Food in the Sixties: Len Deighton’s Making Food Sexy


A real treat for us today as Luke Honey explores the little known link between super-macho action hero Harry Palmer and fancy gourmet cookery …

Colonel Ross:  Champignons? You’re paying ten pence more for a fancy French label. If you want button mushrooms    they’re better value on the next shelf.

Harry Palmer:  It’s not just the label sir, these do have better flavour.

Colonel Ross (with sarcasm):  Of course, you’re quite the gourmet, aren’t you Palmer?

The Ipcress File (1965)

I want you to go back in time if you will, to the mid 1960’s. To the years when olive oil, famously, could only be tracked down at the local chemist, and Crêpes Suzette was a dish of mystery, savoured by the likes of the Fab Four, and those lucky diners who could afford to splash out at the more desirable restaurants; where, at your table, a fawning waiter in a maroon coloured monkey jacket would flambé a steak au poivre.


Into this culinary desert, strides an egg whisk bearing Harry Palmer, the working class protagonist in Len Deighton’s thriller, The Ipcress File, first published in 1962. Palmer is the perfect anti-hero: vice-versa, a flawed Mister Bond. While Bond holds Her Majesty’s commission in the Senior Service, Palmer scrapes the rank of Sergeant in the Intelligence Corps. Bond wears a Walther PPK, Harry Palmer wears National Health Specs. And if fussy old Bond requires his housekeeper to boil the speckled brown egg of a Maran hen for three and a half minutes precisely, Harry Palmer is far more likely to slip Mozart’s Prague on the trusty record player and whip up an armagnac soufflé.


Len Deighton was- is- a man of many talents. He studied at Saint Martin’s before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. Ou Est Le Garlic? (his first cookery book, based on his weekly cookery strip for The Observer) was published in 1965. His column and books appealed to the simplistic and mechanical brains of men: technical, cartoon-like manuals on the fine art of French and Italian Cuisine. Wannabe sophisticates learnt how to order from an A La Carte Menu (the correct pro-nunc-iation spelt out phonetically), how to stuff a Chou with Tomates, how to deglaze a copper pan, prepare Caneton à l’Orange, cut a cigar correctly (paper band on or off?) and order eel from a fancy fishmonger.


“You’re not the tearaway you think you are”, smoulders sexy Sue Lloyd during the kitchen scene in The Ipcress File, “You also like books…music…cooking.”

“I like birds best”, says Harry- an unsubtle reminder to a Sixties audience that although Sergeant Palmer appreciates the finer things in life, he reassuringly bats for the home side. At the time, Michael Caine’s character must have seemed remarkably novel, a prototypical yuppy before that depressing acronym had been invented, making it quite clear that it was okay for Real Men to cook, and quite possibly not just okay, but a desirable aid in persuading that voluptuous girl in the office (the one you’d had your eye on for several weeks) to enjoy the delights of your home cooked Rôti de Porc aux Navets, and to climb in between your shiny black nylon sheets after the event.

International Men of Mystery please take note: The Action Cook Book is still available, albeit via the sinister Kindle. The art of seduction aside, it’s a brilliantly entertaining introduction to decent food, and in our Brave New World of Marks & Spencer microwaved mushroom risotto, this can be no bad thing. Even if Harry Palmer buys tinned Indian Prawn Curry from the supermarket.


You can find more of Luke Honey’s take on cuisine over at his excellent blog The Greasy Spoon, and also at his writings on the antiques business at


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16 thoughts on “Food in the Sixties: Len Deighton’s Making Food Sexy

    September 2, 2013 at 10:02

    Palmer’s knocking up of a plate of pre-nookie nosh only surpassed by Robert Donat’s fry-up of a piece of fish (strangely, without chips) for the badly accented Madeleine Carroll. Later, the knife appeared to have reached Miss Carroll before Mister Donat, not dunkin’ tonight, Robert?

    Deighton cannot have picked up his food fad from the RCA, the canteen was naff, apparently. Apart from a brief spell when an extremely tasty dish was on the menu. Junior and his friends, mouths agape and lovelorn, never recovered. Darcey Bussell had decided that lunching there, instead of back at the ballet ranch, was more conducive for the figure.

    It is alleged that, even to this day, some elements of the double-curvature, seen in a certain light, of many of Europe’s more desirable motors resemble the delectable Darcy, when seen in a certain light. Food playing a major role in automotive design.

    See you R8, Miss Bussell?

      September 2, 2013 at 14:17

      Wasn’t the champagne glass based on Marie-Antoinette’s left breast? Supposedly.

  2. Worm
    September 2, 2013 at 12:51

    Interesting how cooking is moving further and further into being a man’s task, as men have come to appropriate the cheffy aspect of cooking as socio-sexual accomplishment. In 20 years time might we look back on the time when women were allowed to cook with puzzlement?

    September 2, 2013 at 13:02

    Those of us with long memories will recall just how exciting and radical this was, not so much from the perspective of Caine’s anticipatory metrosexuality, but from the symbolism of a working class hero breaking out of the terminal blandness of middle class and working class Anglospheric cooking. It wasn’t frozen risotto he was rebelling against–nobody knew what that was–it was overcooked sauceless meat, over-boiled canned vegetables, eggs & chips, and, of course, spam, spam, spam, spam….. “Heavily spiced” meant extra salt and pepper and dessert was the prize you got for getting through the main course. He may have led many young English to spurn Atlanticism in favour of the gastronomic siren songs of Europe, but on this subject, Atlanticism deserved it.

      September 2, 2013 at 14:23

      It’s extraordinary how things have moved on in this country. To think that my mother used to bake her ‘risottos’ in the oven (no risotto rice available back then). Hummus, apparently, only hit the supermarket shelves in the 90’s. Despite that, I still gaze in wonder at the sheer range of choice and quality offered in the French hypermarkets. We’ve still got some catching up to do.

    September 2, 2013 at 17:30

    Deighton’s mother was a professional cook whose services were always in demand, inspiring his lifelong passion for food and cooking. His cookstrips pre-dated The Ipcress File, and made their debut in the British Sunday newspaper The Observer in March 1962. The grid-styled recipes and cooking tips quickly became one of the paper’s regular features and ran until 1966. Hip, elegant and brilliantly effective, they anticipated today’s de facto way of communicating with pictures. No surprise then, that they have a cult following!

  5. Gaw
    September 2, 2013 at 18:01

    Intriguing post, thanks. I’ve just read Deighton’s Wikipedia entry – what a many-talented man and a fascinating life. He’s lived abroad for years. Wonder why.

  6. Worm
    September 2, 2013 at 18:40

    I also note that the young Len Deighton welding the wooden spoon in the picture above looks a lot like that chap in the current Stella Artois ‘cidre’ ads…

    September 2, 2013 at 20:57

    And the lord god almighty said “let there be light, let there be Elizabeth David” and lo! she cameth amongst us, we sinners of the fifties tablecloth and behold! she sayeth unto us “cast out the Yorkshire puddings!” the work of Satin and casteth upward your eyes, let the garlic and wine be with you.

    David:French Country Cooking:4.8.11

    Thanks be to the god Penguin, mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the book.

    September 3, 2013 at 16:58

    Watching the Ipcress File recently I noticed that Caine cracked the eggs as if he’d just been taught how to, which of course he had. Also when he makes the coffee he does it in a peculiar methodical manner again suggesting that before Deighton’s lessons, he’d never made coffee from beans before.

    Michael Smith
    September 4, 2013 at 01:39

    I think I read somewhere that the hands making the omelette were actually Len Deighton’s.

    • Brit
      September 4, 2013 at 19:55

      Omelette-making stunt double eh?

      That’s like in Thunderbirds when you saw the real human hands in close up shots when the puppets were doing something fiddly.

    September 8, 2013 at 09:53

    Very interesting article. Just to make one small point, which is that the Action Cook Book came out just before if I recall the Ou est le Garlic book, and is regarded as Len’s first cook book, which definitely as you right revolutionised how many men saw food. In answer to other comments, those hands are indeed Len’s breaking the eggs into a bowl on set. Also, in The Ipcress File, in the same scene you will notice pinned to the kitchen wall one of the cook strips which eventually ended up in the Action Cook Book – a nice in-joke on set. Michael Caine was a friend of Len’s and participated in many of his star-studded dinner parties in south London in the sixties, so he knew well Len’s culinary prowess, learnt in the kitchens of Paris working as a sous-chef during summer breaks.

    Len wrote another four or five food related books, of which you can find information on my Deighton Dossier website, which reflects Len’s status as a gourmand of note in the sixties and seventies.

      September 13, 2013 at 11:00


      Thanks for the correction on the Action Cook Book. Noted.

      By strange coincidence, BBC4 showed Ipcress last night. The ‘hands’ do indeed look different. I forgot to include ‘the infa-red grill”….Have you noticed how Len seems to have a hatred of salt?

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