Derek Cooper: Creator of Radio 4's 'The Food Programme' who devoted his life to extolling the virtues of eating well
Tuesday 22 April 2014
Derek Cooper had an immediately recognisable voice. Deep and deliberate, authoritative yet unpretentious, it invited tasty comparisons to treacle, to custard poured over a syrup sponge, to a peaty Islay malt. This last is the best, for Cooper loved the highlands and islands of Scotland. He wrote many fine books about them, produced some marvellous television programmes about them and never missed a chance to extol the food – and indeed the drink – they produce. Moreover Radio 4's The Food Programme, Cooper's brainchild, won the Glenfiddich broadcasting prize so often that the company was eventually driven to cancel its radio category.
There was simply no competition. Regularly every week for more than 20 years that great voice kept the listening public informed of the latest developments in food, both here and abroad. Cooper's interest, however, was not in faddy recipes, still less in the ephemeral glamour of celebrity chefs: those were the domain of television. What he did was far more important. He worked tirelessly to celebrate and to raise awareness of good, natural food production and he made it his business – almost his crusade – to discover and to expose bad or dangerous practices, wherever they arose.
His campaigns seemed at times like scaremongering, but they were not. He was, for example, the first to use the words bovine spongiform encephalopathy on air, alerting us all to the dangers of CJD at a time when John Gummer was cheerily giving his daughter hamburgers. He identified the major ingredient of Wall's ice cream as air; as founder-chairman of the Guild of Food Writers he launched a magnificently successful campaign for the introduction of undyed kippers and smoked haddock to supermarket shelves; he warned against intensive farming (particularly of salmon) and the genetic modification of food. His contribution to the remarkable increase in popularity and availability of organic foods is undeniable. He probably exerted a bigger and better influence on the eating habits of the English than anyone else, even including Elizabeth David.
He was born in 1925, just in time to see active service in the Navy. He joined up at 18 and left at 22. He read English at Oxford and his subsequent career was in radio, television and books. After a spell with Radio Malaya in the 1950s he joined ITN as a roving reporter and worked for 17 years on Tomorrow's World. In the late 1960s he wrote an article about the nasty things foreigners might discover on the menu in England. Reprinted in The Listener under the headline "The Bad Food Guide", this grew into a book which bore the same title and attracted a phenomenal 91 reviews. Though he never again provoked such a response, his writing career was firmly established.
Among the best of his many publications are Skye, which he wrote in 1970 and which ran to four editions, and The Road to Mingulay, an informative and beguiling account of a trip he made through the Western Isles in 1985. The Hebridean connection came through his mother, Jessie Margaret Macdonald. Born on Lewis, she grew up on Skye, an island her son always loved: for 25 years he had a house there. His mother, he would proudly boast, could gut a herring with her fingers.
Though he never claimed such skills himself, he did enjoy telling the story of travelling through Scotland with the editor of a butch-sounding publication called Rod and Gun. They came upon an injured pheasant, "but this fellow proved incapable of wringing its neck," he said. "So I did. I kept it in my hotel room overnight and brought it back on the train the next day – and it was the best pheasant I ever ate".
He was unlikely to have cooked it himself. In 1953 he married Janet Feaster, an architect who happened also to be an excellent cook. They had a son and a daughter and two much-loved grand-daughters, living in America. Theirs was the kind of long and excellent marriage that depended on deep affection laced with unfettered frankness. Had Janet maintained her own career, he tentatively suggested one day when I was visiting them at home in Richmond, he'd simply have been forced to learn to cook. Briskly, she dismissed the notion. "Darling, you're so mucky you'd leave a trail of washing-up and rubbish. No, you'd live on take-aways".
It was a naughty tease, and we all enjoyed it as such – particularly as Derek had just enjoyed a large second helping of Janet's unparalleled fish pie. The quick fix of fast food was always treated with suspicion by the Coopers – and by Sheila Dillon, his long-term producer, collaborator and, eventually, his worthy successor. The first Food Programme Awards, in 2000, included a booby prize for Cadbury Schweppes, who had offered schools financial incentives to introduce vending machines: at the second, in June 2001, it was McDonald's turn to receive the singularly uncoveted Mouldy Pork Pie Award.
However, much as Cooper loved eating well, he was never a food snob. He hated the appellation "foodie" and would warn journalists sternly against using it of him. He was a kindly, polite and dapper man who retained a charming, almost boyish air of excitement and enthusiasm well into his seventies. A lifelong Labour voter, he believed firmly that everybody has the right to good, fresh, additive-free food, but he always remained aware of the dangers of pontificating.
"If you're a mother without much money in a supermarket" he once said "you need to buy things the children will eat – even if that's chips and chocolate". His heart remained in the right place all his life. On his desk he kept the words of Dom Helder Camara: "When I give food to the poor they call me a saint: when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."
Derek Macdonald Cooper, writer and broadcaster: born London 25 May 1925; OBE 1997; married 1953 Janet Feaster (died 2010; one daughter, one son); died 19 April 2014.
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