“I’m not a great fan of cookery programs,” David Pritchard tells me without a hint of irony. “I noticed last week someone is making a tribute to Keith Floyd and the series we made in France – they even bought his old 2CV they say, although I don’t recognise it.”
Back in 1982, Pritchard had met Keith Floyd at his Bistro in Bristol. Glasses long since emptied, he proposed that Floyd cook a main course for less than a pound a head for a BBC show he was producing called RPM. Floyd told him to bugger off. It was an inauspicious start to a relationship that would redefine cookery on TV and launch the chef into the public eye.
There was never any doubt that Floyd was the star of the show. His flamboyant personality and often haphazard curiosity for cookery would eventually inspire Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey and Marco Pierre White, as well as a nation of living room gastronauts. But I for one never got the sense that the show worked simply because of Floyd. Aside from a notorious scene involving a hot air balloon, Floyd needed grounding.
Enter David Pritchard, who in the early eighties was working for the BBC in Plymouth. It was his idea for a seafood programme that led to Floyd on Fish in 1985, and it was in this series that Pritchard first met Rick Stein, with whom he still works. Rarely seen on camera but unmistakable in the sound, editing and direction that delivered both chefs to millions, I was fascinated to hear Pritchard’s side of the story.
An unpromising school career initially left him with a couple of O levels and a job on a building site. Climbing a ladder one day, however, his mother whizzed by on a moped with a job advert for an ‘Assistant In Film’. Deceptive though the title was, Pritchard tells me that it was here that he began his career in television:
“When I started I was a vault porter, which was basically putting film cans in the right order for the adverts on television. And then, even though I was just dusting film tins, if I did it quietly enough and really, really quickly, I would have some free time to go and politely ask if I could watch the film editors working.
And I’d sit behind them and see how they operated their machines, unlocking the sound and moving the picture and I thought, this is it. It was a Faustian moment really.”
“And I’d see all these film editors earn stacks of money, while I earnt five pounds a week as a vault porter. And so they were completely different animals to me. I thought if I could press the old button there and become one of them, and sell my soul, I jolly well would.” And so he did, eventually ending up working with Keith Floyd, Antonio Carluccio and, most recently, Rick Stein. An Oxford alumnus (and ex-editor of the Cherwell), Stein’s literary-infused love for the Cornish coast and its cooking caught Pritchard’s attention, and they’ve been making programmes together ever since.
“I don’t think any other program has been commissioned on the strength of a tablecloth.”
Over a late lunch in 2004, the pair conceived of a boat trip through the canals of France. They would start at Bordeaux, sail down to Toulouse and on to the Canal du Midi all the way to the Mediterranean. They thought the idea so good that it couldn’t even wait until the next morning:
“We drew a map of Bordeaux and Southwest France on a paper tablecloth all covered in gravy and cigarette ash and wine stains,” says Pritchard like it’s the most natural thing in the world. “We threw in elements of all the good things we’d find along the way, and then we rolled the tablecloth up. As we were in Bristol just up the road from the BBC, we addressed it to the commissioning editor. He then opened it up and was a bit surprised, but took it to the controller of BBC 2 and said that this is what Rick Stein wants to do next. And she said: ‘Well that sounds great. Right, yes, fine – I can see that.’ And we were allowed to do it.”
He adds earnestly: “I don’t think any other program has been commissioned on the strength of a tablecloth.”
Most recently, the BBC series Rick Stein’s Long Weekends has taken Pritchard and his team across Europe on a series of culinary minibreaks, with Reykjavik, Copenhagen and Palermo amongst the cities on the itinerary. Perhaps “team” is an understatement though – although he left the BBC for an independent production company in 1990, Pritchard’s been using the same film crew for 20 years, and believes this to be an essential element of his programmes:
“I get lots of cameramen wanting to work with me but I say no, I can’t break up the film crew thank you very much. We’re like family. And that’s quite an unusual thing to get in television these days, but it makes going away, with people that you really know much more of a pleasure, and if things are a pleasure, I think that conveys through the lens.”
Even now, the winning formula remains unchanged: “It’s basically just the faithful film crew, me, Rick Stein, a foreign country, lots of decent food and we make it up as we go along. These programs are researched of course, but what we love is just to be let loose and to follow our noses.”
“People say to me: ‘Gosh, Rick Stein really enjoys going on these long weekends!’ and I think, yes he does – because we all do. It’s not too long, not that far away and we just have a brilliant time. And I think that the television camera picks all that up too.”
It’s not all beer and skittles though, as Floyd once remarked. Pritchard describes in his memoir Shooting the Cook how by 1992 the “frayed elastic band” of his relationship with Floyd had finally snapped and the pair parted ways. Reading the book, though, it is perhaps testament to Pritchard’s resolve that any programmes were made at all – there are all the bust-ups and reconciliations of a regular family, alongside an apparently unabated drunkenness and a good dollop of improvisation (“Do you think we should have a script?”).
Pritchard toyed with adapting the book for screen – who wouldn’t want to see Floyd and Pritchard order egg and chips at a stuffy Parisian restaurant? – but the idea never quite took off:
“I thought it would make a very engaging film of us squabbling as we travel through the whole of the beauty of that lovely country. Full of rows, a bit like Sideways: someone who’s passionately involved and loves French food, and someone like me who doesn’t quite get it. But it’s so difficult to raise the money and in the end we ran out of steam and we didn’t bother.”
Nevertheless, watching Floyd attempt to cook in the narrow galley of a sea-tossed trawler, or seeing Stein served the same moussaka that won over his hero Patrick Leigh Fermor, it is clear that Pritchard knows how to bring out the best in his presenters. “My relationship with the director is based on trust and understanding,” said a sardonic Floyd. “I don’t trust him and he doesn’t understand me.”
Over the course of our conversations, though, the root of the down to earth, unaffected affability of the series gradually becomes clear. Invisible behind the camera, the presence of a director deeply invested in what he’s doing and deeply attached to his crew is never lacking. Pritchard, of course, is content to attribute it to chance:
“I think I’ve been incredibly lucky. For people who work in television it’s sometimes a very brief star that shines and then goes out, but I’ve been doing this for over thirty years now with Keith and then Rick and it’s been continual, which is quite a rarity in television.
“And I’ve spent the past thirty years travelling the world, eating really nice things from the Far East or France or Italy or Spain – it’s been a great joy for me. I just think it’s been a fabulous time and I don’t want it to stop.”