Friday, 27 March 2009

'At Least He's Doing Something': Jamie Oliver and 'Broken Britain'

Last Sunday, in the Observer newspaper, Jamie Oliver was announced to be the Observer Food Monthly's Food Personality of the Year. Yesterday, the Guardian newspaper declared him to be 'the people's chef' and 'a proper national treasure'. As these plaudits come in the wake of last year's Jamie’s Ministry of Food, Joanne Hollows and Steve Jones reflect on the significance of the show.

In autumn 2008, during our casual readings of the blogosphere, Jamie Oliver was a persistent presence. There was a seemingly endless stream of articles and user-generated comment about his latest series, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, and the wider significance of Jamie’s role in public life. In particular, a consensus appeared to have emerged that, unlike British people in general - and unlike the Government in particular - at least Jamie ‘was doing something’ about a range of social problems.

In our current work we’re trying to make sense of both the series and the reception of it. We’re exploring how Jamie Oliver’s celebrity image has been transformed. He is no longer simply a lifestyle expert within the culinary field but increasingly operates as a moral entrepreneur involved with a range of social enterprises from his charitable ‘Fifteen’ foundation (the subject of Jamie’s School Dinners) to his more recent attempt to teach the whole of Britain basic cookery skills to improve the health of the nation.

If Jamie’s Ministry of Food focused on the ‘problem’ of a British people without culinary skills, damaging their health with a diet of junk food and takeaways, then it also represented a particular portion of the British people – the working class – as the source and embodiment of this problem. We’ve been struck by the similarities between the show and earlier forms of ‘social exploration’ conducted by middle-class reformers among the working class. There are also similarities between the aesthetic strategies used in the programme and those found in the cycle of British social realist films from the late 1950s and early 1960s. These help us to understand how the series works to represent contemporary working-class cultures as pathological and in need of intervention and ‘reform’.

Finally, we’re interested in how Jamie’s Ministry of Food articulates with a wider series of concerns that are being played out in the political sphere about ‘Broken Britain’, aided by Tory leader David Cameron and The Sun newspaper. The series provided a focus for debates about the state of the nation which had been played out in the media and political rhetoric during 2007-8. Jamie Oliver’s willingness to ‘cut through the crap’ and ‘get things done’ resonated with the notion that Britain was a society in need of healing, and that local and national government were incapable of remedying this situation. We want to suggest that the representations in the show of fast food, obese bodies, sink estates, and poverty of aspiration and welfare-dependence delineated a general crisis which demanded direct action by an inspirational figure. In this way, the show legitimated Jamie’s new role as a moral and social entrepreneur who was an inspiration to the nation.
(Photo Credit: Matlock. Permissions.)


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