LONG RUNNERS / 32: The Food Programme

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The Independent Culture
Age: 15. First broadcast, autumn 1979.

Frequency: 40 weeks a year on Radio 4. Goes out at lunchtime on Friday, with a repeat on Monday evening. Originally broadcast at Sunday lunchtime, until Desert Island Discs ousted it in the mid-Eighties.

Is the first broadcast live? No. Recorded on a Thursday. Once did a live programme from the Royal Show at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, when a panel debated intensive farming.

Ratings: average 1.5 million in total, Friday's programme commanding the slightly larger share.

Formula: mixture of investigation and celebration. Recent editions have covered subjects as diverse as the teaching of domestic science, and London's only Belgian restaurant. What you might call a balanced diet.

Hallmark: the voice of Derek Cooper, writer and presenter since the beginning, and member of the radio pantheon for many years now. For those old enough to remember, Cooper's avuncular presence will forever be associated with Tomorrow's World in the days when Raymond Baxter fronted it 25 years ago. Cooper, 69 on Wednesday, started out in journalism in the Fifties. A former controller of Radio Malaya and producer at ITN, he had his first taste of food journalism in 1966, when he worked for the Today programme and did a report on the disappointment felt by visitors to Britain at finding only ersatz versions of coq au vin or lasagne rather than good, indigenous British food. Cooper's subsequent article on the subject in The Listener then turned into a book - The Bad Food Guide - which struck such a chord with the would-be foodies of the day that it received 93 reviews and became a bestseller. He remembers missing only three of the 600 or so programmes broadcast so far.

History: Cooper first discussed the idea of a food programme - as distinct from a cookery programme - in the early Seventies with a former Tomorrow's World producer, Richard Wade. Aubrey Singer, then head of BBC TV, approved a pilot, but Wade was sidetracked into other things before it got any further. Cooper went on to present The Food Programme on BBC Scotland and another radio show, A la Carte, before he and Wade teamed up again in 1979 and the programme as we know it today finally came out of the slow-cooker.

Is it just about the British food scene? Far from it. The world is their, dare I say, oyster. Producer Sheila Dillon - six years in the job, longer than any of her predecessors - says that she is proudest of the programme's reports last year from Russia and Ukraine, featuring, among other things, the role of the Russian mafia in the control of food. On domestic issues, the programme is commendably un-metropolitan, a reflection in part of Cooper's strong links with Scotland. He has a home on the Isle of Skye.

So will it give me an unusual recipe for chicken? It might, but only in passing. It will be much more interested in telling you why the chicken you have bought doesn't taste of anything anyway, and what should be done about it. The programme has a campaigning, journalistic edge when it comes to the food industry which - in the case, for example, of a recent item on the power of American grain giants - takes it much closer to the grit of File on 4 or In Business than the wine-and-anodyne approach of BBC TV's Food and Drink. 'We want to be serious about food, but we hope not dull,' Cooper says. 'It's as important as literature or drama or any other part of a nation's culture. A society that fails to provide proper food is failing in its duty.'

Off-cuts: for six weeks while The Food Programme is off the air this summer, Cooper will present a series called Cooper's Particular Pleasures. Garlic, herring and raspberries are among the subjects he will savour.

Anything that makes you want to kick the radio in? The device whereby the week's topic is signalled by an appropriate passage from a song - it usually means an obscure country-and-western number that happens to contain a reference to waffles.

Little-known fact: Cooper doesn't cook much himself. Favourite places to eat are local to his home in south-west London: Kim's, a Singaporean restaurant in Richmond; and an Italian in Barnes called Riva.

How good is it? It's excellent. Embodies the timeless values of the best of Radio 4: intelligent, sceptical, authoritative, friendly.

(Photograph omitted)

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