Eating for England by Nigel Slater, dramatized by Sarah Daniels

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Eating for England by Nigel Slater, dramatized by Sarah Daniels.  Dir.  Polly Thomas.  Perf.  Julian Rhind-Tutt, Celia Imrie.  BBC Radio 4, 29 December 2014 – 2 January 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 1 February 2015


Nigel Slater’s cookery programs are a regular fixture on the two BBC channels we receive – BBC Entertainment and BBC HD.  Making use of everyday ingredients, Slater prepares an array of tempting dishes which might be called comfort rather than gourmet food; the kind of thing that might be eaten by busy people when they have come home late and don’t want to buy ready meals from the local supermarket or convenience store.


In his memoir Eating for England, first published in 2007, Slater comes across as a remarkably talented writer with a gift for describing the sheer sensuousness of food; its colours, tastes and shapes, and the effect that it can have on individuals once it’s been tasted.  Food not only provides a form of comfort; it can introduce people to new experiences that appeal to all five senses.  Food can look just as good as it tastes, especially if it is well presented.


Sarah Daniels’ dramatization focused mostly on Nigel’s (Julian Rhind-Tutt’s) long-term relationship with his Aunt Elvie (Celia Imrie).  This was perhaps the most important aspect of Slater’s life; his mother died when he was only nine years old, and he took a long time to adjust himself to the experience.  Whether he has actually ever recovered from it is debatable (is it possible, one may ask?), but his aunt provided a source of much-needed stability during his darkest moments.  A food-lover as well, she enjoyed certain special occasions, such as shopping at Peter Jones and eating afternoon tea afterwards.  Tea, as a meal, is not essential, but it provides a series of moments that are, quite simply, indescribable; the taste of buttered scones and jam appeals to everyone, not just tourists in search of the authentic “British” experience.


While the adaptation dramatized Slater’s growing-up with a good deal of humour, it did not neglect its painful aspects.  Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Slater was brought up never to show emotion – when his Uncle Humphrey passed away, and he was invited to the funeral, he was led to believe that crying would be in some way “unmanly,” so he spent much of his time trying to divert his mind.  The sight of an over-fed mouse emerging from a loaf of crusty bread, and trying to move about the church – while the funeral was in progress – provided one such diversion.  Nonetheless the strain proved too much for him, and the tears eventually came.


Even when he had grown up, Slater was still emotionally quite immature.  His aunt was forced to move from her well-house into an old people’s home, where she lived to be just over a hundred years old.  The production vividly captured her experiences there, as she learned how to cope with indifferent food and her fellow-residents, at least one of whom (Buffy Davies) was stone deaf.  When she died, she evidently told one of the nurses how much she loved Nigel; in all innocence, the nurse passed on the information to Nigel himself, which only served to render him embarrassed – no one had ever really said that to him before.


Eating for England has been described by critics as a series of humourous vignettes of Nigel Slater’s early life, narrated with a light touch by an author possessed of the gift of finding new combinations of words.  This might be true, but the radio version came across more as an affectionate love-story between Nigel and his aunt, with the two of them forming a close relationship that protected them against all adversity.  The two leading actors – Rhind-Tutt and Imrie – gave convincing characterizations, with particular emphasis placed on the sheer enjoyment of describing how food looked and tasted.