Giles Coren with the Robshaw family in “Back in Time for Dinner”.
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Which is worse: working at KFC in 2015 or toiling in a 1950s family kitchen?

Rachel Cooke reviews The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop and Back in Time for Dinner.

The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop; Back in Time for Dinner
BBC1; BBC2

There’s something heartbreaking about The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop (Wednesdays, 9pm), which goes behind the scenes at KFC’s British operation. I think this has to do with the staff, who remain relentlessly cheery no matter how long their hours or how abusive their customers. “It’s very much like the Oscars,” said Dom, the manager of the Havant drive-through, of the company’s annual awards dinner, a festival of coloured bow ties and Jim’ll Fix It-style beribboned medals. Inspired, he returned to Havant more determined than ever to shift deluxe boneless feasts – buckets of fun that would, he explained, be turned out by his ace head chef, Chad, a loyal employee of seven years. Luckily, Chad doesn’t remotely mind spending his days elbow deep in dismembered poultry. “I used to be an undertaker,” he announced, ducking into an ominous-looking cold room.

The colonel arrived in Britain in 1965 and made straight for Preston. Since then, his empire has grown far beyond Lancashire. Today, there are 865 restaurants in the UK; the plan is to open 35 every year until there are 1,300. There’ll always be naysayers, those puritans and Nimbys who sneer at Popcorn Nuggets and Wicked Zingers. But what do they know? Have any of them ever been inside a KFC? In Middleton, in Greater Manchester, it was clear that a local residents’ association wasn’t well acquainted with the colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices. Not that this made its opposition to KFC’s arrival in the next street any less valid. Who, after all, would want to see a giant, illuminated beard rising above their laurel bushes? Even the company’s acquisitions manager hedged when he was asked how he would feel about living opposite a KFC.

“If we win this, we’ll sit in that garden with a bottle of champagne and get bladdered,” said Irene to her friend Pat as they planned their campaign. Alas, the champagne turned out to be as much of a mirage as the hope that the council would listen to them. At a planning meeting, KFC did a weasel move, promising to close its new restaurant at 9pm, after which it received the green light. The film cut to KFC HQ in Woking, where the acquisitions manager could be heard telling his boss triumphantly that this compromise did not “close the door” on later opening hours in Middleton in the future. Poor Irene. Poor Pat. What
use are their garden loungers now?

It was instructive watching The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop in close proximity to Back in Time for Dinner (Tuesdays, 8pm), in which an “ordinary British family” pretended it was the 1950s, with a fridge-free kitchen, a tub of dripping and a five-ounce serving of liver (the series, presented by Giles Coren, is in six parts and will move through the decades accordingly). As is the way with this kind of TV, the idea is to patronise the past as much as possible, the better that we might feel good about our own times – or, at least, about how we own a dishwasher. And so it proved. The Robshaws hated everything about the 1950s. The subsidised brown loaf made them ill; a cake made from dried eggs tasted almost as bad as it looked; even the tin opener was rubbish. Rochelle Robshaw struggled under the weight of the 75 hours a week of housework she was expected to put in and seemed to feel joy only when she was finally given some fish fingers (they arrived in 1955).

Now, rationing was disheartening and, in the 1950s, many women did feel life to be just one long round of chores. But is working for the minimum wage in KFC any less demoralising than using a mangle? Beth, a sweetheart who puts in 14-hour shifts at the Denton Rock branch in Manchester, didn’t seem ecstatic to be there, for all that her smile was as wide as the M60. Pilchards are indeed rank. But is a KFC Twister – don’t even ask! – really more appetising than dripping on toast? Dripping is on all good hipster menus these days. The diet of austerity Britain was close to sugar free, which isn’t something you can say of the KFC menu.

The past isn’t, as the Daily Mail likes to suggest, better than the present. Still, I’d be wary of insisting that it was worse on every measure. Better soggy cauliflower and pink blancmange than a Big Daddy burger and a Skittles Krush’Em.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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