The Good Old Days with Keith Floyd

I’ve been thinking about Keith Floyd lately.

It happens on occasion, in a sporadic, nostalgic fashion (somehow – peculiarly? – when I watch some modern rubbish “food TV”). Here’s what I had to say about him a few years ago when I was being all academic and bookish:

Floyd was in many ways the pioneer of modern food television, at least in the UK and Europe, and particularly in terms of breaking down the artifice that had been a staple of televised cooking until he famously took the cameras out of the kitchen studio and into whichever exotic location he (iconic glass of wine in hand) happened to be cooking in.

He was postmodern before that word was fashionable, talking to his cameraman [“Clive, back to me, thanks”] and often enough scolding him for not paying enough attention to the food. Floyd directed his shows from the stage, and in that way made it impossible for his viewers not to be aware of the whole enterprise as a construction.

By not allowing us to feel like flies on a kitchen wall, Floyd rarely displayed the conceit of imagining that he was stepping into our worlds, and that he therefore had any sense of responsibility to his audience. On the contrary, his particular conceit – and also what made him so entertaining to watch – was that he was allowing us a glimpse into his world, and into a world of food and television where things did not always go according to scripts or plans. It was a world away from the patronizing refrains of “see how easy it is?” which populate our screens today.

Floyd became famous because he was eccentric in his ways, and because he did what he liked. As he wrote on his short-lived blog, “If you don’t like my approach you are welcome to go down to MacDonalds”. Perhaps this was also the reason, sadly, that his fame was soon eclipsed by a number of younger Turks who took inspiration from Floyd to make careers of food and television, as well as a number of television producers who took inspiration to create and nurture a new brand of stars, though less likely to be drinking on set, and therefore less potentially liable to their respective producers.

Slowly but surely, once Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson started appearing on television, we began to see less and less of Keith Floyd, until he virtually disappeared altogether.

Until 2009, that is, when his erstwhile producer David Pritchard published a book called “Shooting The Cook”, which details the rise (and fall) of their friendship and professional partnership. Later that year The Daily Mail published a series of extracts from Floyd’s forthcoming autobiography, “Stirred But Not Shaken”.

In it, Floyd tells his own version of Pritchard’s story, including what he saw as an important correction: “I don’t want to napalm the cooks (as Pritchard has accused me in his book Shooting the Cook). I want to napalm the producers.”

The book also chronicles a number of details of his life depressingly at odds with the Floyd we knew from television: four divorces, a bowel cancer diagnosis, and recurring bouts of heavy drinking and weariness from the fame he had inadvertently earned (walking onto the stage, a bottle in one hand, a glass in the other, he said in one of his last gigs, “Floyd Uncorked”: My name is Keith Floyd. And they were screaming, which is strange because I am not a pop star. I am just a cook.)

That same evening, the UK’s Channel 4 screened a film called “Keith Meets Keith”, which documents a trip by British comedian Keith Allen to France to meet Floyd, his one-time cooking icon. It was not a pleasant film to watch, because physically Keith Floyd was a shadow of his earlier television self.

But he was as acerbic as ever, and had no reservations about calling celebrity chefs – though not, this time, their producers – a bunch of attention seeking ‘cunts’, and pointing out that it made no sense for chefs to become celebrities in the first place, because, as he put it, a chef should be the chief of his kitchen, while the person who cooks is a cook. Just a few hours after “Keith Meets Keith” was broadcast, Keith Floyd died of a heart attack (following a meal, we are told, of oysters, partridge, pear cider jelly, wine and “a number of cigarettes”).© Me, 2012

What a dude.

Just like James Beard, Julia Child, and Jacques Pépin, now featured on the newish series of PBS’s American Masters. Which is great, in a way, but devastating in another, because it’s all about people – and approaches – that seem to be largely gone (and – because? – somehow thought of as wrong).

Don’t get me wrong – there’s still great stuff on “food TV”, by which I mean Anthony Bourdain, and Chef’s Table, and Mind of a Chef and … (???). But there’s no one out there actually cooking, and no TV station brave enough to show you anything, that’s “liable to go catastrophically wrong”, and then (almost) does, and might actually feature its star exclaiming “chef, I’m in the shit”!, as Floyd does in this excellent demonstration of how to make liver dumplings.

In one of those PBS American Masters shows, Judith Jones (who published Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking when no one else would), remarked that “if you don’t keep your face in front of the public, you’re soon forgotten”.

Too true. So here’s to Floyd, and here’s to Clarissa [Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda] Dickson Wright and Jennifer [just Mary] Paterson of the goddam Two Fat Ladies, who are about to be eclipsed by Food Flirts, who are probably two lovely old gals, but who didn’t get there first.

Maybe – and most likely – it’s not about getting there first. But it should be about keeping it free of the bullshit that nothing ever goes wrong in the kitchen. Of course it bloody does! Giada, Nigella, Ina, Guy, Jamie, and bloody Gary Rhodes, I’m looking at you.

Herewith, then, my personal favourite Floyd fuck-up, which is his salt-baked fish [“these things do happen in television programmes – I’ve ruined it; it’s totally overcooked”], because don’t we all like to see chefs be humans?

Thought so. Enjoy, and then go into the kitchen and fuck up with as much confidence as this gentleman.

I dare you: