A couple of weeks ago I was lying in bed, eyes closed, trying to sleep, but I couldn’t relax. Time passed and I became progressively more anxious. My heart started to palpate, I tasted acid, there was coal burning in my chest and throat, and I started to weep. I couldn’t stop. This seemingly inexplicable surge tide of emotion was, I later understood, the result of the last thing I’d seen before going to bed – 30 seconds of film squatting in my consciousness; memories and a Manson Family of associated thoughts stalking my interiors, wielding knives. The film? Just Eat’s Chicken Madras commercial; adland’s nadir and a demonstrable tragedy for the jobbing actress in the leading role.
I suppose my brain, prone as it is to moral outrage, calibrated to crave justice, internalised the plight of the Chicken Madras girl and couldn’t help but cry out. Sure, it was impotent rage, emptied into the void; I couldn’t help her; but the more I thought about the events that had compounded on one another, resulting in this half-minute humiliation, perhaps the sad anti-climax of a lifelong dream – the culmination of thousands of hours of scrimping, pressing, phone calls, going to auditions and making ends meet with a job at a North London call centre, begging people to up the money they’d pledged when mugged on the high street – well, tragedy seemed an understatement.
I’m not trying to belittle the Chicken Madras girl. She gives a terrific performance in a thankless role. She moves well, indeed naturally, and the camera loves her. I can understand why, of all the thousands of women who must have auditioned, at a time when the last of their nectarines were spoiling in the bowl on the kitchen top, and when the only foodstuffs left in the fridge were Rivita crackers, two weeks past their due date, half-fat cream cheese, and chutney with a surface layer of mould, the director plucked her from obscure poverty. Once she’d been fitted for that figure-flattering silver outfit with its dynamic stringy accoutrements, no one could have doubted the choice. I’ve seen the ad many times now, and like Jack Nicholson in The Shining or Jim Carrey in The Dead Pool, I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part.
There’s no question that the commercial, all thirty punishing seconds of it, will now become this small screen star’s signature role, but should it? I don’t know her, though I’d certainly like to, but I’m sure that when she became estranged from her parents, who after her Oxford graduation, expected her to follow them into the legal profession; when she moved to London – giving up on the boyfriend who refused to move from the sleepy village of his birth; when she shared a flat for a year with a needy bisexual self-harming cokehead who threatened the sanctity of her bedroom on more than one occasion, so she could save money and remain flexible enough to attend auditions in makeshift offices at the summit of squalid Soho walk-ups, staffed by lecherous agency talent scouts who’d guarantee you a part on TV for a blowjob and a fee, she had greater ambitions than singing and dancing to a retooled cover of Groove Armada’s ‘I See You Baby’, in a bid to sell a takeaway delivery website to lazy cooks.
Just Eat’s ad proves that the Chicken Madras girl is talented and versatile (the premise of the commercial effectively makes it a double role). You wouldn’t blame her if she’d been excited when offered the part, perhaps imagining it to be a springboard to bigger, better things. But watching it back, especially when hungry, it starts to resemble a dead end. It’s not just that the ad irritates, its flat attempt at humour the brainchild of some idiot karaoke loving backside, fat on curry and after-work pub visits in which bored friends listen to him wax lyrical on life in show business, but it makes a fool of an actress with plenty of spicy potential. This ad is the centrepiece of her showreel now, and as such the parts that were once hers in all but name – juicy roles on Poldark, the next series of Line of Duty, a new channel 4 drama about a respectable businesswoman who inherits a brothel from her Madam mother, will now be denied. There’s no seeing past that dance, past the crude sexual objectification of a hot red curry. A career that could and should have peaked in Hollywood movies is now a ruin; a ruin covered in sticky hot sauce.
So the next time you sit down in front of the drool box to engage in a bit of schadenfreude and cast yourself as superior to the Chicken Madras girl, think instead of the waste of talent and the senseless chain of non-creative decisions that lead to the ad’s creation, birthing a trap for an actress desperate to break into an industry whose gatekeepers are crude, manipulative and cynical. All she wanted was to perform. Instead, she was pushed into a showbiz grave. If I were Just Eat CEO David Buttress, I’d consider a written apology, substantial compensation for this fine performer, then blowing my brains out. It’s the least he could do.