Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Paddington Bear

After my article on marmalade there was no possible way I could resist writing about the iconic marmalade-munching Paddington Bear.

My introduction to this character was via the television series called, simply, Paddington. Created by Michael Bond and first broadcast in 1975, this was a stop-motion animation which, to briefly explain, begins with the kind Mr. and Mrs. Brown coming across an immigrant bear from "darkest Peru" at Paddington Station whilst waiting for their daughter Judy. The bear introduces himself and, once the Brown's discover the tag around his neck reading, "Please look after this bear. Thank you", they decide to take him in and name him after the train station. Then, through subsequent episodes, we learn how this polite, well-meaning bear has the rather unfortunate, yet humorous, tendency to get himself in to trouble.

Of note was the unique look of the series with a three-dimensional figure of Paddington animated in a two dimensional world of cut out figures and objects. Moreover, whilst the characters were depicted in colour, the backdrops were left black and white.

All in all, the beauty of the animation together with the instantly lovable character of Paddington and kind voice of the narrator made for a masterpiece of not just animation but children's television in general.

I am going to finish by referring you to the following "Paddington goes to the Movies" episode from the series which contains a Gene Kelly inspired "Singin' in the Rain" sequence that never fails to put a smile on my face.

See also:

Official Paddington Bear Website

Monday, 6 December 2010


Something a bit less well known, Bitsa was an arts and crafts programme that aired from 1991 to 1996 on Children's BBC. A huge fan of 'Take Hart' with the late-great Tony Hart and his plasticine side-kick, Morph, Bitsa offered a less formal approach with fun and energetic presenters, colourful set designs and wacky creations made from everyday items. Being a kid who constantly built things, this programme was an instant hit with my overactive imagination. Indeed, I even wrote in to the show and received a much cherished signed photo of the presenters along with a yellow instruction booklet containing a selection of things to make.

The show's format involved the two presenters demoing a 'make' before getting the scissors, glue, paper etc out themselves to take you through the construction process. All of this usually happened within the colourfully designed studio; however, on occasion, they did get out and about.

About half way through the programme, 'Hands' would take centre stage, see below:

For some, this robotic character stashed away backstage, sporting a fez and what looks like a Hitler tash from a distance was profoundly disturbing as he suddenly came to life in a torrent of nonsensical noises. However, I adored this quirky segment with Hands being a highlight of the show for me that I couldn't wait to see. Moreover, the simplicity and fun of his creations were attractive as I could knock them together in minutes. Legendary stuff.

The other highlight of the show for me was at the end when the two presenters had a 'big make' to do against the clock. This was a rather chaotic and exciting finale with the presenters running to the main area of the set  and consulting a machine where children would appear on a screen and say numbers. These numbers corresponded to large boxes of materials on the set's shelves which the presenters would take and throw all over the ground to create a random assortment of items with which to accomplish the task set. To inject even more energy in to this part of the show there was also the 'ticking clock' which involved the entire stage backdrop coming to life in a flurry of colour and cogs. With the presenters running around in this now-messy set, the music constantly increasing in tempo and a highly animated and colourful backdrop, this was pure excitement from start to finish.

To sum up, I adored Tony Hart but the pace and excitement this show injected in to the arts and crafts format was wonderful and, for me at least, ranks up there with the best of children's TV.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Crystal Maze

The word 'epic' would aptly describe The Crystal Maze, one of the greatest game shows to have ever graced our television screens. Requiring a £250,000 investment to build Europe's largest ever set, it was an incredibly ambitious project for Channel 4 that paid off as millions of viewers tuned in every week.

The story goes that producers wanted to make a UK version of Fort Boyard but, with the fort not being available in time for the pilot, a new show had to be conceived. Originally presented by Richard O'Brian, the show involved 4 zones (initially called Aztec, Industrial, Futuristic and Medieval) and the presenter would take a team through each of these in an order that changed from show to show.

Whilst in a particular zone, the team captain would nominate themselves or another one of their team to participate in a 'mental', 'physical' or 'skill' game. The participant would go in to a room and everyone else would have to wait outside with a varying ability to communicate with and see the person playing the game. The object of the game was to complete it in the allotted time - with the duration dependent on game's difficulty - so a 'Time Crystal' could be obtained. However, if they didn't choose to come out or complete the game before the time was up, they would be "locked in" by the presenter and the team would have to decide if they wanted to "buy them out" immediately or later on with one of the 'Time Crystals' they had already won.

All of this would continue around all four lavishly designed zones before they moved to 'The Crystal Dome'. Here the presenter would lay out all the 'Time Crystals' they had won and explain that each one represented 5 seconds in 'The Crystal Dome'. The team would then enter the Dome via a draw bridge that emerged out of a little moat that surrounded the construction. The door of the Dome would close behind them and the presenter would turn on fans sending gold and silver tickets in the air before blowing his whistle to signal the team to start collecting. The time would count down as the team collected tickets and tried to maximise the amount of gold ones they collected and minimise the number of silver ones. After the time was up, they would exit the Dome and the presenter would announce their overall gold ticket score - any silver tickets collected were subtracted from this total. If the score was 100 or more the team won special prizes they had selected off-camera before entering the Dome; if their score was 50-99 then they received a runner-up prize; and, in all cases, they got a "I cracked the Crystal Maze" memento. Running from 1990-1995 the show had 6 series, Richard O'Brian was replaced by Ed Tudor-Pole in series 4 and, in the same series, the 'Industrial' zone was changed to the 'Ocean' zone.

There were a number of things really brought the show alive. Firstly, whilst Ed Tudor-Pole was alright, Richard O'Brian was a perfect presenter for the show with his colourful personality (and clothes!) and an undercurrent of madness that was so engaging. Secondly, the sets were imaginatively designed and visually stimulating. Thirdly, the show was kept at a high pace and, as a result, burst with energy as the presenter and team ran from Zone-to-Zone. Fourthly, the type of game always varied so you never got bored. And, finally, it was hysterical to watch teams often displaying a level of idiocy not thought humanly possible - search on YouTube and you'll find plenty of clips for this type of thing.

All in all, this show was top draw and, looking at the way television has gone since, I am sad to say that we'll probably not see the likes of this again...though I always like to be proven wrong.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Chelsea Buns

Buns, glorious buns...I can think of no other baked good to better represent this particular food group than the mighty Chelsea Bun - a sticky soft dough riddled with mixed spice, sweet currants and sultanas and zesty candied peel. Shop-bought versions are delicious but homemade ones are heavenly as, still warm from the oven, they yield sumptuously to the bite and deliver wave after wave of texture and flavour that I find goes particularly well with a cuppa.

As for the history of the Chelsea Bun, it is a contested one that goes back at the very least to the 18th century. Laying claim to the invention of the Chelsea Bun are two bakers called the Bun House and the Real Old Original Chelsea Bun-house. Both were located on Grosenvor Row, Pimlico which, confusingly, doesn't happen to be in Chelsea.

Here's the bread-machine recipe I use to make my Chelsea Buns (ingredient's list taken from the 'Bread and Bread Machine Bible' by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter):



1tsp yeast

1lb 2oz strong white flour

3oz caster sugar

0.5tsp salt

2oz butter

1 medium-sized egg

8fl oz/225ml semi-skimmed milk


1oz butter, melted

4oz sultanas

1oz currants

1oz candied peel

1tsp [I use 1.5tsp or more] mixed spice

1oz light brown sugar


2oz caster sugar

4tbsp water


1) To make the dough, in this order add yeast, flour, sugar, salt, butter, egg and milk to the breadmachine. Put the machine on 'dough cycle' and remove the dough after the allotted time.

2) Pre-heat the oven to 60-70 degrees C and grease the base of a square tin.

3) Make the filling by washing and drying the dried fruit and combining them with the sugar and spice.

4) Roll out the dough into a rough 30cm x 30cm square and cover one side with the melted butter.

5) Spread the fruit filling over the butter dough surface leaving a 1cm gap along one side - I usually leave the right side free.

6) In Swiss Roll style, start to roll up the dough beginning at the side that is opposite the one that has the 1cm gap.

7) Gently press along the length of the roll to seal before taking a knife and cutting in to rounds - the size of which will depend on how big you like your buns.

8) Place the rounds in the tin with their layered profiles facing upwards and put in the oven to prove for 20-30 mins or until they have roughly doubled in size - all ovens are different so the trick here is to keep on checking the buns progress.

9) Remove the buns after proving and turn up the oven temperature to 200 degrees C. Place the buns back in to the oven and bake for 10-15 mins or until golden brown - again, the trick here is to keep on checking.

10) Make the sugar glaze by first melting all the sugar in the water with a gentle heat and then boiling for 1-2 mins without stirring until a syrupy consistency is reached.

11) When the buns are done, take them out of the oven and cover their golden brown tops with the sugar syrup.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Victoria Sandwich

The Victoria Sandwich is an icon of British baking and has been doing the rounds at the likes of picnics, fetes, parties and cricket teas since time dot. Moreover, it's not too hard to understand the reason for this: it requires little ingredients, is simple to make - especially when using an all-in-one recipe - and, of course, tastes fabulous.

Presentation-wise, a Victoria Sandwich is filled with a jam filling and, for the more indulgent among us, an additional layer of whipped cream. Alternatively, as I know from many Birthday cakes my Mother made for me when growing up, the Victoria Sandwich can provide the perfect basis for cakes with elaborate icings and decorations.

The following is a tried-and-tested recipe for those who fancy a spell in he kitchen.


3 eggs

Self-raising flour

Caster sugar



Whipped cream (optional)


1) Get out eggs, flour, sugar and butter well in advance of baking so everything is up to room temperature and the fat is nice and soft.

2) Preheat oven to 200oC.

3) Grease and base-line two 8in (20cm) round cake tins.

4) Place eggs on scales and weigh out equivalent amounts of flour, sugar and butter.

5) Cream the butter and sugar before adding the eggs one at a time and stirring in.

6) Steadily add flour and fold it in so as much air as possible is incorporated.

7) Turn out mixture into prepared tins dividing it equally.

8) Place in the oven and bake for 20-25 mins or until it springs back to the touch or slightly shrinks back from the sides of the tin.

9) Remove from oven and leave to cool a bit before turning out on to wire racks.

10) Once cooled completely, add a layer of jam to one of the sponges. If you wish to add a layer of whipped cream, take the other sponge, invert it and spread with cream.

11) Combine the two halves so the filling is sandwiched between the two sponges and finish by dusting the top of the cake with icing sugar.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Custard Creams

The Custard Cream is one of the best looking biscuits out there. Indeed, growing up and peering in to the biscuit tin, it was always of particular interest with its baroque-looking design immediately setting it apart from everything else. I imagined it as some sort of extremely tasty relic from a bygone era. In recent times, I have come to understand that the designs are in fact of Victorian origin - yet another one for the pub quiz!

Taste-wise, if you let your inner Cookie Monster out and dive straight in, a combination of softness and crunch will be delivered to your taste buds as you munch your way through two relatively thick crumbly biscuit layers and a delicious vanilla-flavoured cream centre. Alternatively, for those more patience, a twisting action can be used to dislodge one of the biscuit layers for nibbling before moving on to the cream filling which can be enjoyed by itself by either licking at it - developing those vanilla flavours slowly and steadily - or by whipping it off in one - getting a full-on vanilla hit. Finally, for all the die-hard dunkers out there, you'll find that the Custard Cream has a decent dunking tolerance and, once dunked, has a much sweeter, richer flavour - albeit without the same crunch.

Other things worthy of note are that, in 2007, TRUfree conducted a survey of 7,000 people and found out that the Custard Cream obliterated its competition with nine out of ten people voting it their favourite. On the back of this success the Custard Cream entered the Oxford English Dictionary under the definition of "noun, biscuit with vanilla-flavoured cream filling". Furthermore, its biscuit ranking was bolstered earlier this year when OnePoll.com conducted a survey of 6,000 people to find out the nation's favourite biscuit and the Custard Cream came out number one. All in all, not bad going for a biscuit that has been with us since time dot.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Marmalade (on Toast)

I adore marmalade, particularly Frank Cooper's stuff with big lumps of orange peel in it and a wonderfully full-bodied tang that, unlike others, isn't sidelined for masses of sugar.

As with Corn Flakes, marmalade was introduced to me via my Father who often chose to adorn his toast with it. Admittedly, my young taste buds didn't get on too well with the tang of marmalade at first and I often opted for sweeter preserves. However, I did persist with marmalade and I always felt tremendously grown up when I joined in with my Father. Needless to say, these days I consider marmalade on toast to be one of finest eating experiences as the crunch of toast is married with the bite of orange peel, a subtle sweetness and powerful zesty notes all carried along on a creamy layer of buttery goodness.

As for the packaging of the Frank Cooper's product pictured above, it hasn't changed from how I remember it as a child. It proudly displays the Royal Seal, has a simple black and white colour scheme, uses formal block typeface and features "Frank Cooper" in a handwritten-looking font to communicate a product of maturity, quality and class. Fantastic stuff.

See also:

Premier Foods (owner of Frank Cooper brand)