Keith Floyd and the end of an era

It’s not the death of the wine-soaked celebrity chef that has been changing TV cookery shows, but the recession.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Along with the minutiae of his drunken and shambolic life, the death of Keith Floyd earlier this week inspired a discussion in most media outlets about whether we could draw any serious conclusions from his lifestyle, and the cultural footprint his work will leave.

Most seemed to concur that he transformed the television cookery show from a dry, didactic, information-led medium based on shows epitomised by Fanny Cradock and Delia Smith to the informal, personality-led cookery programmes in which it is not a meticulous breakdown of the recipe that is the core, but the antics and narratives weaved by the likes of Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and the rest.

Cooking shows today are about characters who employ food for various themes: the ersatz sporting competition, such as Masterchef, and Ready, Steady, Cook; the travelogue, with food as the excuse to go travelling and explore the world’s cultures, as personified by Rick Stein; the historical study, as with Giles Coren and Sue Perkins in The Supersizers…; soft-porn innuendo, personified by Nigella Lawson; or ‘discovering’ American culture (while surreptitiously sneering at it), as Jamie Oliver does in his latest series, following in the footsteps of Louis Theroux.

Alternatively, like Gordon Ramsay, you can merely go to America and confirm the suspicion among Americans, who have been in recent years been subjected to Simon Cowell, Ozzy Osbourne and his wife Sharon, that we Brits have all turned into shouty, sweary vulgarians. Every niche and taste is now catered for using the medium of cooking. Even bikers, who previously had the chief reputation for murdering each other in feuds in Norway and Australia, now have their own cuddly representatives in the form of the two Geordie ‘Hairy Bikers’.

And it is a global phenomenon. For example, in Ireland, from where I write, RTE last night offered a new series of Rachel Allen: Home Cooking. It was on the surface a more old-fashioned kind of cookery programme, in that it did feel like it was appealing to and instructing Irish mammies on how to come up with innovative and cheap dishes. But that was its own particular, telling remit: it was designed to show Irish people, who had gotten so dangerously used to literally dining out during heady the days of Celtic Tiger prosperity, how to recreate gourmet meals in their own kitchens in the European country hit hardest by the global recession. And Rachel Allen’s programme couldn’t help but give a nod to the cult of the celebrity chef, featuring an interview with Atul Kocchar who has become renowned because his cooking explores another one of society’s obsessions: multiculturalism.

As a recent book by Kathleen Collins, Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking, shows, the manner in which television cookery programmes have changed reflect and affect the shifting contours of American and Western society, from one that perceives cooking as a chore and necessity, to another where cooking is a form of self-expression and a conspicuous lifestyle accessory.

I suppose in Britain, on a purely practical level, this shift reflects our more casual attitude to food ever since it became plentiful. The young mothers of the 1960s, for whom Fanny Cradock’s programmes were aimed, no doubt had the importance of never wasting food drummed into them by parents who had experienced wartime rationing.

I suspect the case was more extreme in Ireland. Certainly, when I holidayed here as a boy in the 1970s and 1980s, I was severely scolded if I left any food on my plate. Indeed, I was told that it was a sin. I can only surmise that this was some folkloric legacy of the Famine. Whatever the case, in both Britain and Ireland in the postwar era, a few slices of bread and butter usually accompanied each tea-time meal, not because of its ability to please the palate, but because this was a cheap filler. I’m no expert on childcare, but I wonder how many kids in recent years have been refused permission to leave the table unless they cleared their plate, or have been met with that (alas, utterly unswaying) emotional plead, ‘think of all the starving children in Africa’.

Keith Floyd’s life and death may be strangely timely, for he lived in a time of plenty, an era in which food no longer became mere necessity, but an avenue for recreation. But did he die as this era came to an end? We in the West hardly live in an era of want that resembles that of the Great Depression or the Irish famine. For instance, obesity is still supposed to be one of our main problems in the West: being too fat is hardly the sign a society in proper need.

Yet I do suspect and predict that cookery programmes will start to take more hard-headed attitude towards food: the Rachel Allen show perhaps suggests a new direction, as does a new show on BBC2, Economy Gastronomy. I don’t watch property programmes, but a cousin of mine here does avidly, and she reliably informs me that they have become far less indulgent of people who want to ‘move to the country’ and more concerned with people who want to ‘move in to a house’.

The substance of our cookery programmes will change. I predict a little less frivolity, but a complete return to the austerity of the pre-Floyd era will be tempered by our underlying culture, not society’s overlying economics. For our culture does remain celebrity-orientated. So there might be, or, at least in my opinion, there should be, some kind of re-synthesis. Coren and Perkins hinted as much recently with their episode on 1950s cuisine, which they found to be both healthy and inexpensive. Jamie Oliver has shown signs of a change in emphasis from health to celebrating the economic benefits of refraining from fast food (which, as all university students discover, far too late, is not cheap).

But I do think the days of Keith Floyd-type programmes, featuring presenters swanning off to the Mediterranean to swill gallons of Port will, for the time being, are gone for the foreseeable future.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist.

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