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  1. Long reads
11 December 2006

Who says the cuppa is disappearing?

A nostalgic history shows that Britain's tea tradition is, in fact, alive and well Disappe

By Andrew Billen

Spot the odd one out: mines, wakes weeks, cups of tea. In the first two episodes of this series, Ricky Tomlinson reminisced down deserted coal mines and Sarah Lancashire prised from retired Blackpool landladies scurrilous stories of their summer works outings in the days before mill girls said “, sí” to the first offer on the Costa del Sol. This week, however, in The British Cuppa (4 December, 9pm), Wendy Craig was in piping-hot pursuit of tea, an overrated beverage that has yet, as far as I know, to disappear from anywhere.

Disappearing Britain is part of Channel 5’s drive to be the station you cannot define: it jumps from genteel to nasty in the space of a commercial break. Representing gentility, Alex Sutherland, the channel’s executive with the Orwellian title of controller of history, sensibly made a deal with the British Film Institute for its archive film earlier this year. The success of the BBC’s Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon shows there is an appetite for historical film clips that do not feature dictators with moustaches. There always was: in the Sixties, week after week, Granada’s All Our Yesterdays surveyed the week in newsreels from 25 years earlier.

The format of Disappearing Britain is not its equal. In part it is a take on the genealogy genre, exemplified by Who Do You Think You Are?. In this programme, Wendy Craig pursued a circuitous path to her old home in County Durham, where she duly emoted without telling us a single thing about her family save that it was a happy one. While she was on this quest, the producers got on with the real business in the screening room, even showing a clip from Lindsay Anderson’s 1957 short Every Day Except Christmas on the grounds that its subject, Covent Garden flower merchants, met in a café. Wendy Craig may have been chosen as narrator because she wielded a mean teapot on Butterflies, but it’s more likely she got the gig because she came from the Tyne (home of Ringtons, the teamakers), which was once as obsessed with documentaries as it was about loose leaves.

To Craig’s surprise, Ringtons was still selling tea from door to door; Eric, a nice old boy who had shrunk several sizes since buying the suit he was wearing, has 1,600 customers on his round. Ringtons is still a family firm. The only things it did not do now were outings to Scarborough and home movies (Your Tea Madam, 1932; The Cup That Cheers, 1960).

Elsewhere, London still boasts 13 tea huts for cabbies, even if some taxi drivers today choose Earl Grey. Greasy spoons thrive, as do Buckingham Palace tea parties. Twinings still has a shop on the Strand. Even the tea bag, whose market dominance is now 96 per cent, has not heralded the end of the teapot. So what had gone?

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Well the Tea Bureau’s how-to films have. “People,” a know-all lady told another on one of these, “are lazy at making tea.” Another info-commercial, this one for Maypole tea, ended with the words, “More tea, commander?” Scripted documentary shorts in the Thirties and Forties were evidently all small, plotless homages to Brief Encounter and their writers hadn’t a clue how ordinary people spoke.

Midway through, however, the programme hit upon something that had gone, and a fascinating ten-minute film essay ensued on the glorious life and sudden death of the Lyons Corner Houses and tea shops. The first tea shop opened in Piccadilly in 1894 and the firm soon became as ubiquitous as McDonald’s is today. Serving the customers were the Nippies, Mrs Doubtfire-dressed waitresses who nipped from table to table, speaking posh to the customers and cockney to the kitchen staff.

Craig and Lyons’s own historian, Peter Bird, reminisced over the lunch fare of chops and boiled potatoes, followed by marmalade pudding. Each meal made a farthing’s profit, he said – but with ten million meals sold a week, that was a lot of farthings. Then, in 1954, Lyons saw the future was American, closed a Corner House and opened a Wimpy. The end was nigh. And no one had read it in the tea leaves.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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