The stove that's hot in Hollywood

Tinseltown is gaga about Agas, it seems, as the cast-iron chunk of British kitchen culture finds its way into films as well as film-stars' homes, writes Ann Treneman
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The Independent Online
Time magazine started it by printing three pages on the Great British Stove. But the Express has gone the most gaga over the Aga saga with its story on the hottest new thing in Hollywood. Apparently, over in Tinseltown, both Julia Roberts and Dustin Hoffman own Agas. "Forget fashion or fragrance, the latest must-have in America is nothing less than an old-fashioned British cooker," according to the Express. "Americans covet our history because they haven't any of their own, and the closest way they can attain this is to buy British."

I consulted Ian Heath, marketing manager of Aga-Rayburn, to find out what was going on in Tinseltown. "We haven't been going out of our way to get that business," he said cagily. But he did reveal that the craze is spreading even into animation. "Have you seen 101 Dalmations yet?" he asked. "Well, I believe Cruella de Vil has one in the kitchen - a cream two-oven."

I could not believe it. Well, if Cruella had one, then other villainesses were sure to follow. Soon Cinderella would be scouring away as her step sisters warmed their bunions on its doors, and the Wicked Queen would be admiring her reflection in the stove's insulating lids ("Mirror, mirror on the Aga"). It's a whole new market.

But there is something suspicious here. Can Miss de Vil really own a cream two-door? This is a woman who wears Siberian tiger and sleeps in a feathered bed, as in plumed. At the very least one would expect a zebra- striped four-door that stands on red stiletto heels and sports a marabou flue. Further investigation was needed.

I rang several Americans to find out more, but they feigned ignorance. Didn't they feel an overwhelming desire to discover Britain's ancient rural roots by purchasing the cooker invented by a Swede in 1922 and manufactured in the Midlands using Russian ore and Australian coal? "No, not really. Never heard of it", was the universal response.

It turns out that only 300 exist in the entire nation (that's six per state) but then it does weigh 1,000lb and cost pounds 10,000 (as opposed to about pounds 3,775 here). So why was it so special? Somehow saying it had no dials and lots of ovens that you had little control over did not do it justice. More impressive were its globetrotting ways - an owner in the Lebanon flies out Aga technicians once a year and there is a solid fuel one in an Antarctica Quonset hut - and the fact that it is a literary phenomenon.

For instance, there's Julia of Church Cottage in Joanna Trollope's The Men and the Girls: "The kitchen was warm, even at two in the morning, because of the Aga, the dark-blue Aga that Julia had chosen with such grave care. Hugh had teased her about it

Silence greeted this passage - time to give up on transatlantic education - but there was more than a hint of Cruella in those words. Understatement is not her thing, but she does wear shiny shoes (and bodysuits, too) and her zebra-chaired sitting room is immaculate.

Mary Berry, author of The Aga Book, claims that her own four-oven claret blue Aga is not a stove but a way of life. But is it a Hollywood way of life? "I don't know about Hollywood but I went to America last year to do Aga workshops - Atlanta, New York and around - and America is the perfect place because if you are rich there you have two houses and one is in the mountains, and what better welcome can you get than from an Aga?"

She also has Americans who fly to England for her Aga cooking workshops (she is booked well into May) and her Aga-ness is infectious. "Whenever I empty the washing machine I automatically pick out things like that jumper I want to wear tonight, and carefully fold it on the simmering plate, and it is soon cosy and ready."

Some of Mrs Berry's clients have come back 14 times, and not all are Julias living happily ever after in Church Cottage. "My people at workshops tell me all sorts of stories. Like, `I don't mind my husband going but I don't want to lose the Aga.' Or, if they are getting divorced, `It's bad enough losing him but not the Aga, too.'" One can see the ad now - a Diana-lookalike slams the door, throws the keys away and drives off in the Aga.

Agas have already moved away from a purely cosy image. "In television commercials they are there as an upmarket consumer durable - an AB1 kitchen that people aspire to," says Ian Heath. It is also getting easier to own one: the power flue means you no longer need a chimney, and the new Aga Companion is a conventional electric cooker in disguise.

But Aga will never be just a cast-iron shell with style because its owners revel in it so much. There is even a MAGA-zine for them to write in to, and it was here that I came across the most likely explanation for the Cruella factor. "A further use our plate-warming oven has had is saving the lives of sick puppies," writes Lady du Burlay of Buntingford, "and on one occasion drying off six four-week-old puppies who had to have a medical bath."

Of course, Cruella would not be using the plate-warming oven. As she announces to the puppy man: "I don't care how you do it. Drown them. Burn them. Got any chloroform? I don't care how you kill the little beasts, just do it and do it now." As only Cruella could say: "I love the smell of near extinction."

But then, as I was sitting in the movie theatre, disappointment struck. Oh, there is an Aga, all right, but it is in the wrong kitchen. The person puttering over it is not Cruella but Nanny, played with Aga-like homeliness by Joan Plowright. It is comforting, it is warm, it is a stove for saving puppies, not roasting them. It is a stove for the Julias of this world, and not those who drive a car with the number plate "Dev IL". No one's gaga in this saga after all, but it was not-so-nice while it lasted.