Daytime TV: Recipe for success

Isabella Beeton was a pioneer, writes Gary Day, but she had little domestic bliss in her own life

March 25, 2010

Not everyone shows up at their own funeral, but Isabella Beeton did. She stood by a tree, clothed in white, twirling a parasol. White, of course, is the ghost's colour of choice, signifying a soul washed in the spiritual equivalent of Persil. But a parasol? It's not as if the departed are in danger of sunstroke. Realism, though, was not the keynote of this captivating dramatisation (The Secret Life of Mrs Beeton, BBC Four, Monday 15 March, 10pm). Pert, ironic, arch and playful are the words that come more readily to mind.

Right from the beginning, Mrs Beeton, deftly played by Anna Madeley, set about correcting any misconceptions we may have about her. "I know, you thought I'd be larger and middle-aged. Queen Victoria in an apron." Sarah Williams' script was full of such striking comparisons. And it had an extraordinary range. One minute we were being treated to savoury sentences and plump oratory, the next we were being served reheated contemporary cliches.

It is hard to imagine Mrs Beeton uttering the phrase "we need to hit the ground running". So why make her say it? To make the point that the needs of business in the 19th century were no different to the needs of business now? Or to make the point that we live in a linguistically impoverished age? In some areas of public life, yes. But Williams' own writing is proof that the language has not quite gone into recession.

The split-level dialogue was reflected in the characterisation. Jim Carter, who doesn't look as if he's aged since he appeared in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986), was bristlingly magnificent as Henry Dorling, Isabella's stepfather. JJ Feild, who has form with costume drama (having appeared in Northanger Abbey (2007)), played Sam Beeton, a man whose ambition outstripped his achievements, most of which were down to his wife.

Henry had a temper hotter than a blast furnace, a voice that could be heard in the next county and a beard that could subdue a continent. That's how they made clerks in the 19th century, you know. A young man asking for Isabella's hand in marriage ought to quiver before such a figure. But not Sam. Breezing into the patriarch's study he sprightly wished the old fellow good evening and trusted he found him in "devilish fine spirits".

The monument erupted from his seat, the house - and probably the whole Victorian Establishment - shaking at the impudence of this young pup. Realising he was in severe danger of being incinerated by Henry's fury, Sam tried a different approach. Honesty. Never the best policy. Well, not in this instance anyway. For before he could finish saying how deeply he loved Isabella, Sam was marched out of the study at beard-point. It was a wonderfully comic moment; a clash between the old order of stiff-backed respectability and the new one of sincerity and spontaneity. But neither by itself will do.

The humour bubbled throughout. To hear the suburbs praised is enough to raise a smile. "Clean air, green fields and affordable housing for the rising middle classes," trilled Mrs Beeton. And then smiled at the camera as if she knew that this glimpse of freedom would shrink, in the next century, to debt and lives of quiet desperation. But for now the couple could lie on their bed and dream as only the young can. "Two geniuses in one bed," grinned Sam, "a very rare occurrence in Pinner, I think you will find."

He was responding to his wife's observation that the housewife needs help in running her home. And thus was Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management born. The unhappiness of most families, she stated in the preface, was due to poor domestic planning, particularly in respect of food. And so, even though she couldn't cook herself, she set about compiling hundreds of recipes, listing the ingredients, their cost, and a step-by-step guide as to how they should be prepared.

But this monumental work didn't just spark the current fad for cookery programmes, it also contained information relating to the duties of everyone involved in the running of the home, from the butler to the housekeeper. "As with the commander of an army," wrote Mrs Beeton, "so it is with the mistress of a house."

Which of us, though, ever benefits from the advice we so liberally dispense to others? Try as she might, Mrs Beeton could not curb Sam's excesses of drink certainly and women possibly. If she were alive now, she may be in therapy, but the Victorians dealt with their inner and outer disturbances by working ever harder. That and the grief she must have suffered at losing three children contributed to her death at 28. No wonder she came back to for a chat. Despite her considerable success, she hadn't really begun to live.

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