Peter York On Ads: Fish fingers and Suggs come together to unite the country
Sunday 27 April 2008
As a child, my idea of heaven was Arctic Roll, a form of Swiss roll with ice cream inside. I also loved Birds Eye cream sponge cake – which seemed miles more special than the terrestrial kind. They were both frozen, and frozen was modern. And all the frozen imagery was exciting and somehow spacey.
In my first Bayswater rented room, frozen food was difficult to manage logistically in the square-inch ice-slot of a tiny fridge – but so worth it. And when I moved to a shared flat with a proper kitchen, I simply lived on the stuff. Rock-hard briquettes of frozen fish in sauce boiled in a pan with some bright green veg was my staple.
Shops were full of it. Great supermarket aisles were devoted to huge open freezers. Every imaginable kind of food endeavour could be rendered. There were basics – lumps of meat, cardboard plates of raspberries and so on – and the things rural types bought to put in their huge chest freezers in the outhouse. But the real glory was the stuff that only took frozen form: inventions that defined the Western world. They ranged from those lovely TV dinners with sliced grey beef, individual Yorkshire puddings, veg and gravy in an attractive segmented foil tray, through to fantastic puddings in the Black Forest gateau line of descent. If you'd got enough freezer space for it, you could eat children's party food all week.
It was such a glorious vision of demotic plenty that it was no wonder Mum had always gone to Iceland. It didn't matter that middle-class foodies were increasingly snobby about it all. The defining frozen food line, the crossover product that became the national shared experience, a childhood staple from north London to Northern sink estates, was the fish finger. These precisely cut portion-controlled goujons of cod (God knows what white fish they're assembled from now), were clearly good for children, and in most cases the only fish they'd eat in a year.
Frozen food has retreated now. It's pretty residual in most middle-class supermarkets – something to pad out the ice cream space. There are always fish fingers and emerald peas, but anything else has to fight for space. Instead there's cook-chilled food, the great Eighties upgrading, and the chill cabinets have taken over, with their pastas and en croutes, their Healthy Choices and famous foreign recipes tolerably enough executed. Frozen food is kitsch and underclass.
Part of the national memory bank, too, is Madness – particularly Suggs. Less worrying than their Midland Two-Tone contemporaries, more obviously child-friendly, with their funny family songs and funny boysie dance routines. They're huge again now, buoyed up by old fans in their thirties and forties and their children. Suggs is so universal, a National Treasure in the making – a pleasant-looking dad with a bit of go in him – that he's an obvious choice to front the new Birds Eye commercial.
And of course they play 'Our House' like mad. And the house in question, where a queue of parents and children enter from one door in one little house in a terrace of little houses, opens up inside to the width of the whole street. This huge act of gentrification has been lifted from The Beatles' 'Hard Day's Night', of course. This is Birds Eye – now private-equity owned like practically everything else – remaking the brand for the nostalgic modern world. And the defining moment in this attractive bit of Camden crossover comes with that symbolic icon of the hearty peasant food revival, the doorstep fish finger sarnie.
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