Simon King and David Myers, better known as the BBC’s bearded cookery duo, ‘The Hairy Bikers’, have made a name for themselves as experts in the foodie road trip, their travels having extended across the globe from Transylvania to Vietnam. Yet what really stands out as I talk to these guys is their passionate for unpretentious, homely soul food, and its power to bring people together. With great chemistry and an honest, friendly on-screen demeanour, it’s easy to forget that the pair started their careers behind the scenes, rather than in front of the camera.
‘We were on the film crew for several TV drama series,’ recalls Si. ‘We were both working on Catherine Cookson when we became mates. We had the same interests in food, travel, bikes and things. We’ve been friends now for nearly 20 years. I sold him a terrible bike once; it conked out in the middle of the Scottish highlands with a girlfriend on the back! I don’t think he saw her again.’
Dave clearly didn’t hold a grudge, as he responds, ‘We started cooking together after that. The kind of projects that we do are so much better when you’re doing it with your best mate.’He goes on to explain how the transition to becoming TV chefs was somewhat unplanned. ‘The earlier Hairy Bikers never started out as a cookery show. It was more about travel.’ Yet, on visits to places like Namibia, it became apparent that food culture was central to all their travelling experiences. ‘Food was the currency of the programmes. Eventually, it slowly morphed into a proper BBC cookery show.’
Their most recent project, ‘Hairy Bikers: Meals on Wheels’, is an attempt to breathe new life into a vital but much neglected service. Meals on Wheels was pioneered in the 1940s by the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, who cooked and delivered fresh meals to the elderly and infirm every day.
Today, Meals on Wheels is in danger. In the last five years, the UK has lost around a third of its Meals on Wheels services. One problem is that the service is fragmented, and differs vastly depending on the local authority. In some areas it is fuelled entirely by volunteers, but in most others it has been replaced by bi-monthly deliveries of frozen meals which must be paid for by the recipients, sometimes costing up to a third of the weekly state pension. Elsewhere there is no help available whatsoever. With tight budgets and the constant threat of yet more cuts to funding, food quality is notoriously low.
‘In our affluent society, it’s upsetting that we don’t have the foresight to see the problem,’ says Si. ‘I think it was Mahatma Ghandi who said that civilised society is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. These people have contributed to society all their lives, and there is a tendency to sweep them under the carpet.’
Dave adds, ‘If they could do it in 1943 when rationing was still happening, why not now? It’s a bit of a slap in the face for modern society.’ With the help of Meals on Wheels staff, many enthusiastic volunteers, and marketing input from world-renowned advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi, the Hairy Bikers have been working to give the dying institution the resources, energy, and identity it needs to continue for years to come. They have been particularly focusing on the shift from frozen foods to freshly prepared meals, and from fortnightly deliveries to daily visits.‘
There is not a single Meals on Wheels volunteer who hasn’t saved a life at some point,’ says Si. The visits are a vital lifeline for those living alone, particularly to older people who have lost a partner. ‘It’s sad when there is a married couple where one dies and the other is left alone,’ says Dave. ‘They need an outlet for their grief – there are people hurting in silence.’
The initiative is one close to their hearts, as both Si and Dave have experience caring for ill and ageing parents. Si’s mother became dependent on her family due to long term illness. ‘The family found it hard to cover mealtimes,’ Si tells me. ‘We tried to find her a good service, since she was a great food lover; it was her raison d’être. The food quality wasn’t to her liking, so we had to step into the void.’
Dave also cared for his mother, who suffered from MS. ‘My father was 55 when I was born, so when I was eight, he was already 63. I took over most of the cooking myself when I was 14 or 15.’ The BBC approached us with the concept of the programme because they felt we’d be good to present it, and when we heard the facts, we couldn’t not do it.’‘
Food is important for the body and soul, and socialisation of people,’ says Si. ‘People should be afforded a level of dignity and respect through the food that they are served.’ But both Si and Dave make it clear that they are not out to get embroiled in political debate. ‘This is not about some Tory thinktank, working out ways to contribute to the ‘Big Society’. On your bloody bike, mate! We didn’t want to engage in the politics of it all because it’s a cul de sac. It’s always been about people, not politics.’
I ask if the recent popularity of fresh food is likely to continue, or whether food producers will fall back into cutting corners due to financial constraints. Si explains, ‘We’re very much time dependent now. We have busy lives, it just needs a shift in the thought process about how we’re able to eat and deliver fresh food. Companies who mass produce tend to look at pounds, shillings and pence, but there are lots of responsible food producers out there. It’s not about romanticising food – it’s about stripping away the bullshit. At the end of the day, fresh food is better.’
When I ask if it’s possible to recover the community spirit which originally drove the Meals on Wheels service, Si responds with characteristic enthusiasm.‘We always have been that way. It’s not lost. We’re community minded. Us Brits have a keen sense of injustice, and can rise to the challenge when we see that there is one.’ I also discover that, as a result of the programme, the Hairy Bikers’ BBC website crashed three times when it was inundated with volunteers.
The bikers still keep in touch with many of the volunteers and meal recipients they met along the way, making it clear that this is not something they plan to walk away from.‘We’ve already filmed a Christmas special,’ says Dave, ‘and I’d really like to see a follow-up series some time in the next year. ‘
Yet the BBC programme is only the beginning. They appeal for continued support, and extol the benefits of volunteering to students.‘It’s fun! It’s a good laugh,’ Dave tells me. ‘We looked forward to visiting the people we got to know over the programme. The benefit you can give is huge, but the benefit you get back is fantastic.’‘
Give me two hours a month, that’s it,’ says Si, ‘If you can, you should. It’s about being engaged with the world around you. The world of academia can become a bit cosseted, and this is a great way of interacting with your community. They’re not a different species; they’re us!’
Bearing in mind their culinary éclat, I use the opportunity to ask the Hairy Bikers if they have any parting tips for Cherwell readers who are struggling to feed themselves.
Dave recommends that students go to fresh produce markets. ‘You’ve got a cracker there in Oxford, you should use it. If you go to a market where suppliers know their ingredients, you’ll very often come away with a recipe.’‘Lentil curry,’ says Si, almost immediately. ‘It makes you fart, but it’s great and really tasty!’
To find out more about volunteering opportunities, visit www.bbc.co.uk/hairybikers