“Eileen, take this call – when you’re frying sausages you have to stick a pin in them to stop them bursting….” Maddy, my flat mate, put the phone in my hand as I stood there, mystified. “Hallo?” “Can you take a booking to cook sausages for a television advert?” asked the woman on the line. “Yes,” I said, “I know that sticking a pin in will stop them bursting.” “Can you do Wednesday morning 9 a.m. till one? 10 pounds,” she said. “Yes, I can do that. Where do I go?”
That was my introduction to cooking for television, in 1959. If Maddy who was working in Harrods that week, hadn’t been on the agency books (she was a food demonstrator in stores) and knowledgeable about the behavior of sausages, this aspect of my career would never have launched. I had met Maddy in a bar the year before in Madrid. I was then secretary to an American travel writer, based in Mallorca. I got her a job in the fashion house where I’d worked the year before.
Maddy and I shared a nice basement flat with another girl, in London’s smart Gloucester Place, near Baker Street Station. It had a large bed sitting room with two divans, a single bedroom, a bathroom and kitchen. The rent between us was 10 pounds a week, the same as my salary. Today a flat in that area would cost thousands to rent.
Maddy explained the routine: Turn up wherever the advert was being filmed (usually in a pretty kitchen in someone’s home, hired for the day), and prepare the food that hand models would present; actors would serve and eat the food. The team consisted of a director, a lighting man and a cameraman. A recording of the jingle was played as it was filmed.
It was a doddle. I fried the sausages, put them on a plate, and that was the extent of my responsibility. It was sporadic work, but I need only work one half day a week at this rate to maintain my standard of living. I could fit it around temporary jobs, typing for Alfred Marks’s office-staff agency.
The agent rang me and asked if I could cook a raised pork pie with a hardboiled egg in it? I thought about it for a few seconds and said “Yes, I can do that.” I went to a good food hall and bought one. They didn’t have one with an egg inside so I boiled an egg, cut it in half and scooped a hollow in the pork. Nobody noticed.
Frozen peas were an adventure. To enhance the frozen ones in packets, they had flown in from Paris that morning a tray of fresh garden peas, which I peeled and blanched briefly to bring out their color, a layer of fresh ones on top of the bowl of frozen peas, for the appearance. The jingle played in the background, “You’ve never had peas as good as these – fresh flavored, quick frozen, mint flavored every pea.” The young boy (about 8 years old) who had to lift a forkful of peas into his mouth and beam pleasure with his mouth full, looked a little uncomfortable on the third take. I said to him “You don’t have to eat them, spit them out at the end of the take,” and I stood by with a plate for him to spit on. He sighed with relief and a weak smile, “Thank you!”
The following week I was called back for a re-shoot. “The problem is, the peas don’t look hot,” they said, “the steam didn’t show on the film, so we have to re-take it.” I made sure they were steaming, standing by with a kettle, but still the steam didn’t show. They were flummoxed. I had an idea. One of the cameramen was smoking. I said “Roll up a sheet of paper, blow your smoke into the bowl of peas the moment before you start to film.” This worked. Smoke-flavored, every pea. The team was relieved.
At another shoot I met a film director at Shepherd’s Bush television studios (I hadn’t heard of him before the meeting but I heard of him often later; he progressed to feature films and a big reputation.) The product was salad cream, for a plate of salad which included radishes. He chatted to me before we started, volunteering “My wife always cuts crosses into the tops of radishes and soaks them in water to make them look like flowers, do you do that?” “Yes,” I lied. This had never occurred to me, and I’d never seen a radish presented so artistically, but I learn fast. Minutes later, my radishes flowered.
I fried chicken portions in a domestic kitchen in Clapham Common. The venues were never twice in the same place. I got around London on the Underground and discovered a lot of new areas. The crew often ate the food when we’d finished filming (not the peas).
Despite my lack of expertise (I was 22 at this stage and not yet a cook), I was versatile. When they wanted roasted chicken, I bought one off the spit. If I wasn’t sure about a project I’d say “I’ll check my availability and ring you back,” and I’d look at cookery books (no web to consult in those days). If it was too ambitious, I’d claim a prior commitment.
Through Alfred Marks I had a job working for the Noise Abatement Society (they measured decibels). After a couple of weeks, I told the boss “You’ll need to get a new temp next week as I have a job on Monday cooking for television.” He was intrigued, so I explained my flexible work pattern to fit in the more lucrative TV shoots. “Don’t leave!” he said, “We can work around you. Just let us know when you have other commitments and we’ll arrange hours with the agency.” I was touched by his consideration; on reflection aware that after grammar school my spelling was streets ahead of most temps, with speed certificates in typing and shorthand, and ‘O’ level English.
At one stage I was temping at the Old Bailey and had a long conversation when meant to be taking dictation from a lawyer, about the spectacle of bull fighting which I’d witnessed while working in Madrid in 1957. We chatted for an hour and he dictated for five minutes. The following year (1960) when I was a ground hostess at Heathrow with Trans Canada Airlines (later Air Canada), walking along in my smart uniform, a passenger approached me, “Eileen!” I didn’t recognize him. “We met at the Old Bailey and you told me all about bull fighting!” he said. “Oh, yes.” I can’t remember all the jobs I did in my working days (there were probably over a hundred, including interpreting in Spanish at Earls Court and Olympia Exhibitions), but I was never unemployed when I wanted a job and I loved the variety. In those days, women were seldom promoted, and after I’d reorganized an office to work better, I would get restless (usually at eight-month intervals, I noticed, in retrospect), I would change jobs. I went to interviews in my lunch hours, partly for the sport. There were so many openings.
I worked for a property dealer’s agent (sourcing dozens of sites for Tesco stores), and in an estate agency, which experience came in handy later when I took up modest property dealing. When I wrote my memoir Plate Spinner in 2012, I mentioned in one sentence the property deals, which set me up for retirement, but I forgot to mention altogether, cooking for television.
My five children were aged 6-14 when I became a partner in a restaurant for two years, then I went to university to take a degree in International Politics, History and Spanish. I went on to become a fundraiser and magazine editor in a children’s charity, an editor in a publishing company, and marketing manager in a language school. I devised a way of selling their executive English courses in Cambridge to professionals abroad, suggesting they tailor a course for bankers, which I promoted, visiting training managers in banks in Madrid and Barcelona for a week (thanks to the Bank of Spain for the contact list). In the process I thought, I could be doing this as a service for any industry.
I was never an expert until I set up Export Connect in 1987 to take British companies to Spain in search of new markets and trading partners. I still had connections in Spain (an old boyfriend of thirty years before was by then Governor of the Bank of Spain), I was fluent in Spanish, familiar with the Spanish working environment and social scene. I designed a job to suit my desire to travel frequently to Spain, using a combination of skills as interpreter, researcher, facilitator and client caretaker (packing remedies for minor setbacks like painkillers, antacids, band-aids), although rarely used. I chose the hotels we stayed in, in Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Seville, Zaragoza, and accompanied the managing director of British companies in many different industries, to meet suitable trading partners and associations, agents, distributors and end users. He could thus assess the Spanish market and choose the right representative. I set up 20 appointments for a week’s visit, translating his presentation sentence by sentence, taking notes, and on our return wrote a report on contact details of the people we’d met, topics discussed, actions agreed, and commenting on the best fit. No other consultant offered such a package. One client said “You’re like a nanny to your clients.” It came naturally. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed woman is queen. The BBC heard about me through the London Chamber of Commerce, and made a documentary about Export Connect, “A Contract in Spain” in the Business Matters series. I ran this business for five years before I remarried.
I invested in a series of fixer-upper houses, initially with input from my second husband, which started a phase of property deals continuing to this day. I’ve bought and sold eighteen houses over 50 years. Four of my five sons emigrated, to Ireland, Arizona, Virginia and Australia. I traveled.
In retirement I was a volunteer Spanish interpreter on Tuesdays for ten years, at the Free Clinic in Virginia. I gave that up at age 79 when I moved to Ireland. If there was any outlet for it in Ireland, I’d be interpreting still (sitting down) at 82.
Image Credit: the feature image is a composite created for LikeTheDew.com - the base image of all the old tv sets was taken by photo by Jakkapan Jabjainai and licensed by LikeTheDew.com at 123RF.com with contributions by generous dew readers like you; the photo of Eileen Dight back in the day was provided by the author.