It’s important to have an angle. To really know what it is you’re selling. But in the end, I think it all came down to the tits.
When the first series was being developed, they hadn’t even decided what kind of person they wanted to cast. I found that out at the end-of-shoot wrap party when a research manager’s PA showed me the list. She was drunk, and thought it was hysterical.
Urban Buddhist: Not religious, promotes meditation, organic, etc. Will train somewhere India-like – has Sri Lanka been done? White male, 34-55. Possible strapline ‘Set your pulses racing’.
Regional Jim: From Wales/Scotland/Ireland/the North, etc. Travels the country – think road trips with competitive element. Scope for sidekick, upper-class apprentice, comedy angle with their different approaches. White male, 35-55.
The Battleaxe: No nonsense, forceful, Anne Widdecombe/Hattie Jacques type. Wears a uniform, military, nurse, etc. Old-fashioned, teaches you what you ought to know. Possible strapline: ‘Whip you into shape’. White female, 35-45.
The Prodigy: Hip, plays in a band, skateboards or similar. Juxtaposition of old-fashioned skills with up-to-date interests. Tweets pictures of finished product. Lots of scope for Pinterest. Male or female, any ethnicity, 12-19.
I suppose it is a funny list. Hilarious, really. I think I’d watch them all. But when they saw my bosom preceding me into the interview, they went for it. I’m the Battleaxe.
They are fascinated by it, the bosom. The wardrobe department went to town on my costume; a crisp, double-breasted concoction, part chef’s whites, part old-fashioned hospital matron, cut and cantilevered and corseted so that my bosom juts like the horns of a ram, like the twin prows of a catamaran, like a Valkyrie swooping down from Valhalla to sternly inform the viewing public about egg whites and pastry. There was discussion over whether I should have a traditional chef’s hat, or even a dinner lady’s paper hairnet, but in the end, I sported a sleek head of iron-grey curls, lacquered and sprayed so elaborately that it stopped just short of drag queen. I wore red lipstick.
“This is the glamour of a woman who comes from a different generation,” they explained.
“A generation who remembers the war?” I suggested.
“Exactly,” the producer nodded. “That’s exactly right. From the Fifties.”
I was forty-one years old.
The credits show me arriving at work – where I work is not specified, it could be catering college, or a woman’s prison, or a department at the War Office – removing my jacket to reveal a frilly shirt with a pussy-cat bow, and buttoning up my chef’s jacket before taking my place at the counter. High heels, and a hint of seamed stocking. For all our society’s obsession with youth, there’s still space for the older lady. Human sexuality is monkey see, monkey want to do. Finally the camera pans up to my face. My name – not my real name, my own was too humdrum, too murmuring – scrolls across the screen: Miss Winters’ Home Management. I am ready to teach.
I’m not teaching anyone to cook, of course. I’m telling them how to be good, and what it is that displeases me. Waste displeases me. Laziness displeases me. Jars of sauce displease me. When they have scrubbed and chopped and reduced and combined, and wiped up after themselves, and presented the food to someone else (at a table, please, we do not stand alone in our kitchens, shovelling steaming forkfuls into our mouths as other chefs may do) then they know that they have been good, and I will be pleased.
I never make up the recipes. After the second series, I refused to even pretend I had anything to do with them. The secret isn’t my granny’s cooking, or a spice I picked up when I was in Marrakesh. The secret, my darlings, my bosom-loving acolytes, my hungry babies, is that you will never eat what I cook. You will never even smell it. Now that cooking shows demand mostly a single shot process (no discreet cutting-away to switch pans) the jiggery-pokery involved is extraordinary. I never use unadulterated flour in a recipe. We slip sugar into everything, because it darkens and burnishes, puts a shine on a glaze, and makes the viewer think of the meaty, savoury taste of charred meat. In reality, that chicken breast is pink and wobbly in the centre, and has the sticky sweetness of a crème brulee. The colourants, the emulsifying agents, the stabilisers. Some of it’s not even edible. I don’t know what they inject into the eggs to ensure that the custard is vivid, but I have been warned not to lick the bowl.
I’ll admit I was naïve in the beginning. Along with not realising I had been cast from a list, that the food wasn’t real, and that no one was interested in actually cooking my recipes, I had not expected the fan mail. How much I look forward to watching your programme, I have recorded all your shows. We are advised not to read it. I always keep my work surface tidy, you would be proud if you could see my kitchen. There used to be a runner who opened it all, and weeded out the really odd stuff. I have been so very, very naughty in the past, using pastry from a packet. It can get weird, the producer warned me, get very weird. You would be so angry if you could see the mess I’ve made, I picture you telling me off until I wet myself. You notice my wet pants, but it just makes you more cross, and you pick up a spatula. Apparently, I receive more cock-shots than any other presenter. After the second series, I insisted on opening them all myself. The sacks are delivered to my driver, he puts them in the boot, and nothing is ever said about them. After the third series, I began replying.
It was halfway through the fourth series that the producers began making noises about me taking up some of the other offers that had been coming in. Previously, these had all been rejected – offers to ballroom dance, to explore my family tree, to take part in a project to rebuild a hostel. And I knew what that meant. The format was growing tired. The producers felt it was time for me to strike out wildly, rinsing out the last dregs of cash and exposure. Like a plant suddenly placed in a dark cupboard, I was expected to make one last desperate bid for the light, frantically growing thin, etiolated stalks which groped for the sun.
I refused. They insisted. We compromised on a series of celebrity editions of my show. I did not enjoy these. Every week, I would team up with some hapless soap actor or reality pop star, and try to interest them in learning the basics. They would clown around and I would disapprove, and the studio audience loved it. The celebrities always tried to be my friend, as if they had all been to the same charm school that warned them to be kind on the way up. Or they were kept on such a tight leash by their management that they didn’t dare to step out of line. I am no use to you I wanted to say Stop trying so hard.
It was the letters that kept me going. It wasn’t only men who sent them. But men seemed more likely to send a photographs, specifically of their penis. The least imaginative simply shut the penis in a copy of my book and sent a blurry phone shot, but the more elaborate ones could only have been photographed by a third party. Sometimes they were witty, if you can describe a penis poking out of my failsafe Yorkshire pudding (p23), or the loin of pork in cider and mustard (p48) as witty. I’ll be honest, I saw so many penis-as-sausage-roll, penis-as-hotdog, penis-amongst-the-canapés photographs that I became jaded. But mostly they were hopeful. The penises, despite the pins sticking out of them like a voodoo doll, the tension in the bound scrotum as it was tugged downwards, were still jaunty, still aloft, hoping to find favour.
But even the celebrity stunts began to wane. It was softening my image; I was becoming too friendly. My fan letters reflected this. You should have been more firm with her, they lamented. You need to show them who’s boss. If I had spoken back to you like that, I wonder what you would have done? And then went on to describe in detail. In desperation, the production team arranged for me do a guest appearance on a live Saturday afternoon show, Full Steam.
Full Steam was unashamedly laddish. It was presented by Bruce Richardson, a middle-aged, paunchy man who wore too-tight shiny shirts and a carefully-greying hairpiece, who was famous for his “boisterous” views and unabashed lechery. This was billed as the clash of the decade: the Battleaxe versus the Male Chauvinist Pig. Half the audience wanted to see me take him down a peg, the other half longed to see me blush and giggle like a schoolgirl.
I intended to do neither. The production team may have had the power to hawk me around the daytime TV circuit like an ageing goodtime-girl, but that did not mean I had to play nicely. However, if they wanted great TV, a memorable and magnificent swan-song, they could have it.
I might not be a good cook when the cameras aren’t rolling, but I knew enough basic chemistry to simmer two ounces of ground cannabis with a pound of unsalted butter and a cup of water. After an hour, I strained the mixture through a muslin, allowed it to set and poured off the now-separated water from the hard, pale butter.
The show went well. Full Steam did not normally have a cooking segment, preferring instead to concentrate on sports, technology and ‘light’ news stories, so a temporary kitchen had been installed on set. I had been instructed to demonstrate ‘breakfast muffins’, the slightly unsavoury implication being that the viewers would only be interested in cooking something that might impress an overnight guest. I would be helping them get laid.
Richardson hammed it up, pretending not to know a wooden spoon from a metal one, and ‘accidentally’ calling me Sir, which drew titters from the studio audience. In his world, this was the ultimate insult; to call a man a woman or a woman a man. If he had read my postbag, I thought, he would understand a little more about how broad such roles can be.
I made him eat a whole muffin. I could see from his face that he didn’t want to; apart from the slightly unfamiliar taste, it kept his mouth full and thus unable to interrupt me. I coquettishly called him a “growing lad” and insisted, right to the last bite. “Good boy,” I said at last, and smiled, imagining the collective sigh from my fans. Some of them would have done anything to receive this praise from me, and all he had done was eat a muffin.
I didn’t have long to wait. I was supposed to stay on the sofa and comment on a VT clip of a new computer game, but within ten minutes, Richardson was finding it hard to concentrate. His eyes began sliding around, searching for the Autocue, and a fine bloom of sweat appeared on his upper lip. His head lolled on his neck, and his hand gripped the royal blue serge of the sofa. There was rising consternation amongst the crew, and the floor manager was signalling desperately to cut to a break, when Richardson suddenly let out a tiny sigh and slumped forward. His body seemed to sag for a second, then he slithered to the ground, as boneless as a pork belly.
I had not intended this. I had imagined him lightly stoned, laughing, off his game. I had imagined me taking charge of the rest of the show; a seasoned presenter like myself stepping into the breech. I had imagined whispers about him being ‘overworked’ or ‘unwell’. Not this strange, pathetic shape already being fussed over by paramedics and lifted quickly and professionally onto a stretcher. The studio filled with green-clad figures and worried faces, checking for a pulse, checking for breathing, when even I could see that he had neither. Cardiac event, they seemed to be saying.
Richardson’s body – that’s what it plainly, obviously had become – was being wheeled out of the studio to the waiting ambulance. And I had done this.
I panicked. The last of the green-clad figures were now leaving the studio, and I grabbed one of them by the sleeve.
“It was me,” I said. “It’s my fault.”
The paramedic was a young man with an open, handsome face. His blue eyes looked more suited to gazing over cornfields or laughing up from the deck of a yacht than supervising the sick and dying.
“Miss Winters.” he said. “I’m a huge fan.”
“I put cannabis in the muffins, I never meant for – ”
“I even wrote to you once.” His freckled face suddenly flushed along his jaw.
“If there’s anything that can be done, now you know what’s happened – ”
“Done?” His eyes flicked to the vanishing stretcher. “I don’t think there’s much that can be done for him now. He was a heart attack waiting to happen. I’ve seen it a hundred times.”
“But they’ll check, they’ll find out, they’ll find it in his system – ”
“Shush.” He raised a hand as if to run it down my cheek, but halted the gesture. “Don’t worry about any of that. It’s you who needs taking care of now.”
“What do you mean?”
“We can’t let you be dragged into this. Not someone like you. The muffins, you say?”
“I’ll take care of it. I’ll pick them up now for testing, but don’t worry. I can assure you the samples will go astray.” He glanced at the temporary kitchen set.
“But if they test his – him?”
“ ‘TV star in drugs death’? Yeah, his reputation’s about to get a whole lot spicier.” He seized my hand and suddenly buried his face in my palm, pressing his lips into its dampness. “Please let me do this for you. I’m such a huge fan.”
What else could I do?
“Good boy,” I said.