Philip Harben had one of the world’s first televised cooking programmes, starting in 1946 on the BBC.
Philip Harben’s ‘Cookery’ Television Programme
Historian Tony Currie of BBC Scotland, author of A Concise History of British Television, 1930-2000, writes:
“Philip Harben made his first appearance in the programme billed simply as “Cookery” on 12th June 1946. (The show went out at 8.55pm and ran ten minutes — he made lobster vol-au-vent.) It was on 1 Sep 1947 that his appearances were billed as being by ‘the television Chef’ and it was from that date that he was described as such in his own programme.” Correspondence with Cooksinfo.com on 19 October 2013; on file at Cooksinfo.com
The series was broadcast in black and white. At some times, he had to use his own personal rations (Britain was on war rations until around 1954) to obtain ingredients for the programmes. He showed his audience how to cook with what was available at the time: for instance, he would show them how to cook chips with steak and kidney pie. Bedecked with a marvellous beard, he spoke with a good BBC accent, and was very good-natured and happy on his shows. To go on air, he always wore a striped apron.
He wrote a column for Women’s Own magazine. Harry Diamond, deputy chief sub-editor at the time, was once forced by space restrictions to remove three or four words from one of Philip’s recipes, causing one of the few recorded incidents when Harben’s good nature failed him.
He authored over 20 cook books. In his books, he took a rational approach, stopping to explain the chemical reactions involved, particularly in his book “The Grammar of Cookery.”
He was a Freemason, a member of the Savage Club lodge in London. He was married to Katharine (Kathy) Kenyon.
Chronology of his life
- 1906 — Philip was born on October 17th, 1906, in Fulham, London. His full name was Philip Hubert Kendal Jerrold Harben. His parents were the actors Mary Jerrold and Hubert Harben. His sister, Joan Harben (1909 to 1953), would become an actress as well. Philip went to Highgate School in London, then worked for a while as a stage manager, then worked in photography for advertising (amongst other things, he shot photos for tobacco ads for Country Life magazine), then switched to cooking.
- 1930 — Philip married Katharine Kenyon.
- 1937 — At the age of 31, Harben became the first cook to work at the Isobar restaurant in the Lawn Road Flats building. This was a complex of flats opened in 1934 on Lawn Road in Belsize Park, London, designed by the architect Wells Coates to be for young professionals. Agatha Christie was one of the first tenants there. On the ground floor was a communal kitchen, that was converted in 1937 to the independent restaurant called “The Isobar” that Philip was engaged to run. The restaurant also served as a club for people in the building. The presence of a restaurant meant that residents of the building could have meals prepared for them without having to engage personal staff to cook it for them. Food from the restaurant could be delivered to their rooms via dumb waiters. At one point, Philip made Camembert ice-cream for the Lawn Road residents. With his wife, Philip also managed the entire building.
- 1940 — Philip left the Isobar to join the Royal Air Force; Robert Braun took over cooking for him at the Isobar. Sometime between 1940 and 1942, he had to have an eye operation. Unable to fly owing to the eye problem, he switched to cooking for the RAF.
- 1942 — Philip did cooking shows on radio.
- 1946 — Philip has his first TV appearance on BBC television on Wednesday, 12 June 1946 in his new TV programme called simply, “Cookery.” The programme aired at 8:55pm and was just 10 minutes long. He showed how to make lobster vol-au-vents in the first episode. The show aired until 1951.
- 1947 — BBC starts billing him as the “television chef” as of September that year. 
- 1951 — For the Festival of Britain, he created a doughnut-like bun he called the “Holborn Bun” and tried to promote it as a challenger to the Chelsea Bun.
- 1953 — For the Coronation, he gave a private dinner party at which he served a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with five or six other smaller birds.
- 1953 — In one of his programmes, Philip cooked with frozen “Nephrops Tails.” Thus, he became one of the first celebrity cooks to promote not only frozen food, but also what is now known as “Scampi” (at the time, Scampi were just regarded by fishermen as part of the catch that they threw away.) In November, Philip did a special programme on Elizabethan cooking with Jeanne Heal.
- 1953 — Philip did a guest appearance on the Meet Mr Lucifer show.
- 1955 — Philip did a guest appearance on the Man of the Moment show.
- 1956 — Philip appeared on the Pantomania programme on TV as the back end of a cow. He also did a guest appearance on the “What’s My Line” show in America, while there on a tour promoting his book. He was also interviewed on the radio by Arlene Francis during the same tour.
- 1957 — first half, or 1956. Philip gave cooking demonstrations in Dublin promoting cooking with fish, sponsored by The Association of Irish Wholesale Fish Merchants. In 1957, he also did a guest appearance on the Benny Hill Show (Episode #2.5)
- 1958 — Philip was co-founder of Harbenware Limited in Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester. The company made non-stick aluminum frying pans.
- 1960 — Philip broadcast his first show in colour.
- 1960s — Philip launches “The Philip Harben Cookery Set” for children. It was a toy set, containing toy cooking utensils: a chopping board, a rolling pin, cookie cutters, a mixing bowl, a rotary whisk, a wooden spoon, plastic weigh scales, as well as miniature toy packets and cans of food such as peas, carrots, Tate & Lyle sugar, Nestle tinned milk, Ovaltine, Sifta salt, etc.
- 1970 — Philip died on 27 April. He was buried on the west side of Highgate Cemetery, in north London. Reputedly towards the end of his life, he had become a vegetarian.
(All of these were on BBC; there was just one channel in England in those days.)
- 1946 to 51. Cookery (each episode was 20 minutes)
- 1950. Cookery Lesson
- 1952 to 1953. Various single-episode specials
- 1956. What’s Cooking?
- 1964. The grammar of cookery, 13 part programme for ABC (Associated British TV) out of Didsbury, Manchester
Books by Philip Harben
- 1946. Cooking Quickly. London: The Bodley Head, (168 pages)
- 1950. NEW ZEALAND LAMB Helpful Hints New Zealand Meat Producers Board, (16 pages)
- 1951. THE POCKET BOOK OF MODERN COOKING. News of The World (203 pages)
- 1951. Philip Harben’s Television Cooking Book. London, Odhams Press (160 pages)
- 1952. The Young Cook. Peter Nevil (foreword by Enid Blyton)
- 1952. Entertaining at Home (with his wife.) London: Bodley Head
- 1953. The Home Entertaining Series Cooking with Harben. London: Herbert Jenkins (96 pages)
- 1953: Traditional Dishes of Britain. London: Bodley Head
- 1954. Traditional dishes: a calendar of recipes. London: G Delgado Ltd (26 pages)
- 1955. Philip Harben’s Cookery Encyclopaedia. London, Odhams Press. 480 pages
- 1956. Cooking with Harben. London: Herbert Jenkins.
- 1956. Fish Recipes. The Association of Irish Wholesale Fish Merchants.
- 1957. The Modern Young Cook. London: Arco Publications. (125 pages.) Published in America as “The Teenage Cook.” An update of the 1952 “The Young Cook.”
- 1958. Philip Harben’s Best Party Dishes. London. Arco Publications Ltd
- 1958. Philip Harben’s Best Quick Supper Dishes. London: Arco Publications Limited (60 pages)
- 1958. Philip Harben’s Best Dishes from Europe. London. Arco Publications Ltd
- 1960. Philip Harben’s Book of the Frying Pan. London: Bodley Head.
- 1960. Cooking. Penguin.
- 1961. IMPERIAL FRYING WITH PHILIP HARBEN. London: The Bodley Head (144 pages)
- 1965. The grammar of cookery. Middlesex: Penguin. (295 pages)
- 1965. The Way I Cook. London: Leslie Frewin (181 pages)
- 1968. The Tools of Cookery. London : Hodder Paperbacks
Literature & Lore
“The Cornish pasty [is] one of the best examples in the world of what one might call functional food. For the Cornish pasty … is not merely delicious food, it was designed for a certain quite definite purpose; it was designed to be carried to work and eaten in the hand, to be taken down the mine, to sea, to the fields. You will see a Cornishman munching his tasty pasty squatting in the narrow tin-mine workings, sitting on the nets in his leaping fishing boat, leaning against a grassy bank whilst the patient plough-horses wait.” — Philip Harben. Traditional Dishes of Britain. London: The Bodley Head, 1953. pp 9 to 10.
“The most delightful and instructive book on cooking that I have ever read….In my opinion, not only will children love it and use it with joy, but hundreds of adults will dip into it and learn a surprising amount of elementary facts about cooking that no book has told them before. I am no cook, but his book could make me one. I am going to give a copy to each of my daughters. Mr Harben’s deft touches lift the book right out of the ordinary rut. To learn the art of cookery from such a merry, friendly teacher as Mr Harben will be nothing but sheer joy to any child.” — Enid Blyton, foreword to “The Young Cook”. 1952.
Brandenburger, Caroline. TV’s first masterchef. London: Daily Telegraph. 24 August 2000.
“His 50’s series included “Cookery” 1946-51, “Cookery Lesson” 1950, several one-offs in 1952-53, and “What’s Cooking?” 1956.” “Cookery Programmes”, Whirligig-tv. Retrieved October 2013 from http://www.whirligig-tv.co.uk/tv/adults/other/cookery.htm
|↑1||Correspondence with Cooksinfo.com on 19 October 2013; on file at Cooksinfo.com|