Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

aka The Herripedia


The true story of Sir Laurence Olivier’s heroic campaign to save the kippers on the Pullman Car breakfast menu of the Brighton Belle


Laurence Olivier as Henry V at Agincourt
Laurence Olivier, Henry V (St Crispin’s Day)

Asked, in the making of a 1980 German television documentary, to name his greatest role, Laurence Olivier apparently placed one hand upon his forehead, stared meaningfully into the distance and intoned in that wonderfully modulated voice: ‘Saving the kipper on the Brighton line.’

The documentary makers were following a day in the life of veteran Daily Express writer James Davies. A British Rail Class 86 electric locomotive was being named after the great actor and Davies was covering the occasion. The integrity of Express journalists is, of course, legendary, which is just as well, because we have to take his word for it: the priceless moment ended up on the cutting room floor.

What we know for certain is that Olivier led a campaign for the reinstatement of kippers on the Pullman car breakfast menu of the Brighton Belle. He’d moved to Brighton in the early 60s after marrying his third wife Joan Plowright. In 1970 he became Baron Olivier of Brighton. Having founded the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1963, he had become increasingly occupied with the planning, design and development of its three stage complex on London’s South Bank, which opened between 1976 and 1977.

He was there for the topping-out ceremony before he retired in 1973, but over the decade leading up to that, he’d been a regular on the Brighton Belle and in its Pullman car. None of the online accounts say exactly when the kipper was withdrawn from the breakfast menu or why, but the sixties had been a time of change. Muesli must have gone mainstream around 1965 or 66 – well, gradually taking the place of Grape-Nuts, that’s when my mum first introduced it to the breakfast options in our house.

There is also online confusion as to the date of Olivier’s triumph, some accounts saying 1970, some ’71, even ’72. In one, however, a photograph is detailed as having been taken for the Daily Mirror on March 23rd 1970. Searching the British Newspaper Archive, the short article appears in the edition for Tuesday March 24th.

Daily Mirror headline for the Laurence Olivier kipper story: 'Sit Laurence celebrates his kipper victory with scrambled eggs

British Rail brought back the banished kipper on the Brighton Belle express yesterday. Not only that. They also served scrambled eggs, which are still officially off the breakfast menu.

The eggs were for the commuter in the picture, Sir Laurence Olivier, who led the campaign to save the kipper after it was dropped from the menu last week along with scrambled eggs.

Sir Laurence had his eggs served on brown toast. He sipped coffee too, as the train sped through the Sussex countryside on its way to London’s Victoria station. Savouring his victory, Sir Laurence said: ‘I don’t eat kippers all the time, you know. But I am very fond of them.

‘I protested because I think this train, which is one of the finest in the world, should keep up its standards. I don’t think its passengers should be limited in their choice of food.’

He added: ‘I am extremely appreciative of the very gracious and dignified way British Rail have dealt with the whole thing.’

A British Rail spokesman accepted the compliment and said: I think our action shows that we take prompt notice of our customers’ wishes.

The spokeman went on: ‘Although scrambled egg is officially off the menu, the chef obviously used his discretion. Whether we continue to serve it will depend on demand, and whether the chef has time to prepare it.



Daily Mirror photograph of Laurence Olivier eating scrambled eggs on the Pullman Car of the Brighton Belle

The cultural advance of muesli notwithstanding, British Rail had obviously been too far ahead of the curve. Even though kippers had only been withdrawn for a week (it seems likely that the menu change had been initiated the previous Monday), following Olivier’s letter to The Times, there had already been a petition and other letters written to the newspapers, demanding the great actor should be able to select from a full breakfast menu and, for the letter-writing classes at least, that meant one which included kippers.

There had been a Pullman Car Company from 1874 to 1962, but as part of Dr Beeching’s modernisation of Britain’s railways, in 1962 rail catering became to responsibility of British Transport Hotels Ltd, a part of the British Railways Board’s portfolio based in the then rundown palatial splendour of the old Midland Grand Hotel, which, until 1935, had provided the frontage for St Pancras Station.

Word maybe came down to the Brighton Belle’s chef, Arthur Evans, from there. It might, however, have come down to the unnamed restaurant manager alongside whom he worked. Writing in the Financial Times in 2010, the chef, restaurateur and cookery writer Rowley Leigh records, A rueful restaurant manager from the train commented: ‘It would not have been so bad but Sir Laurence never ate the kippers anyway.’

Olivier’s son, Tarquin remembers him as having initiated the campaign: In anguish he wrote a letter to the London Times. He remembers that He looked forward to the train journey back to London and having breakfast in the Pullman carriage. Invariably he had kippers which they did so well. In Olivier’s moment of triumph, he also says, He picked up the menu, paused, and ordered porridge.

Of course, if Arthur Evans were to have prepared scrambled eggs properly (something you rarely come across these days) there would have been ample time for a bowl of porridge. In our house, cereal or porridge was just the first course of a proper breakfast. Either way, there’s more than a whiff of Daily Mirror/British Rail press department collusion in the photograph, which (it can’t be denied) does show Olivier eating scrambled eggs.

Notwithstanding British Rail’s legendarily prompt notice of its customers’ wishes, a week’s turnaround may seem close to miraculous. Somewhere in St Pancras Chambers someone in the press department was carpe-ing the diem. You can hear them thinking, We can get some good column inches out of this. Maybe they were even on the train that morning, directing the photoshoot. In 1970 Public Relations was still exciting.

There’s another photograph, taken shortly after the one the Mirror used (slightly less scrambled egg on the plate). It reveals the hands at the bottom of the picture to be those of Joan Plowright. Did the Press Department know she was going to be there or was it all improvised en train?

Wider shot of Laurence Olivier and the scrambled eggs, revealing his wife Joan Plowright

Two celebrities for the price of one! And the way she looks, the way she dresses, the way she holds her coffee cup! If ever there were a signifier of The Modern World…  And she’s reading a script, because that’s what a celebrity actress can do in the relaxed comfort of a Pullman Car, when you’re on your way to work in… the theatre!

Even the fact that she doesn’t appear to have ordered breakfast for herself, it only speaks of modernity the louder. What appears to be the shadow of her coffee cup on the saucer indicates that what just might have been the greatest railway scene since Brief Encounter was being lit from behind her left shoulder… Alas, the crass vision of the Daily Mirror sub editor who cropped her out!

Back to the porridge, let’s face it, however good it might have been, it wouldn’t have been a signifier of sophistication like scrambled eggs with brown toast. With or without it, there is a logic in Olivier mischievously ordering the other item which had been deleted from the menu the previous week. But we’re left with the mystery of why Arthur Evans would have plated up kippers which hadn’t been ordered… And did the Brighton Belle’s Pullman Car largesse ever really run to two kipper breakfasts?

'Chef Arthur Evans with the kippers Sir Laurence declined to eat'
‘Chef Arthur Evans with the kippers Sir Laurence declined to eat’


Kippers were saved on the Brighton Belle. The Brighton Belle, on the other hand, was axed in 1972, along with all its breakfasts.

By 1977 overfishing had led herring populations in the North Sea and on the West Coast of Scotland to collapse. A ban on herring fishing was introduced. Maybe Arthur Evans should have stuck to one kipper, but it was too late. The ban contributed to the long term decline in British fresh and smoked herring eating. The British public came to demand bland bonelessness and not only on the railways.

In 1973 British Rail Catering became Travellers Fare. Advised by Prue Leith, they introduced poached haddock and grilled salmon to the dining car experience but even that couldn’t save them from the rail privatisations of the 80s.

Fresh from university, in 1974 I had an industrial accident after half a day’s work on the Fleet Line underground construction (it became the Jubilee Line when it opened five years later). A good friend, John Gray, got me a job in St Pancras Chambers: Clerical Officer Grade 1 in British Transport Hotels’ Accounts Department. I loved the old Midland Grand’s magnificent staircase, going out of my way to climb it every morning, but even that was not enough. After six months the lure of the dole became irresistible. The building was reopened as St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel in 2011. It offers a number of breakfast options. None of them involve kippers.

In Celebration

Given the continuing decline of British herring-based breakfasts over the more than 50 years that have passed since Baron Olivier of Brighton’s heroic defence of the kipper, it seems appropriate to offer a recipe, at least, in his praise. An initial response was to adapt the wonderful Omelette Arnold Bennett, created for the writer at the Savoy and made with smoke haddock.

2 portions

Omelette Laurence Olivier in the pan.

4 eggs
1 fillet from a large kipper or 2 from a smaller one
1 large knob of butter + a smaller one for the frying pan
1 tablespoon flour
Enough milk to make a thick roux
Grated cheddar to taste

Flake the kipper fillet(s) or cut up in small slices (this can help get rid of or nullify the light bones if they bother you). Separate the whites from 3 of the eggs and whisk until stiff. Make a roux with the butter and flour, adding the cheese. Take the roux off the heat and mix in the three egg yolks, then the flaked/chopped kipper. Fold in the stiff egg whites. Mix the remaining egg. Put the rest of the butter in an omelette pan and put the pan on the heat. When the butter is hot add the mixed single egg and give it a few moments to create a base for the omelette. Add rest of the mixture. Cook until you feel the omelette has a good foundation, then put it under the grill – you can add a little more grated cheddar before putting it under the grill. I’d recommend not overdoing the cheese, particularly if the kippers are mild. It has to cook through, so don’t have the grill too high. I have garnished with parsley, but dill would be good.

The omelette is excellent and it was only several weeks after making it that I suddenly saw the possibilities in a kipper-version of Scotch Woodcock, which combines scrambled eggs on toast with anchovies or anchovy butter. Bringing together scrambled eggs with a kipper butter unites both the saved but rejected kipper and the opted-for eggs. It is the dish Arthur Evans could have created and suggested to Lord Olivier in that moment of photo opportunity peril on the Brighton Belle back in 1970.

2 portions

A breakfast plate of Brighton Woodcock

For the kipper butter:
1 kipper fillet, cut into slices
1 shallot
75 gm butter

For the scrambled eggs:
4 eggs
1 large knob of butter
Salt & pepper to taste
4 pieces of rye bread or wholemeal toast

Finely chop the shallot, lightly fry in the butter until translucent. Put the shallots and butter together with the kipper slices in a small mixer (I use a Swiss, hand pulled mixer, which seems to gather any bones I’ve missed on to the blade). Mix until a fine paste and let it cool.

You can get into all kinds of arguments about scrambled eggs, but I say: i) use the best eggs (I like ones with a rich yellow yolk), ii) use plenty of butter (absolutely no milk), iii) add salt & pepper and cook them slowly in the pan, stirring all the time. It’s ready when it’s thick but not stiff.

Spread the toast with the kipper butter and spoon over the scrambled eggs.


Big thanks to Tarquin Olivier for sending me his version of the story and to his daughter Isis Olivier, who is the herripedia’s official advisor on the translation of French poetry. Thanks also to Sam Rigby, for the backstage tour he gave us of the National Theatre, that remarkable legacy of Olivier’s non-herring-related work.