I’m surprised it’s taken so long to develop a new comedy set in a busy kitchen, considering how many cooking shows and celebrity chefs have come to prominence in the past decade; from Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver, to Marco Pierre White and Heston Blumenthal. BBC2 sitcom Whites benefits enormously from this pop-culture foundation, as audiences now understand the setup of a professional kitchen (the roles, the lingo, the dishes, the pace, the pressure, etc.) It means we’re already somewhat familiar with the world, even feeling some attachment to it, and that helps what’s already an organized and nicely-paced opening episode…
Roland White (Alan Davies) is a gifted chef who was on the precipice of greatness in his 20s, but is now middle-aged and increasingly lazy. We meet him allowing his sous chef Bib (Darren Boyd) to flounder in the hectic kitchen during evening service, while he casually dictates his autobiography inside his quiet office. Bib’s the longsuffering sidekick who doesn’t think Roland pulls his weight, although there’s a case of “be careful what you wish for” when Roland agrees to give Bib an apprentice to lend a hand, and an agency deliver cocky Skoose (Stephen Wight), an ambitious young cook who openly admits he’s after Bib’s job and intends to be the head chef in four years.
Rounding out the cast is Caroline (Katherine Parkinson), the restaurant manager and possible romantic interest for Roland; daffy waitress Kiki (Isy Suttie), who doesn’t realize a customer’s pulling a prank when he orders an eggless omelet; accident-prone cook Axel (Amit Shah); and the hotel owner Celia (Maggie Steed), a woman who knows nothing about cooking.
Written by comedian/actor Matt King (Peep Show) and Oliver Lansey (who have first-hand experience of working in kitchens), the great pleasure of Whites is that it has detail and reality to it. The production’s slick and assured, while the ensemble of actors are perfectly cast. Boyd knows how to play likeable characters who are bullied and shrink into themselves at the merest hint of confrontation, so he’s perfect as the hesitant Bib, particularly when grappling with the maverick Skoose. Sutie and Parkinson aren’t playing characters too removed from their roles in Peep Show and The IT Crowd, respectively, although Parkinson’s necessarily less cartoonish and there’s a hint her relationship with Roland could get very interesting.
Of course, a lot of the show rests on the shoulders of Alan Davies, who’s become best-known as the resident dunce on panel show QI post-Jonathan Creek, but here we’re reminded he’s a decent comic actor. Roland White isn’t a laugh-a-second caricature, if you’re expecting Alan Partridge in an apron, and he doesn’t make the biggest impression in this first episode, but Davies ensures there are interesting facets to Roland. He’s indolent and self-obsessed, but still a genuinely good chef and nobody’s fool. One of the best moments was seeing him give Skoose a tongue-lashing over his attitude around Bib, when a lesser show would go for the easy joke that Roland’s always oblivious to Skoose’s faults. That instantly made you respect and like Roland all the more.
It’s been awhile since we had a half-hour comedy where there’s a sense of dimension to the environment and the characters are people you want to learn more about, and Whites definitely ticks those boxes. I’m already keen to see more of Roland, Bib and Skoose. But is it funny? Well, it’s amusing. I wouldn’t say it gave me huge belly laughs, and the first proper joke from Roland (about God wanting us to eat animals because he made them out of meat) was a very old gag, but the strength of characterisation was good enough to compensate. And there were some funny moments; from Bib’s tour of the herb garden for a distracted Skoose, to the demonstration of what an eggless omelet looks like.
A strong, encouraging start.
WRITERS: Matt King & Oliver Lansey
DIRECTOR: David Kerr
CAST: Alan Davies, Darren Boyd, Katherine Parkinson, Stephen Wight, Isy Suttie, Maggie Steed, Amit Shah, Matt King & Oliver Lansley
TRANSMISSION: 28 September 2010 – BBC2/HD, 9PM