The Marvellous Mrs Beeton, with Sophie Dahl, BBC Two, review

imageKylie O’Brien reviews The Marvellous Mrs Beeton, with Sophie Dahl, on BBC Two.

Could someone have a quiet word with Sophie Dahl? Cheekbones like Sabatier knives and a smile wide as a Bath Oliver biscuit do not a great presenter make, and last night’s effort – The Marvellous Mrs Beeton, with Sophie Dahl (BBC Two) – was damp as undercooked pastry.

It could be that a lot of charm goes a very little way, as last month’s request for £500,000 to save her grandpa Roald’s shed proves (what was the Today programme thinking? That we’d all chip in a fiver to save a millionairess model, wife to multimillionaire musician Jamie Cullum, not to mention the Dahl estate, from coughing up, simply because Sophie asked us nicely?). It didn’t wash.

Nor did The Marvellous Mrs Beeton, of whom Sophie, eyes tearing up with all the vacuousness of an X Factor contestant, declared herself “a devotee”. She talked to various food experts, historians and even Jilly Cooper in her exploration of the life of the country’s most iconic cook (“I want to breathe the neighbourhood that Isabella Beeton first called home,” she said, bafflingly, pacing the streets of Pinner where Isabella and her husband Sam moved as newlyweds). She also had a go at testing Mrs Beeton’s recipes.

A lot of gush and twaddle got in the way of a great story. The Mrs Beeton we think we know – the perfect housewife and Victorian matron – was a fabrication. Isabella Beeton, born in 1836 in Cheapside, was in fact a canny hack. She married Sam Beeton, a magazine publisher, in her early twenties, and – far from staying at home – commuted into town where she worked for him as a journalist and editor.

Mrs B compiled her great opus when she was only 23; it was an instant hit. The Book of Household Management sold 60,000 copies in its first year, outselling Great Expectations, and was avidly read by the burgeoning middle-class wives and mothers desperate to learn how to cook, choose servants, budget and dress. Yet only four years after its publication Isabella Beeton died, aged 28, having caught puerperal fever after the birth of her fourth child. In her short life she had seen two of her children die, one aged three, the other three months; she suffered several miscarriages. Sam, having gone bankrupt while Isabella was alive, died aged 47 – possibly from syphilis, which he passed to his wife.

What Sophie also wanted to know was whether Mrs Beeton’s advice is relevant today. She was determined to find the answer ‘‘yes’’, despite the evidence. Especially the cookery. Mrs B’s famous recipes (which pioneered the listing of ingredients, followed by instructions and price) are largely rewritten for modern readers, and the original versions Sophie tested were comically awful: the linseed cold remedy was described as ‘‘prosthetic snot” by botanist James Wong; the gingerbread, said the Suffolk WI, “bizarre”; the pigeon pie, with birds’ feet sticking out of the pastry, Jurassic Park meets Alien.

If you want to find out more about Mrs Beeton, I can’t recommend highly enough Kathryn Hughes’s biography, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, televised as a drama five years ago and bound to be repeated. Memo to Sophie: watch and learn.

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