Mange tout

Mange tout

Year: 1997

Director: Mark Phillips

Type: BBC TV documentary (49.20 minutes)

Availability: via TRILT (here, subscription needed), and Locate TV (here).

Page reference: Cook, I. (2011) Mange tout. ( last accessed <insert date here>)

Lego re-creation

A scene from the BBC documentary 'Mange Tout' (1).


...a famous television programme in which for the first time british viewers were confronted with their most popular supermarket Tesco actually running a farm in Zimbabwe that supplies its mange tout and increasingly restricting what it accepted from the farmers as its perfect vegetables (Source: Miller nd, np link).

Documentary looking at the growing of mangetouts on a farm in Zimbabwe for Tesco. Follows Mark Dady the produce buyer on his annual visit to the Chipaware farm and Claire Montague who throws a dinner party serving mange tout to her guests. Looks at the food people eat, those who grow it and the supermarkets that sell it. Considers how supermarkets increase sales of a single vegetable, what the working conditions are like for those who grow the crop, and who the consumers are. Illustrated by the growing of mangetout on a farm in Zimbabwe for the Tesco chain of supermarkets. Follows a produce buyer from the company on his annual visit to the farm, and features a society hostess serving the vegetable to her dinner party guests (Source: BFI nd, np link).

A noisy dinner party in Basingstoke: mange tout is about to be served. A vegetable farm in Zimbabwe: the man from Tesco is about to arrive. Grown with reverence, eaten with indifference. This is the entertaining world of the designer pea. Mark Phillips´ amusing and thought-provoking film [is] about the food we eat, the people who grow it, and the supermarkets that sell it to us. … ‘Mange Tout’ means ‘eat everything’ in French and you may wind up feeling that film has done precisely that to British upper middle class. In looking behind the economic and social implications of exporting this vegetable delicacy from Zimbabwe, some serious questions are raised about how we think about how well we eat. It does it with the look of a high budget advertisement (Source: Anon nd, np).

Workers on the Chiparawe farm thought that Tesco was a foreign country – they offered it gifts, sang songs of dedication to their ‘dear friend’ Tesco and worked under the shadow of a large Tesco flag. ‘I’ve never been there but I can imagine it. I take it to be quite superior, quite magnificent,’ was how Blessing Chingwaru, chief mange-tout picker at Chiparawe, described the mythical Republic of Tesco (Source: Hall 2005 link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

I was filming the night shift at a supermarket in New Malden one night last winter. I won't deny it, documentary-making isn't all it's cracked up to be. I wanted some shots of the general mayhem: cardboard strewn on the floor, crates of bottles waiting to be stacked, the mound of pet food tins about to be put in order. But the night manager was adamant: I could not film the mess. ‘Why not?’ I asked, surprised. ‘No way. It will create the wrong impression. The general manager will kill me if you show that on telly ...’ Twenty minutes of special pleading, summoning my best BBC silver-tongued training -- ‘It's to try and show the process. We want to give a sense of the work you do...’ -- would not shift him. There is a conceit -- not a conspiracy, more a tacit belief we share when shopping in the supermarket -- that the goods all get there by magic. An adult fairy tale goes on nightly under our urban noses, in which the shelves, invisibly, restock themselves. This obsession with concealing the behind-the-scenes work of the supermarket goes beyond shelf-stocking. I asked several supermarkets to take part in a documentary about the journey of their exotic vegetables. Initially, Marks & Spencer would not even send a written reply to a letter, let alone agree to a meeting to discuss the possibility. Maybe there's a secret formula to mangetout production... Tesco, however, did agree to co-operate in a film that follows mangetout from the African soil to an English dinner plate (Source: Phillips 1997, p.18).

In theory the link between the Shona woman picking mangetout and a consumer buying it could hardly be more direct. The vegetable takes a matter of hours to get from Zimbabwe to the UK. You would not believe the love that goes into getting these peas from the soil to the shelf. Temperature-controlled, constantly monitored, the mangetout is a newborn baby, a VIP travelling first class, a donor organ being rushed to its destination. ‘Flown for freshness’, boasts the marketing blurb on the label. ... Grannie Chabvundira, a 25-year-old mangetout caterpillar inspector on Chiparawe, is faced every morning with six gleaming washbasins in the concrete pack house and the injunction to scrub up. Above her head, crackling blue insect-killers protect the peas. Two hundred yards down the track, she and hundreds of other women workers live in mud huts or barracks with no electricity and one water tank that they must share. How difficult would it be to earmark some of the farmer's profit or the supermarket's profit or even increase the cost to us the consumers, as a contribution towards improving that infrastructure? (Source: Phillips 1997, p.18).

Discussion / Responses

An anecdote which just occurs to me is that in terms of cultural impact on the debate, perhaps the more powerful and important effect was when a documentary was done by BBC2 in the ‘Modern Times’ series about the sourcing of mange-tout from Zimbabwe for Tescos which caused an uproar. The maker and director of that film … was invited to speak at some Anthropology departments at various universities around the country, where they said ‘do you realise you have done in an hour what we have failed to do in twenty years in terms of making these issues matter’. That was an interesting reflection (Source: Sims 2004, p.31).

A rival commissioning editor from Channel 4, David Lloyd, described this film as ‘a great example of how wit and imagination transformed something from a sterile topic to something that made great watching’ (Source: Connor 2000, np).

Give ‘em strong narratives, get it moving chop, chop, chop, sexy images and Gerard Depardieu look-alikes… And keep [it] funny for heavens sake! The ratings war is on and the soldiers of the documentary brigade are in the trenches. Do we stop to reconsider? Do we care, or just keep shooting for a bigger audience? (Source: Anon nd, np).

Anyone see the BBC 4 documentary 4 last night about how mange tout is grown in Zimbabwe for the Tesco product buyers? Very simple film – following the journey of the peas from a farm, through the hands of the pickers and caterpillar killers and so on, until the end up in an English supermarket and on a dinner table of some drunken white prats. Class. The whole thing just showed Tesco up for being a colonial ‘Man from Del Monte’, with the village schoolchildren singing these beautiful but bizarre songs about how Tesco is lovely. Watch out if it’s repeated (Source: Micko 1999, np).

The Secretary of State must not think that I am condemning all multinational companies, but NGOs and others constantly report examples of multinationals not following good practice, and of people being exploited. I remember a wonderful film on television called ‘Mangetout’—everyone must have seen it. People in Zimbabwe—or perhaps it was Tanzania—went up and down the mangetout plantations singing something like, ‘Up the hillsides, down the valleys, Tesco is our greatest friend.’ They sang that little song as they picked the mangetouts. They were happy and well cared for; it was a good project. I am not suggesting that all is bad (Source: Tongue 2001 link).

Just watched it. Saw it the first time round, had to re-watch to convince myself that the arrogant b@£$%’@’+s were as bad as I thought they were. Listening to the white upper middle classes talking about how wonderful they are for buying mange tout so that those people could be happy in their mud huts because that' all they need put me off my dinner.  Clearly the pickers on the farm who get one pence for every 150g of the right size and shape pea they pick get something out of it.  One wonders though, how much more they would get if all that arable land was used and run co-operatively to feed the local population with food they want to eat. The surplus, and there would be a surplus, could then be sold or traded.  If the food was grown to be eaten, instead of used as a pretensious status symbol in Britain, the Zimbabwian workers may also have some leisure time. And the kids may get the chance of a proper education instead of learning songs to apease the great god Tesco. (All the Tesco people did was sneer at them anyway.)  Okay, rant over, I feel slightly better now (Source: snowball 2005 link).

It was the sort of programme that makes you want to kick the TV in  and it really did show that the white farm owners were slaves to Tesco and the workers were slaves to slaves (Source: jema 2005 link).

I confess I did not watch all of the programme - basically because I couldn't stomach the way Land Owner dealt with his workforce and the way the Foreman dealt with his workers. Tell you what, if some b*st*rd came into my workplace examining my fingernails and deciding to take chunks out of them I know where I'd stick the bleedin' clippers. Turned over when the little girl gave a welcoming speech in praise of the wonderful Tesco. p.s. I'm going there (Tesco's that is) in the morning - please don't let me think about Mange Tout, otherwise I'll stick my fingernails into every veg I handle!! (Source: gertie 2005 link).

Reading Tony Hirst's fascinating blog post on the use Tesco makes of data from its clubcard reminded me of the moment Tesco became 'evil' for me. It was when I saw the BBC2 documentary back in 1997, about the farm in Zimbabwe that supplied mangtout peas to Tesco (Source: Chapman 2010 link).

University angered me up today. Not in a bad way, either- I was angered up because I was enthusiastic about the course. Hmm… Maybe it was bad in a way? I’ll explain why. In my lecture (I won’t be more specific, I only had one!), we watched a video that’s a few years old now, about Tesco and the mange-tout growers in Zimbabwe. It was made before the world kicked up a fuss about Mugabe being a bit [sh*t], but it was still horrible. Incidentally, I also saw it during economics and business back in the days when I used to go to school, and it angered me up then, too. The gist of it was that there’s this farm in Zimbabwe that grow it - not wanting to get into race issues, but the supervisor was a black guy, and the farm itself was owned by white guy with a British accent. He looked like what you’d imagine the people who colonised Zimbabwe 200 years ago looked like - he just needed one of those ivory-poacher hats to complete the ‘upper-middle-class twunt’ look. After a standard documentary vox-pop about ‘Do you know where Zimbabwe is?’… and the standard ‘Isn’t it the capital of Africa?’ type responses, it went on to tell the story. Tesco had sent out one of their buyers to check the farm - the [b@£$%’@’+] they sent out to check on them wasn’t happy with anything. He was complaining about a sprinkler not sprinkling enough water, how some of the mange-tout didn’t look perfect. That sort of thing. The reason I call him a ‘b*%tard’ because he was saying how he wanted the poor farmers to be scared of the inspection, and he wanted them to constantly strive to do better. All this when presumably their standard of living ain’t great. When this guy arrived at the farm, the buyer and his team were treated like Gods. It was sickening. Hundreds of children and employees were singing crudely written songs about Tesco being ace and being their friend. And they sat there enjoying it. The locals had bought him his team presents, and the narrator revealed that these poor farmers had in fact paid for Tesco, a company turning over billions of pounds a year, to fly out to them. All this because the contract Tesco has is what determines whether they live in great or only moderate poverty. Then more songs. Whilst this was bad enough to watch, the documentary makers offset this god-like worship of our corporate overlords with something else. They’d found the most sickeningly middle class, Daily Mail reading, awful woman who was having a dinner party. With some mange-tout being served, of course. She described how she was inviting round some equally middle class twunts, who work for a big insurer and something in financial services. Cut to the dinner party in progress. I didn’t know you could fit so many [c*^±s] around one table. I apologise for the strong language, but it’s appropriate. They started discussing ‘issues’. More specifically, in keeping with the documentary, farming and the third world, and that. ‘They’re not advanced enough to drive cars’, ‘They’re not intelligent enough to use our technology’, ‘exploitation is vital and natural’, ‘I’m sure they’re much happier than we are because they’ve never had what we’ve got, so are probably happy in their mud hut’. Cut to the farm’s ‘caterpillar examiner’ explaining how she tried to kill herself. It ended up saying that the growers earn a penny for every [amount] of mange-tout they pick- on which Tesco would make something like a 46p profit, and the exporter 30p ish. It was sickening. Sickening that multinationals have such power over these people and are exploiting them so much. Mike made a good point: ‘It’s like slavery never ended’. I was so sick I had a Coke (Source: O’Malley 2005 link).

...all this for a designer vegetable bought by two out of a hundred supermarket shoppers. To me, it starts out funny and, inevitably, ends up bittersweet, because, of course, this is being done in our names. When the supermarket insists that the revised optimum length for mangetout is 75mm rather than 65mm, that they should be trimmed 1mm and not 4mm, that 30 percent of the crop should be rejected because although they taste fine they don't look quite right, these rules are being laid down for us. The discerning, quality-obsessed British consumer demands no less, according to Tesco. With sales of mangetout doubling annually, and nine and a half million Tesco customers just waiting to be converted to the new pea, it's easy to see why the supermarket would be interested in shaping the market and pushing the pea. But a share of the responsibility does lie with us. For in the same way that you're unlikely to see angry consumers with placards outside your local Tesco store demanding ‘Mangetout: 75mm or else!’, we are not exactly clamouring to know more about the process behind the product, the people involved in it, or their pay and conditions. Only the extreme cases, such as apartheid or French nuclear testing, ever consistently prick our consciences (Source: Phillips 1997, p.18).

Impacts / Outcomes

The mid-1990s witnessed a surge of media-generated public concern over both environmental issues and worker welfare at sites of export production. Articles appeared in the UK broadsheets highlighting poor environmental and working conditions at production sites. Radio and television documentaries also became a part of the process with, for example, a BBC Modern Times documentary screened in 1997 revealing the means through which the UK supermarket chain Tesco sourced its own-label mangetout peas from Zimbabwe. In all cases, direct connections were made the the journalists and documentary filmmakers between por conditions at sites of production and the everyday purchases of the commodities through supermarket chains. More direct pressure was at the same time exerted on retail corporations by CSO campaigns, with the most significant being Christian Aid’s focus on supermarkets’ global sourcing practices for their own-label food products (Source: Hughes 2005, p.143-4).

Five years after Mangetout supermarket fresh produce managers and importers still referred to it as an example of the kind of media coverage they dreaded. Even if it did not have the ‘stampede’ effect of a food scare, it created an image problem, and not just for Tesco. One importer said he still ran into people who knew nothing about mangetout peas except what they saw on Mangetout, and such people could not appreciate how the filmmaker’s technique had, in his view, dramatized and distorted the truth (Source: Friedberg 2004a, p.180).

…actors who worked in the fresh-produce export, import, and retail sectors clearly dreaded any form of bad media coverage, whether as a result of a charity’s `name and shame’ campaign, a food scare, or simply an influential journalist’s muckraking. As they saw it, such coverage could shape consumers’ day-to-day shopping habits. Although a story about child labor on an African fruit farm was unlikely to have the `stampede’ effect of a food scare, it could potentially `tarnish’ a retailer’s overall brand, as one supermarket manager put it, and cause consumers to `migrate’ to a competitor’s stores. One veteran produce importer claimed that the newspapers were `the driving force’ behind the adoption of ethical trade standards by supermarkets in the 1990s. Yet certain televised reports also shook the industry. Several actors in both Zambia and the United Kingdom, for example, said they could not afford another Mangetout, a documentary screened on public television in 1997. Mangetout contrasted the harsh surveillance and precarious livelihoods of workers on a Zimbabwean horticultural export farm with the affluence and complacency of the British consumers who bought Zimbabwean mangetout at Tesco, the largest supermarket chain in the United Kingdom. Although the narrative did not explicitly criticize, the military music soundtrack that played during a Tesco representative’s visit to the farm made a less-than-subtle comment on the retailer’s neocolonial control over its supplier. Exporters’, importers’, and retailers’ preoccupation with the media pervaded not only their descriptive accounts but also, in some cases, their interactions with me. In Zambia, for example, I was aggressively interrogated by company personnel intent on determining (I later found out) whether I was an undercover `BBC agent’. Such attitudes were especially striking compared with the relative nonchalance I had encountered during earlier research on the fresh-vegetable trade between Francophone West Africa and France (Source: Freidberg 2004b, p.515-6).

A farm in Zimbabwe that supplies mangetout to Tesco, the UK supermarket, was featured in a BBC2 documentary some eight years ago. Workers on the Chiparawe farm thought that Tesco was a foreign country - they offered it gifts, sang songs of dedication to their ‘dear friend’ Tesco and worked under the shadow of a large Tesco flag. ‘I've never been there but I can imagine it. I take it to be quite superior, quite magnificent,’ was how Blessing Chingwaru, chief mange-tout picker at Chiparawe, described the mythical Republic of Tesco. Eight years on and the myth is almost a reality: Tesco has become as big as a small country. In little more than a decade, it has grown from the UK's Number 3 grocer to the third-biggest retail group in the world. And, remarkably, it has achieved this progress while making few acquisitions: much of the growth has been organic (Source: Anon 2005 link).

One day, the man from Tesco assures me, there will be the mother of all mangetout price wars. Just as happens nowadays with mushrooms or tomatoes. No longer 99p, a pack of mangetout will be slashed to 30p or 20p -- for our benefit, of course. When that day comes only the fit and the strong will survive. Only the most efficient suppliers, able to shrink their margins for weeks at a time, will endure. Of course, if the man from Tesco is not convinced that any of his four suppliers is up to it, then it's off to the next farm or the next country, to the next welcome dance from another group of eager third-world schoolchildren (Source: Phillips 1997, p.18).

Sources / Further Reading

Anon (nd) Mange Tout. Universitat Pompeu Fabra ( last accessed 12 October 2008)

Anon (2005) Society gains from Tesco. The daily telegraph (UK) 17 April ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

BFI (nd) Synopses: Modern Times – Mangetout. London: British Film Institute ( last accessed 5 December 2010)

Chapman, D. (2010) Tesco and the mangetout. ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Connor, J. (2000) A window on the world. Developments: the international development magazine 11 (3rd quarter) (www.developments last accessed 12 October 2008)

Freidberg, S. (2004a) French beans and food scares: culture and commerce in an anxious age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freidberg, S. (2004b) The ethical complex of corporate food power. Environment and planning D: society and space 22(4), 513-531

gertie (2005) Post subject: Mange tout. 21 January (;start=0 last accessed 8 March 2011)

Hall, J. (2005) Society gains from Tesco. Daily telegraph 16 April ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Hughes, A. (2005) Responsible retailers?: ethical trade and the strategic re-regulation of cross-continental food supply chains. in Fold, N. & Pitchard, B. (eds) Cross-continental food chains. London: Routledge, p.141-154

jema (2005) Post subject: Mange tout. 21 January (;start=0 last accessed 8 March 2011)

Micko (1999) Mange Tout. 21 April ( last accessed 5 December 2010)

Miller, D. (nd) Could the internet defetishise the commodity?  ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

O’Malley, J. (2005) Mange tout. 16 November ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Phillips, M (1997) Peas and plenty. New statesman 21 February, p.18

Poulter, S. (2008) Tesco condemned for claiming Zimbabweans don't want to eat the food they export. Daily mail (UK) 27 June ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Sims, A. (2004) Evidence in NGO campaigns. in ODI Does evidence matter: an ODI meeting series. London: Overseas Development Institute, p.29-32 ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Thornycroft, p. (2004) Black workers fight Mugabe land thugs. Daily telegraph (UK) 10 February ( last accessed 8 March 2011)

Tongue, J. (2001) International development White Paper (UK House of Commons debate). Hansard 3 May ( last accessed 8 March).

snowball (2005) Post subject: Mange tout. 21 January (;start=0 last accessed 8 March 2011)

Willman, J. & Hawking, T. (2008) Tesco stops imports of Zimbabwe crops. Financial times (UK) 2 July

Compiled and edited by Ian Cook (last updated March 2011). Lego re-creation made in the Idea Zone Lego Lab at the Geographical Association Annual Conference, Guildford, 2014. Legoing by Ian Cook.