By Xander Brett, 2nd Year, French and History of Art
Broadcasting legend Keith Floyd was a charismatic bon viveur who always had a certain twinkle in his eye. For almost thirty years he took viewers on a ground-breaking tour of the world’s cuisine, stopping regularly en route for the obligatory glass of fine wine. He reinvented the way we see food on television, dragging its presentation kicking and screaming out of the studio and into the open air. He was, as protégé Rick Stein put it, “a rock and roll star.” But Floyd also put Bristol firmly on the gastronomic map. Now one of the UK’s top foodie destinations, Bristol’s culinary success is down to Floyd, who called this city home for so much of his life.
Born in Berkshire in 1943, Floyd grew up in a council house. The son of an electrician, his parents made considerable sacrifices to educate him privately at Wellington College in Somerset. When the family moved to Sea Mills, Floyd joined the Bristol Evening Post as a cub reporter. Captivated by the sound of typewriters and the buzz of incoming news, he found himself in the thick of a paper with six daily editions. Jeremy Brien was Floyd’s fellow cub reporter and now lives in Redland.
“The Evening Post’s pub at that time was the White Hart,” he tells me over coffee. “I remember one evening – when we should have been in the office – we got a call to cover something urgent in Kingswood, so we got on my Vespa. Of course, the first thing you come to is that large roundabout, and Floyd decided it would a good idea to go straight over the middle. Needless to say, the Vespa went tip over tip, Keith went flying and got up smelling of roses and I spent the night in the Royal Infirmary. I still have the scars!”
Thirty years later, Brien appeared as a guest on Floyd’s edition of ITV’s This is Your Life. The producers decided they should recreate the event, with Brien arriving on stage aboard a Lambretta. The sequence went perfectly in rehearsal, but when it came to the real thing the bike wouldn’t start and he and Roger Bennett (Floyd’s chief reporter) had to push themselves on set. When I ask Brien why Floyd didn’t stick with journalism, he says it was a decision he made naturally. Indeed, as he later explained on Desert Island Discs, he was simply not cut-out for it; the pace was too much, and he worked too hard.
Leaving journalism, Floyd had a brief commission in the Army then, realising he and the military were “mutually incompatible”, he took on various odd jobs. His career as a cook began when he strolled up to the head chef at the Royal Hotel in Bristol and told him, quite bluntly, he wanted to be a cook. Taken aback, the chef asked him to name the difference between a waiter and a bucket of sh**. Floyd said there wasn’t one. He got the job and was soon setting up on his own. He ran a takeaway service, ‘Floyd’s Feasts’, from a cubby hole in Clifton, then established three restaurants: a bistro on Princess Victoria Street, fine dining on Oakfield Road and a chophouse on Chandos Road. Nick Bethell, who owns Snobby’s, the restaurant now occupying the Chandos Road site, says Floyd’s presence is important to him. He shows me an extensive collection of his cookery books, photographs of the restaurant when he had it, and he explains how they put on a ‘Keith Floyd Week’ when Snobby’s first opened.
“The drinking is the most important part of Floyd we channel,” he explains. “We have over ninety wines and pairing each one with our food is essential. Our smoking terrace is also well used, as Floyd would have wanted… oh, and all the chefs downstairs are all alcoholics!”
Maggi Bonnett’s garden opened onto Floyd’s bistro, and she remembers how he introduced the smell of garlic to Bristol. Her husband, Alistair Cuddon, was one of Floyd’s best friends. Maggi tells me how they went to London one day so Floyd could buy jewellery for his third wife. It was only when they were taken to the vaults that Floyd admitted he had only £200 to spend. Further down the street I meet Harold Hedges. He remembers seeing Floyd stagger into the newsagents each morning. When the TV break came, Floyd ditched shaky feet for a white Rolls Royce. In the backroom, painter Bob Gae tells me how his wife went out with Floyd. He also knows someone who believes in crystals and is in touch with Floyd’s spirit. What they discuss he doesn’t reveal.
Floyd was a brilliant cook but a terrible businessman. By the end of the 1970s he’d been forced to sell all three restaurants, spending the money on a yacht to sail around the Mediterranean. He dabbled in antiques and traded wine, eventually mooring up in the small village of L’Isle sur la Sorgue. When his restaurant here failed, he came back to Bristol. It was during a quiet evening Floyd’s waitress told him a man on table four wanted to speak to him. That man was David Pritchard, a producer for the BBC. Pritchard said he wanted Floyd on one of his shows. Floyd told him he’d never had much truck with producers: they stole his wine and drank his brandy. But Pritchard was to be the exception. He found Floyd a slot on the RPM programme, aimed at Westcountry students. Andy Batten-Foster was the show’s presenter and spoke to me on the phone from Bath. He tells me how essential Pritchard was to Floyd’s success.
“Pritchard wanted to find someone as flamboyant as him,” he explains. “Floyd had decided on a character, but it took Pritchard to get it out of him.”
When Pritchard was moved to BBC Plymouth, he took Floyd along too. It was here the pair produced their first series: Floyd on Fish. An instant success, the format went national. Viewers responded well to the way Floyd engaged with them through addressing the cameraman, Clive North (who now lives in Bath). Batten-Foster remembers one time he was forced to cook on a beach as the tide rolled in. Pritchard put Floyd in deliberately challenging positions, but this was the concept’s strength. Floyd on France followed, as did many more, but tensions were bubbling. During recordings for Floyd’s American Pie, the animosity between Floyd and Pritchard reached fever pitch. The two separated: Pritchard to take on Rick Stein, Floyd to mix the bottle and other directors. As the money ran out, the bottle increasingly took centre-stage. He lived in Ireland, France, Singapore and Thailand, eventually ending his life at his partner’s home in Bridport.
“Floyd’s legacy,” says Jeremy Brien, “was that he revolutionised food in Britain. Floyd brought French cooking to the attention of the British who, until then, had been bogged down in the post-war diet of omelette and stodge.” Nick Bethell confirms his success in turning Bristol from relative backwater to culinary capital, while Andy Batten-Foster tells me how he reinvented television for the British public. To the residents of Clifton, however, Floyd was simply a flamboyant – if sometimes undependable – friend. I never met him. But taking a journey through the city he called home, and meeting those who did, I certainly feel I’ve got to know him pretty well.
Keith Floyd’s Bristol is available to listen now by pressing ‘Special Programmes’ on the Burst Radio website: burstradio.org: https://www.mixcloud.com/burstbristol/keith-floyds-bristol/
Photos courtsey of Xander Brett.
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