THE OLD MENU AND THE SEA

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

WE first en­coun­tered Matthew Evans in 2005 in Heat in the Kitchen, the five-part fly-on­the-wall se­ries that looked at why the restau­rant critic, then ar­guably the most prom­i­nent in Aus­tralia, had sud­denly been rein­vented as a god.

Pro­ducer Ruth Cullen’s cam­eras en­tered the kitchens of three am­bi­tious Syd­ney chefs while fol­low­ing the finicky Fair­fax fault-finder as he did his rounds. The se­ries dra­mat­i­cally re­vealed the daily dilem­mas in­volved in run­ning a highly rated restau­rant — and the pro­tracted heart at­tack chefs ex­pe­ri­enced when Evans turned up, some­times with­out warn­ing, tak­ing notes and in­ter­ro­gat­ing wait­ers.

Evans pre­sented him­self as a model of rea­soned equi­lib­rium, de­cent and mod­est, if a pedes­trian per­former on cam­era. In some ways, his deco­rum was re­as­sur­ing given the amount of para­noia he cre­ated in kitchens. Thank­fully, he didn’t fancy him­self as a so­cial com­men­ta­tor ap­peal­ing to a myth­i­cal ur­ban life­style they way his pre­de­ces­sor, re­nais­sance Syd­neysider Leo Schofield, once grandiosely did.

Un­ex­pect­edly, Evans reap­peared a few years later, fol­low­ing the huge suc­cess of Net­work Ten’s MasterChef, in SBS’s Gourmet Farmer. Em­bark­ing on a new life in ru­ral Tas­ma­nia, he was on a mis­sion to re­mind the su­per­mar­ket gen­er­a­tion about where food re­ally came from, or in­deed where it should come from, as well as the value of home­grown pro­duce.

The show’s premise was almost iden­ti­cal to that of Hugh Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall’s Chan­nel 4 docu­d­rama se­ries Es­cape to River Cot­tage, in which the cook quit the bus­tle of London to live as a small­holder in a for­mer game­keeper’s cot­tage in Dorset. His aim was also self-suf­fi­ciency; along the way he be­came fa­mous and very rich.

As Evans’s show de­vel­oped into a per­ma­nent part of SBS’s yearly sched­ule he seemed to have been hav­ing just as much fun as Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall in trans­form­ing his col­lec­tion of mucky cowsheds and weedy gar­den beds into a wel­com­ing rus­tic foodie’s venue in the gor­geous town of Cygnet. And as it de­vel­oped I be­came rather fond of this mod­est pro­gram. It’s a lovely ex­am­ple of just how hy­bridised the re­al­ity fac­tual TV for­mat has be­come: a travel show with some su­perbly pho­tographed Tas­ma­nian scenery, a foodie se­ries with cook­ing tips, de­mon- stra­tions and recipes, and an in­trigu­ing per­sonal life-changer pro­gram.

As we await another sea­son from Pug­gle Farm, Evans has been busy film­ing a provoca­tive three-part se­ries high­light­ing the com­plex truth about the seafood we con­sume. The Es­sen­tial Me­dia se­ries is di­rected by Stephen Oliver, the idio­syn­cratic and clever film­maker who gave us the ir­rev­er­ent Chateau Chun­der: A Wine Revo­lu­tion, the re­veal­ing The Se­cret of Euro­vi­sion and the de­light­ful Skippy: Aus­tralia’s First Su­per­star, the story of how the crime-fight­ing TV mar­su­pial con­quered the world.

In his new se­ries, we see Evans as mil­i­tant cru­sader in baggy jeans and a crum­pled khaki shirt, feisty and a lit­tle pushy but never un­man­nerly, ex­as­per­ated and, for a for­mer critic, of­ten lost for words, but grimly de­ter­mined as he launches a cam­paign around seafood la­belling. And at the same time he con­fronts some of his most cher­ished be­liefs about food, na­ture and the Aussie “good life”.

Evans some­what rhetor­i­cally asks a lot of ques­tions, not sur­prised that many cor­po­ra­tions and even celebrity chefs refuse to en­gage with his quizzi­cal in­quiries, shout­ing at one point in despair, “All I want is to start a con­ver­sa­tion.”

In the first episode he pon­ders the con­se­quences of our ad­dic­tion to prawns, once a treat for spe­cial oc­ca­sions but now one of our most popular seafood choices. What is the real cost of how they are pro­duced? And with more than 70 per cent of our seafood im­ported, does sus­tain­abil­ity come a dis­tant sec­ond to the in­creas­ing de­mands of com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion?

This is TV as so­cial worker, an in­creas­ingly common vari­a­tion on a theme, putting the med- ium in the ser­vice of good causes as a kind of rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a col­lec­tive so­cial con­scious­ness. As me­dia aca­demic Frances Bon­ner, au­thor of the defin­ing study of TV talk­ers Per­son­al­ity Pre­sen­ters: Tele­vi­sion’s In­ter­me­di­aries with View­ers, has writ­ten, hosts such as Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall, Jamie Oliver, Monty Don and now Evans can be seen as popular rep­re­sen­ta­tives of this moral conscience. They en­ter­tain­ingly take a po­si­tion shared by a small sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion and cam­paign to ad­vance it more widely.

As pre­sen­ters they work as so­cial in­ter­me­di­aries to pros­e­ly­tise for a par­tic­u­lar eth­i­cally based “art of liv­ing”. And rather than gain cred­i­bil­ity by as­so­ci­a­tion with the good cause, they ex­tend their ex­ist­ing cred­i­bil­ity through it.

It rep­re­sents a rel­a­tively new form of TV — the cam­paign­ing form, some­times called “celebrity in­ter­ven­tion shows”. For almost 30 years, of course, food pre­sen­ters in par­tic­u­lar have spo­ken evan­gel­i­cally about the prepa­ra­tion of fresh foods, and most re­cently sus­tain­abil­ity and eth­i­cal sourc­ing of in­gre­di­ents. Though just as many, some more pop­u­larly, have flouted the ag­gres­sive in­ter­ven­tion­ists, such as Jen­nifer Pater­son and Clarissa Dick­son-Wright of Two Fat Ladies fame, and of course Nigella Law­son.

But we well know th­ese in­ter­ven­tion­ists are hardly tra­di­tional kinds of do-good­ers; they tend to be cheeky, mis­chievous, of­ten comic, en­ter­tain­ers, some of the best com­mu­ni­ca­tors on the plasma, with a pro­found un­der­stand­ing of the im­me­di­acy and ephemeral ac­tiv­ity of TV.

TV atom­ises and com­part­men­talises in­for­ma­tion. View­ers hap­pily ig­nore its almost lim­it­less ca­pac­ity to ma­nip­u­late, to wrench from con­text, and its re­sis­tance to units of mean­ing larger than the sound bite or the short grab.

“I was very aware of the need to make this en­ter­tain­ing as well as in­for­ma­tive,” Oliver says. “There is no way you can mo­bilise peo­ple power, which is es­sen­tially what we are try­ing to do, with­out get­ting them to emotionally con­nect with the story. Ul­ti­mately the is­sue is all about try­ing to im­prove la­belling laws on seafood, which didn’t sound very ex­cit­ing at first, so we had to work out how to hook the au­di­ence into the rea­sons be­hind what I hope ap­pears in the end to be blind­ingly ob­vi­ous. But I al­ways try to keep telling my­self it is so much more ef­fec­tive to show, not tell.”

The se­ries works so well be­cause Oliver and Evans un­der­stand TV at­tracts view­ers through prac­ti­cal in­ter­est, brief flashes of con­tent, emo­tional ap­peal and, in­creas­ingly, celebrity voyeurism and schaden­freude. Our in­ter­ven­tion­ists, of­ten con­fronting com­plex sci­en­tific no­tions, use the same nar­ra­tive ideas as fic­tional TV, re­lat­ing is­sues to every­day ex­pe­ri­ence and, of course, en­ter­tain­ing us with ref­er­ence to un­usual facts, cre­at­ing a pos­i­tive sen­sa­tion­al­ism.

And that’s what Evans does here as pre­sen­ter. Nor­mally a dry, rather wry, phleg­matic character, here he’s con­stantly on the move be­fore the of­ten hand-held cam­eras of cin­e­matog­ra­phers Paul Costello and Aaron Smith, bustling and hus­tling, seem­ingly never with time to change out of those baggy blue jeans and khaki long-sleeved shirt as he hur­tles around Aus­tralia and Asia.

He’s in and out of boats and trawlers, wad­ing in pu­trid prawn farm ponds in Thai­land, up­end­ing boxes of fish on Asian wharves, strid­ing through su­per­mar­kets, and driv­ing through steam­ing jun­gles, all to an ac­com­pa­ny­ing sound­track from David McCor­mack and Ale­jan­dro Gomez-Sanchez that seems to drive him along like the mu­sic from The Bourne Supremacy. At times it re­minds — though it’s not re­ally like — of that bevy of ner­vous per­cus­sion coun­ter­point­ing the tense stac­cato string mo­tif that fol­lows Matt Damon as he cir­cum­nav­i­gates the globe to clear his name.

“We scripted the jour­ney of where to go, and I had of course spo­ken to all the peo­ple we meet on the way in ad­vance, but Matthew hadn’t, so those meet­ings on cam­era were very nat­u­ral for him,” says Oliver.

“And cru­cially Matthew is a smart man who cares about where our food comes from so he got more and more en­gaged as the se­ries pro­gressed and more and more knowl­edge­able. And I feel that authenticity re­ally shines through. We worked hard on the tone. It’s vi­tal not to hec­tor peo­ple, not to preach and not to pa­tro­n­ise.”

One thing is cer­tain: after watch­ing this bril­liant show you’ll never want to look a prawn in the eye again now you know where it has been.

Matthew Evans in

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