Remembering the glory days of Britain’s iconic drink that screams both kitsch and sophistication.
For a long time – essentially all of the 1960s and most of the 1970s – a low alcohol sparkling perry became a byword for middle-class sophistication in the UK. Babycham was never a fashionable drink, as such, but it managed to convince enough people who didn’t know better that it was an upmarket and stylish drink for ladies (never for men, even though perry, like its cousin cider, is part of the Campaign for Real Ale’s list of approved drinks). It was champagne for those who couldn’t afford – or were possibly intimidated by – actual champagne, a fancy tipple for the wife on Saturday night visits to the pub or to be served at Christmas parties alongside exotic cocktails like the Snowball (lemonade and advocaat). My most vivid memories of family parties from childhood consist of smoke-filled rooms, Party Sevens and cans of Boddingtons, bright yellow drinks served with a cherry on a stick, and Babycham – in the proper glass, of course. For aspirational working-class and middle-class families, this was the sign of upmarket living. It was, if you like, the drink of choice for the Abigail’s Party crowd.
Babycham was launched in the UK in 1953 by creator Francis Showering, and quickly found a market after becoming the first alcoholic drink to be advertised on TV, with the not-exactly adventurous catchphrase “I’d love a Babycham”. The advertising was significant, not simply because it broke new ground, but because it specifically marketed the drink at women – men, it was thought, probably knew exactly what they’d love when they went to the pub, and it wasn’t likely to be a low alcohol pear cider in a faux champagne glass. Women, on the other hand, were expected to enjoy lighter, fluffier, fizzier stuff – no pints for them. At 6%, Babycham was considerably less alcoholic than wine or champagne or just about any cocktail that might have tempted the female market; you could probably drink a few of these in a night without getting tipsy. The drink was served – very important, this – in something that resembled a coupe champagne glass, and featured the Babycham trademark cartoon animal – actually a goat but usually seen as a Bambi-like fawn, a girly image that further reinforced the female appeal and the sense of sophistication. Ironically, of course, if it was created now, the Babycham fawn would almost certainly fall foul of rules against marketing alcohol with images that are likely to appeal to kids. But these were more innocent times.
Babycham sold itself as a ‘genuine champagne perry’, which got it into trouble in 1978 when french champagne producers sued for use of their protected trademark. They lost, because it was thought that no one would confuse the two – or, if you are cynical, because no English court was going to side with the French against an iconic British brand. In 1965, Babycham themselves had sued a writer for suggesting that the company was trying to pass the drink off as champagne; they lost this case, not because it was shown that they were trying to mislead, but because the comments were seen as opinion rather than a factual statement. In truth, it would have been foolish for Babycham to have tried to claim that their drink was champagne – journalists and drinkers alike would have torn them apart, as the tastes are very different. But the company certainly marketed the drink as an alternative to champagne, and so managed to convince a lot of people that this was itself a sophisticated and upmarket drink.
Babycham became so huge that in the 1960s, Showerings stopped producing beer and concentrated all their efforts into Babycham, with perry trees planted across England to keep up with the demand. The drink peaked in popularity in the early 1970s – by 1973, 144,000 bottles were being produced every hour. There was even a push to suggest that Babycham was also the tipple of choice for sophisticated chaps, with a TV ad campaign featuring Patrick Mower – though I’m not sure many people were falling for that.
Of course, tastes change and as the 1970s slipped into the 1980s, Babycham – like so much of the previous decade – began to look a little cheesy. A downmarket drink for people who had ideas above their station. With the rise of the yuppies, actual champagne became a more accessible option and something that itself began to scream less sophistication and more crass consumerism from nouveau-riche city boys. The UK market opened up to other champagne alternatives like cava and prosecco, which were stronger and less obviously girly in approach. Babycham had had its day.
Or had it? Despite what many think, Babycham is actually still going strong. Around fifteen million bottles are sold every year and the drink has a strong footing in the hen party market. The lightweight nature of the drink makes it an ideal choice for those who don’t want strong alcohol – and for people of a certain age, it has probably never quite lost that sense of style and brand recognition. For others, there’s something rather kitsch about Babycham that goes beyond the drink – the glasses are, of course, collectable items and the Babycham fawn is as an iconic and immediately recognisable figure as any you could name.
But for me, Babycham exists as an integral part of the 1970s, as indispensible a part of childhood memories as Morecombe and Wise Christmas shows, James Last LPs, sausages and pineapples on sticks and cocktail cherries. The very idea of a Babycham makes me smile. And yet oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever actually tasted one. Somehow, it seems better that way. Live the fantasy, not the reality.
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