The former Labour politician Ed Balls served as secretary of state for children, schools and families under Gordon Brown and as shadow chancellor from 2011 to 2015. Born in Norwich in 1967, he studied at Oxford and Harvard and worked as a journalist for the Financial Times. He became an adviser to Brown in 1994 and was elected as an MP in 2005. Since quitting politics, Balls has appeared on Strictly Come Dancing and became a professor at King’s College London. He’s married to the Labour politician Yvette Cooper and lives in north London. His memoir, Appetite: A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food, is out in paperback now (Simon & Schuster).
During the lockdown at the end of 2020, my youngest daughter and I started watching Grey’s Anatomy. Since then, we’ve watched 17-and-a-half series and every day we check to see when the second half of series 18 is going to air. It’s steamier than other hospital dramas and very in-depth on the surgery. We’ll often yell at the TV: “Pump some epi!” or: “You’ll have to crack that chest!” It began to run out of steam, but series 17, where they tackle the pandemic, is brilliant, powerfully capturing the helplessness that experienced doctors felt.
I listen to this programme of choral music every Wednesday afternoon. It’s the longest-running live broadcast in the world, on the BBC since 1926, and it’s very calming. And the most exciting thing has just happened: I’m a big fan of Herbert Howells, probably the best choral music composer Britain’s ever had, and I’ve been asked to make a programme on him for Radio 3. I can choose a piece by Howells and conduct the BBC Singers performing it – my conducting debut. I told my dad and he said: “Don’t worry, they’re so good, they’ll be able to do it and ignore you entirely.”
This imagined biography of Thomas Mann is great and particularly powerful in the current environment. It’s partly about the chaos of Mann’s family and the suppression of his sexual life, but it’s also about the torment of his nationalism. You see Mann’s German pride slowly collapsing over his life and he ends up fleeing Nazi Germany for America. It makes you think what it must be like to be a proud Russian intellectual in this period and the turmoil of that.
I’m really eclectic in my music choices: I like choral music, Dolly Parton and ELO, but my favourite jazz performer is the American saxophonist Joshua Redman. He had an album out in 2020 called RoundAgain, which was supposed to kick off a tour of America and Europe but it got cancelled because of the pandemic. I just found out that he’s playing at the Barbican in November. I’ve got my tickets. It’s a lifetime ambition to see him live. I think he is one of the greats.
Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy (CNN/BBC)
Stanley Tucci’s exploration of his Italian heritage through food is lovely television; I watched all six episodes in one week. It’s the most comforting programme you can imagine, like sinking into a warm bath of spaghetti. You think there must be a moment when Stanley doesn’t find the food delicious, but it never happens. He loves all of it. He’s such a friendly, warm presence and he captures something of the politics of Italy, too. The episode about Milan and the very different cuisine in the north is really good.
Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & Beyond by Olia Hercules
I was on Saturday Kitchen last August with the Ukrainian chef and food writer Olia Hercules. We were both talking about family and food and she made a steamed, fruit-filled bun called a pyrizhky. It was very evocative for me, because as a young journalist in the early 90s, I spent a lot of time in Ukraine and the food there was very memorable. Afterwards, I bought Olia’s first cookbook, Mamushka, so I could do some Ukrainian cooking. At the moment, I’m making borscht, vareniki [dumplings] and pampushki [garlic rolls] and feeling Ukrainian solidarity.
This is a new Netflix adaptation of Robert Harris’s novel about the 1938 Munich agreement. The book, which takes a revisionist approach, is great and this adaptation doesn’t disappoint. Harris’s argument is that Chamberlain knew Hitler was going to declare war or similar, but he also knew that Britain and America weren’t prepared and therefore he decided to sacrifice himself and his reputation to buy time for rearmament to occur. Jeremy Irons is brilliant as Chamberlain and George MacKay, who plays the young British protagonist, is really good, too.