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Keith Floyd

Keith Floyd, cook, restaurateur and presenter of TV cookery and food programmes, died on 14 September 2009. He was 65.

Born near Reading in the middle of the Second World War, he spent his early years in the West Country, as the Daily Telegraph describes:

Keith Floyd was born on December 28 1943 and grew up in Somerset, the son of a meter repairman for the electricity board. It was, he recorded, a very happy rural childhood during which he learned his mother’s great love of cookery. By diligent saving, his parents managed to pay for him to attend the local public school – Wellington College [sic], though it had no connection to its more famous Berkshire namesake [other obituaries correctly identify the school Floyd attended as Wellington School]. His head boy was Jeffrey Archer. Floyd was both popular and a good rugby player, but a lack of money forced him to leave at 16. He was mortified by this abrupt curtailment of his youth.

A brief stint in journalism with the Bristol Evening Post (and, at nights, the Western Morning News as well) followed. (The Evening Post carried a front-page tribute to him, as well as comments from various people who knew him.) But he didn’t spend long as a cub reporter, according to The Guardian:

Electing for a career in journalism, he found this not to his liking and joined the army, gaining a commission in the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment in 1963. He claimed that his rush of military blood was inspired by the heroics of Stanley Baker and Michael Caine in Zulu, though in fact that film was not released until 1964. In reality, his regiment was stationed in Germany where, though he was only a subaltern, his responsibilities extended to the meals in the officers’ mess. On those nights that he was on duty the cooks were encouraged to produce high-falutin’ French dishes in preference to roast meat and two veg.

The Independent describes how Floyd’s earliest forays into the catering industry were partly inspired by his childhood eating experiences:

After the army he briefly had a restaurant in France, then in Bristol, aged 28, had three or four eateries, ranging from a bistro to a posh chop house. The style of his 1970s food was in part derived from his mother’s 1950s cooking in Somerset, perforce seasonal and dependent on local ingredients – in his stage shows he spoke nostalgically about the faggots she made from pig’s brains and the enormous bowls of crusted clotted cream in her larder.

Unfortunately, as we learn in The Times, things didn’t go smoothly:

[Floyd’s Bistro] was a great success but, like many of his future ventures, including three more restaurants in Bristol, it was beset by difficuties and failed to generate much in the way of surplus cash. By 1971 he also owned a film-location catering service, a take-away and a dial-a-dinner concern.“The trouble was,” he recalled in 1989, “that I had no real head for business. It just wasn’t my way to charge for a portion of butter or a roll, although you’ve got to do that to survive.”

The Telegraph summarises his lean years in the Seventies thus:

Faced with a looming financial crisis, he sold up, divorced his first wife, and brought a yacht called Flirty. For the next five years he pursued a peripatetic existence in France and Spain, indulging a passion for the local cuisine that he had learned from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. As he ran out of money he sold pieces of the yacht until, without a compass or an outboard motor, he settled in Provence and opened a restaurant in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue near Avignon, where he also played for the local rugby club.

The Guardian tells us how things started to turn around for Floyd:

Extravagance, incompetence and the VAT bill would have done for him a third and even final time had he not been rescued by unlikely fame in broadcasting. The chain of coincidence began with a small book from a local publisher called Floyd’s Food (1981, with a foreword by the actor Leonard Rossiter) which led to 10-minute recipe chats on the Bristol station Radio West; these in turn developed into a short-lived yet garrulous phone-in. By then something of a local hero, he was tried out on TV, where his first foray culminated with him roasting a guinea fowl complete with giblets in their plastic bag (a Julia Child moment).

But The Independent identifies his meeting with TV producer David Pritchard as the moment that brought the breakthrough:

Floyd always gave Pritchard, who now works with Rick Stein, the credit for “discovering” him, when the BBC Plymouth producer happened to be eating in Floyd’s restaurant in Bristol, and asked him if he thought he could cook on camera. The unique selling point of the show that resulted, Floyd on Fish, and of the remainder of their nine-year collaboration, was that, when Floyd, who had no script and no television experience, spoke directly to the long-suffering cameraman, “the famous Clive” North, and ordered him, for example, to “get a close-up” of whatever Floyd was preparing or cooking, Pritchard left in both the close-up and the banter with the cameraman.

The result was a cookery programme formula that was a major departure from more traditional formats, as the Telegraph explains:

Combining raffish charm and contagious enthusiasm on screen, Floyd’s programmes dispensed with the static formality that had defined the television cookery of his forerunners, such as Fanny Cradock. Indeed they rarely took place in anything that could be defined as a studio. Instead he was likely to be found braced over a camping stove on the heaving deck of a North Sea trawler, rhapsodising over a sea bass. At the time it was revolutionary.

But the relationship between Floyd and his producer was a fraught one (The Independent):

By the late ’80s relations between Floyd and Pritchard had so soured that the pair only communicated by notes passed between them. Rushton [Susie Rushton, who interviewed him for The Independent in 2007] said that “Pritchard wanted him to behave like ‘a television freak’ while the cook himself wanted to show his abilities,” and the later programmes lack the spark of the earlier ones. She further asserts that, in their heyday the “Floyd On…” shows were must-watch television, their star the first bad-boy chef. His drinking, unabashed criticisms of bad food and the edited version of The Stranglers anthem “Peaches” that became his theme tune made for some of the sharpest TV around, and has continued to influence food programming to this day.

Floyd’s mercurial personality and heavy drinking made for a turbulent public and private life more generally; the Telegraph says that “Despite his charisma, wit, charm and frequent generosity, Floyd was also known for his temper tantrums, towering immodesty and bouts of maudlin despair”, and The Times describes his stint as owner of a gastro-pub in the 1990s thus:

[F]earing that life as a television personality might be a shortlived [sic], he diversified and bought The Maltsters Arms at Tuckenhay, near Totnes, Devon, in 1991, which he renamed Floyd’s Inn on account of his sporadic appearances there [according to the Telegraph, the name was Floyd’s Inn (Sometimes), which appears to make more sense]. It was a colourful period in which Floyd took against his staff (“stupid”) and many of his customers (“thick and snobbish and as stupid as you can get”), on one occasion throwing 50 of them out, including his third wife, who had allegedly forgotten his birthday.

But for all his flaws, Floyd lived life to the full. The Guardian sums up his life thus:

A life that seemed punctuated by bankruptcy and bust-ups was nonetheless full of achievement and hard work: 19 series for television, 25 books, as well as countless public appearances, not to mention a good dozen restaurants, including his last venture, Floyd’s Brasserie, launched in 2007 at Burasari resort on the Thai island of Phuket. In 2001 he published Out of the Frying Pan: Scenes from My Life; another autobiography, Stirred But Not Shaken, is due for release next month.

(Keith Floyd, born 28 December 1943 near Reading, died 14 September 2009 in Bridport)

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