Do you have a corner shop nearby? If so the chances are it will be owned and run by a family of Asian heritage, open most of twenty-four hours, friendly, better stocked than the supermarket, and all the more likely to provide you with improbable, impossible whatever, if you have ready cash and a sense of humour. Theatre doesn’t come better than this. But this is real life. No kidding.
BBC2 have just taken us through a six-part ‘extraordinary time-travelling adventure’ on the corner shop from Victorian times to the end of our new century. At the moment Back in Time for the Corner Shop is waiting for you on iPlayer for a little while longer. If this isn’t entertainment with a big smile, I don’t know what is.
The corner shop of this Back in Time series is set in a poor quarter of Sheffield and owned and managed by the local Ardern family of mum Jo, dad Dave, Sam, the older brother, and younger brother Ben with young sister, Olivia; sometimes there is an animal or two (don’t miss the episode with the workhorse). The cast remain the same for over a hundred and ninety years, but they do change dress and hairdos as the years progress. They also don’t age. We’re not let into the secret of how they manage that.
Handsome older brother gets called up for his country needing him for the Second World War – not the one where the boys were given no training, then used as gun fodder. This lad returns without so much as dust in his eye, looking like he just came back from a long holiday weekend at Butlin’s.
Don’t expect them to be too attentive to historical detail. Once you chuck that expectation out of the window, the series is great fun. Seriously though, mum is a great presence and if only her elder son weren’t so handsome, would have easily stolen the show. All the costume changes suit her to a T. She’s a thinker too. You can’t accuse any of the other characters of that. Though handsome Sam does have a stab at intelligence.
The family live above the shop and mum takes up baking. Some fascinating historical detail here. Did no one tell the devisers of the series that Victorian recipes must be approached with caution – flour for instance had very different consistency according to whether your recipe was from Mrs Beaton (for the hoi polloi) or Mrs Marshall (for the snobs). Mum sails through smilingly, baking for the family and for sales in the shop. (I’ve come a baking cropper myself through not having this vital information.) First take a dozen goose eggs etc (Mrs Marshall) or First catch your wild goose (Mrs Beaton) which made my friend Peter Maxwell Davies reach for Mrs B when an injured wild goose flopped into his garden on his Orkney island. An enthusiastic cook, Max was just about to enjoy this delicacy when the doorbell rang and the policeman came to arrest him for possession of the Queen’s property. Max said that he knew Her Majesty well and was quite sure she would understand in the circumstances. She did too. Would the officer perhaps like to try this delicacy? He declined. Perhaps because he was ‘on duty’. Cup of tea, officer?
Dad gets a raw deal, including a bath in the newly arrived cans of baked beans. This was about the time when Laurel and Hardy peaked, so the rest of the family, having covered dad in the tin bath with the new Heinz horror, screech with laughter.
The Ardern family, just like today’s corner shop owners, calculate their customers’ needs, are skilled at the have you tried? business, and are open all hours god sends. Plus a few more. Work ethic is the name of the game. Dedication too. They open and smile even when the odds are stacked against them. Especially when the odds are stacked against them.
The Victorian poet, G K Chesterton had other ideas:
God made the wicked Grocer
For a mystery and a sign,
That men might shun the awful shops
And go to inns to dine;
Where bacon’s on the rafter
And the wine is in the wood,
And God that made good laughter
Has seen that they are good.
But in the end they are judged:
The hell-instructed Grocer
Has a temple made of tin,
And the ruin of good innkeepers
Is loudly urged therein;
But now the sands are running out
From sugar of a sort,
The Grocer trembles; for his time,
Just like his weight, is short.
The bacon on the rafters reminds me of my own experience of the corner shop in the 1950s. Frank Scambler was tall, gaunt, bespectacled and unfailingly polite to his demanding customers. Chesterton’s waspish touch says The evil-hearted Grocer / Would call his mother ‘Ma’am’ / and bow at her and bob at her,/ Her aged soul to damn,/ And rub his horrid hands and ask / What article was next / Though MORTIS IN ARTICULO / Should be her proper text.
Nothing was packaged at Frank’s. As you pushed open the door there was a clanking bell above it – the kind of bell that sounds like it has a bad cold. Everything was spotlessly clean with a pennyworth of shavings from the nearby woodworks flung across the floor to provide the admirable perfume and keep it clean. The smell of freshly ground coffee was another clean-smelling pleasure. So too the immense cheese truckle from which Frank would precision-slice a piece to madam’s requirements. Hams were sliced by a huge red hand-slicer; once you chosen your ham it was ceremoniously placed on the execution block, the thickness set and the big red handle turned for the neat pieces to fall onto greaseproof paper, before being wrapped in brown paper. Sugar was weighed in stiff blue paper bags. Flour too was weighed from a giant sack. No unnecessary use of plastic in those days!
The Ardern family pick up a recipe for potato bread from their Victorian neighbours. I picked up my recipe for this delicious bread from my Irish friends.
The first episode of Back in Time is the best, from the point of view of research and surprises in stocking a food shop in 1897. My own grandma, in the early years of the twentieth century in a Lancashire cotton town would get up at 5.30, use the fire-oven next to the kitchen fire to make bread, before, like most Lancashire lasses, she would get herself to the weavers’ shed where she wove until 5pm, then got home to somehow knock together something to eat with the bread for grandad, who was coachman to the relatively wealthy family up the hill. Both were paid slave wages. And the Lancashire lasses were nearly all deaf because of the horrendous din of the looms. Lip reading was an obligatory qualification. Grandma was impressively resourceful: another necessity for survival.
The Ardern family are resourceful too, though not quite out of necessity. Their object is to grow their business. And so they do. As the years progress through the swinging twenties, you shouldn’t believe them when they tell you that they participated in such swinging as the Charleston: that was for the idle rich. The Sheffield steel industry – also manned by slave labour – hit the most mighty recession and there were imports from the British Empire and America like corned beef and bleached bread, which also had chemicals added to make it weigh more – and therefore you paid more – and the word nutrition was never uttered. Just as well: it had been much reduced in whitening the bread. The wealthy continued to eat wholegrain and became healthier. Food education was still more than a decade away. My own parents laughed at notions of food for health. They both died before they were seventy.
As we get into the 1970s, juke boxes began to appear and so did fruit machines. But I never saw either of these in a corner shop. You would find them in bars and clubs. My only positive experience with a fruit machine was at Olwyn Vaughan’s Petit Club Français (set up at 4 St James’s Place, London, to aid the French resistance). All the members were sympathetic to Olwyn’s aim and we knew the fruit machine was a no-win con but supported it just the same. One night I put in my coin and pulled the handle and the machine emptied itself of coins! The jackpot! Applause all round at the bar! I invited the friend I had introduced to Olwyn’s, upstairs to her excellent restaurant, and used the coins to pay our bill.
Back in Time for the Corner Shop is presented by Sara Cox with the aid of social historian and food researcher, Polly Russell, who both appear in the six 59minute programmes, still on BBC iPlayer for a limited time.