Big interview: Radio and TV presenter Nigel Barden

There was outcry on social media when the powers that be at Radio 2 decided to axe Nigel Barden in the shake-up of Drivetime. But now he's back '“ and this time in front of the camera.

Nigel Barden.
Nigel Barden.

It wasn’t personal ambition that upset Nigel Barden when his Foodie Thursday slot was axed during a reorganisation of BBC Radio 2 Drivetime, it was the loss of a vital soap box for championing the UK’s artisan producers.

“It was a great opportunity to shout about some of the amazing small producers we have in this country,” says Barden, who once described it as ‘‘the best job in the world’’.

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So passionate was he about these producers that he would take the time to let them know they were going to get their five minutes of fame on prime time national radio so “they could spread the love”.

The slot actually started as a one-off when Chris Evans was presenting it.

“I knew Chris from working with him at GLR (Greater London Radio) – he needed someone to present a one-off food piece and knew I had a background in food and drink and so asked me. It was a hit and they decided to make it a regular weekly thing. No one ever thought cooking on the radio would work, but it lasted 12 years,” says the proud Yorkshireman.

Barden worked with Evans for four years until Simon Mayo took over eight years ago.

“Simon is a very generous broadcaster and I thoroughly enjoyed working with him, Matt (Williams) and Bobby (Pryor). It was particularly great having Bobby as she is vegetarian so meant that we always did two options.”

He is nostalgic when he talks about the show and the colleagues who he stays he still keeps in touch with, and he made presenting food on air sound easy when it wasn’t.

“There was no real kitchen at the BBC so I would go to different cafes and restaurants around the area during the afternoon between services and use their kitchens. The guys at nearby Picture were fantastic. I’d do the Confessions (he was Novice Nigel) then nip down when they were playing a disc and go and get the food out of the oven and rush back up to the studio, plate it up and get everything ready for the team to try. It was pretty hectic.”

The BBC’s decision to axe Foodie Thursday was the result of a reorganisation of Drivetime which saw Jo Whiley join Mayo in an extended three hour version of the show which came into effect in May this year.

Speculation has that it was a move by the BBC to get more female DJs into the day time slots.

Many have since criticised the lack of chemistry between the pair, but Barden is full of support. “They are great friends and I have known Jo for many years and I wish them well. Sometimes things just change.”

But he has been surprised at the strength of feeling from his supporters. “Being on the radio you feel really quite anonymous but when I have been to Countryfile Life, and working with Tom Kerridge at Pub in the Park and other events so many people have come over to me and said they miss Foodie Thursday and wanted it back. It was really lovely to hear that so many people liked it. Who would have thought cooking on the radio would have been such a hit?”

Barden, whose parents were from Yorkshire although he grew up across the border, got his love of food and drink while supplying wine to some of the region’s top restaurants, hotels and pubs when he worked for Yorkshire Fine Wines.

Whereas some would have viewed it as a job, for Nigel it became a passion.

Barden is still a champion of artisan producers and judges countless competitions from the Guild of Fine Food Awards, the Farm Shop and Deli Awards, to the Fish and Chip Shop of the Year and the Deliciouslyorkshire Awards to name but a few. He is no stranger to food festivals, both giving demonstrations and being master of ceremonies.

But he missed being able to give a wider voice to the hundreds of small producers he feels so passionately about.

And so when he was approached by Yorkshire-born chef Peter Sidwell, who has relocated to Cumbria and founded Simply Good Food TV, to replicate his drivetime show in front of the camera he jumped at the chance.

“When I left Yorkshire at the age of 29 I went to London to train to be an actor and so I have no problem being in front of the camera,” says Barden. who still does voice overs and takes on the odd acting role and it was during his spell as a jobbing actor that he started working in radio.

He also did a stint on 5’s Company, a live afternoon chat show on Channel Five with presenters such as Nick Knowles, John Barrowman and Steve Allen. But the big draw of Sidwell’s offer was the chance to highlight artisan producers to more than 4.5 million subscribers from across the world.

Simply Good Food TV, is a consumer app for food content which has been dubbed the ‘‘Netflix for foodies’’ and Nigel Barden’s Drivetime Dishes, 
as the show will be called, will see a partnership with the UK’s fastest growing subscriber video content on demand service, Amazon Prime Video.

The programme, which will run for an initial six weeks from last Saturday, sees Barden showcasing a range of food and drink and trialling enticing recipes from the latest cookbooks to hit the shelves. At the heart of the format is an ardent support of a range of artisan producers and food heroes.

Growing up one of three boys, sport has always played massive part in this former Sedbergh school boy’s life, particularly rugby. He played for Otley and is still a member of the club today.

“I was a pretty sporty kid, “ he recalls. “I was 
in the running team at Sedbergh and played cricket as well as rugby of course – we lived and breathed sport. One of my brothers played rugby for Sale and my older brother played for the 
RAF. It isn’t just about the game, it is the social side as well.”

Barden is married to Sicilian Deborah Dolce – the couple met while in Lapland of all places – and he says their mutual love of food and drink is a big part of their lives.

While he has many passions, it is clear while talking to Nigel Barden that championing local food is high on his priority list – and championing Yorkshire food is at the top of that list.

“It is not an accident that Yorkshire has the most Michelin-starred restaurants outside of London, but it isn’t just fine dining that is its strength, it’s right across the board and that’s what makes the county stand out, “ he says.

“There are some exciting artisan producers out there, doing some really incredible things and they deserve to be recognised.”

Drivetime Dishes airs on Amazon Prime Video. The programme will be aired at a later date on Simply Good Food TV.