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):
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.
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?
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.
Lower Denby, West Yorkshire