James May: Oh Cook review – will this be a culinary car crash?

Can’t cook, will cook! This new series sees the Grand Tour presenter aim to brush up on his kitchen skills – all the while assuring us of his ineptitude

Would it be a kindness to tell him? ... James May in Amazon’s Oh Cook
Would it be a kindness to tell him? ... James May in Amazon’s Oh Cook
Would it be a kindness to tell him? ... James May in Amazon’s Oh Cook
Lucy Mangan

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 15.32 EST

Another week, another James May series on Amazon. It really does seem like it’s only been a few days since the last one, when he went top-bantering around Japan – though a quick glance at my records shows that it was in fact released in January.

This time round he is engaging in the culinary arts – barely – in James May: Oh Cook, the title a masterfully cunning play on his favoured expression when things go awry. In each episode, May assures us of his ineptitude in the kitchen (“I can’t cook – and welcome to my cookery show”), assembles some ingredients to create a couple of functional meals (it is not really cooking, and I say this as someone who fails to reach even May’s level of competence at least three days out of every seven), drinking a bit of wine, and doling out a few personal and historical facts as he goes. Rice noodles were invented as a way of stretching a poor harvest, while instant noodles were Japan’s response to being flooded with cheap US wheat to keep them from starving and turning to communism after the second world war. The parmesan grater he’s using is one he’s had since his student days (which suggests a greater degree of kitchen aptitude than pretended, but consistency of narrative is evidently not deemed a vital ingredient here).

The main element of May’s shtick remains the deconstruction of what’s happening, as it happens. He shows us the electric Lazy Susan the cameraman uses to get the final shots of the food in the round, and when the director has him cleave to a particular chopping position on the counter. He notes that the food will appear to have cooled quickly “via the magic of TV – it’s called editing”. He keeps in all the bits the other programmes don’t let you see, geddit? Look at the funny man having garlic picked out of his hair! Nigella wouldn’t let you in on that crazy moment! The fact that audiences are now so sophisticated that to show them the inner workings as if it were a treat for children makes you look more out of touch than cutting edge, does not seem to have struck anyone. But it does give the whole enterprise a faintly fin de siècle air. How long, you find yourself wondering, do we think the old chap will carry on? Would it be a kindness to tell him? Or should we all put on our bravest faces and continue the charade until he can no longer muster the energy himself?

I also wonder how much longer the gimmick of overtly advertising your own product has to run. The series ties in with a cookery book he is bringing out (or vice versa – I don’t know), which is referenced so often that the joke quickly loses whatever lustre it initially had. His publishing team is even part of the first episode (that’s why everything has to be on white plates, May tells us; book people demand it), sampling his Thai chicken noodle soup and sitting in the audience laughing at the self-referential gags.

It’s occasionally charming – and mostly slightly dismal. The remaining gimmick, of having home economist and proper cook Nikki Morgan being kept in a cupboard, brought out to help him with tricky bits, leans hard towards the latter. Still, you get the sense that May will banter on, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into past glories. As long as he doesn’t pick Clarkson back up on the way, I suppose we should be grateful.

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