David Behrens: Is the answer to our woes a blackcurrant-flavoured future?

NOSTALGIA isn't what it used to be '“ especially on a Sunday afternoon, apparently.

TV chef Jamie Oliver

Fewer of us than ever are likely to cook a roast dinner on a weekend because, according to a survey this week, it is too much trouble. At the same time, convenient frozen food is in vogue after years of decline, because we have convinced ourselves that it is no longer inferior to fresh produce.

There is an interesting paradox here, because while we are less inclined to cook meals from scratch for our families, the distraction of sitting down and watching someone on television demonstrating how to do exactly that has never been more popular.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

By my calculations, watching two fewer cookery shows a week would free up enough time to rustle up a nice roast and two veg on a Sunday. But there is clearly a disconnect between thinking about it and actually doing it.

I’m as lazy as the next person when it suits me, so I don’t wish to sound pious, but what is so difficult about cooking a roast dinner? Don’t you just pop the joint and the spuds in the oven and the broccoli in the steamer? That’s what I did on the Bank Holiday last weekend and my potatoes, if I do say so myself, were better than the ones I had eaten two days earlier at a very nice restaurant in the East Riding. The only tricky part is timing it so that everything is ready at the same time.

I doubt if Jamie Oliver would approve of my rudimentary method; he would probably have spent the morning drizzling olive oil over his topside and caramelising his shallots in beef jus, not tearing open a sachet of Bisto. But perhaps the thought of having to go to so much trouble is what puts people off.

I don’t mean to disparage Jamie Oliver, by the way. He and Esther Rantzen are the only two TV personalities I can think of who have used their celebrity status to better the lives of many of their viewers.

Our obsession with cookery and baking shows is fuelled in part by a nostalgia for a lifestyle we never had but to which we once aspired. That was my takeaway from another of the week’s surveys, which reported that two-thirds of people believed life was better when they were growing up.

Was it really? My memories of my young adulthood are of having to consult the evening newspaper to see if it was our neighbourhood’s turn to have the power turned off that evening; of being placed on a waiting list to have a telephone installed, and of being made to explain myself to the bank manager if I wrote more cheques than he was expecting.

The promise we were made for the future was of automation and convenience beyond our dreams. Raymond Baxter used to show it to us every week, on black-and-white TV. The future he set out is here now, with computers and instant gravy for all – so why are we nostalgic for the past?

The answer turns out to be uncomfortably dark. That second survey, which was carried out for Sky TV – itself a product of a satellites-in-the-sky future that was science fiction in Mr Baxter’s day – found that the reason for today’s disaffection is a feeling that the country is no longer united in the way that it once was. Immigration, it said, had divided communities.

It would be hard to mount a counter-argument to that, but the Britain of my formative years was divided, too – by class resentment, industrial warfare and educational segmentation. For better or worse, division is in our national character.

I am a little sceptical of polls like this because the result you gets depends on how you frame the question. You can prove almost anything to be true if you really want to.

A more encouraging vision for the future was to be found in the laboratories of Leeds University, where they have set up a commercial spin-off company to produce blackcurrant hair dyes using fruit left over from making Ribena.

This, they say, is safer and more environmentally friendly than many of the synthetic dyes currently favoured for such products.

Does the cure for the discord which torments us lie within this discovery? Can we foresee a blackcurrant-flavoured future, in which ethnic division will have been rendered irrelevant because everyone is purple? Where’s Raymond Baxter to explain it when you need him?