Fake British documentary about eating “human meat” ignites the desperate rage of a nation
When “Gregg Wallace: The British Miracle Meat” aired last Monday night on Britain’s Channel 4, it wasn’t obvious that it was anything other than what it seemed. Another inessential, lightweight food documentary, the sort of thing Marc Summers used to specialize in on US TV. 23 minutes later, traumatized viewers began complaining to the regulator Ofcom, 408 of them in total. What the hell had they just watched?
The premise of “Miracle Meat” is simple: a tour of the Lincolnshire processing plant of a food company with the nicely anodyne name of “Good Harvest.” Good Harvest has a novel solution to the problems of food security and inflation that have hamstrung the nation: lab-grown human meat, courtesy of a special “nutrient bath” that turns a thin strip of pink tissue into a massive 30kg roast. Before the program reveals any of Good Harvest’s secrets, Wallace, a MasterChef UK presenter and familiar face on British TV, meets up with Michel Roux, Jr., owner of the Michelin-starred Le Gavroche and himself a frequent judge on British cooking shows. Time to grill up some steaks and do a blind taste test!
You’ve seen segments like this. They cut into some steaks, ooh and aah, talk about terroir. (Roux is convinced that, because it comes from people from the Northeast, the steak he’s searing might taste inferior to London-extracted meat.) It’s ghoulish stuff, made worse by the matter-of-fact descriptions of the human suppliers on the labels. (“These Good Harvest steaks have been cultivated from Alison, 45, NHS nurse and part-time delivery driver. Two jobs, which probably explains why it’s a little stringy.”)
“Miracle Meat” nails the tropes of the cooking show, particularly the idiotic obsession with knowing where your meat came from, how happy this cow must have been, so perfectly that it works as a style parody of those as well. The first two steaks don’t pass muster. They’ve clearly lived hard lives. But the third, from the Good Harvest Premium range, is delightful. Where might that have come from?
To find out, Wallace plays the part of the ultra-cheery food presenter. “Under EU law, we couldn’t possibly operate machines like this due to legislation. But now we can harvest people and pay them for their flesh,” he muses, nodding along as a Good Harvest handler shows him the high-tech lab. Things get more sinister the further he gets inside the factory.
We meet Gillian, a 67-year-old retired receptionist, caring for her sick husband and grandson Jimmy, before they harvest her flesh. A tour of Gillian’s flat shows a scribbled sign: “HEATING OFF.” A Good Harvest pamphlet on her wall: “Beat the Cost of Living Crisis: Become a Donor.” Wallace says brightly, “With the money from her donation, she’ll be able to pay for nearly two weeks of energy bills!”
We see a price list: £200 for a shoulder, £250 for a buttock (£400 for both buttocks). After the persuade her on the operating table to give up a thigh and a buttock, Gillian lies moaning, alone in a dimly lit recovery room. The process is “pain-subjective,” repeats Good Harvest’s CEO, a smile plastered tightly on her face.
The fact that the sums are so modest underscores the harsh reality of actual British life post-Brexit, with spiraling inflation and utility prices, insulting economic policies, and an ineffective government all to blame. How much would you need to earn to give up an actual pound of flesh – “snooker-ball-sized” says the CEO, eyes gleaming? What about if your lights were off?
Finally, we learn the truth about the Good Harvest Premium range. They’ve discovered that human meat is tastiest if it comes from children. “At Good Harvest, we consider the womb nature’s oven,” an announcer intones as children frolic in the grass. “It’s so creamy,” repeats the CEO. “Would you like some toddler tartare?”
Now there’s an edge in Wallace’s voice. One of the kids is Gillian’s grandson Jimmy, who hesitates at the door to the extraction room. “You know what’s really, really scary?” the CEO asks Jimmy. “Have you heard of inflation? Price hikes? These things mean that ordinary, decent people like you…you don’t have many options. Do you wanna be a hero?” Quick cutaways reveal a room full of terrified children writhing in pain, gasping for air. Perfectly humane.
There’s a lot to unpack in these fast-paced 23 minutes. The show is very heavily indebted to Swift’s A Modest Proposal (he even gets a credit), with an emphatic opinion that the cost of living crisis in Britain isn’t being taken seriously. “The show practically vibrates with rage,” wrote the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage, and it’s often a blind, acidic rage at every entity that might make this fictional situation so plausible. There’s a great tradition of biting satire like this in British TV, from Black Mirror to Brass Eye to Ghostwatch, its obvious spiritual ancestor: like Miracle Meat, the BBC presented it as a straight news program with familiar personalities, and its legacy lives on in the minds of anyone watching that night in 1992.
“Miracle Meat” also asks us why we take for granted the things we do about our food supply. Why do rich nations need to eat so much meat when the industry is just as cruel and bloody as Good Harvest? Why can’t Britain feed itself, and why is nobody in power brave enough to help? Finally, there’s the notion of the fake food show itself. How many things exactly like this have you put on for background noise? In a BBC interview, director Tom Kingsley noted, “[We’re] also making fun of the way that TV documentaries can be really superficial. Presenters don’t ask challenging questions, and problematic details are skipped over quickly.”
Apart from the 408 easily-offended people, the program struck a real nerve in the UK, and it seems to be as much about the questions raised as the shocking content. According to Kingsley, “We wanted to make the audience feel angry about how unfair our country has become, and how awful it is that we just accept this state of affairs.” Whether or not satire can bring about meaningful change, “Miracle Meat” seems to have had its desired impact on British viewers: shock, horror, anger, and somewhere on the inside, a sense that things can only get more desperate from here.