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GASTRONOMY DOMINIE: The Genius of Floyd on France. First published in Fire & Knives. Republished in The Chap.

(Both 2012)

If, as is claimed by some, Bob Dylans Highway 61 Revisited marked the moment when pop music transcended the genre and became a serious art form, then I believe that Floyd on France, broadcast in 1987 was one of the great evolutionary touchstones of TV cookery. There are now whole television channels that owe a significant debt to the two-headed genius of Keith Floyd and David Pritchard. It is a revolutionary and curiously unheralded fork in the road of British television. Unheralded until now.

It was the first thing I can remember my mum taping off the TV. Remember taping? I do, because she taped over my beloved copy of Firefox with Floyd on France.

Watching that same amateurishly recorded tape now, with episodes bookended with captured snippets of Frank Bough, and the occasional reappearance of Clint Eastwood thinking in Russian, is a bittersweet experience. Of course theres the horrible reminder that this is 25 years ago and none of my 12 year-old dreams have come true (Im still neither a member of The Goonies nor am I going out with Debbie Gibson). Then theres a quiet, reflective disappointment that this wasnt just the next Darwinian step in the development of gastronomic TV, it was the peak: unmatched a quarter of a century later.

Like Keith Floyds TV career itself, the magnificence of FOF is largely fluked. There is a guerrilla-style quality to the series, owing to the manner in which Pritchard et al

begged, borrowed and conned their way into various French kitchens, domestic and professional. This required a front man that could react with spontaneity and charm to the most unexpected upsets. And upset, he seemed to be, a great deal of the time: harassed by the increasing demands of his director and hamstrung by circumstance. For example: the day when he had to cook Coq au Vin in Gevrey Chambertin for 35 grape pickers in a kitchen small enough to fit into a widowers bedsit.

This irascibility, always fun to watch, was evenly tempered with Floyds delightful, smoky, public school charm. As a French friend called Monique leans into shot to help stir the Soupe de Poisson, he coos, To make this soup you need a beautiful lady with blue eyes.

However, his beguiling manner also came in handy when dealing with adversaries as well as friends, and there was no greater nemesis (perhaps in TV cookery history) than Madame Mimi from Biarritz - she of the infamous Piperade incident. As Floyd gamely tries to cook up this Basque egg and pepper classic, terrifying Mimi tuts and hisses her disapproval at every turn of the spoon. A cooking instructor herself, she provides a commentary of relentless criticism, culminating in an unwillingness to even sample the final product on the grounds of predictable disappointment. Floyd translates her eventual review thus: The peppers are raw. Theres not enough salt. Theres not enough pepper. In brief, its absolute rubbish. In a flash, Mimi has taken over and cooks up her own Piperade as Floyd looks on. He compares the two dishes by dismissing his own efforts as lumpy, nasty British Rail style scrambled eggs with a tin of old ratatouille stuffed into it, before taking Mimi by the hips and suggesting that We should go off together somewhere.

I am struggling to think of a modern TV chef who would allow him or herself to be so completely upstaged, or who would allow their culinary skills to be so exposed to such justifiable criticism. After all, what are edit suites for? Who would buy my book if they thought I couldnt cook in the first place? Isnt the point of this whole show that I know better than everyone else? Yet it is Floyds willingness to appear the second-cleverest person in the room that gives him a winning vulnerability. Reunited with an old mentor, Claude Arnaud in Provence, Floyd assists him with the puppyish enthusiasm of a Home Economics student trying to win a star from his teacher. It was the twin ingredients of quiet subservience and a hand grenade temper, that gave Floyd on France its heart and soul. The balance wouldnt last throughout the entire Floyd canon.

It wasnt until a cooking sketch in Bergerac, that I realised the importance of a key factor that hadnt even occurred to me before. They cant afford the film to show the cooking of a meal from beginning to end, deadpans Floyd as he plates up Escalope de Veau au Moutarde Dijon (an absolute cinch to make and glorious with a crisp green salad and wild rice).

Film! Its all on film. Where later Floyds followed the rest of the TV industry into using video cameras with ubiquity, his first few series were shot on honest-togoodness celluloid. It might seem a trifling matter, but it is a lynchpin in FOFs claim to greatness. Whilst video gave cameramen greater flexibility and gave the producers a licence to rein in the budget, the sterile effect it had upon its subject invited a note of disposability to the fray. Compare your pristine copy of The White Album - kept out

of the sunlight, photos, posters and inner sleeves intact, both records regularly wiped free of any dust with the free CD you recently ripped off the front of a magazine. They are both essentially the same product, but youll throw one of them away after burning a few tracks to your iPod, while the other will be left in your will to your favourite grandchild.

So it is with Floyd on France. It is a classic vinyl album of a show. Not that Floyd seemed to care. Sorry about this, he groans over some glorious footage of fishermen lolling on the Dordogne. This is where Clive tries to win a few prizes for really evocative photography. Such distraction was Floyds bte noir, but thanks to Clives efforts, the series features footage that makes ones limbs tranquillise. The Dordogne scenes alone resemble a mid-eighties Pink Floyd video. You can feel your fingers reaching for a travel agents website as you watch, even 25 years later, and for a programme created to extol the virtues of all things French, this is no small achievement.

It isnt easy to create a world into which one desperately seeks to immerse oneself. James Cameron had to spend $200 Million to achieve that strange Pandora homesickness phenomenon in Avatar. For a cookery show to beget such emotions is extraordinary. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall took a similar leaf out of Floyds recipe book with the first River Cottage shows which as well as being seminal cookery programmes, were also a bucolic fantasy with a Robinson Crusoe narrative.

For me, the magic of Floyd on France didnt stop with the television. The accompanying cookbook became a trusted companion, a constant reassuring presence

in consecutive kitchens. To quote Woody Allen, I idolised it all out of proportion. I discovered with glee, that we owned two dessert wine glasses just like the ones on the back and I sulked for two days when I broke one by accident. And I credit the front cover entirely for my bewildering fondness for oak panelling.

Watching the show for the first time, as a twelve year-old boy, Keith Floyd presented a sort of hero figure. He was the same age as my parents but still retained the arrested naughtiness of an untamed schoolboy. Fresh out of shorts, I was already shopping around for influences, building up the ideal of the man I wanted to grow up to be.

Revisiting the show now, that irresistible spirit of mischief is still very much the star of the show. Floyd and Pritchard appear to be grown up alumni from Willans and Searles Molesworth books: expelled from St. Custards and inveigled somehow into the BBC. Still smoking and drinking because of the naughtiness factor, yet always able to draw upon a suitable Latin quote if the moment demanded. Apparently, other children my age wanted to grow up to be Nick Faldo. Deus avertat!

The high point of their double act came in a bit of voice-over while a truculent French chef silently created a beautiful dish of chicken with freshwater crayfish. The use of voice-over in the series was in itself an art form, robbing the device of its innate pomposity with a precise irreverence. In one sketch, Floyd audibly flicks through the pages of Hugh Johnsons wine guide undercutting his own presumed knowledge of fine wines. In another, as he approaches a restaurant in white shirt and yellow trousers, he quips, Heres one of me again, dressed like a custard tart.

Out of nowhere, David Pritchards voice joins Floyds as he explains this bellicose Frenchmans actions. The atmosphere was so tense, explains Floyd. The director didnt like the cook very much. The cook resented the film crew being in there

Enter Pritchard: He really was very miserable wasnt he? The lighting man nearly bopped him. Im really glad this sequence is coming to an end. Its really gone on a bit, hasnt it? Then, through stifled giggles and fluffed lines, Floyd tries (as always) to maintain the integrity of the recipe, while Pritchard complains that the pictures are self-explanatory. The warmth of good-natured camaraderie is enough to brown toast.

It didnt last. Various stories have emerged through the years about the deterioration of the Floyd/Pritchard relationship. Floyd made his claims in his semi-posthumous and surprisingly nasty autobiography, Stirred Not Shaken. Pritchard offered a counter-version in his far more enjoyable reminiscence, Shooting The Cook.

I suspect that the true nature of making these shows, the endless travel, the boring hotels, the loneliness and estrangement, as well as the constant monkey-performances of contractual obligation, eventually became utterly unbearable for Keith Floyd. In contrast to the bouncing Toad, Poop-pooping his way through his cooking sketches in the first half of the Floyd oeuvre, later shows present a somnolent, weary fellow, his infectious enthusiasm cast adrift in a bottle somewhere like a suicide note. At one point in Floyd Around The Med, he pads around a restaurant kitchen, silently preparing something or other. Finally, he croaks, Thats cooking, baby with such

dead-eyed disdain that you half expect him to crawl awkwardly into the oven and padlock the door from the inside.

David Pritchards gift for finding a great front man: a mate for the audience to befriend and be guided into new territories, continued with his Rick Stein programmes. Steins great skills and enthusiasm, combined with an Eyeorish despondency and occasional fiery rants at petty bureaucracy make him a beloved travel companion for millions to this day.

I couldnt watch Keith Allens programme about Keith Floyd in 2009. Not all of it. It was like seeing your favourite uncle from childhood for the first time in years, the one who always took a pound coin from behind your ear and let you try his wine secretly while no one was looking. But now youre in the pub trying to reminisce about the good old days but all he wants to do is tell you how much he hates your dad and always fancied your mum and he needs to borrow some money to buy his teeth back from the pawnbrokers and sorry about the smell It was unbearable to watch and I had to turn it off before the end. Perhaps Floyd agreed. He died while he was watching it.

If there is a single moment from Floyd in France to treasure above all, it is of the chef, shirtless, leaning back in his chair against a tree, glass of wine cradled in his lap, gazing up into the beautiful French sky with a look of serene contentment on his face. Britains first rock star chef, in the middle of filming his own Exile on Main Street, privately aware that he was creating the greatest cookery programme ever made.

On the night he died, I slipped Keith Floyds theme song, Waltzinblack by The Stranglers into the iPod in my restaurant. When it began, the chatter in the room slowly died down and for a moment, everyone smiled warmly. Then they returned to their walnut tart with Armagnac icing (Floyd on France. Page 241).