A former member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the Second World War, Zena Skinner went on to become Tupperware’s brand ambassador and a stalwart of TV and radio cooking when it was in its infancy during the 1960s and 70s, taking on the formidable and indomitable Fanny Cradock.
In today’s world, with an endless stream of cookery programmes, some recipes seem somewhat eccentric nowadays, but her desserts have lasted the test of time, in particular her Christmas cake recipe, which she claimed should be baked in October and left to mature; this later allowed her to use her catchphrase (long before Blue Peter), “Here’s one I prepared earlier”.
In an era when there was much trepidation among women about cooking, particularly in post-war Britain when rationing had only ended in July 1954, she became a household name with her kind and caring approach to cookery offering comfort, reassurance and instruction to the sometimes hapless listener and viewer about “good old fashioned English home cooking” as she described it.
Skinner produced 13 books, which sold well and still do brisk trade in second-hand shops. A patriotic defender of traditional British meals to the end, she never bought into continental cooking.
“English, it’s the best in the world. You just can’t beat a good steak and kidney pudding. I always used fresh ingredients: a) they were cheap, and b) they were more nutritious. I was known as the fresh food freak,” she recalled.
Together with Marguerite Patten, they challenged Cradock’s bombastic approach and dominance of early TV cookery programmes. Cradock made it perfectly clear that she regarded the young newcomer as an upstart. “The first time I met [Cradock] I said, ‘Hello,’ and she looked at me like I was some sort of unpleasant smell under her nose.”
Born in the village of Redbourn outside Luton, in 1927, Zena Skinner was the daughter of Alec, a businessman, and Ethel Mary, a housewife. Her father owned a successful electroplating company. Brought up during the Great Depression, like many around the world, the family endured much hardship, both financial and with daily food shortages; this certainly helped her later in life.
Educated at St Catherine’s in Cranleigh, near Guildford, she left school at 17 and did a little menial work for her father. Upon hearing the recruitment slogan “Join the Wrens and free a man for the fleet”, she decided she wanted “to do her bit” and enlisted in the hope of becoming a dispatch rider or driver. Instead, she was trained as a coder and spent four years decoding signals in Portsmouth.
After the war, Skinner studied at the London School of Electrical Domestic Science to become a demonstrator, securing a job with the Eastern Electricity Board at their showroom in Royston, Hertfordshire. She was also given the added responsibility of covering an area of 100 square miles, checking that customers were happy with their new appliances; sadly, a role that does not exist today. Paradoxically, she shared the same career path as two of her future television contemporaries, Marguerite Patten and Mary Berry, also electrical appliance demonstrators.
After four years introducing women to the benefits of white goods, Skinner joined British company GEC, in a similar role, but this time demonstrating, servicing appliances and making house calls across the southeast of England. In the late 1950s, she was given the opportunity to go overseas and began demonstrating kitchen appliances in East Africa and the Caribbean, while also introducing some impromptu cookery sessions.
She recalled, however: “Some of their ingredients I had never seen before, things like breadfruit, plantains, mangoes, okra, saltfish. I was concentrating on showing them British desserts, because they didn’t do much in the way of puddings; they just loved our jellies and trifles.”
On one occasion, in 1959, while demonstrating at a show in the Royal Nairobi Park, Kenya, she was approached by a group of spear-carrying Masai warriors. Somewhat alarmed, “I thought I was for the pot,” explained Skinner, “And so offered them some fairy cakes in sheer self-defence”.
Photographs of the joyous warriors’ faces were captured and appeared in the British newspapers, thus bringing her to the attention of the producer of the BBC’s Cookery Club, already a huge success and then fronted by Marguerite Patten.
Her first appearance on the Cookery Club later that year saw Skinner make brandy snaps, which she recalled as “a bit risky because they can be a problem, but they turned out alright”.
Thereafter, she never looked back, making guest appearances to start with, before moving to other television slots and eventually appearing alongside the fearsome Cradock.
Eventually Skinner secured her own spot on the current affairs programme Town and Around, which propelled her into the living rooms of millions and made her something of a celebrity. She opened shopping malls and restaurants, became the “face” of Tupperware in a series of adverts, wrote cookery cards, which were distributed with magazine Woman’s Realm, and was visited by the Queen who wanted to see her television kitchen at the Ideal Home Exhibition.
Throughout the 60 and 70s, she gained a reputation for dispensing “Mumsy” advice on preparing roasts and giving domestic economy tips, demonstrating to housewives cheap ways of flavouring what would otherwise be dull fare or leftovers, such as making sauces for dips from powdered soup. She introduced viewers live to such culinary delights as cheese and shrimp fritters, prawns with macaroni, lemon snow and Norfolk syllabub.
She became known as a true professional and went on to present wholesome family fare on Indoors Outdoors and Ask Zena Skinner, while also gaining a regular slot on Radio 4 giving cookery tips on Start the Week, hosted by Richard Baker.
Inevitably, her style became dated and with the emergence of Delia Smith, who adapted Skinner’s style for a new generation, Skinner found herself surplus to requirements. Fortunately, newly founded Channel 4 picked her up along with former newsreader Robert Dougall and former Tomorrow’s World presenter, Raymond Baxter, for Years Ahead (1982-89), a programme aimed at the over-sixties, which was based on role reversal; it saw Skinner fitting windows, mending locks and showing men how to operate washing machines, while the men cleaned and cooked.
Over the years, she wrote regularly for the Radio Times, and published several recipe books. She finally retired from television in 1989. A keen devotee of Luton, she opened the Market in 1972 and went on to co-found Keech Hospice Care in Luton; she eagerly fundraised, organising summer fêtes while also volunteering to work at the hospice.
A brother, Bruce, predeceased her. She never married and died at Keech Hospice after a long illness.