Friday, 30 September 2011

A review of The Marvellous Mrs Beeton, with Sophie Dahl. BBC TWO.

Sophie Dahl. Photo: BBC

If I were to choose a presenter to front a programme about Mrs Isabella Beeton, Sophie Dahl would certainly not be my first choice. Nor would she be my ninety-ninth, or hundredth for that matter. However, as programmes go that touch upon the social history of food, I have actually seen a lot worse than The Marvellous Mrs Beeton, with Sophie Dahl, which I watched last night. 

Why is it that these programmes are always made to the same pattern - a celebrity chef who knows very little about the subject; a quest of discovery involving a few train journeys; a handful of over-enthusiastic experts as talking heads; an obligatory visit to Borough Market; the weaving of a hypothesis (this time Beeton's chaotic childhood was shown to be the main factor that shaped her career); some recreations of the food just to show how awful it was at the time; and then a final recapitulation, when all of the talking heads join the hostess around a dinner table, to eat that 'dreadful' food and say witty things about it. 

This exact structure was first used by Optomen Television a few years ago in Hannah Glasse the First Domestic Goddess and then again in The King's Cookbook. What terrible wasted opportunities those programmes were. Then it was Heston's turn to recreate food from the past using exactly the same structure.  His two part series Feast  told us more about his extraordinary creativity as a contemporary chef than it did about the history of food. But it was the dinner parties at the end of each programme with the sycophantic celebrities that I could not stomach! Sorry Heston mate. It was not your fault, but the programme makers' insistence on using that unimaginative shoehorned format approach.

And now it is Sophie Dahl's turn with Mrs Beeton. What next? Naomi Campbell dates Escoffier, or Kate Moss goes to bed with Carême

Actually the best thing about Sophie's programme is that she did not attempt to cook much. That was left to Dr. Annie Gray, a Victorian food specialist who directs the domestic offices at Audley End. Dr. Gray knows what she is doing and at times I wished she would have shoved the doe-eyed Dahl out of the way and told us more about the food she was preparing. I also constantly felt the presence of Kathryn Hughes, who wrote the splendid The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton. I suspect she may have been the historical advisor to the programme. It would have been better if she and Dr. Gray had actually presented it together sans Sophie. Sorry Sophie!

The trouble with Mrs Beeton is that her celebrity and her enduring brand conspire to act as a smokescreen, which very effectively conceals a number of other more worthy nineteenth century food writers from our view. Most of the authors who were her main sources are sadly now forgotten. She was a compiler rather than an original writer and was certainly not a cook. She cruised widely on the Victorian internet and cut and pasted whatever she found. If she was alive today she would probably run a website called

As to factual accuracy, Sophie's effort was much better than in that Optomen programme of a few years ago on Hannah Glasse and the other on the King's Cook Book, which were riddled with jabberwocky and nonsense. The only mistake I noticed was that oft-repeated statement that Mrs Beeton was the first cookery author to list the ingredients at the beginning of each recipe. She was not. In Britain this was first done by J. Caird in The Complete Confectioner (Edinburgh: 1809) and in the US by Eliza Leslie in Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (Phildelphia:1828). Mrs Beeton's book was published in 1861.

Despite everything I have said here I actually enjoyed Miss Dahl. Some of her observations were intelligent and she showed a genuine enthusiasm which endeared me to her. But please Sophie, do not make any more programmes about our great food writers. Leave that to someone who knows what they are talking about.

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  1. I think this is a very fair review. I would also like to wave the flag in favour of the food: the pigeon pie (with the feet) was chosen for its effect, but it was delicious. The lobster was a typical Beeton recipe, being fiddly, annoying, and ultimately not terribly satisfying (her lobster cutlets, made in the shape of lamb cutlets and with a piece of shell in to resemble the bone) are fab, on the other hand. It would have been nice to have seen more reactions to the differing tastes and textures, but, as I cooked it, I'm biased!

  2. Yes. Programme makers love to dwell on the yuck factor in period food - like the pigeon's feet sticking out of the pie. They like to give the impression that food in the past was never very good. How wrong they are. Last year I cooked in twenty different country houses recreating dishes eaten by Queen Victoria for BBC2's Royal Upstairs Downstairs, a daytime show that went under the food radar. All of the food I recreated was straight from the recipe books without any changes to suit modern taste. All those who experienced it declared it superb. As to Mrs Beeton's pigeon pie Annie, I have made it here at Historic Food more than once. It is superb. What are a few pigeon's feet among friends?

  3. From my limited American perspective, I enjoyed the program, especially as I knew little about Mrs. Beeton other than finding endless references to her book while researching Regency domestic life. I did find the theories that she might have died of syphilis rather thin and quite unnecessary.

    I also think this a fair review, but I would warn you not to be unkind to your celebrity presenters. It's a species we don't have here in the US. If only we had American versions of Tony Robinson and Adam Hart-Davis and Lucy Worsley hosting programs about honest to goodness history.