Stuck at home with not much to do, I've been taking a voyage round the BBC iPlayer lately. I've marvelled at the grandeur that was Rome, said a prayer to the Gods of Snooker and been face to face with John Freeman (wot no Tony Hancock or Gilbert Harding? Wot's going on there then?).
Feeling hungry, I decided to book a lesson with Delia Smith's Cookery Course.
I first saw Delia Smith on a Saturday morning sometime in the 1970s. She was on Multicoloured Swap Shop, mixing it with Noel Edmonds and teaching young kids how to cook eggs. I don't know what John Craven would have been up to but it's a cert that Keith Chegwin would be doing an outside broadcast encouraging kids to bring along toys to swap. He was known to discerning viewers as the Cheggers the Pathfinder – where Cheggers led, the Match of the Day cameras were sure to follow.
Delia's Cookery Course whisked me all the way back to 1979. The programme is aptly named because Delia Smith presents cookery as an educational experience. If she could have got away with giving the viewer lines, she would have done. Before the start of each episode I half expect to see a clock with the time being counted down by way of dots disappearing from around the screen like one of those programmes that were strictly 'For schools and colleges'.
It starts with a jaunty, jazz-tinged theme. I think it is so much better when a theme tune has a title suited to the programme. This one's called Ready to Serve by Johnny Hawksworth.
He's the bloke responsible for the brassy intro to every show produced by Thames TV when I was a kid. The intro is called Salute to Thames and is part of a beautiful tune that continues for one minute and forty seconds or so. It's the sort of air you expect to hear playing at Wimbledon or one of these 1940s re-enactment afternoons at places like Harrogate.
I never thought of these pieces of music as being written by anyone. I just assumed they sprang from the franchise fully formed with no human intervention of any kind. I have since found out that the ATV jingle that introduced Crossroads was written by Jack Parnell and that the strange madrigal that prefaced a Southern TV production was composed by the great Steve Race. Ah, Steve Race. I spent many a happy half hour with my dad watching My Music. I much preferred this to Face the Music because, with Denis Norden and Frank Muir, the viewer was relatively sure of a good laugh.
In the early days of Tyne Tees Television (before my time, anyway), the start of the viewing day was greeted with a piece of music called Three Rivers Fantasy. Three rivers, I hear you say, but surely that's only two rivers - Tyne and Tees. There's a story in these parts that the channel was originally intended to be named after all three major rivers Tyne, Wear And Tees until someone realised what the acronym spelt. I'm undecided on the veracity of that tale.
Whenever I hear the Thames TV intro I always sing along with the words 'Here they are now Morecambe and Wise'. Eric and Ernie had recently decamped from the BBC and Thames were obviously as pleased as punch that they had secured their services. So much so that they incorporated the pair into their theme tune. And why shouldn't they be pleased? Few entertainers get to be as loved as this duo. The funeral of Eric Morecambe was the first one I saw in which the deceased got a round of applause.
To be honest, they were probably past their best when they moved back to commercial television but their departure from the Beeb would have left a huge vacuum. I wonder how the Beeb felt having to hold the coats while Little and Large duked it out with Lennie and Jerry for top spot.
It's a mystery to me why Jerry Stevens vanished so quickly from TV screens after the demise of his partnership with Lennie Bennett. I remember watching an episode of After They Were Famous in the early 2000s which featured a segment on Mr Bennett. He died in 2009 but, at the time the programme was broadcast, he had more or less retired from show business and had opened a burger bar in Blackpool. I thought they might have given us some information on the whereabouts of Jerry Stevens but they didn't. According to IMDB, Mr Stevens' last TV work was as a neighbour in an episode of In Sickness and In Health was back in 1987 (assuming this is the same Jerry Stevens.....).
Wherever Mr Stevens is, I hope he is well.
I think a kitchen must have been a scary place in the 1970s. Delia aims to take the fear out of cooking but also does her best to defuse the ticking time bombs that lie in wait for the unwary. She provides sage advice on what to do if a chip pan catches fire and champions the use of a long-handled spoon when basting meat. Obvious now, of course.
Think of it as a mixture of cookery programme and one of those public information films, or pifs, they used to show warning viewers not to do stupid things like put a rug on a freshly polished floor ('You might as well set a man trap').
I have a couple of favourite pifs. It was nice to see Duffy from Please Sir! getting work as the thoughtless cigar smoker who wedges open a fire door so that Patsy Rowlands' tea lady can manoeuvre her tea urn through the corridors of their workplace. It ends messily but it's worth it to see the tea lady's shame, embarrassment, and self-consciousness when she's given a rescuing cup of tea by a fireman. Ms Rowlands sure knew how to pack a range of emotions into one simple half-smile.
My other favourite is the one with the fairy godmother and the three wishes routine. A girl with a Carol Hawkins-esque voice soon realises that Dave, the boy of her dreams, can't swim so ditches him for Mike who swims like a fish. Dave's worried about losing his birds until the fairy godmother tells him that a sure way to a young lady's heart is to 'learn to swim, young man. Learn. To. Swim'. I will add in a po-faced, 21st century sort of way that she should also have pointed out that referring to women as birds didn't help Dave's case much either.
What's pitiful is that I can quote this pif word for word. What's even more pitiful is that I quite often do and I can't even blame that particular madness on lockdown. I've been doing it since way before Covid, swine flu, SARS or any other modern contagion you may care to mention.
The Cookery Course is studio-bound and no expense has been spent in making it look like a real kitchen. To engage the viewer a little more they throw in some visuals, including a graphic of vegetables being boiled in too much water, a graphic to show what happens to flour when you make pastry and some speeded up film of a joint of beef roasting in the oven.
Delia even does a bit of location filming, visiting Bill Sowerbutts, an old bloke in Ashton under Lyne, to discuss vegetables. Bill was positively evangelical about veg, particularly the Ulster Sceptre and Pentland Dell potato varieties. Not that I pay attention, but I don't think I've ever seen these varieties in the shops. I think I'll make enquiries the next time I'm in Asda and I'll think about Bill when I do it.
In the meat episode, Delia ensures that she keeps on the good side of her butcher by bringing him into the studio to explain different cuts of meat.
For fish, the cameras take a trip to Bob and Denise Carter's fish shop in which Denise demonstrates how to fillet a fish. She explains and cuts pretty skilfully too so perhaps Delia was wise to keep her out of the studio.
Right at the end of the instalment on pastry, Delia whips out of the oven a joint of beef encased in mushroom stuffing and pastry. She introduces it to the viewer as a 'boeuf en croute or a beef fillet wrapped in pastry'. I've seen enough episodes of Come Dine with Me to know that such a confection is a beef wellington but perhaps this was not such a widely used term in the 1970s.
The 1970s were a time of rising prices. Watching an edition of Tomorrow's World once I was frightened to death when trusty old Raymond Baxter informed us that a gallon of petrol would soon be costing one whole pound. I was almost as frightened as I was in 1971 when my school teacher announced to the class that the country was going decimal. I remember thinking that decimalisation would pass our household by and we would be left with pockets full of worthless old pennies, the ones that were the size of digestive biscuits. And how were we going to survive on those?
Delia regularly reminds the viewer of the need to be thrifty. Meat is so expensive, should be eaten sparingly and replaced as often as possible with cheaper vegetables and pulses. I hope Delia coped with decimalisation better than she copes with 'metrication' as she puts it (and better than I did). She seems to handle metric weights by ignoring them completely until the very last instalment when she begrudgingly tells us that a conversion chart can be found in the book version of the show.
Why bother with the new fangled metric system, she seems to be suggesting, when we've had good old British avoirdupois for hundreds of years?
If you missed the intricacies of a given recipe, there was no need to worry because you could always buy the BBC book that accompanied the series. I don't know how much these books cost but they would have been a lucrative sideline. They were always sufficiently sleek and glossy to convince the buyer that the expenditure was worth it. Delia's book has a nice, shiny pepper mill on the front cover but I don't think my family would have been part of the target audience – we had plenty of salt and tomato sauce in our diet but I don't ever recall applying ground pepper to my sausage and chips.
Books were just another way for the BBC to extract money from the viewing public, but it worked on me. I rushed out one morning to WH Smith in the Cleveland Centre and bought, hot off the press, the book that accompanied Pot Black. If the BBC had been really savvy, they would have sellotaped a copy of the show's theme tune, Black and White Rag by Winifred Atwell, to the cover. You want a beautiful and exuberant honky-tonk tune? On a lovely floppy 45rpm disc ? Yes please. The book would have sold out in days.
Just like it seems strange to me that the ident music for Thames TV could lead a life of its own outside the start of Man About the House or Minder, it surprises me that Black and White Rag could exist anywhere other than in a TV studio with all eyes concentrated on a baize-covered piece of slate. There was a wonderful, unexpected moment in a documentary on Emerson, Lake and Palmer I saw years ago when Keith Emerson gave a dazzling rendition of the tune while messing about in the studio. Perhaps it shouldn't have been so unexpected. The late Mr Emerson would have assimilated what was at hand during his formative years. Russ Conway, Joe 'Mr Piano' Henderson, Mrs Mills – he could have taken his pick, really.
The Pot Black book featured handy photos and pen pictures of the leading snooker players of the day. One of these was a player called Jim Meadowcroft. I am not sure how much of a leading player he was because, although he could regularly be heard in the commentary box, I never ever saw him in action on the green baize. Nevertheless, I always enjoyed listening to his lovely Lancashire tones.
The satnav on the time machine seems to be taking me on many detours but I'm sure Delia wouldn't mind the diversions. The good lady herself was all over the place during her half-time pep talk to Norwich City fans a few seasons back. I wonder if she's ever wondered what stewed canary tastes like.
Social media addicts will know that Nigella Lawson recently melted the internet with her 'meecro-warvay'. She's a crafty one, that Nigella. Her calculated mis-pronunciation got her all the exposure she wanted and then some. When it comes to strange locution, Delia got there first with her unaffected and ground-breaking use of the word 'parzley'. They were less connected, more sensible times then and the only fallout from the viewing public would have been a nationwide rolling of eyes at the strangely-pronounced herb.
After viewing the available evidence on iPlayer, I have come to the conclusion that Delia Smith is bloody good at what she does.
Sure, there are times when Delia appears to forget what she is about to say, leaving the viewer on tenterhooks but she always manages to reclaim her poise and carry on. She also omits some ingredients from time to time. If you forget to put the nuts into your cake mix, it doesn't matter, just bung them in at the end and no-one will notice. She even manages to turn this mistake into some wise advice, namely always ensure that you have the ingredients clearly set out before starting so that you will know if you have missed anything.
I've even tried a couple of her recipes myself and can report that the beef curry and bread and butter pudding were well received. At least that's what the recipients told me unless of course, in the manner of Come Dine with Me, they said something different to the cameras. I don't think I'll be trying her lentil rissoles, though. You can posh them up all you like, Delia, by calling them 'chiladas' but I'm in no rush to put those grey-brown concoctions anywhere near my mouth.
Always frugal, not to mention crafty, she even persuaded the Beeb to let her serve a warmed-up version of the whole show twenty-odd years later in 1998.
The sophisticated production techniques of the 1990s meant that she didn't even have to travel to the studio. Her new cookery course, cunningly re-branded as How to Cook, was presented from the comfort of her own kitchen in Letsby Avenue.
Published on August 26th, 2021. Written by Andrew Coby for Television Heaven.