Every now and then, you get something really really mad to watch on television, and Iron Chef UK is probably one of the most surreal programmes on TV at the moment; but does it live up to its potential?
They still show repeats of the original Japanese version around the world, and it’s hard to describe just how strange it is, but if you imagine a combination of Pokemon, Gladiators and Master Chef, you’ll be about halfway there. The best thing about the Japanese version is that it blurs the line between being serious and comical; yes, the contestants are cooking, but they’re also making cod roe ice-cream with a coca cola sauce. The studio (Kitchen Stadium) is filled with flaming torches, with manic cookery characters and with music so dramatic you’d think it was an advert for the World Cup. In the Japanese version you see one of the Iron Chefs wrestling with a live octopus. It’s that good. And all the while, a group of commentators (apparently Japanese celebrities) pass comment (hilariously dubbed into English) on what they think is going on.
The Japanese have always been masters of this kind of television; they brought us Hole In The Wall, one of the most hilarious concepts in the history of walls and holes, a concept that we ruined by attempting to cram Vanessa Feltz into a spandex catsuit and making her look like something that should be orbiting Saturn. So, when Iron Chef arrived here, I was a little disappointed. Where Japan blurred the line between the sublime and ridiculous, our version just seems a little sinister. Gone are the flaming torches, and the studio looks like it’s been borrowed from an alien space ship. Since it’s been made in the style of a camp 90’s game show, and is so tongue in cheek, why would they cut out the flaming torches?
The presenter, Orange faced oddity Olly Smith, plays his role like a manic Alan Partridge, with quotes like “it’s a symphony of beef!” Everyone seems to be aware of just how camp and silly it all is as the presenter bounces around the set looking like a Bond villain or a Conservative MP (same thing?).
While the UK version is bizarre, it never feels quite enough. The original, like so much Japanese TV that makes it over here, is such a WTF-fest that you spend the whole time spellbound by just how wacky the whole thing is; is it real? Is it all an elaborate joke? Why is that man wrestling an octopus?
It’s basically Master Chef, but if Lloyd Grossman was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and occasionally said things like “ooh, you’re making me hungry and I want to eat your words.” Behind the wackiness hides an actually rather serious cookery show, and the contestants (portly pub chefs from Wigan) try hard to make good dishes. But is that what we really want? Or do we just want to see the Japanese presenter do another back-flip down an aisle of chefs? And WHERE ARE THE FLAMING TORCHES?!