Grace Dent on Television...Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets BBC4

Thanks to Nigel, I spent the evening recalling happy memories of confectionery cravings

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The Independent Culture

Although to the naked eye Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets may have looked like the BBC in a higher state of whimsy, it transpired to be something rather  important and jarring. Here, Nigel went “on a journey” to uncover the importance of sweets in our childhoods and therefore in our adult memories.

I’m always suspicious of these documentary “journeys” as they always begin with a presenter filmed in their own home, pretending to type on a laptop while theatrically “pondering”. Or worse still, filmed wandering the streets, pausing to muse at the anthropological mish-mash of mankind, while their voiceover, recorded at a much later date in a dusty BBC booth, intones:   “I have ALWAYS wondered about this thing, so now I’m going on a journey.”

Truth be told, it’s never usually the presenter’s idea to “go on the journey”.  Usually it’s the brainchild of a TV producer with a temporary period of grace at the channel, or of a production company owed a favour as their last idea “Enlightening Journeys into Sculpture”  was stolen, renamed “Stone-Cold Bruvs” and stuck on BBC3. 

I cannot say whether Nigel Slater has over recent years been gripped to the core with a wonder of confectionery; however I do know I love it when the BBC makes Nigel go and speak to anyone, as Nigel socialising always has the air of my tom cat when he hears his basket being yanked out of the cupboard, and the wafting of the once-a-year inoculation cards.

Let’s be clear: I bloody love Nigel Slater. If he says he’s on a journey, I’m on board. I love him, I love his way of cooking – “simple things smeared in other simple things and enjoyed for what they are” – and I love his barely concealed,  arch view of life. Nigel, like myself and many other sensible souls, clearly finds “other people” a necessary bind and is actually very content in his very white house with no furniture or clutter, where it’s never entirely clear if he’s moved in yet or not. I love to watch Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers and imagine some poor producer pep-talking him in the front of his Volvo: “Look Nigel, you’ve only got to make pleasantries with these organic beetroot growers for FIVE minutes tops. Just rifle about in their allotment and say, ‘Mmm lovely’. Just for a bit of colour. NO the whole show can’t just be you alone in an empty house, grilling a lamb chop and occasionally Skypeing Nigella.”

In Life is Sweets, an idea that seemed flippant in the opening scenes, was quickly made pertinent when Nigel was invited to a real, old-fashioned sweet shop full of sherbet flying saucers, mint limes, jelly babies, gobstoppers and a thousand other jars of childhood fun. He argued that sweets unlock powerful, often bittersweet memories: the parma violets in your aunty’s handbag, the jelly babies you shared in the playground; the marshmallows your mum ate; the gobstoppers all the bigger kids showed off with; the sherbet fountain you spilled down your school shirt; the boiled sweets in a tin for long journeys. This was back in the time when we rewarded, pacified and bribed children with sweets. My highlight of most days during the 1970s was a blast of “O Sole Mio” from the ice-cream van and ransacking the back of the sofa for coppers to buy something sweet. Oh, the poor sugar-forbidden kiddiewinks of 2012 – all they have to break-up their day is their mother rustling in the massive bag of “kid crap” all mums carry everywhere before producing a “tempting” packet of Organic Dehydrated Bracken with the cheery cry, “He can’t have sugar, he goes haywire!”

Nigel’s journey also took him through the history of boxed chocolates –  Milk Tray, Terry’s All Gold, and the exquisite decadence of a box of Black Magic —back when presenting someone with a selection of soft-centres meant something  important (you were either marrying them or it was Jesus’s  birthday). Oh, the excitement of that tin of Quality Street  appearing in the Dent household in early December, not to be opened until the 25th. The arduous period of childhood  deferred gratification for the whole month,  tested by thoughts of those green triangles and big,  purple caramels. There were never enough of the latter, and if one of my brother’s had to be hurt so I could secure most of them, well it was a price worth paying.

“You can tell a lot about a person by the sweet they choose,” argued Nigel. I concur. Anyone who opens a tin of Quality Street this December, pulls off the lid, inhales the fresh chocolaty, foil-wrapper air, then reaches immediately for the toffee penny should be declared mentally unwell in the gravest possible terms.

Nigel’s childhood  – after his mum died and his brothers moved out, he rattled about a big house while his dad worked late  – was a moving affair. Although I’m sure Nigel would have hated it, I wanted to give him a hug. Back then, Nigel’s father wasn’t big on cuddles, but he’d often leave his son a marshmallow (Mrs Slater’s favourite) on a saucer beside the little boy’s bed just to show him they both shared a common grief. Yes, life can be  horrible, but sometimes it’s sweet.