THE VOICEOVER woman - let’s call her Belinda - started by purring at us like a sex kitten on a chat line. And I’d thought this was about two restaurants opening.
Restaurants at War: The Battle for Manchester was all about the BBC trying to make a drama not out of crisis but out of an entirely welcome and uncontroversial development in the city
As the programme progressed her voice bobsleighed through hysterical and alien before settling on Sat Nav, ‘Turn left for Mr and Mrs Best, real Northerners to show we at the BBC value all our viewers. Turn right at chef bent over crazy dish squeezing creamy stuff from a teet’.
At the end of the hour long docupantry Belinda returned to sex-kitten – I bet she was in a bikini pointing at her phone. She whispered us back next week for more action, breathing the name “Rrrrrrrogan” like it was culinary Viagra and the name 'Byrrrrrrne' as though it were seedy pillow talk.
Restaurants at War: The Battle for Manchester was all about the BBC trying to make a drama not out of crisis but out of an entirely welcome and uncontroversial development in the city: the opening of two fine dining restaurants, a reinvention of The French in The Midland Hotel by Simon Rogan, and the other, a new venture by Aiden Byrne at Manchester House.
Of course being uncontroversial and entirely welcome isn’t enough for the Beeb anymore. The station isn’t so much Auntie these days as Nympho, prepared to do anything to get noticed. Every now and then during this programme I couldn't tell whether I was watching a spoof documentary or a real one.
Thus the finest documentary makers in the world are now ducking and weaving to make interesting but harmless subjects, challenging or even nasty, and thus presumably more interesting.
Sadly for the Beeb the closest we came to war between our protagonists was Rogan at one point gloating in pure Estuarine English, with something like, “He ain’t got nuffink on me, I got two Michelin stars, what’s he got?” He then grinned in what I now call roguish Rogan.
But then Rogan lost the roguish and went Rupert the Bear.
“But his food is very different from our food,” he murmured, “and if he’s a success and we’re a success, we can feed off each over, and it will make the city a better place and we can all achieve our turnover targets.”
Everyone round the Midland Hotel War Room (aka The Wyvern bar) nodded. It was an entirely reasonable thing to say. Belinda sounded sulky as she moved us on, with a voiceover reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher.
All the fight came from Mrs Best and Anibral Cabral, the ex-restaurant manager.
Regular customer Mrs Best and hubby, three decades visiting The French and counting, was uncertain whether fancy modern tasting menus and the like were really the scene for the vaudeville atmosphere and established a la carte menu of The French (Est. 1903).
At one point she had a gentle British row with Rogan who went roguish again as she suggested he was all wrong and he suggested she'd have to lump it. “He’ll fall flat on his face,” she said in an aside to camera.
Cabral wept on his leaving day and came back to rubbish the interior fit-out of the re-invented French. The weeping was painful, showing real distress and anger, an excruciating aspect of what is now deemed entertainment in BBC peephole TV.
Not to Mr Cabral's approval
Far worse was the rubbishing of one young chef who clearly couldn’t balance demands of family life and professional life. Did the producers not think he and his family might watch this? The Beeb put him in the stocks and let crap get thrown at him. He wasn’t even given a right to reply, instead we had Belinda talking about him 'resigning' over a sequence of the condemned man sweeping up.
Overall though, the programme, which featured more Rogan than Byrne as it closed with the former opening his gaffe, was a thoroughly enjoyable hour’s viewing. Byrne gets more time next week.
The people featured, many well-known in Manchester, behaved according to character as the circumstances dictated.
No-nonsense Rogan spent a lot of the time sighing and holding his head in his hands as nothing particularly went wrong aside from a clumsy cabbage slicing incident. Adam Reid, his main man at The French, was steady as it goes, firm of character. Aiden Byrne came across as very human, worrying about the investment and faith shown in him.
Tim Bacon of Living Ventures, the one showing Byrne all that faith, exuded his usual Alpha-male confidence, funny one minute, angry about dangerous light fittings and a rubbish video the next. Michael Magrane, general manager of the Midland, was the perfect host, smiling, conciliatory, making sure all the viewers were aware of the balancing act between fine dining and making money.
Mark Garner even put in an appearance at the opening night for The French. Our publisher, aka Gordo, was reasonable too. He must have been really drunk.
Manchester House take on a Manchester Tart
Ruth Allan, who also writes for us and was his dining companion for the evening, managed to introduce a tidsy bit of actual judgement from a professional writer, admiring Rogan’s simplicity with food over Byrne’s complexity. I swear I heard voice-over Belinda sigh ecstatically.
But even Ruth's statement was hardly controversial, this wasn’t a war or a battle. It wasn’t even a duel. It was entertaining light entertainment with a highly selective reveal of how two top end restaurants go about opening.
It should have been called How To Open A Fancy Restaurant. Of course, Belinda might have had trouble sexing that up.
At least The French and Manchester House have gained a load of free publicity. Since they're both wonderful this is good news. Apparently the phones at both places have not stopped since the programme aired. Even before the show went out there were several months of weekend waiting lists at both.
Mrs Best might have to eat her words.
Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchester, concludes on Easter Monday, on BBC2, 8pm. Watch here.
Our review of The French here
Our review of Manchester House here
You can follow Jonathan Schofield on @jonathschofield
The French - not exactly Chateaubriand