Friday, 29 January 2010
Sweet and sour: where the Quaker cocoa went
If I were going to make a TV documentary about the Cadbury-Kraft affair, I’d certainly want to include footage of Margaret Thatcher’s visit to the English confectioners’ home in Bourneville, just outside Birmingham (that’s Warwickshire, UK, not Alabama, USA).
She went there in April, 1979, at the start of her victorious battle to become UK Prime Minister. This campaign has been described as Britain’s first “television election”, and Mrs T and her advisers understood exactly what was entailed: instead of talking about politics, she travelled to picturesque places and did vigorous, picturesque things in picturesque costumes, simply because this is what television needed her to do.
She wore a white coat and hat. So did the parliamentary sketch writer, Frank Johnson, “and about a hundred television and press photographers and reporters,” as he remembers in his delicious memoir, Best Seat in the House: “the whole effect resembled a lunatic asylum in which the doctors had themselves gone berserk; or possibly a convention of mad surgeons.”
Also in the entourage was Mrs T’s husband, Denis, a man who understood throughout her political career that it was his task to smile, and be supportive, and to say absolutely nothing. On the other hand, when being filmed talking to picturesque staff in picturesque places, Denis had to utter some words. Thus he became a master of the art of having a conversation which was only taking place because TV wanted a conversation to film.
At Cadbury, Johnson recorded these gems of the genre:
“Fascinating. But how do you get the walnut exactly in the middle of the fudge?”
“Do you export much?... Really? Africa as well? ... but surely it would melt?”
There was a political subtext to the visit, of course (besides the surrounding constituency being a marginal). Cadbury represented virtuous private enterprise, and, at that, a particularly British variety of the phenomenon. In recent weeks we’ve heard the tale again as the shadow of Kraft fell over this revered institution – Quaker origins; cocoa created as a healthy, teetotal beverage for the working man and woman; the model village, the social club, the playing fields and the matrimonial gifts of bibles – a paradigm of philanthropy marching in delighted conference with capitalism.
But I’d begin the documentary 27 years after the Thatcher excursion, not in Bourneville, but at another Cadbury factory, Marlbrook, near Leominster in Herefordshire, where in January, 2006, a pipe began to leak bacteria into the process of chocolate manufacture.
The Daily Telegraph (June 26, 2006):
“Cadbury failed to inform food watchdogs about salmonella contamination at one its factories, despite nine cases of the bacterium being identified over a four-month period.
“The confectionery giant admitted to the potential health hazard last Monday, but only, it can be revealed, after pressure from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) – and then waited until Friday to announce that it was withdrawing a million bars of chocolate.”
FoodQuality News.com (July 17, 2007):
“A UK court yesterday fined Cadbury-Schweppes £1m (€1.5m) for knowingly allowing salmonella-contaminated chocolates to be sold to the public last year. ...
“The food safety breach has already cost the company about £50m to recall about 1m chocolate bars and on fixing problems at the Herefordshire plant, where the contamination originally occurred.
“The costs do not factor in the loss of customers and damage to the brand from the outbreak. About 40 people fell ill from eating the chocolates containing the crumb manufactured at the plant.”
I’d also want to include in my doc a couple of sequences from a video I made for Cadbury-Schweppes, as it then was, in 1995.
Not, maybe, the episode in Mexico City where the glamorous youth of the company gathered at a café terrasse to drink a soda called Penafiel with such enthusiasm that you might have supposed it contained an ingredient upon which the original Mr Cadbury would have frowned.
(I shot that twice, because it was only as we were packing up to leave that I realised every umbrella in the café had stitched on it the logo and name of Coca Cola – a moment which, recalled, still makes me shudder).
But I would want to take in the sequences from China and New England.
In Beijing a lonely Australian showed me a little stall in a big department store where a tiny selection of Cadbury products were being sold by a single assistant. He then drove me miles outside the city to a campus where a huge factory was being built.
“Gosh,” I said. “You’re expecting the Chinese to start eating a hell of a lot more chocolate.”
“Well, not just that,” he said. And I’d learned another lesson, this time about globalisation. Meanwhile, Cadbury has a plant in Somerset which is, according to the Bath Chronicle, slated to close later this year, putting 400 people out of work, the business being transferred to another new factory, this time in Poland.
Now, although the company was specific about the locations where I should film, apart from big names at head office in Berkeley Square, London W1J, there was only one person whom it was mandatory for me to interview, and that was the leading man at an HQ in upstate New York, Mr Todd Stitzer.
I think I can fairly remark of Mr Stitzer that he’s no Willy Wonka. He didn’t say to me, “caramel, Frank, flows in my veins. I go to sleep at night dreaming of nougat, and wake yearning for a hazelnut cluster. Look, here’s a photograph of my two children, Milk and Tray.”
What he did do was outline strategies for “organic growth and acquisitions” in an MBA-speak which I found – my fault – largely impenetrable, and of which only three words now swim into my memory: “licensed leveraged buyouts.”
What were these, exactly? He explained. I didn’t quite grasp. He explained again, and with some injustice, a passage from White Fang swam into my over-literary mind, in which the bulldog gets its victim by the neck and, never slackening its jaws, waits patiently for pauses in the struggle when it can sink its teeth a little further and deeper.
And if Mr Stitzer has heard (as he surely will have) of Kant’s categorical imperatives, and allowed to linger in his mind the one stating that no mortal should ever use another mortal solely as a means to an end, I don’t think he would wholeheartedly agree.
Because I think I was a means to an end, in that interview, and fair enough, that’s what I was being paid for. The means being, that I was a physical and electronic courier who would transport his words and image back to London, where he could then address the AGM, where my production would be played, and be part of the big picture on the screen above the head of the CEO of the time, whom he would succeed into office in May 2003, eight years later, that being the end.
At around one-third and two-thirds of the way through the video, I placed thirty-second interludes designed to relax and entertain: from China, Beijing OAP’s ballroom dancing at dawn in a temple garden; from Mexico, a montage reflecting the exquisite, anachronistic elegance of parts of that city, where waiters still wore starched aprons, with pressed white napkins over their sleeves, the whole effect as if it were a set designed for Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential.
It’s a testament to the good nature of my Cadbury-Schweppes (as was) commissioners, that they fought hard to cut these sequences out, but surrendered when I fought harder to keep them in. “You can’t just bombard an audience with 20 constant minutes of hard facts and figures,” I protested. “They must have some leisure to reflect.”
When I got to the AGM and saw the audience of several hundred shareholders sitting with their notebooks and pocket calculators, and observed them watch my video, I knew that my commissioners were right and I was wrong.
What these people wanted was to be bombarded with 20 constant minutes of facts and figures.
No dancing Beijing OAP’s. Nor Mexican elegancies.
Nor, perhaps, any Quaker-ish recollections. Which is why the proposed Kraft marriage represents, more than we UK sentimentalists might like to admit, another logical stage in the process of “organic growth and acquisition.”
Postcript: shortly after the Kraft takeover was complete, Mr Stitzer left the company with £30,000,000. And the 400 Cadbury workers in Somerset were told that they would, after all, lose their jobs. Although somehow, during the negotiations, they'd got the impression - as did the media - that Kraft had promised to keep their factory open.