Whether it was walking through the wall of the great wall of China, making the Statue of Liberty disappear or floating across the the Grand Canyon, David Copperfield’s level of showmanship was unmatched in the 80’s.
The A-Team may have had the cool montages, Knightrider the car chases, Miami Vice the style icons, Magnum PI the moustache and Ferrari, and The Wonder Years with the awkward man-child neighbour, but there was no one, no one, that could deliver spectacle like Copperfield.
It may have been the fact that his wardrobe was selected by someone on fashion work experience, or that his hair was suitable for 9 out of 10 shampoo adverts, but with his magnetic stare, his rasping introductions and his theatrical arms that belonged on a broadway stage, Copperfield was the embodiment of televisual entertainment.
All of whom have followed have had to “up” their illusions. They’ve created environments, scenarios and stages that match their showmanship ambitions; David Blaine has found a way of making money from standing or sitting in things such as ice or a glass box over thames etc. Dynamo, the illusionist from Bradford has blown our minds with things like coca cola flavoured coconuts, or even that trickiest of tricks, forcing your phone through a glass bottle.
The spectacle and showmanship are however, just part of the illusion. They add something that the standard card trick didn’t; they elevated the performance, but you are always aware that because it is “magic” it isn’t real. It does however add value to what we’re experiencing.
And yet with food, showmanship has somewhat disappeared for the use of a few foreign words.
Take for example, Nigella Lawson (1) showing us all what a little language knowledge can do. Cooking her “Italian inspired dish”, her usual wax lyricism was broken, if momentarily, into another language. Insert Italian adjective, and then back into her perfectly formed English prose. It was, mesmerising.
“Andiamo” “avanti” “prego” “tutti a mangiare” words you’d expect to hear from an Italian mamma
“Andiamo” “avanti” “prego” “tutti a mangiare” words you’d expect to hear from an Italian mamma, beckoning her loved ones to gather round the table and enjoy what has been freshly prepared; something akin to the culturally accurate and never insensitive Dolmio (2) sauce adverts.
However, as authentic as they are, in Italian, you’d be surprised to hear them out of place in lingua communa especially in a cooking show; or perhaps not. (Yes, there is intentional irony with ‘lingua communa.’)
It wasn’t the first time that Nigella had done this to her audience, but it was the first time that it made sense, sort of. You see, Nigella was promoting her new series, Nigellissima. A personal homage to the food and culture that had inspired her throughout her teens and beyond.
As a lover of Italy, Italian food and Italian language, this was the first time that cook had focused so heavily on the peninsula. She had to sell the Italian dream, where everyone in the show speaks Italian, even if they’re an English cook, on English TV, with a predominantly English audience; throw in the Italian word here or there and the sense of false/genuine authenticity makes you swoon like a Matt Monro drive on the Amalfi coast.
Nigella is however fluent in the language. After having learnt “street” Italian (her own words), she went on to Oxford to study medieval and foreign languages where she found herself translating Bertrand Russell into Italian. You cannot be not impressed with someone trying to translate Bertrand Russell into Italian.
You cannot be not impressed with someone trying to translate Bertrand Russell into Italian.
Speaking of her language education, she said, “I learned Italian because I wanted to speak to other people. This sounds like a very cheesy thing to say — but I’d been a very shy and reserved person in English and in England, and moving to Italy and learning Italian made me much more open and less timorous. So I suppose for me, Italy represents a coming into myself rather than just the acquisition of a foreign tongue.
Yes Nigella, and book sales, lots and lots of book sales.
But let’s be fair, it’s not only Nigella where we find this fascinating riddled language phenomena.
How about Raymond Blanc? Well, he is French and does sound, very French when speaking in English, but do we need to believe that when he says, “allez” we instantly feel that we’re in Burgundy? Better yet, when he decides to accentuate with “allez vite” or even “c’est parfait” are we transported to a Parisienne market bartering over the price of garlic wearing our perfectly formed beret?
The man from Besançon doesn’t shy from his French-ness, he is a master of French cuisine. A teacher, a respectful ambassador of food, his biography on his own site says, ‘Raymond has championed and nurtured some of the country’s most respected chefs personally in his kitchens, including such names as Marco Pierre White, Michael Caines, Bruno Loubet, Eric Chavot and Ollie Dabbous.’ But they are not kissed with French vocabulary when announcing that they are going to the bathroom.
The use of using a foreign word isn’t uncommon. Some, mainly Americans, call playschools, kindergarten (German), markets, bazaars (Persian) and croissants… croissants. The first two are known as loanwords (3), they’re everywhere in the English language and we use them without noticing. The later is what is happening to our bastions of cooking and it just doesn’t feel, right.
Would it be suitable for Tom Kerridge to start screaming in Vietnamese sound bites because he had discovered GỎI CUỐN? (4) The thought that a man from the West Country throwing in words like “Hãy để tôi yên!” (Leave me alone!) or “Xin gọi cảnh sát!” (call the police) is palpable, but not really needed when you think about it. At no point should you think you are in the middle of Hanoi having to fight with the motorcycle traffic or complete lack of health and safety controls of the street food scene.
Does the prospect of seeing Theo Randall learning Norwegian for a fusion cookbook excite you? If so, do you really want to hear him scream, la min sherpa alene (leave my sherpa alone). I guess if he’s using a sherpa in Norway that may be fun. You get the picture.
The best way to describe someone throwing in a foreign word with no prior warning is like having a wash and realising that the shower gel you thought you were using was in fact a bottle of Cholula hot sauce. You’re mesmerised by the pain but curious to figure out what could have been worse.
The question we should be asking is, “Is my experience heightened because someone has spoken in that target language, when it has nothing to do with the dish I am eating?” If the answer is yes, fine, no problem. But if the answer is no, then this looks like the worst Venn diagram since Dr Frankenstein had to decide between ‘things that make the monster look scary’ and ‘things that make the monster look harmless’ with the middle ground focused on ‘who cares, the monster is going to break things anyway.’
Showmanship in the right forms can exhilarate any performance, be it on the stage doing magic or cooking a beef wellington. Perhaps the secret is more about how you are showcasing, more than what it is your showcasing.
- Nigella Lawson is a TV Cook and daughter of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer (Head of the FED), Nigel Lawson.
- Dolmio is a tinned/jar of sauce that has been recently in the news. The makers say you should not eat more than one portion a week as it contains too much sugar and fat. Also, it has a really radically racist advert depicting what they think is Italian life using puppets. The puppet son even has gelled hair!
- A loan word is an integrated word from a foreign language, orthography adapted for the receiving language.
- Gỏi cuốn literally means “salad rolls” and should be distinguished from the fried rolls, which are also sometimes called spring rolls (or chả giò).