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Weekend Spy: Playing with Food

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Weekend Spy: Playing with Food
"Fastest crew in the northern hemisphere" says Nicky, editor of UKTV Food's Great Food Live!, "...when it comes to eating food."

Five years ago, some thought that a 24-hour food channel wouldn't work. But while food shows were popular, no-one could have predicted the success and massive ratings Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver would go on to achieve. And who'd have thought that the BBC and ITV would have a fight on their hands over some chefs on a Saturday morning?

Presenter of GFL!, Jeni Barnett, enlightens me on why the channel works: "When Nick Thorogood (then UKTV head of lifestyle, currently multi-channel controller at Five US and Life) started this channel, I said to him: 'How's it going to survive on daily basis - food?'. And he said 'People have to eat every day, don't they?' and that's the key. That you're giving people the possibility of doing something with a tin of beans or buying pheasant or using cranberries or kumquats... using ingredients. Even I use stuff that I never would have before."

The public is clearly very interested in food, and increasingly in different ways to engage with the subject of food - not just through the traditional "chat and chop" formats, but through documentary and reality programming, as well as multi-platform.

This has helped UKTV Food's brand become an incredibly strong proposition. In September this year, UKTV Food's website overtook the BBC Food site in popularity for the first time, achieving a 10% market share, against the 9.63% the BBC Food site dropped to, having held the top spot since it began.

The UKTV Food site is forever active with the ideas and contributions for the viewers, but the major success has been in the interaction with shows like Local Food Heroes. The aim of the show was to search for Britain's ultimate food "hero". A user-generated site was created in July where viewers could post reviews and vote for local food suppliers to create Britain's largest directory of local food businesses. After voting, direct mail packs were sent out to 4,000 nominated local food suppliers containing posters, point of sale postcards and window stickers, giving nominees the chance to market their business and UKTV Food's awards scheme. With 300 items of regional PR coverage also being recorded, total reach of the campaign to date has been estimated at 40 million adults nationwide. All this before the main series began in October.

Not shy of commercial ventures, the channel has also done a deal with Laithwaites wine and created its own wine club, with editorial and shopping opportunities on screen and online. A two-year deal has also recently been struck which will see UKTV provide MSN's video portal with 20 three-minute video clips from its Food and Style channels.

So back to GFL!, where I am sitting with editor Nicky and presenter Jeni before she heads into make-up. Jeni has been on TV for a number of years - I remember her back in the early days of TV-AM - but she's done many shows since then, a lot of them live. So what's the best thing about presenting this programme? "The boys, their cooking, the team... it's a lovely team, and new food every day. I'd like to tell you that we hate each other, but we are a dysfunctional family. She (Nicky) comes down the stairs and I think: 'My god I've done something wrong', I swear a lot, eat a lot and the crew eats a lot. We are a fantastic team."

They certainly seem to be. And calm too. The time is 12.15 and the show airs live every weekday at 12.30, so I am surprised the people around me are not a little more frenetic. "We all have our 'frenetic-isms'," says Jeni. "Lovely people all underneath this lovely creature (she says, indicating towards Nicky). Because a school's only as good as its headmaster - and we're a very naughty school. Bit like the Lavender Hill Mob meets St Trinians - on a daily basis."

Have Jeni's feelings towards food changed in the five years of working on the show?: "I don't cook when I go home. I get sick to death of it, so last night I had runner beans with a bit of butter and garlic. I use extra virgin olive oil in my salad but not in my cooking. I've got a whole selection of very nice peppers and salts. I know a great deal about wine, even though I don't drink it. I now am an absolute pain to go out for dinner with because most restaurants stink after you've eaten in this place."

My mouth is really beginning to salivate now with all this talk of food. I deliberately starved myself this morning so I could appreciate what I ate here, but the ladies re-iterate that I probably won't get a look in when the cameras stop rolling. "Have you got heels on?" Jeni asks. "You'll never survive. The crew always have forks in their pockets, because they come and dig up at the end. Sugar and sweet things always go very quickly." They have Hazelnut Torte on the show today. I may be trampled upon.

But surely with the vast array of chefs and styles on the show, there are things Jeni and the crew don't like? "I don't like sour cocktails - I know, that's very luxurious, isn't it? So I hate all those," Jeni says. "It was only once, a long time ago, Simon Rimmer made Stargazy Pie (traditional Cornish dish), which is a pile of fish with the eyes still in, baked in a pie looking up at the sky. And everything about it.... the smell, the taste, the look.... but the crew ate it."

What about bloopers or major accidents on air?: "It's a live programme, so there's sneezing, coughing, whizzers that break, and sauces go over the place. We did have a wonderful moment quite recently where Brian Turner was cooking and we didn't have any gas left. That was quite funny. It's live and that's what makes the programme... and she (Nicky) doesn't know what I am going to say or do next," says Jeni. Nicky interjects: "I do, I know when you're misbehaving." Jeni replies: "That's the thing, people do learn to second guess. If you've eaten testicles, they know that I'm going to mention balls and faces and eating."

So what's the future for the show, and does Jeni think she'll stay with it? "You can't do a show like this unless you're in love with it. And you'll see when you come in, it is a team effort and I never get tired of saying that. I am the mouth-piece for a massive amount of work. Even now I am surprised - only this week we had a pheasant tandoori - never been done before." And does she ever get any hassle from the public? "Every day I'm harangued by people asking me 'Do I tell the truth?', 'Does Jim really exist?', (Jeni's husband, who she makes regular references to on the show), 'Is it live?'"

Well I was there and it WAS live. Soon the pace picks up. In between waltzing Jeni into make-up, we are whisked into the "engine room" to watch the first part of the show from the gallery. And suddenly, everyone's in hyperdrive.

The first part of the show goes well. Mike Robinson, of Heaven’s Kitchen at Large, cooks a teal (type of duck), which we can smell upstairs in the gallery. Jeni is her cheeky and forthright self, making the crew in the gallery giggle and guffaw as she comes out with the next gem, with Nicky probably just hoping she ain't gonna swear. During the programme Jeni names checks me (by profession) and points out how good the show is at teaching viewers new cooking terms: "To the viewers at home and the lovely journalist we have watching... this is what we do, we teach you things!" Indeed.

Almost there! Your clueword can be found in an interview with a star of ITV's recent technological three-part drama Mobile.

As soon as we are off air, we move down to the studio floor to watch from there. The delicious smell of the teal is even stronger now, and my stomach is even hungrier. The teal has of course been demolished by the crew and its meagre remains whisked away as quick changes are made, and frantic home-economists flit about with bowls, ingredients and utensils while a pre-recorded VT piece is playing.

Nicky tells me that while most of the chefs are lovely, some (no names) are really particular about how their food is prepared. The crew get in at 7.30am each day to prepare, as do the home economists. Imagine chopping up smelly fish or onions at that time of the morning?

So the floor. There's three cameras - surprisingly all operated by women, apart from the jib, (that's the technical term for the camera that's mounted on a long, manoeuvrable boom or crane-like device), which is operated by a taller, apparently well-paid and highly-skilled male operator. Nicky tells me later that many of the crew have been with show since day one.

The second half continues and we have the uniquely-crazy Nancy Lam cooking a lamb curry, and mixologist Wayne Collins preparing some Halloween themed cocktails. When these are done, I go for my feed. They weren't wrong about diving in quick - though I did manage to get something. Quite a full and very hot mouthful of Nancy's curry, thus burning my mouth! But fear not, Nancy is already handing me a very potent cocktail to try, which she makes sure I hand back, leaving her to happily tuck into the remainder off-camera, as we return to live TV.

Next up is Silvena Rowe's Hazelnut Torte, which turns into a geo-sociology lesson, with Silvena telling all about the origins of the cake and her Bulgarian background. Strangely, there's quite a lot of the cake left to try once we're off air, but I know that one mouthful has just added 5lbs to me.

It soon becomes clear how Jeni copes with the whole rich-food-daily thing. She's keen to get off set and "go running", and so gets a little tetchy when she is held back to do pre-recorded messages to camera saying: "Happy 5th Birthday UKTV Food."

Before she goes I have a chance to ask her what else she's got planned, career wise. "Oh the memoirs. Books and a food range. I want to write a book called 'Recipes What I Have Nicked'." A great title. Watch this space.

UKTV Food is five years old on Sunday November 5.
Great Food Live! is on UKTV Food at 12.30 every weekday.

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