As the Hairy Bikers head to Yorkshire, Chris Bond talked to Dave Myers and Si King about their new tour, their enduring popularity and the great British food renaissance.
It’s 15 years since two hirsute pals with a penchant for motorbikes and cooking (and eating) first appeared on our TV screens.
During that time their culinary journey has taken them around Britain as well as much of Europe and beyond and if there’s truth in the old adage that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the same holds true for the nation’s affections.
And at a time when TV chefs have become as ubiquitous as confetti at a wedding, the popularity of the Hairy Bikers, aka Dave Myers and Si King, shows no sign of waning.
But when they first started out success was far from guaranteed, as Dave points out. “We got called in by the commissioner at the BBC and the first thing she said was, ‘do you still have any contacts in your day jobs?’ which we knew wasn’t a good start.”
This was back in 2004, since when they’ve become the country’s most popular cookery duo with a string of TV shows, including The Hairy Bikers’ Food Tour of Britain and Mums Know Best, and more than 20 cook books to their name.
Now they’re back on the road with a new tour, An Evening With The Hairy Bikers, which motors its way into Yorkshire this month with appearances in Hull, Halifax, Sheffield and York.
“We’ve done nationwide tours before, the last one was a bit of vaudeville, escapology, cross dressing and strip trombola...” jokes Dave, prompting sniggers from Si. “This time it’s more an evening of conversation it’s like having people round at our house.”
It’s not the first theatre tour they’ve done but this one has a big dollop of audience participation. “Normally you try and persuade people to put their phones away while they’re in the theatre,” says Dave. “This time we want them to get them out so they’ll be able to connect with us and ask us questions with tweets and messages coming up on screen. And of course we’ll be doing some cooking.”
And, as Si says, it’s a chance to have a bit of “craic” with some of their fans. “We haven’t done too many stage tours but what’s lovely about them is you get to meet people and this one, in particular, because there’s a level of intimacy to it.”
The story of the Hairy Bikers goes back to 1992 when they met while working on the set of a Catherine Cookson TV drama, The Gambling Man, where Si was an assistant director and Dave was head of prosthetics, hair and make-up. It was their shared love of motorbikes and food that cemented their friendship. “I went round for Sunday lunch at Si’s house,” Dave recalls, “and it’s funny because we’d both cooked since we were kids, we were both obsessed with food and we’d both ridden motorbikes since before we should have been.”
Their love of food came about for different reasons. “My mum was a really good home cook and then she got ill with MS when I was eight,” says Dave. “So from when I was about 12 I took over all the shopping for the family and by the time I was 14 I’d taken over all the cooking for the family.”
Si was the youngest of three children. “Food has always been an integral part of my life. Even when I talk to my brother and sister now, the first thing we say is ‘how are you?’ and the second thing is, ‘you’ll never guess what I had to eat the other day it was amazing.’
“My mam was a really good cook and my dad was really well travelled. So in a pit village in the 1950s my mam was cooking with star anise and lemongrass that he bought back from various parts of the planet.”
Their on-screen chemistry was evident from the minute they first appeared on TV together, though Dave says there was one programme in particular that proved to them they were on the right lines. “We did one programme, the Hairy Bikers Come Home winter special, which we cobbled together and funnily enough ended up with 3.6 million viewers which was twice as much as the original Bikers’ got. So after that one hour the complexion was completely different and the commission changed and we were off.”
For all their natural bonhomie they haven’t been afraid to tackle important issues such as obesity which was the motivation for their first diet book “It was very honest because we’d basically made ourselves morbidly obese by eating ourselves to oblivion. But at the same time it’s been our bestselling book,” says Dave. It also just happened to knock Fifty Shades of Grey off the top of the bestsellers list. “I was asked for a quote,” says Dave, “and I said ‘it just shows the way to the nation’s heart is through its stomach… and its other bits.”
Back in the 1960s and 70s we embraced processed food like no other nation, but now you can’t move for food festivals, farmers markets and pop-ups. “What’s great about the UK is even outside the capital you can eat your way around the world, because we’re part of a multi-cultural society,” says Si. “It’s part of our character as a nation and the food reflects that. There’s nowhere we can think of in Europe that has the same level of culinary depth and authenticity that we have, it’s remarkable.”
Dave agrees. “People like Keith Floyd, Rick Stein and Delia Smith and programmes like Saturday Kitchen have got to the core of what food’s about – it’s about cooking something warm and wonderful, making the most of the ingredients and sharing food with the people you love. My wife is a tailor and a seamstress and she’s Romanian and when we go to Bradford she’s off buying material and the first thing I look forward to is to have some amazing Indian food. Likewise, I’m from Cumbria and my beloved Cumbrian sausage when it’s done properly is a thing of absolute wonder.”
Talking to Si and Dave you quickly realise that they’re as convivial off the screen as they appear on it – a kind of culinary Morecambe and Wise. “We’ve always just been who are and I think people pick up on that,” says Si.
“We’re more like brothers really than best mates,” says Dave. “I think we both realise we’re worth far more together than as two individuals and it’s good because you’ve always got someone watching your back.
“We’ve had so many wonderful experiences and it’s like anything, when you’ve been to the cinema and watched a really good film it’s so much nicer to be able to share the experience.”
An Evening With The Hairy Bikers – Hull City Hall (Feb 15), York Barbican (Feb 24), Halifax Victoria Theatre (March 3), Sheffield City Hall (March 15).