There’s a story Sheila Dillon likes to tell about the birth of The Food Programme, the Radio 4 institution that she’s been an integral part of for more than three decades and which is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
The story concerns the late Derek Cooper, her predecessor as presenter and the man who, in 1979, launched the programme into a very different food world from today’s.
“Derek loved good food,” Dillon recalls. “He was first and foremost about the pleasure food can bring. And he believed that everybody has a right to it – that it shouldn’t be a case of rubbish for the poor and the good stuff for the better-off. He persuaded Radio 4 to make a series of six programmes, and the story is that he then went to the commissioning editor and asked if he could make some more, and the answer came back, ‘Really? Is there anything more to say about food after six weeks?’”
The fact that some 2,000 editions of The Food Programme have aired since then – with two 40th-anniversary celebration specials coming up – provides an emphatic answer to that question. And the programme is about so much more than food. As its editor, Dimitri Houtart, says, “it’s a lens through which we can look at society”.
“It’s amazing,” Dillon says of the programme’s longevity when I sit down with her at her home in Highbury in north London, a box of organic veg having been delivered to her front door that morning. “Amazing and remarkable, especially considering how Derek struggled to get it made.” And while the spirit of Cooper, who died in 2014, will always preside over The Food Programme’s top table, the role that Dillon has played in its history is no less glittering.
Since her first involvement in the programme, in 1987, she’s travelled the world – “I’ve lost count of the number of countries I’ve visited” – and interviewed everybody from Jamie Oliver to Paul McCartney. She’s been reporter, producer and, since 2001, the voice of the programme – and an instantly recognisable one.
The accent is an amalgam of Lancashire, where she grew up, and the US, where she lived for much of her 20s, but what really distinguishes Dillon is the ease and authority with which she balances the two main aspects of the programme – its celebratory side, and its investigative side.
A slight, diamond-bright figure, Dillon isn’t fazed by the arrival in her home of a small delegation from Radio Times, taking care to get everybody’s order right as she makes tea and coffee for us, and the photographer and his team set up.
Dillon’s route to The Food Programme was a circuitous one, her upbringing and the early part of her career providing experiences that she’s been able to draw deeply on, whether she’s been sitting down for a chat with a Michelin-starred chef or exposing a food-industry scandal.
Her Lancashire upbringing was rural. “We grew up among farms, and from when I was 13 I worked on one – weekends and school holidays. I washed milk bottles. I fed hens. I worked in the dairy.” The big food influence on her life was her mother – “a real life-force”, says Dillon. “She was a great cook and a tremendous food enthusiast. She picked mushrooms, and she’d go around the markets, and was very discriminating. I don’t mean that we had fancy food at all. We didn’t. But she cared. And because it was a village, food was delivered and there was a man who came round with fruit and vegetables, and my mother would go out to his van and she’d come back into the house and shout, ‘He’s got pomegranates!’ or ‘He’s got chestnuts!’, and she conveyed that food could be about pleasure.”
It wasn’t an idyllic upbringing by any means. Her parents’ marriage was unhappy, she says, and it affected her education, but in spite of failing the 11-plus, she made it to Leicester University to read English. Even then, she says, she “felt like a fake” and that “it was a miracle I actually finished my degree”.
After graduating, she embarked on what would be a peripatetic life. She worked for the British Council in Finland before going to study at the University of Indiana, and then getting a job as an editor at the University of Indiana Press. The next stop was New Zealand. Her boyfriend got a teaching job there, and Dillon gave up her life in the States to go with him – “terrible for a feminist!”. It wasn’t long before they broke up, and Dillon was on the move again. She had her green card so she returned to the US and found a job at the publishers Little, Brown in Boston.
It was here that Dillon’s capacity to challenge authority came to the fore. “I was a copy editor in the trade department, and it became obvious that women were being hired and being moved into copy editing, and men were being hired and put into trainee editorships – and they were being paid two and a half times more than the women. So six of us brought a class action, and we won.” The experience was “interesting”, she adds, with some understatement.
By now she had met the man who would become her husband – the investigative reporter Peter Koenig, who was from New Jersey – and the two of them moved to California, where Dillon got a job in magazines. She and Koenig decided they would alternate between basing themselves in the US and in the UK – three years in one country, three in the other.
That meant a move to Edinburgh, but Dillon’s involvement in food didn’t begin until she was back in the US, living in New York, when a scandal broke on Long Island after pesticides were found to have leaked into the water supply. Dillon was weaning her newborn son Tom, mashing up potatoes for him, and she realised she wanted to act. She got involved in a voluntary project in the Bronx, where fresh food was in short supply, and started working on a magazine called Food Monitor, rising to become its editor.
Then she and Koenig returned to the UK, for what would be the final time, and she decided to approach The Food Programme. A producer saw what an asset she could be. “She sent me on a training course to learn how to make radio features. And that’s when I first met Derek. I remember him coming into the office, and he was always very bouncy, you know? ‘It’s such a beautiful day!’ That’s what I remember.” The pair went on to work together for some 15 years.
I ask Dillon which of The Food Programme’s many achievements she’s proudest of, and her answer doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s the work she did exposing the scandal of BSE (or “mad cow disease”), when, in the 1990s, officialdom tried to cover up that meat entering butchers and supermarkets could be contaminated as a result of cattle being fed animal products.
“I’m very proud of the way we documented the lies and the obfuscation and the denials. I’d go to laboratories, and scientists wouldn’t let me record their answers when I asked them if they’d change their own diets, because of course they had but they were toeing the official line. You’re just a journalist, and the people in power – men in power – want to dismiss you, want to make you seem silly, and you start to doubt things yourself. Well, that’s what power does, doesn’t it?”
There’s another achievement to be noted, although Dillon would probably consider it self-indulgent to call it that, which is that since 2011 she has had cancer of the bone marrow and continues to work in spite of its effects and the chemotherapy treatment she is receiving. “But it’s under control,” she says.
So how health-conscious are you about your diet, I ask. “Well, it’s sort of embedded in me now. I’ve never eaten that much meat, but when I do, I believe in eating good meat. I don’t worry about fat. I never have. I’ve always eaten butter and I’ve always loved fatty meat.”
And what about the rise of veganism? “It’s an interesting development, but I think people should be more cynical about the way the food industry is likely to capitalise on it. You can make vegan junk food easily and you can charge a much higher margin. Look at margarine! It took us a long time to become aware of margarine and what an industrial product it is, and here it is on the rise again.”
She says she’s not sure it’s helpful to talk in terms of healthy food. “It’s like what Michael Pollan, the American food writer, says: eat food, not too much, mostly plants, and eat for pleasure.”
That word “pleasure” again. It’s why Nigel Slater is right up there in the Dillon pantheon. “He’s just major on pleasure, and I love that about him.” And then there’s the pleasure of The Food Programme itself. Happy 40th birthday, and let’s raise a glass to Sheila Dillon.
Two 40th anniversary Food Programmes air at 12: 30pm on Sunday 10th and 17th November on Radio 4