Our daily pastry: pie-makers, judges and the hungry at St Mary's Church, Melton Mowbray. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA
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All rise for the blessing of the pies

As a judge of the “beef and ale” category at the British Pie Awards, Felicity Cloake goes in search of fluffy suet pastry and rich, dark gravy.

A reverent hush falls over St Mary’s Church, Melton Mowbray, as the man in the pulpit begins to speak. As the chairman of the town’s Pork Pie Association, Matthew O’Callaghan seems up there with God among the congregation, a ragbag assortment of chefs, bakers, farmers and the odd hungry journalist, gathered here today for the sixth annual British Pie Awards.

O’Callaghan’s description of the church as a “cathedral of pies” seems somewhat less fanciful when its rector, the Reverend Kevin Ashby, pops up to perform the blessing of the pies, a solemn ceremony that concludes with the immortal lines: “We’re excited to taste them but judge them we must./We can’t wait to find out what is under that crust.”

“Amen,” we all boom in response. It feels like a plea to the Almighty – deliver us from soggy bottoms, perhaps.

Behind us sits a bevy of tanned beauties, awaiting the attention of the judges of the coveted Class 1, the Melton Mowbray pork pie (those produced elsewhere are banished to the second table). To make it as a judge on the so-called top table is the dream of everyone I speak to but as this is only my second year on the job, I haven’t got a hope.

Standing around awaiting our fate, we debate the worst that could happen. Although Class 10 – the scarily non-specific “Other meat pie (hot)” – is a strong contender, it’s “Chicken and other protein” that really sends shivers down my spine.

Thankfully it turns out that this year I’ve graduated from steak and kidney (you can tire of the flavour of urine) to the beef and ale category; a definite step up. Sixty-one pies have been entered in Class 5, of which I and my fellow judge Andrew Cooper, Melton’s town bailiff, must get through at least 20 without collapsing.

We’re helped in our mighty task by an army of catering students who ferry pies from the oven to an insulated box beneath our table. As time wears on, we begin to open this with a sinking heart, but for the first couple of hours the arrival of each fresh contender is a bit of a thrill. (Our spirits are momentarily dampened when a lad approaches the table with something that appears to have exploded in the oven. He whispers simply, “I’m so sorry,” before backing away from the bubbling brown mess at speed.)

But the show must go on. We mark each pie on six criteria, ranging from appearance (“Does the sight of the pie excite or disappoint?”) to sound (“Hear how the pastry cuts,” the chairman of the judges, Ian Nelson, exhorts us) to the quantity and quality of the filling. I’m in charge of dissection, while Andrew keeps the score: an increasingly sticky business, with so much gravy around.

Odd comments float in the hallowed air – “You’d be disappointed if you got that one for dinner!” I hear someone say forcefully – and at one point a gaggle of suits passes down the aisle. It’s the minister of food, apparently, who has come to inspect his fiefdom. “What’s his name?” Andrew asks one of the judges trailing behind. He shrugs his shoulders and hazards, “Minister?”

Once we junior judges have gratefully peeled off the catering gloves, the winners of each category slug it out in front of a panel of real experts for the revered title of supreme champion. I reckon the fluffy suet pastry and rich, dark gravy give our favourite a decent chance of glory but the 2014 crown goes to a Bramley apple number served at the home ground of the Shrimps, Morecambe FC – a team apparently rejoicing in catering as brilliant as its nickname.

After four pastry-packed hours, I stagger towards the door, taking a quick detour past the judges’ buffet. Broken I may be but there’s always room in my pocket for a pork pie. Just call it getting in training for next year.

 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.