Saturday, 22 January 2011

Hidden In Plain View

I found myself gawping at the TV last night, wondering at what point I had fallen through the looking glass. Michele Roux ‘Service’
“ . . . sets out on a personal mission to train eight young people as front-of-house superstars”
Of course, these young people come from a background very different from the people they serve, that’s a given particularly for a show like this that is essentially a way of demonstrating that if young people with under-privileged lives are not written off but given opportunity and mentorship the majority can succeed. I’m not certain it’s being viewed in that spirit.

My own buttons were pressed by a nouveau riche woman sending a young woman away 3 separate times, to segment an already sliced grapefruit, to warm up her toast and to exert her desire to bully. Her classlessness was absolutely disgusting, and she displayed it again and again, becoming intensely foul (“You’re really feeling the pressure, aren’t you? How’s the tuna?”) with Nikkita, the young person who found the contrast between the lives of these particular 5 Star, delivered-by-helicopter bootlace manufacturers and her own too incongruous to bear. Nikkita slouched around, sarcastically drawled “Hiiiiiii” to people coming in and out of the hotel, displaying her contempt for the lot of them.

Nikkita has been vilified in the reviews. Google ‘Michele Roux Nikkita’ for screeds of sites containing  ‘attitude’ ‘chip on her shoulder’ and going on about the fact that she became a mother at 16. I’ve not found one questioning whether it’s appropriate for a woman to be unable to segment her own grapefruit.

Deference Tories are simply the latest manifestation of peasants knowing their place and being grateful to the Robber Baron for running the country so that they don’t starve entirely to death. Self-hatred is corrosive, particularly when it’s smeared all over people similar to oneself. 'Knowing your place' has national and profound economic consequences: it's one reason why social mobility is so hilariously awful in the UK and another reason to stop talking about equality of opportunity and begin a discourse on equality of outcome.

My understanding of Nikita is that, as in any group, because she had a particular tendency to feel strongly about a subject she was expressing those feelings for the group, and in doing so relieved individuals from the difficulty of experiencing their own feelings on this matter. This was particularly noticeable in a young man from a similar background who became fawningly servile. Nikita’s own understanding of her behaviour was that she was always no good and would always be no good. I found myself not believing her as she said that again and again, but (bearing in mind that editing exists to manipulate the viewer) wanted to hear more about her more nuanced feelings.

One of the young people, James Marvin, felt uncomfortable serving a family in a private setting, and Roux attempted to make sense of the experience for him: “It’s like you’re part of the family.” “No,” replied James, “I was treated like staff.” Interestingly, James felt much more comfortable serving a couple in an intimate venue. For him, being a valued professional was one thing, a servant quite another.

Ah well, horses for courses. I appreciate good service as much as anyone else and there’s no doubt that Michele Roux has opened up a new world of manners, skills, taste, refinement and opportunty to people who were unlikely to get the chance otherwise. Furthermore, his mentorship is positive, nurturing the best rather than endlessly stomping on deficit. I wonder how clearly that message will be perceived.

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