Storm in a teacup

Here’s something I need to put out there. I reviewed the film An Education in the Radio Times because it was on the telly. This is what I wrote (you can skip to end of the penultimate paragraph):

An Education

Fleet Street grande dame Lynn Barber first wrote about her experiences as a 16-year-old schoolgirl whose dreams of applying to Oxford in 1961 were sidetracked by an older man in Granta magazine. It grew into a book and, thanks to the screenwriting skills of novelist Nick Hornby, a film, which gives a new spin to the apparently swinging 60s we usually see on screen.

Barber-surrogate Jenny (Carey Mulligan) lives with her parents in old-fashioned, curtain-twitching suburban Twickenham, so when she meets metropolitan charmer David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard with a passable English accent) and he whisks her off to London’s West End for cocktails and foreign films, she is besotted. Her parents – a scene-stealing Alfred Molina, and Cara Seymour – take more convincing, as does her starchy headmistress Emma Thompson.

This will chime with anyone who was told by their parents that they were throwing their life away, which is why An Education works as more than just a nostalgia-inducing period piece.

With a fine supporting cast including Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams and Rosamund Pike, Danish director Lone Sherfig (Italian For Beginners) makes convincing work of recreating English life as it was lived then – apart from one glaringly erroneous single teabag dunked into a mug. (In 1961?)

Carey Mulligan is the chief revelation, though – 23 at the time, she brings incredible depth and subtlety to Jenny’s flowering, which does not run smoothly. AC

Not exactly a controversial review. However, it led to a subsequent letter being published in the magazine – from a gentleman called Jay Rayner who I understandably assumed to be restaurant critic Jay Rayner, but wasn’t. (I asked Jay Rayner the restaurant critic and he said it wasn’t him.) Anyway, the other Jay Rayner challenged my knowledge of teabags, pulling me up in a moderately superior manner on my assertion that it’s unlikely someone would have dunked an individual teabag into a mug in 1961, when the film is specifically set. Here is the letter in full:

Storm in a tea cup
Andrew Collins needs to brush up on his teabag history before rubbishing the film An Education (13 May BBC2) for depicting a teabag being “dunked into a mug” in 1961. Britain has enjoyed (?) these nifty little timesavers since at least 1953, when Tetley introduced them to an admittedly suspicious public.
Jay Rayner
Witney, Oxfordshire

Well, let me back my assertion up. According the the UK Tea Council website and its excellent history of the teabag, yes, teabags were introduced onto the market before the war in this country – having been “invented” in America in 1908, when samples of tea were sent out in small silken bags by merchant Thomas Sullivan (although infusers go back centuries) – but the British public didn’t take to them as readily as the Americans had. Even after the war, Brits remained skeptical and stuck to loose-leaf tea, infused in a teapot and poured through a strainer.

I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s and this is how I remember all tea being made. We didn’t even have mugs. Teabags  may well have existed, but none ever crossed the threshold of my house, or the houses of my family and friends. A good decade after the year An Education is set, and the teabag was still a foreign object. Now, the book and film are set in suburban London, and we were in provincial Northampton, so I accept that Metropolitan types may have adopted the bag before we bumpkins did. That said, the character who dunks one in An Education is Olivia Williams’ kindly schoolteacher (she makes a mug for herself and one for Carey Mulligan’s heartbroken teen in her modest flat). She is not some early-adopting trendsetter or radical. Nor rich. And teabags seemed like a pretty fancy way of delivering tea, even in the 70s. They must have been more expensive per cup, as they were sold on convenience, not price.

This is why I am sticking to my anecdotal certainty that a schoolteacher would have possessed neither the money nor the adventurousness to buy individual teabags to dunk in mugs in 1961. Even in Twickenham. Even though Tetley had launched their teabag in 1953, by the early 60s, according to the UK Tea Council, bags made up only 3% of the British tea market. Of course it is physically possible for a teacher to be part of that 3% in 1961, but, I would argue, still unlikely. And not normal. If one of Mulligan’s trendy London friends had whipped one out, I’d have bought it as a cultural signifier. But I’m going out on a limb here and I’m saying that the two dunked teagbags – that’s individually dunked, not dropped into a teapot – are an anomaly.

But I need backup. Anybody old enough to remember 1961? Did you ever see anyone dunk a teabag? I am prepared to let the other Jay Rayner win. But I have a hunch that he’s wrong. What do you think?

STOP PRESS:
If I’d continued to read the Radio Times letters page I would have seen this letter on the same subject. Unfortunately it goes against the grain of my argument, too. Mind you, I reckon we’ve all been looking at the same UK Tea Council website!

… Teabags were invented in 1908 and became commercially available in the 1930s. They were fairly common in the UK by the late 1950s. My wife and I used teabags and teapot at that time. Hardier souls simply dropped a teabag into a mug, exactly as Andrew tells us is shown in the film.
Pat McKelvey
Lower Denby, West Yorkshire

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26 thoughts on “Storm in a teacup

  1. I reckon it can’t be called a gaffe, a blunder or an anomaly if it could have happened. Films are not obliged to show the most likely thing that might have happened around that time. It could have happened, so I am afraid I am siding no Jay Rayner on this one.

  2. This isn’t quite what you’re looking for, but I will back up your own memories of the early 70s. I grew up in the north west of Ireland, and my memory of tea into the mid 70s was of always leaving tea at the bottom of the cup because of the mound of loose leaves that settled there. I don’t remember teabags until the second half of the 70s, when a neighbour used to bring back boxes of Tetley from her shopping trips across the border in Northern Ireland. I still buy Tetley’s bags most of the time because of that.

  3. I watched this a couple of weeks ago when it was shown on BBC2 and the teabag ‘incident’ struck me as odd too. I grew up in the 70’s and in Leamington Spa in 1979, loose tea was dispensed via a wall mounted contraption into the teapot.

    My folks were never exactly trend setting but I don’t recall teabags being commonplace until the early-mid eighties.

    Andrea

  4. I’m with you Andrew, throughout my Cornish ’60s -’70s childhood leaf tea was the only hot drink (Liptons). Tea bags for us were definitely post punk. To this day by force of habit I leave the last half inch of tea in my cup to avoid a mouthful of no longer present leaves.

  5. My father, who only died last year, was extremely careful to make sure that any tea presented to him had not been made with a bag; a pot offered would be countered with ‘is there one of those bags in there’? He was born in the 20’s; combined with my mother (1938), a child of post-war austerity, we never had tea bags in the house; far too extravagant, AND they made bad tea (and while provincial in origin my parents met in early 60’s London…).
    Just check your copy of Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter (Penguin 1961) – something that both Jay and the makers of the film should have done – no teabags. Case closed. In your face, Rayner. Game, set and match to Collins.

    • …and sorry to obsess about this, but who even had china mugs in 1961. A mug was enamel, and for National Service or Boy scout use only.

  6. Growing up in South Wales and of a similar age to you Andrew, it was definitely packets of tea in our household. Can’t remember the brand (possibly Typhoo), but I’m sure it also came with collectors cards featuring historical or natural history facts. Despite its glaring beverage based inaccuracy, have to rate An Education as a great film.

  7. Tea bags aside (I’m a loose-leaf man myself), I thought the film was OK – although I thought Mr Molina slightly ‘overdid’ the part, all I seem to recall now is lots of ranting by him (and Emma Thomson can do no wrong with me but anyway… I have to say that I was dissappointed, irritated even with the ending. (SPOILER ALERT?)

    This will chime with anyone who was told by their parents that they were throwing their life away,

    I was hoping she would – well not ‘throw her life away’ as such – but at least ‘give it a go’ with the now-discovered unfaithful husband. And after all didn’t she put down ET’s character for pretty much doing ‘what was expected’, I recall the wonderful dressing down of the head mistress(?) by the school pupil in such a polite and well reasoned manner that the Head mistress was left pretty much with egg on her face.

    I don’t know how it all ‘really’ ended (was it loosely based on fact?) but was going to oxford really not just another staid and dull if not predictable end for this girl who had just had her eyes opened to a much more interesting world.

    I mean she ended up a ‘journo’ for heaven’s sake! (Grande Dame or not).

    Oh and AC… please hand in your ‘editing/publishing’ credentials at the door (re: CH Podcast – Colophone is a made up word indeed!) PAH!

    Keep up the good reviews

  8. I was born in 1961 to a lower middle class family in provincial Brighton. Tea was made with loose leaves in a pot and poured into cups, not mugs. I’m old enough to remember my mother buying loose tea in a paper twist at Sainsbury’s where you were served by staff at individual counters for most foods (apart from tins and packaged items), such as cheese, meat, fruit/veg etc. We never had teabags at home and in fact I never even saw one until I left home at 16 in 1978 – I was horrified when I saw a friend dunking one in a mug: “that’s not tea!”, I wailed. I succumbed for a while to teabags in the late 70s, living in a bedsit it was more convenient. That was when I first encountered mugs, too. I switched back to loose leaves permanently around 1984 as I detest bags. I stuck with mugs though – teacups are annoying!

    I’m with you, Andrew – teabags in 1961 may have been used by London trendsetters, but I really doubt that dunking bags would have been de rigeur in Twickenham or the provinces.

    Sorry, Jay! You’re wrong on this.

    Great film, too. Seen it twice now.

  9. PS to Adam, colophon is NOT a made-up word. It’s very common in Dutch (where it’s spelled colofon) and means basically a credits listing in a publication plus contact details, a bit like film credits as in who does what. Its use in English is highly unusual but it does exist and the meaning is the same as in Dutch, it’s just that we don’t really see the need here to give a credits roll a title.

    • I haven’t got around the podcast in question yet, but as a MA Student of Medieval MS Illumination (hel-lo, British Library), Colophon is absolutely a word. It’s what’s at the back of the book.

    • Serena, it was Andrew who thought it was a made up word. If you read my piece again you’ll see that. I’d expected him to have come across this at least with his time on the NME and he does seem to know a bit about the publishing ‘game’ that I was astonished to hear him tell Richard Herrin on the podcast that he thought it wasn’t a real word 🙂

      • Thanks – I have looked and looked and can’t see where Andrew uses it, unless it’s in the podcast that I haven’t listened to!

  10. Another midlander (Coventry) born in 1970 into a coffee-drinking family. So no help really. But there was tea and it certainly didn’t come in bags. I think the reason I’ve always hated tea is because I didn’t like the leaves left. Stupidly I’ve only just realised reading this that you don’t get those with bags…
    I remember not too long ago seeing someone having to explain a funny story involving a tea-cosy to a bunch of teens. Perfectly reasonably, they had never encountered even the idea of the cosy, let alone its bobble-hat-with-holes capacity to amuse.

  11. Agreed. I’m from the midlands too and distinctly remember my mum and grandma always showing me funny shapes, in the tea leaves at the bottom of their cups, circa 1974.

  12. Well, around 1970 is the earliest I could reliably place Co-Op 99, or Brooke Bond teabags, in my Nan’s house. That was in Rothwell, north Northants, a go-ahead kinda spot it seems…
    But even for that time, ten years later than the film, this mug-bag business doesn’t ring true. In the house that had teabags, they were still firmly destined for the pot. On her own by then, Nan had a large pot (BHS (or Littlewoods?), Insulated – all mod cons) for when visitors came, and a small pot, glazed earthenware, for her own two cups. Bless her soul.
    (I also remember “coffee bags”. They didn’t catch on).

    • Oh yes that’s a very good point and I’d have to concur…bags dropped in a mug/cup would have been anathema to my Grand parents.

      Although the strength of my GP’s tea back then was ‘stand your spoon in it’ strength, so you’d have thought that they’d have cottoned on to bag-in-cup much more quickly than they did (or didn’t in my Nan’s case)

  13. I always used to think that tea drinking was a bit like Russian Roulette when I was a youngster. How much of your cup of tea did you dare to drink? One sip too many and you found yourself with a mouthful of tea leaves. I’m with you all the way here Andrew, teabags in 1961 not in my family/road/district/town.

  14. For what it’s worth it really is another Jay Rayner. That bloke gives his address as Oxfordshire, and I’m in deepest sarf London. Plus I carry no brief either way on the tea bag issue.

    • That’s a relief. I admit I was struggling to imagine the real Jay Rayner being so pernickety over the date teabags hit the supermarket shelves. Bet you’re a loose leaf tea drinker anyhoo…

    • Thanks for the official notification. If it had been you, I would have read the finger-wagging tone as affectionate. As it is, I now have a feeling it really is a bit superior!

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