Victoria Wood: my quest to discover why the British love tea

From green tea-drinking cabbies to tea plucking with a machete from the back of an elephant, the British comedian travels the world to find the perfect cuppa

All we were trying to do really is tell the story of tea. But the thing about documentaries is you have the interviewer – in this case, me – bouncing on my toes in the blue corner, ready for a good, clean fight, armed with research and briefing notes; everything bar a gum shield. In the red corner, no notes, no maps, only their own pesky personalities, the interviewees. And they, strangely, will only say what they feel like saying – not what some researcher hoped they might divvy up with.


On my first day of filming I am thrust into one of those green cabmen’s shelters that are dotted around London. Long, thin huts you can’t go into unless you’re a cabbie. “One of them drinks green tea,” hisses a researcher as I go in. “Ask him about that.”

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Yes, well, I will – I just need to jolly them up a bit first because, this being a documentary, we have kept them waiting and they’re all a bit on the taciturn side. You are always keeping people waiting when you make a documentary, so everyone is fed up with you before they’ve even met you.

So we have a bit of normal chit-chat, Queen Mother style, and then I hone in on the relevant cabbie. “I hear you drink green tea.” He nods. Silence. I plug on gamely with my Nationwide-effect follow-up question. “What do the other cabbies think about that?”

A nod won’t cover this, he has to use a shrug. If the other cabbies have launched a vicious Twitter campaign mocking his use of this non-oxidized beverage, he’s not saying.

A few days later and we are in the Indian rainforest in a monsoon. We have been filming an opium-smoking sequence and now we are about to shoot the tea plucking, which is done with a machete from the back of an elephant. The head tribesman, who has been happy to demonstrate the opium smoking many times from many angles, suddenly decides he wants to operate the elephant.

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Back home, if someone under the influence wanted to have a go on a backhoe loader you would hide the keys and get them a mini cab, but we have to be respectful of other cultures and let him get on with it. One elephant did get into an argy with another elephant, but there was no lasting damage.

We ask food historian Clarissa Dickson Wright to talk about the etiquette and ritual of the Victorian tea table. This isn’t our finest hour, prop-wise. We have lump sugar with no tongs, a huge tea strainer the size of a sieve and, as is patently obvious as soon as she pours out, no tea in the pot.

Research is no protection. I watch a documentary on tea-lover Morrissey, preparatory to interviewing him in New York, and see he has a plain white china teapot. I ask my friend Norah to knit him a matching tea cosy. I think this will be an ice breaker.

So I’m there in his hotel with this lovely black and white striped cosy all wrapped ready for the ideal moment. Morrissey says we should have tea in his own teapot. Bring it on, Mozzer. He brings it on. It’s green and ornate, a delicate French antique. Oh. The woolly humbug stripes aren’t going to cut it. I keep the gift in my bag and rescind the offer. There’s an ugly scene and I will never be able to go back to Manchester.

But blips and blunders aside, the story of tea is fascinating.

Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea is on Wednesday and Thursday at 9:00pm on BBC1


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