoup funding lost through government university cuts. Despite the rise in undergraduate fees, they still remain capped at £9,000, and institutions hoping to top-up their coffers aren’t blind to the fact that postgraduate qualifications offer the crude potential for limitless cash.

So what are the consequences of neglecting postgraduate funding? Well, I can’t see that it will be long before postgraduate admissions become another barometer of social immobility in this country. Without postgraduate loans or a significant increase in the amount of funding available, Master’s courses are a privilege of the rich, leaving less economically able but potentially more academically capable students high and dry.

With their current cuts agenda, it’s understandable that the coalition government has, thus far, chosen to turn a blind-eye to the problem of postgraduate funding. This, however, does not mean that the present situation is sustainable in a fair society. With the competition for graduate jobs getting fiercer, the postgraduate funding gap needs to be filled before the prospect of employment becomes as clinical as a cost/benefit analysis.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Baking a Difference to British Life: An Interview with The Great British Bake Off's Holly Bell

UNLESS you’ve been hiding out on an anonymous planet for the past couple of years, you’ll have noticed that there’s been something of a baking revolution afoot in British kitchens. Cupcakes, sponges, pies, bread- we’re all at it. So much so that the final of the BBC television programme “The Great British Bake Off”, which has just finished its second series, notched up a massive 5 million viewers. It’s cute, it’s quaint, and it seems to be just what this country needs right now. Lifestyle caught up with the runner-up of this year’s show, Holly Bell, to see what all the fuss is about.

If one well-known newspaper columnist is to be believed, this is ‘Puddies for Hoodies’ at its finest. So does the baking phenomenon have anything to do with reuniting ‘Broken Britain’? “The summer of unrest that the UK experienced meant that people were kind of ripe for a bit of wholesome fun,” says Holly. That’s it in a nutshell. It’s just a really nice programme, a nice programme with lots of really normal, nice people. I enjoy watching MasterChef, but I enjoy watching it for the drama, as well as the foodie element. The Bake Off is pleasurable and not super-competitive. It’s quite gentle in its approach and I think that after the summer that the UK had it was actually perfect.”

Evidently, the London Riots act as a pertinent point of comparison for critics of the show. There’s no crystal clear solution to the problems that arose in August; this isn’t a race to ready, set, bake the recipe for social success and Cameron’s conundrum won’t be solved with sugar, butter, eggs, flour, a drop of vanilla essence. However, there’s no doubt that the GBBO has captured the imaginations of millions of Britons, some of whom would otherwise be watching Young, Dumb and Living off Mum.

The popularity of baking is also practical: “Part of it as well is that people don’t have as much money any more,”Holly continues. The viewing figures certainly point to a show which got people inspired to get back in the kitchen: “It grew a bit organically because it was the second series, but it’s been a storming success. The viewing figures are nuts. You don’t expect 3.9 million viewers for a first episode on BBC 2- I don’t think anyone expected it really. Everyone knew it would be successful as the production team are so slick and the way it’s run is just amazing but it does make you slightly quiver. You think “Really? That many people?!” When I go out people do come up to me, my first response is “How do they know who I am?” and then I realise, and I’m like “Oh, of course!”

The show is filmed in a marquee at Valentines Mansion and Gardens in Ilford, Essex. “It took six weeks to film, and we filmed eight episodes in six weeks. For the most part it was weekends, two days of filming and then you go home and practise for the next week. It was hard work, I’d never lie about that, but it was really enjoyable as well.”

Talking animatedly about the Great British Bake Off, mother-of-two Holly recalls learning plenty of baking lessons from both the judges, royal baker Paul Hollywood and the doyenne of home baking, Mary Berry, and the other contestants. “There was such a wealth of knowledge there. It was fantastic to have all these people that were so passionate about baking. I made some really good friends there as well. Jo, who won, I speak to almost every day. We get on really, really well, she’s lovely. Urvashi and Ian went out in the third week, but I really got on with them. Ian is hilarious; he used to have everyone in stitches. I’ve been out for lunch with Rob too. Everybody got on very well but obviously some people are more friendly that others.”

Perhaps the reason why people love baking is because they can improve on their mistakes and keep practising, but I imagine it must have been hard being judged on something that you love doing: “I don’t find criticism easy to take, I don’t think many people do, if they’re honest. It is hard, but you do have to take it on the chin. They are the experts, and even if I didn’t always agree, I would think “Well, you are an expert.”

“I read English at Liverpool University and I’d write an essay which I thought was fantastic and then I’d get the marks back and actually it wasn’t as fantastic as I thought. You look at it and go “Hang on a minute, you’re right, of course you’re right, you’re the expert! I think doing your best is a good way to look at it, but to do your best you also have to push yourself a little bit.” I ask about Jason, the 19-year-old contestant who was also a student and a member of his university’s Baking Society, and it appears that the show gave him the impetus he needed to kick-start his career. “He’s dropped out of university and is retraining as a chef. The show made him think “You know what, I want to follow my dreams,” she says. “I’m really impressed by him doing that. I think his age was a really positive thing because he hadn’t had years of “Oh you only do it this way, or you only do it that way” and I think that’s actually really refreshing.”

Anyone who watched the show will remember Holly’s perfectionism, turning out great bakes every week with very few mistakes. It might surprise a few to know that pie week was her favourite. “ I’m actually more of a savoury person than a sweet person,” she says. “I love anything with blue cheese and caramelised onions and I made a pie which was a Stilton, onion and potato pie and that is my kind of food. I also really enjoyed making pork pies, as that’s something I’d never, ever do at home.

I could talk about the Great British Bake Off forever, but the point of our chat was to work out what it is about the present moment that’s got people so into home baking. Is it nostalgia, I wonder? When our lives are flooded with technology, does baking bring us home and remind us of what we need in order to retain a sense of normality? “I’ve been really surprised by how many young people follow me on Twitter and by how many people in their early twenties are getting really into baking. In your teenage years you forget and then you come back to these things and there’s a sense of nostalgia. It’s heart-warming when you can do something that reminds you of home.

“University can be really tough. I really missed the familiarity of my hometown and my parents’ house, so I started to cook. I used to do big roast dinners on a Sunday for people in halls and I look back now and think about why I did it and I think “God, it’s so obvious”- I did it to recreate some kind of homely atmosphere, because halls can feel quite sterile.”

It begins to strike me that people bake at home because they desire to strike a balance between old and new. “People want their iPhones and iPads and they want to bake. It’s like there’s a sense of security from baking your own cakes at home and then being able to tweet about it afterwards! I hope that people continue to do the homely things that keep them grounded because it’s so easy to become wrapped up in technology.”

And there we have it: baking offers salvation from our crazy, mixed-up modern world, riots and all. But what does the future hold for Holly? “I’m writing a book at the moment and I am also in the process of setting up a cupcake baking and decorating school, which is exciting” she says. “I blog, and I tweet away and try and keep up with all of that. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, in a really good way though. I’m not complaining at all.”

Read Holly’s blog at www.recipesfromanormalmum.com and follow her on Twitter: @HollyBellMummy

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Wandering with the Mind

This piece was published in the Autumn 2011 issue of Razz My Berries magazine.

In an ideal, altruistic, utopian world, there would be no harm in letting your imagination explore the deepest recesses of daydream. But in today’s pressured social landscape, escaping into your thoughts, even just for a second, is a sign of weakness. The act of daydreaming implies that you’re somewhere other than where you’re meant to be; you’ve lost focus; you’ve fallen out of sync.

Ergo- I’m going to use this space to escape, and really imagine the kind of world that allows people to lose themselves in thought. Just for these brief words will I think about a society which values the benefits of the daydream to the individual.

Far from being a failure of mental discipline, daydreaming is a healthy way to explore long-term plans, dreams and goals that a pragmatist would never consider. Those in the know classify daydreaming as a lapse into ‘task-unrelated thoughts’, which sounds like a strangely paradoxical way of categorising the uncategorisable.

A recent article in the New York Times had a lot to say on this topic. It made the very interesting point that we live by the mantra: ‘I think, therefore I am’; we should know what is going on in our own minds. But when you think about it, hell, you might even daydream about it, then you’d have to admit that daydreams are evidence that we cannot control the seemingly meaningless meanderings of our brains. Daydreams are our mind’s way of telling us that we don’t know everything; we need a little subconscious to point us in the right direction.

So why is daydreaming so fundamental, particularly in our modern, busy lives? Well, believe it or not, I would say that it helps us to put things in perspective. When we daydream, our minds never drift off into the sensational Hollywood dramas that seem to come alive at night. What they do is give us a space within which we can consider the potential consequences of potential actions. It’s a healthy space, a ‘trial run’, if you like.

In many facets of life, we are told that we should only entertain the tangible and the pragmatic, we don’t trust what we cannot see for ourselves. Daydreaming contradicts this. A recent study found that above a certain point, money, ambition and status cannot provide happiness, so we must ask: what can? Is the answer to that which is one of life’s great conundrums actually calm, vision and hope? Is daydreaming the portal through which we gain a sense of who we are and what we could become?

Perhaps- at least, given the perpetually increasing stress levels of the population, we should probably give it a go. As much as daydreaming is a subject of derision for many, it could be, even if only symptomatically, what our individual bodies and social body are craving. When we consider it at the most basic level, not allowing your mind the opportunity to slip into daydream is a sign of over-activity. Time is a precious commodity, but what doesn’t seem immediately obvious to many is that time is precious whether it’s being filled or not.

I am a victim, as I’m sure are many, of the feeling that empty time is time wasted. In fact, I still struggle with the concept of doing ‘nothing’. But nothing is never nothing; nothing is the space which your mind needs in order to sit back and, ironically, to capitalise on who you are. After all, each and every one of us is more than an employee. The daydream allows the story of our lives to unfurl in ways which don’t tend to happen when we’re consciously thinking about what we’re ‘supposed’ to be doing.

So next time you’re feeling half-baked and frazzled from work and sleep deprivation, don’t be afraid to take time out to think. Chances are your mind will wander, daydreams will form, and light will be shed on the problems that seem unfathomable in the conscious bubble of daily life.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Review: Tartuffe at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter

Roger McGough’s adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe

Exeter’s Northcott Theatre, Tuesday 11th- Saturday 15th October 2011

IT takes a lot to make a 300-strong audience roar with laughter at virtually every line, but that was the feat accomplished by the English Touring Theatre’s production of Tartuffe, which has been adapted by Roger McGough and shows this week at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre. The premise of Molière’s play is wonderfully simple: An imposter, Tartuffe, worms his way into an aristocratic French family, beguiling the grandmother and her son. The others, however, are not fooled, and the ensuing action encompasses their calamitous struggle to expose Tartuffe’s trickery.

The performance, in a word, is hilarious. One only wishes that the review could rhyme too. The English Touring Theatre’s actors clearly revel in their roles. McGough’s adaptation of Molière’s classic is composed entirely in rhyming couplets, apart from Tartuffe’s lines, which imbue the play with a drama that is at once flamboyant and fluid. The raucous rhyming script pushes the action along at an energetic pace, with the cast teasing every nuance from McGough’s lines. Annabelle Dowler, who plays interfering housekeeper Dorine, puts in what can only be described as a stonking effort, behaving as a go-between and mediator between the rival sides of the family.

But that’s not to say that the play’s 17th century origins are lost. Just when the characters seem in period, in swoops a quip that brings it bang up to date: as Elmir tricks Tartuffe into ravishing her in a bid to prove his deceit, she begs “I’m lying on my back/ like an open sandwich, a savory snack.” Moments like these are frequent and side-splitting, a roaring audience doing justice to McGough’s flair for encapsulating the sardonic. Cleante, another Dorine-like character with a penchant for delivering pitch-perfect comic wisdom, played by Simon Coates, times his lines beautifully: “What is it about this interloper/ That goads you into faux pas after faux pas?”

Much of the performance’s humour comes from Moliere’s cynicism of religious institutions, a viciously funny current which landed the writer in more than a little hot water during his career. Despite being a favourite of Louis XIV, Molière was often critical of authority, weaving his skepticism through the words of his work. Tartuffe justifies his abhorrent actions with lines such as “I do it purely for heaven and the good of my neighbour”, ironically juxtaposed against his adulterous pursuit of the voluptuous Elmir.

For a play that caused uproar when it was first published, the union of Molière and McGough in Tartuffe now seems wonderfully relevant. There isn’t a review in the world that could do justice to this sparkling play- perhaps a mark of only the very best productions.

This review was published in Exeposé on Monday 24th October 2011.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A foodie favourite: Mini Magoo's Granola

For many, of whom I am one, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. We feel lost without it, bereft of our deserved morning bowlful. To this end, when I discover a new item of breakfast paraphernalia, it yields my full attention.

It was on a Saturday at Borough Market that I discovered the latest wonder-food which warrants a mention. It is granola, yes, but not as you know it.

Former make-up artist Maria Luigi set up her very own cottage industry a few years ago. Mini Magoo’s (named after an ex-boyfriend’s pet name, no less!) makes muesli, granola and porridge, but it’s the granola that I’ve really fallen for. It comes in four flavours; ginger, orange, cherries and blueberries, and all are crunchy, tasty and full of wholesome, scrumptiously satiating goodness.

All of Mini Magoo’s products are 100% organic and handmade, and Maria has kept the business relatively small to avoid losing the integrity that she presently has with her small selection of buyers. The granola flavours are pitch-perfect, and incredibly versatile without being encumbered by the blandness that sometimes leaves supermarket granolas bereft. Mini Magoo’s Ginger granola with a dollop of yoghurt has to be one of the best ways to start a day, whilst the orange flavour keeps me in concentration mode between meals.

At £5.50 for a 400g bag, it’s not the cheapest of breakfast items, but if you can’t give yourself a lift in the morning, when can you? Something tells me that Mini Magoo’s granola won’t stay my breakfasting and snacking secret for long.

Mini Magoo’s, available from Borough Market on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Granola, all flavours, £5.50 for 400g. www.minimagoo.com.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Review: Richard III at the Old Vic

I never thought I’d see Kevin Spacey in the flesh, let alone with a cushion up the back of his shirt and a party blower in his mouth. But then I also wouldn’t have said that I’d be watching him perform the final London showing of Richard III at the Old Vic on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Last Sunday, both of those assumptions were blown from the proverbial water.

It quickly became obvious that this was going to be a spectacular, stellar production. Directed by Sam Mendes, Spacey and the rest of the cast keep the audience in thralls throughout. Richard is gnarled, bitter and angry, with a warped sense of humour. His psychopathic, relentless murdering spree is interpreted, in my mind, to absolute perfection; the Duke’s asides are vicious quips, and Richard’s madness is amplified by a sustained and disconcerting bent. If there was any doubt about the calibre of this production, then they were assuredly allayed during Richard’s early scene with Lady Anne, played by Annabel Scholey, which takes place around her husband’s dead body. Spacey is disgustingly brilliant, and grotesque in the extreme. Richard can be anything to anyone, and it would take an actor of Spacey’s versatility to fulfill the role to the dizzying standard it deserves.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III

The modern costumes, as in many contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, contribute something refreshing and put the actors at ease. There’s a aura of cool- ironic really, given the inevitable sense of foreboding. The clothes don’t wear the characters, but they definitely contribute to our understanding of them. Richard’s mechanical leg brace is rigid- a bold step and a sign that this is a production that is intent on getting the tone just right.

The staging really is second to none, and particularly resonates when Richard’s victims return in his dreams the night before the Battle of Bosworth. The Last Supper-esque staging sees Richard and Henry, Earl of Richmond, at each end of a table, with Richard’s victims, including Rivers and Buckingham, sat along one side. Each gives their animated, impassioned speech, building to a crescendo of wild torment for Richard as his eventual assailant sleeps peacefully at the other end of the table. Such vivid, clear arrangements as these punctuate the performance, leaving the audience in no doubt as to the proceedings. This is an accessible play, made all the more so by the unrivalled direction of Mendes and the sheer durability of Spacey’s character.

In an interview with Mendes and Spacey entitled “Exploring the dark side”, Spacey comments that “Richard is an incredible character because he does all the things he sets out to do and says he will, and is so delighted with the outcome that he constantly ups the ante”. To play such a character requires the actor to “go to places you generally don’t want to go, examine all the things in your own life that you regret [and] unearth all the shit”. Indeed, Richard speaks directly to his audience for the duration of the play, creating a co-conspiratory dynamic whereby the viewer feels a part of his actions. Richard is the Shakespearian opposite of Hamlet, the meek prevaricator, who never can quite do the deed.

But for such a dark and challenging character, Richard sure provides a whole lot of laughs. I can’t think of a villain who excites as much sympathy and as many smiles. His dark, deep humour presents a satire is so unbelievable, that we begin to believe it. The Duke’s twisted sentiments are so tyrannical that they defy the audience to follow along, and yet we do. And, I suspect, this has much to do with the astonishingly brilliant brutality of Spacey’s performance than anything else.

As the play came to its end, glittering in rapturous applause, Kevin Spacey addressed his audience as himself. There was a minute’s silence for those lost in the tragedies that occurred on 9/11, and a unified audience were reminded that coming together as a community, theatrical or otherwise, is the only way that we’re going to “beat those fuckers”.