Zena Skinner obituary

Television cook and author who offered sensible, homely advice about traditional dishes to British viewers in the 1960s and 70s

Zena Skinner, who has died aged 91, was a mainstay of daytime and early evening television during the 1960s and 70s, when her cookery demonstrations offered comfort, reassurance and instruction to the sometimes hapless viewer, in contrast to the prima donna approach of her contemporary Fanny Cradock or the emphasis of her younger rivals on entertainment and novelty.

Although Tupperware, for whom she acted as brand ambassador, liked to describe her as “television’s captivating cook”, the Guardian’s critic in 1967, Stanley Reynolds, remarked that “her cooking seems aimed at 14-year-olds, with tips somewhat less exciting than the hints of the New Zealand lamb handouts”. She was a motherly, sometimes bracing teacher, guiding her flock towards greater economy, efficiency and gentle adventure. Not for her the art of killing and grilling a struggling lobster: more likely an explanation of how to produce a plaited sausage roll, with the addition of Wensleydale cheese to liven it up.

Skinner was born and brought up in Luton, where her father owned an electroplating company. At the age of 17, straight out of school, she volunteered for the Women’s Royal Naval Service, hoping to become a dispatch rider. In fact, she was posted to a brisk course in scrubbing floors in Mill Hill, north London, before selection for work decoding signals in Portsmouth.

Zena Skinner meeting the Queen at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London in the late 1960s.
Zena Skinner meeting the Queen at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London in the late 1960s. Photograph: Daily Mail/Rex/Shutterstock

With the advent of peace, she trained as a demonstrator at the London School of Electrical Domestic Science which led to a job with the Eastern Electricity Board at their showroom in Royston, Hertfordshire. In this, she shared a career path with other future television colleagues. Both Marguerite Patten and Mary Berry were electricity demonstrators, while the redoubtable Cradock had close links with the gas boards.

After four years introducing Home Counties women to the benefits of white goods, Skinner moved on to the manufacturer GEC, her responsibilities extending to much of southern England. Soon they offered her a wider brief, to train demonstrators in the Caribbean and, later, East Africa.

When in Kenya in 1959, her participation in a show at the Royal Nairobi Park coincided with an official visit by the Queen. A photograph of Skinner feeding fairy cakes to some full-dress Masai warriors made the British newspapers and brought her to the attention of a producer of Cookery Club, a BBC afternoon TV programme then fronted by Patten. This was the beginning of a long involvement with such output which lasted, on the BBC at least, until 1982. She was mostly seen as part of a team on regional current affairs and women’s magazine shows such as Home at 1.30, Town & Around and Indoors Outdoors, a programme that saw out the 70s.

An invariable accompaniment to these were information sheets and books, many of which can still be encountered in charity shops across the land. Zena wrote more than a dozen. She described her style of cookery, accurately, as “good old traditional English cooking – that’s me. 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.”

Indeed, simple instructions for cuts such as breast of lamb or beef brisket get headline treatment, alongside tips for harassed women along the lines of using the greaseproof inners of cereal packets to line your cake tins. Continental cookery, already introduced to a mass audience by cooks such as Robert Carrier, was less of a feature. Her surefire method for gauging whether spaghetti was cooked was to throw it at a wall and see if it sticks. But she did appear with the chef Paul Jeanroy in a series about regional French cookery called Bon Appétit! in 1974.

As well as television, she was heard on Radio 4 in the 70s as the resident expert on Start the Week, introduced by the newsreader Richard Baker. It was inevitable, however, that her style of cooking began to seem dated as the decade wore on, and as presenters such as Delia Smith began to make their mark. Work at the BBC dried up and her last (long) outing on television was in the magazine show for the over-60s, Years Ahead, on Channel 4 between 1982 and 1989, hosted by Robert Dougall and Raymond Baxter. In this, the men did the cooking and Skinner was up a ladder doing DIY.

Her retirement was spent energetically fundraising and volunteering for Keech Hospice Care in Luton, and giving talks to local organisations.

A brother, Bruce, predeceased her.

• Zena Skinner, cook, born 27 February 1927; died 6 March 2018


Tom Jaine

The GuardianTramp

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