Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Day 229

The British reaction to Jamie Oliver in 2005 was embarrassingly messianic, but I'm still a fan of his TV campaigns. Namely the ones that condemn schools for jamming eggshells and poster paint and badger droppings into the greedy fat mouths of "our" kids. I love the ambition, the drama and the humour, and I love Jamie Oliver's straightforward, unabashed faith in Gandhi's foolproof proposal: "be the change you want to see in the world". It makes happy viewing.

But even though Jamie Oliver is as proactive as he ever was, there's a feeling that he's no less naïve. I know that's a really patronising thing to say, especially coming from someone like me, but he's on TV, he's open to judgement. And the judgement is that sometimes he takes too optimistic an approach.

For instance, last month I watched Jamie's Dream School. It follows 20 tearaway teenagers who have already left school (with no flying colours at all, not even mauve). Jamie puts them in a building and funnels celebrities into the building in order to teach them.


The celebrities aren't teachers. They're TV presenters, politicians, actors, athletes, and so on. Inevitably, this means that they're out of their element -- completely. None of them know how to handle the kids, and some of them are actually pretty rude to the kids, in an attempt to be cool. In one excutiating scene, David Starkey calls a child "fat" unprovoked, presumably over-eager to make a pre-emptive strike. Starkey then proceeds to lie to everyone that the kid insulted him first. Starkey forgets that he was filmed, and it is shown on camera that Starkey insulted a kid who then insulted him in response. But Starkey continues to lie about it. "He insulted me first!" Bewildering.

Anyway, since that's the kind of "teaching" the kids have to deal with, they have no problem settling into their natural state of extremely loud and desperate chaos. It's easy to think they're all just lazy and can't be bothered to learn, but from what I could see it was mostly the case that they were extremely frustrated by a) the incompetence of their teachers and b) the bad behaviour of the class as a unit. All they needed to do was cut out their tongues Titus Andronicus style. Simon Callow could've taught them that. He was there, after all. "Teaching".

But unfortunately there was no tongue cutting, and at no point in the 6-episode series did the rabble learn discipline. So the project couldn't even leave the ground. It just dragged itself along, born flightless.

As for the drama aspect of Jamie's Dream School, it was repetitive, and nobody seemed to grow. And the drama overwhelmed the education almost all of the time. At one point, Alastair Campbell, trying to teach politics, didn't notice a perfect bit of potential in his class. There were two girls, one arguing for the creation of LGBT youth clubs, and one arguing against. Each side was so passionate that they almost had a punch up. The result was a big ole telling off, and the camera following them hungrily into the playground, where they screamed at one another.

Why didn't Alastair Campbell show them some of the bickering in the House of Commons? Why didn't he point out that their unruly passion can be, and IS, politics?

All that was achieved by Jamie's Dream School was that it raised awareness of the country's nasty, screamy, bored, neglected teenagers, but we know about them anyway. There's one over there, look. But Jamie's Dream School gave us an excuse to really be snobby about them. Hurrah.

We can also be snobby about Americans, not that we ever weren't, because Jamie's been getting back into his comfort zone: food revolutions. Yesterday his newest series began, and we got to blink like startled deer at Los Angeles, where kids are literally eating mushed-up cow bone washed in ammonia.

The problem is, the schools won't let him in to have a nosy around. I think that's because of his optimism again. He's always bemused as to why some people don't want him to help. Because he really does just want to help. But others don't see it like that. He's making a TV programme; it's gotta be entertaining, and everyone knows that means stirring up drama.

And in America, TV goes to extremes to be entertaining, especially reality TV. Epilepsy-inducing rapidness, Hans Zimmer-esque incidental music, cartoon sound effects, the same reaction shots used again and again - all desperate to the extreme. Watch, watch, watch, look, look, look, stare, stare, drool. That's what American TV shows look like to me. All about entertainment, and never about integrity. So if that's what Americans expect from TV shows, how can they think a TV show maker wants to help them more than he wants to make a dramatic story?

The first episode of Jamie's Food Revolution Hits Hollywood created minimal attention with the LA locals, and I can't see that changing. But he's got the rest of the series, and Channel 4 wouldn't be showing it if nothing happened in it, so we may as well stick around and expect Jamie Oliver's trademark optimism to finally kick some blubber.

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