Life in the Freezer Cabinet: The strange tale of Iceland food

The cheap food store doesn't care for PR, and prides itself on transforming communities, one Bubble Bobble Prawn at a time.

New Statesman
Frozen Britain: an Iceland lorry on the road. Image: Getty

Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet
BBC2

I’m a little obsessed with Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet (Tuesdays, 9pm). For a start there’s its title, which is moderately weird, given that there is no life at all in a freezer cabinet – such places being home only to frozen peas, fish fingers and, in the case of Iceland, a selection of slightly bizarre finger foods (to which I’ll return, with some gusto, shortly).

Of course, when they say “life”, what they really mean is the company’s management. To be more specific, they mean Malcolm Walker, its grinning, gurning and goofylooking boss. Some commentators have likened Walker, a plain-speaking fellow who could not cross an open field without stepping in at least one cowpat, to Gerald “total crap” Ratner. This is unfair. Walker has a galumphing charm and a manic kindness one sees only rarely in the rich and successful. He also still seems to grasp how most British people live, despite his own wealth. If I were a politican, Labour or Tory, I would have him on speed dial, and run every policy past him as a matter of course.

Walker started Iceland in 1970 in Shropshire, with a couple of freezers and £30. Today, it has some 790 stores and annual sales of £2.6bn. However, it’s quite an odd business. Its cheapness I don’t disdain, given the economic circumstances in which many families, if not most, now find themselves. Nor do I turn my nose up at its employment practices: the company has a reputation for being a happy place to work and Walker, an inordinately benign boss, regularly treats his staff to various morale-boosting shindigs.

Some of its products, though, are strikingly strange, at least to me. It has this thing for combining dishes and flavours. The Chicken Tikka Lasagne. The Italian Stonebaked Breakfast Pizza. Party Fish, Chip and Mushy Pea Stacks. Baked Bean Baguettes. And – drum roll please and do pour the Asti – Bubble Bobble King Prawns. This, by the way, is basically a prawn that has been rolled in Rice Krispies and then deep-fried. Bit of tongue-twister to say but they are allegedly really fabulous with a chilli dipping sauce.

Such products are trialled at Iceland HQ in Deeside, Flintshire, where there is a test kitchen, complete with resident home economists, and a fully kitted out Iceland store. Walker buzzes happily between the two, taking a hearty bite of Bubble Bobble King Prawns in the kitchen before heading to the shop to try out his latest wheeze: a one-sizefits- all label for wine (it will read either “Good Red Wine” or “Good White Wine”).

Walker is the only person in Britain who feels nostalgic for the days when Kerry Katona was the face of Iceland, and is wary of the metropolitan ad agencies who would like to be ironic about Iceland. “They’re always the same,” he opines, “in their sharp suits, and then one in a denim shirt and maybe a ponytail, who’s the art director.” And fair enough, he’s hardly wrong. It was embarrassing watching an agency called Karmarama make their pathetic pitch, which was nine parts bullshit to one part sneer. Publicity doesn’t interest him either, which is just as well, given that his head of PR is a 59-year-old cynic with a sign that reads “Public Relations Centre of Mediocrity” on his office door.

The only acronym Malcolm ever uses is JFDI, which stands for “Just Fucking Do It”. The only upmarket ranges his store carries – we’re talking frozen risotto – come with the moniker “Posh Grub”, which seems a lot more honest to me than Tesco’s “Finest” and Sainsbury’s “Taste the Difference” ranges.

I found all these details fascinating and funny. But beyond the comedy, this series has blazed with real pathos and insight. A new store in Treorchy in the Welsh valleys brought valuable jobs to the town, and it was heartbreaking both to see how woefully illequipped for work some applicants were – and how desperate.

A hard-up local couple took advantage of Iceland’s arrival by using it to cater for their wedding, the bride merrily lining up rockhard chicken drumsticks in rows on an oven tray, her nails long and gleaming, her hair already in an up-do. This “totally lush” buffet cost them just £1.75 a head and it went down a storm with their guests, their smiles and sticky fingers revealing more of 21st-century Britain than any number of earnest and slyly knowing Newsnight reports.