Zena Skinner: TV chef and author who was a household name in the Sixties and Seventies

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Zena Skinner, who has died aged 91, presented the popular BBC show Cookery Club and had a television career that spanned nearly 30 years from 1959. 

Born in Luton, Bedfordshire, Skinner joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the Second World War, after seeing a recruitment poster with the slogan, “Join the Wrens and free a man for the fleet.”

Skinner hoped she would be allowed to work as a driver or despatch rider but after an initial training course which included learning how to polish floors, she was trained as a coder and went on to spend four years decoding signals in Portsmouth.

After demobilisation, Skinner demonstrated household appliances at the Eastern Electricity Board showroom in Royston before taking up the same role for GEC. Her remit in both positions included making house calls to service the appliances she had sold and GEC in particular was so pleased with Skinner’s skill as a demonstrator that she was sent first to Jamaica and then to East Africa in a training capacity.

It was while Skinner was in East Africa that her talent came to the attention of a wider audience. She was demonstrating cookery equipment by making fairy cakes. She later recalled: “While I was in East Africa the Queen was there and they brought some warriors out of the bush to meet her. They came to my stand where I’d been left on my own and I was absolutely terrified – they were all over six foot and carrying spears and I thought I was for the pot.

“In sheer self-defence I offered them all cakes. Someone took a photo and it appeared in the national press and when I got back to England the producer of Cookery Club phoned me to go and see her.”

Skinner subsequently made her first appearance on BBC’s Cookery Club in 1959, showing viewers how to make brandy snaps, 

She went on to present many programmes for the BBC, including Town And Around, Ask Zena Skinner and Bon Appétit. She even appeared on the BBC children’s television show Crackerjack. She was a regular contributor to the Radio Times and wrote several cookery books. Meanwhile she was brand ambassador for Tupperware, which distributed her cookery leaflets with women’s magazines. Her popularity was in large part due to the fact that compared to other TV cooks of the time, Skinner’s style was down-to-earth and accessible.

There were rumours of a great rivalry with Fanny Cradock – who presented her own cookery show in a ballgown – but Skinner said in 2001: “It wasn’t true. We were just totally different. Fanny was the upmarket lady wearing an evening dress to cook exotic things, and I was the typical housewife making plain British food. The first time I met her I said ‘hello’ and she looked at me like I was some sort of unpleasant smell under her nose. The next couple of times she ignored me totally, so I gave up.”

Skinner described her own USP as “good old traditional English cooking – that’s me”.

Eventually, Skinner’s time at the BBC came to an end, but she continued to work in television for a while longer, making Years Ahead for Channel Four. The programme saw the TV chef abandoning her usual role to become a DIY expert.

Skinner retired from television for good in 1989 but quickly found other ways to fill her time. She settled in Redbourn, Hertfordshire, where together with friends she made handicrafts to be sold in aid charitable causes. With her brother Bruce and his wife Mary, Skinner decided in particular to support Keech Hospice Care in Luton. Between them, the trio would go on to raise more than £100,000. 

Years after her television retirement, Skinner’s recipes are still very much in circulation. As recently as November 2015 an episode of the regional programme BBC Points West introduced her Christmas cake to a new generation of cooks.

Zena Skinner, chef and cookery writer, born 27 February 1927, died 7 March 2018