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The Lost BBC: The Kitchen Front

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THE BBC, as the state broadcaster and also the only broadcaster, played an important role during World War II. One of its contributions was The Kitchen Front, which combined information with humour and boosted morale during the dreary days of rationing.

Food rationing began on January 8, 1940, with bacon, butter and sugar. Soon these were joined by meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk, and canned and dried fruit. Here is a useful American film on the subject.

The Ministry of Food wanted a way to tell the public about rationing, how to make the most of food which was available and use up leftovers instead of wasting them. The first attempt was Feed the Brute, a five-minute programme which ran daily for two weeks in April 1940 after the 6pm news. It was a success but many women said they were too busy to listen at that time of the evening.

On June 25 1940 The Kitchen Front began in the 8.15am slot after the 8am news bulletin and ‘before the housewife does her shopping’.

It suggested best buys and introduced new foods such as dried egg, haricot beans sent from America under the Lend-Lease aid scheme and fat bacon. There was always at least one recipe. The shortage of conventional foodstuffs led to imaginative ‘mock’ dishes such as ‘mock goose ‘which was made with potatoes, cooking apples and cheese, and banana spread made with parsnips. Also featured prominently were off-ration meats such as offal and rabbit, and food which could be foraged, such as berries and nuts.

It was an instant success. In the first week alone the BBC received a thousand letters plus parcels of cake and other gifts. Soon it was attracting five to seven million listeners, which was 15 per cent of the available audience and four times the size of any other daytime talk programme.

A staple ingredient was humour. One day a week the programme was presented by the biggest female double act in British comedy, Elsie and Doris Waters. They were sisters who became popular in the 20s and 30s with their alter-egos Gert and Daisy. They made a large contribution to film and radio entertainment during the war, often talking about their absent boyfriends/husbands Bert and Wally. Here they are in 1939 with We’re Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line.

They appeared regularly on Workers’ Playtime (which I hope to cover one day) and here they are in an edition broadcast in February 1943, in the presence of Queen Mary (the mother of King George VI).

Their brother was the actor Jack Warner (real name Horace John Waters), which gives me an excuse to air an episode of Dixon of Dock Green in which he starred from 1955 to 1976. This one is from 1960.

In this excerpt from The Kitchen Front, Gert and Daisy describe how to cook mutton so that it tastes like turkey, or ‘murkey’. (Why anyone should want to do that to a nice leg of mutton is beyond me.)

Before I heard this I wondered how they conveyed the recipes in the days before websites, where you could look it up after the programme. The answer is that they give the details v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, so that listeners can write them down. Sadly this programme is cut short before the end, so you will never learn how to make the treat that is ‘murkey’.

However here is one complete wartime recipe:

CHINESE CAKE
1 and a half lb haricot beans
salt and pepper
1 lb mashed potatoes
4 oz boiled bacon
2 teaspoons dried sage
1 teaspoon sugar
crisp bread crumbs

Soak the haricot beans for 24 hours, then simmer them for one and a half hours in enough water to keep them covered. Mash beans thoroughly, mix with potato, chopped bacon, sage, pepper and sugar. If the paste seems stiff, add a little bean water. Grease a cake tin, sprinkle the sides and bottom with the bread crumbs, press the mixture into the tin, cover with greased paper and bake in a moderate oven for 1 hour. Serve with cabbage or Brussels sprouts and brown gravy.

Yum!

You can find a lot more recipes here.

The Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, made occasional appearances sparring with Gert and Daisy. He was a popular politician, but his creation, the ‘Woolton Pie’, which consisted of carrots, parsnips, potatoes and turnips in oatmeal, with a pastry or potato crust and served with brown gravy, was not a favourite. ‘Dry and uneatable’ was the general verdict, while an Aberdeen dishwasher, familiar with what even the hungry British public would not eat, said: ‘I can’t believe such a wonderful man could have given his name to such a dish.’ Here is a clip of him welcoming the first Lend Lease shipment of food from America.

Lord Woolton was chairman of the Conservative Party from 1946 to 1955, and given significant credit for the Conservative victory in 1951, their first since 1935.

A series regular was Freddie Grisewood, affectionately known as ‘Rice Pud’. He had been commentator at the coronation procession of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on May 12, 1937. This was the BBC’s first TV outside broadcast, which probably had an audience of fewer than 1,000. You can see it here in full (enjoy it, Audre!) I believe this is a clip of Grisewood in a series called ‘Fuel Flashes’ on The Kitchen Front, though it is not labelled as such.

Later in the war he was a newsreader, and here is a clip from April 1945.

Afterwards he was the host of BBC radio’s Any Questions from its start in 1948 until 1967.

Author and journalist S P B Mais had been the first presenter of Letter From America in 1933. He described listeners’ recipe suggestions as ‘invitations to adventures in the unknown’, and wrote about The Kitchen Front in a book called Calling Again – My Kitchen Front Talks with some results on the listener (1941).

Another contributor, Ambrose Heath, was food writer on the Morning Post and a prolific writer and translator of cookery books, one of which was The Good Cook in Wartime (1944).

Marguerite Patten worked for the Ministry of Food during the war, inventing nourishing recipes using the rationed food that was available. She was one of the first TV cooks and continued to contribute to radio and TV programmes into her nineties, as well as writing 170 cookery books. She died in 2019 aged 99. I can’t find any radio recordings of her but here is a clip from the 1950s (it’s a shame that the archive company’s banner obscures her face much of the time).

An enduring favourite on The Kitchen Front was Mabel Constanduros, the creator of the The Buggins Family, a programme which ran from 1928 to 1948. At first she played all the parts including Mrs Buggins, Grandma Buggins and the three children, but soon she was joined by Michael Hogan, who played the role of father. The Bugginses were regulars on The Kitchen Front, and here is an excerpt (if you can get it to play. I am finding that a lot of BBC clips are problematic, and many that I call up simply say ‘Not available’. One might almost think the BBC did not want to share its past). Grandma Buggins used to list a recipe’s ‘ingrediments’, which is still a family joke word passed on from my late wonderful mother-in-law.

A stalwart of The Kitchen Front was Charles Hill. He was a doctor who was assistant secretary of the British Medical Association. Because of rules about medical professionals advertising he could not use his name, so he became known as The Radio Doctor. He started broadcasting once a week on The Kitchen Front in 1942, giving general nutritional advice and discussing specialist diets. Some thought there was rather a lot of emphasis on the bowels. For example he often advised ‘visiting the throne at the same time each day’.

Here is a clip from the BBC archives, though they don’t see fit to date it.

The Radio Doctor was such a success that it continued for several years after the war. During this time Hill, who became secretary of the BMA in 1944, was involved in negotiations with Aneurin Bevan about setting up the NHS, which was introduced in 1948. He became MP for Luton in 1950 as a ‘Conservative and National Liberal’ and held various ministerial posts including Postmaster-General, a post which gave him responsibility for broadcasting. In 1956 he publicly berated the BBC for its reporting of the Suez Crisis. After being reshuffled out of the Cabinet in Harold Macmillan’s 1962 ‘Night of the Long Knives’, he was appointed chairman of the Independent Television Authority and created a life peer. Many were surprised when in 1967 he was made chairman of the BBC Governors by Harold Wilson with the remit to ‘sort out’ the Corporation. One governor commented that ‘it was like inviting Rommel to command the Eighth Army on the eve of Alamein’. Hill did not get on with the then director-general of the BBC, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene (accused by Mary Whitehouse of being ‘the devil incarnate’ because of his liberalising policy), who resigned a year later. Hill retired from the BBC in 1972 and died in 1989, aged 85.

Apparently the popularity of The Kitchen Front declined as the war went on. The BBC listener research department attributed this to ‘the housewife’s increasing weariness of the whole business of catering under wartime conditions’. From October 1943 the Monday edition was replaced by The Fuel Front, and the Saturday edition became Make-Do and Mend. I cannot find out when it ended. Any suggestions?

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist.

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