I’m trying to think what there is new to say about Celebrity MasterChef (Wednesday, 9pm, BBC One), a TV format as ancient as the earth beneath us, a weeknightly appointment where Gregg Wallace – a man with one of the most multifaceted energies alive: at once capable of sparking you out in one punch, cheerfully selling you an organically farmed sausage, marrying your friend’s quiet adult daughter and somehow buying your car off you for scrap – prowls around a test kitchen, vacuum-sealed into a waistcoat, raising his eyebrows at turbot. John Torode is there, too. You’ve got the narrator, you’ve got the trips to outside restaurants, you’ve got a high-pressure lunch service where someone panics at 60 scallops. You know what it is by now.
Although now it isn’t Celebrity MasterChef, not in the traditional sense. See, Celebrity MasterChef hasn’t changed but, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, the world has. Usually, big, bombastic, horn-section TV monoliths such as this start to falter around this stage in their run (we are 15 seasons in), the same beats that used to thrill now feeling tired; think The Apprentice after that series where Sugar fired three people in one week then went mad and declared two winners. There’s nowhere you can go from there. You just have to relive the same nightmare, again and again, push the rock up the hill then have it tumble inevitably down, until quiet cancellation.
But in a TV landscape battered by Covid-19, the sudden appearance of Good Old Fashioned Juggernaut TV – in among tired repeats, the soaps stuttering to a halt, the dreadful news reports – feels like an oasis in the desert. It doesn’t matter that I have, by now, seen one million former Casualty actors deglaze a pan. There is no combination of game meat and seasonal fruit that can surprise me, and yet here I am, watching John Barnes slop out a stir-fry, gleefully urging him to win. The stale pitta of this TV format has been sprinkled with water and revived in the oven. Celebrity MasterChef has, by way of coronavirus, been zhuzhed.
The week one contestants happen to be very good, which makes dipping your toe back into the waters that bit easier: comedian Judi Love, my tip for the final; Myles Stephenson, an X Factor survivor who seems to be one of the nicest people alive; the aforementioned Barnes, who serves a stir-fry followed by a curry, seemingly in a bid to sustain his body through a tricky second year at uni. Representation on TV matters, and that’s why it was good to see my community – “people who make an absolute mess while cooking and who occasionally scream while doing it” – reflected in Death in Paradise’s Shyko Amos.
And then there’s Apprentice reject Thomas Skinner, a man who is constantly accompanying his food with what can only be described as “a large pan of potatoes”. The screen cannot accommodate both him and Gregg in the same shot – their energies are too similar: both with an intrinsic need to make the last chirpy joke in a conversation, two East End alpha stags desperate to rut – but for as long as he lasts, he’ll be good value. Rejoice, rejoice. Celebrity MasterChef is back. The earth is healing.