Why Keith Floyd was such a darling!
One measure of how much a man’s life has been worth is how his own people remember him. I was in London when Keith Floyd, the television chef, died and wondered how the papers would treat his passing given that it coincided with the tragic death of Hollywood actor Patrick Swayze, who lost his battle with cancer on the same day.
As it turned out, Floyd got three times the newspaper coverage of Swayze. His death was page one in many newspapers and in most cases, the obituaries were far longer and much more fulsome.
Those of us who see Floyd’s shows on Discovery Travel and Living – Floyd’s India is currently running – may be forgiven for thinking that he was an active television presence up to his death. In fact, the truth is that his TV career had been over for years. The last show he made for the BBC – which discovered him – was Floyd’s American Pie in 1989. He continued to make shows for other channels but nothing had the impact of his BBC shows – at least in the UK.
While Floyd will be remembered for many things, many of us probably think of him as the biggest piss artist on television. And certainly, he was rarely filmed without a glass of wine in his hand and often he seemed completely pissed.
A legend has grown around this perception. Many people claim that Floyd was the first food presenter to be shot with a glass of wine in his hand. Others argue that he was a pioneer because he took food out of the studio. And still others give him the credit for taking TV crews to far-flung areas.
There is no doubt that Floyd was a drunk – by most standards, he could be classed as an alcoholic – but it is not true that he was a great television pioneer. He stole the glass of wine from the 60s TV chef Graham Kerr. Many chefs had already taken food out of the kitchen and on the road (Madhur Jaffrey, Ken Hom, etc.) mostly for the BBC. Nor was Floyd the first to go to far-flung locations. Two years before he made Floyd on Fish, his first TV series, Madhur Jaffrey had already filmed all over India.
So, what made Floyd such a phenomenon? I have my own theories.
To run a successful TV show, you need not be a great chef. Antony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver are distinctly mediocre chefs judging by the reviews their restaurants got when they were actually doing some cooking. All you need is a certain freshness or a TV-friendly personality.
Floyd was discovered by a director called David Pritchard, who happened to be eating at Floyd’s Bristol restaurant and decided that the chef had TV potential. In some ways, this was a breakthrough. Madhur Jaffrey had already published a cook book. Ken Hom was an established Chinese chef. But Floyd had no particular expertise in anything. Nevertheless, Pritchard thought that he would work on camera.
Of course Pritchard was right. There was something about Floyd’s cheerfully shambolic persona that made him irresistible to viewers. And with the success of Floyd on Fish, the doors were opened for a new generation of TV food presenters, none of whom had to be accomplished chefs. Without Floyd, there would be no Nigella Lawson.
I also think that Floyd heralded the demystification of food. He was a chef of some sort but he clearly did not know very much about anything. Until then, nobody had given a TV programme to a presenter who was not an expert. Floyd’s bumbling manner and his relative lack of authority reassured viewers that there was nothing very much to food or cooking. If a piss artist like Floyd could do it, then anybody could.
All this sounds vaguely negative. So, in all fairness, it must be said that Floyd’s own charm helped make him the star he was. There was something compelling about his amateurishness. And he was very good at talking to camera. Some of the finest moments in the shows came when he directed his cameraman, the famous Clive, while the camera was still on.
And then, of course, there was the soap opera of his life. He had a stroke. His restaurants went bankrupt. He was married four times. He announced that he was divorcing his wife when he was on stage addressing a conference. By the end of his career, he was so broke that he was reduced to touring the provinces, hosting a one-man show where every member of the audience was given a free glass of cheap red wine.
All the world loves a loser, especially when he loses it so colourfully. In Floyd’s case, viewers probably felt that there was a certain inevitability to the decline. Each time Floyd went on TV, he always seemed as though he would cut his fingers while chopping the vegetables or collapse in a drunken stupor.
Many presenters choose such personas and carefully play the role. In Floyd’s case, no such acting was required. He was what he was. And he died the way he had lived on camera: madly, badly, recklessly and with a glass of wine in his hand.
If only we could have a final posthumous TV series: Floyd on Heaven.