Interview: Sue Perkins and Giles Coren - Gluttons for punishment
The milling mass of tourists in London's Parliament Square can't quite believe their eyes. It's early March, and although the sun shines centre stage in the blue sky, there's still a bracing nip in the air. Racing around the quadrant is the fearless warrior queen Boudica. She brandishes a sword, her guttural battle cry carrying menacingly on the wind.
But wait … She's not astride a trusty steed, but hitching a lift in the back of an open-topped jeep. And her long auburn locks look suspiciously synthetic. For eagle-eyed British TV viewers, the gig is up. The giveaway? Funny girl Sue Perkins' trademark glasses, glinting in the sunlight.
"I look like Al Murray in a Cher wig. Or Cher after she's spent the night in a Biffa bin. I'm worried I'm going to be arrested," Perkins deadpans in a break in filming the latest instalment of her time-travelling foodie series. She hitches up the hem of her 10BC toga to reveal fetching long-johns from that mecca for thermal clothing, Damart.
It's the second-last day of a week-long shoot for which Perkins and her co-conspirator, Giles Coren, have immersed themselves in all things Roman. Hence the Boudica get-up, the purple-streaked wig a panic buy from a fancy dress shop after a wardrobe glitch, and a rather handsome Coren strutting around in full-on Emperor attire. The plumes atop his helmet flutter in the breeze, giving him the air of one seriously proud peacock.
Those not familiar with the food series may be confused by its ever-changing title. Edwardian Supersize Me was the format's first incarnation, arriving with little fanfare in 2007 on BBC4. Inspired by Morgan Spurlock's fast-food shock doc, Super Size Me, Perkins and Coren spent a week sampling the Edwardian culinary delights – our 20th-century predecessors gave us the Full English Breakfast – and the disasters of that period. Anyone for oyster patties washed down with Madeira?
The programme morphed into The Supersizers Go… on BBC2 last year, which garnered far more attention. This time, our plucky tasters munched on menus starting in the Elizabethan age (calf's foot jelly was a staple) and ending in the 1970s, with Perkins getting squiffy by drinking the at-home bar dry of Babycham.
A big part of the show's charm and appeal to its audience (2.5 million and counting) is the sibling-style ribbing and good-natured rivalry between the presenters. Mind you, Perkins has had plenty of practise in TV double acts, having formed a comedy partnership with Mel Geidroyc. Perkins has since forged a successful solo career – most recently showcasing her natural musical talent on the BBC2 series Maestro.
Alannah Richardson, the series producer of the newest incarnation, The Supersizers Eat… knows that they have all the ingredients for a winning recipe.
"We've got the mix absolutely right," she says. "It's history meets food meets comedy; there are three quite strong themes. So the relationship between Coren and Perkins is really important. They play off each other really well. They are both very different: Perkins is the right-on comedienne; Coren plays the public-school Oxbridge boy. If they were both the same, it could fall a little bit flat."
Especially entertaining is the culinary one-upmanship the pair engage in, the stakes made higher by Coren's tenure as the Times restaurant critic and Perkins' off-screen vegetarianism.
"Sue will always go that extra mile when it comes to eating," Coren says. "I think it must be something to do with women having a higher pain threshold. Or the fact that because she's veggie, she doesn't realise what she's letting herself in for. I think there's a mentality of, 'If it's a steak, it might as well be a fish eye.' I will draw the line, but she will keep going. In fact, she's just eaten some cow's udder pat. Even our hardened cameraman, Big Chris, was dry-heaving at that."
There's no doubt that Perkins – who sports her modern dark-rimmed glasses in every period – gets a raw deal when it comes to living it up. The inequality of the sexes is often highlighted as we observe how men and women lived in bygone days – with the Second World War episode being especially memorable.
We watched Coren as he followed in Churchill's footsteps for a week, glugging champagne and smoking cigars. Cut to a hapless Perkins, at home, gamely trying to rustle up a tasty meal. From a cow's heart.
"It's quite incredible. As a whole, women have been on a bloke's arm for thousands of years – which I'm not very good at anyway," says Perkins, 39, who was outed as a lesbian by her ex-girlfriend Rhona Cameron during her appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2002.
"We've travelled from 100BC to the 1980s and the only job I've had is a part-time one at the travel agents. There's always been a lot of cleaning, but I very nearly went mental this series during the 1950s. Cleaning was all I did. You can make a few jokes about it, then it just becomes boring and claustrophobic. I know what it's like to be liberated – and to go from that to the sound of a clock ticking for a decade was really hard."
As the cameras roll again, Perkins ad-libs with ease. In between huge sups of beer (we Brits drank it in defiance of the wine-quaffing Romans), she talks with genuine interest and authority about Boudica. Both Coren and Perkins gained English degrees – at Oxford and Cambridge respectively – and it shows.
"I'm not very good when I'm given scripts," Perkins admits. "With this, the research team give us the basics and we go with it. We had a big break between the last series and this one, so I've read a lot of books."
Each of the six episodes for the new series – including The Eighties, Medieval and The French Revolution – is meticulously researched. Charlotte White, the food researcher, had to find culinary clues for both The Eighties and Ancient Rome, but found our modern eating habits much harder to gain an insight into than those of our ancestors.
"Because the 1980s are pretty recent, there aren't a huge number of historical texts about the foods we ate," she says, "but we have a brilliant cookery book from Roman times, like an ancient version of Mrs Beeton. It's called Epicius, named after a famous glutton.
"It's in vulgar Latin, so it was probably written by slaves. It starts with a list of herbs and spices no self-respecting cook should be without. One thing they used a lot was lovage – a bit like pepper. Pretty much every recipe started by grinding lovage and salt.
"The Romans also invented the first salad dressing. It was recorded by a writer called Columella. It was a bit like pesto – and yes, you guessed it, made with lovage. Another big thing was the fish sauce. Made from fermented fish guts, they smothered it on everything, like we do with tomato sauce."
Back in 2009, and Coren is trying not to look as if he's enjoying playing Emperor too much. Producer Alannah whispers: "It is comical because he comes to wardrobe and pretends he doesn't like putting the outfits on. He starts off obviously 'acting' and then he really gets into it. He denies it every day, of course."
As a former parliamentary sketch writer, the irony of striding around in an authentic breast plate and leather skirt isn't lost on Coren.
"I covered for Matthew Parris in the Times. Every day, I would sit in the gallery, listening and reporting on Question Time," he says. "That was a very grand job in journalism and I've thought about it this morning, standing outside, looking like a cheap tour guide. I've fallen, but I'm now earning more for doing less. Such is the world we live in."
Notoriously, Coren experienced another vagary of the modern world in 2008. After a hapless sub-editor had the audacity to remove the letter 'a' from Coren's prose, Coren fired-off a vitriolic e-mail in response. The expletive-riddled (and inadvertently funny) missive went viral.
"It made the front page of the Guardian, and I didn't cover myself in glory," Coren admits. "And I was never going to make a brilliant journalist; I was a very bad interviewer because I would go and play back my tapes and there would be me, just bollocking on. I interviewed Brian Clough just before he died, and Tony Blair just before the election and I'd ask quite a good question and the subject would try to talk but I would be too busy answering it myself."
So is there a money-spinning book about the series in the offing? "I can't really imagine anybody wanting the recipe for Coffin Pie, can you?" splutters Perkins, referring to a staple from the Restoration – a 10kg pastry case with an inch-thick reusable lid, full of coxcombs, sweetbreads, sheep's tongue, bone marrow, chicken, veal, pigeon breasts, oysters and nutmeg. "I'd like to do something like how you could create your own Restoration banquet, only using ingredients you could get at your local supermarket."
One unwelcome side-effect for the still sylph-like Perkins is her weight gain. To gauge how much the diets affect the Supersizers, the pair are weighed, measured and tested at the beginning and end of each week.
"At my last doctor's weigh-in, he said, 'You are 28 per cent body fat.' My brain immediately translated that to, 'You are one third butter and you simply can't eat for a week,'" she grins.
Not that her resolve lasted very long, when she time-travelled back to the French Revolution.
"I ate things that almost made me cry with joy," she says, her eyes glazing over with pleasure. "We did a whole meal just about cakes. There were huge sugar towers, Viennese biscuits and the finest communion wafers. In the corset I wore, Ros Little, the head of costume, managed to lace my waist down to 22 inches. But the thing is, all of the fat squeezed out of the top of my chest and became Jordan-like. I had these huge hooters! The second I took the corset off, all of it dropped to my gut, like a spacehopper of fat, leaving me with pancake-flat boobs again. Perhaps I should be thinking about doing a diet DVD."
Perkins was moved, however, by the plight of Marie Antoinette, France's most famous queen.
"I got to play her in Versailles, and it was amazing," she says. 'But I read a biography by Antonia Fraser and realised just how maligned and misunderstood she was. She was this little Viennese girl, ripped away from her family and sent on a three-week journey to marry a bloke she had never met. And her most infamous quote, 'Let them eat cake', was uttered by another queen many years before."
The day's filming is drawing to an end, but Perkins still has one last racy appointment before she hangs up the golden breastplate of the other queen she is playing.
"I'm off to an orgy tomorrow," she says. "I'm going to find out why the Romans wore togas – they were obviously very easy to get off and on."
I can only imagine what the passing tourists will make of that …
• The Supersizers Eat… begins on Monday, 15 June, on BBC2 at 9pm.
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