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A Conceit of Coney: Philip Harben and Britain’s First Television Food History Programme

Geddes, Kevin



We almost take for granted today that ‘food history’ on television is a commonplace and well-established genre of its own, with programmes taking us back to imagine food production and consumption through the ages. We think nothing of seeing Annie Gray, Lucy Worsley and many others pulling on the costumes of the past to ignite our imaginations and bring the past to life through food. However, little is known about the history of food history on television. Where and how did it all begin? How were the earliest examples used to inspire what we see on screen today?

This paper will examine the first food history programme in Britain, broadcast by the BBC as part of an inventive celebration of all things Elizabethan to coincide with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 (Radio Times, 1953). For the ‘Elizabethan Evening’, Harben wore a fantasy Elizabethan outfit to create his own version of an Elizabethan dish – A Conceit of Coney – live on television, imagining the past for his imagined audience at home.

By analysing an intact archival copy of the An Evening’s Diversion broadcast (APTS, 2021), together with additional primary sources, this paper will examine the look, feel and outcome of the programme – the way Harben dressed, talked, inspired and educated, but most of all entertained as he introduced food from the past.

This paper will argue that television allowed for a visual representation of imagination which was, and remains, a perfect vehicle for food history, helping audiences at home to imagine themselves in Elizabethan times and seeing the television cooks of the day (should they have existed) cooking a vision of spectacular feasts.

I will conclude that the imaginative recreations of food history owe much to Harben and his imagery of the Conceit of Coney, which may not have been the most historically or culinary accurate representation but was nonetheless a spectacle aimed at sparking the imagination of television viewers in 1953 – a legacy which remains today. This will be a unique, and entertaining, contribution to food history, television history and the intersection of food history on television.

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (Published)
Conference Name Food & Imagination: Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2021
Start Date Jul 9, 2021
End Date Aug 1, 2021
Publication Date 2021-07
Deposit Date May 25, 2022
Book Title Food & Imagination: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2021
ISBN 9781909248762
Public URL