The name of their show was gloriously irreverent, honest and bold and so were they. The Two Fat Ladies were unashamedly large, loud and wholly original. They did not kowtow to any pre-conceived notions of how women appearing on television should look or behave. They loved their food, especially meat, and they made no bones about it. Now they are both dead, as Clarissa Dickson-Wright passed away in Edinburgh yesterday at the age of 66. Jennifer Paterson had died in 1999, after being diagnosed with cancer. It is unlikely any cooking show will ever again be quite so un-PC or so unconventional.
70 million people around the world watched The Two Fat Ladies in the mid to late 90s and in the U.S. it was broadcast on The Food Network and The Cooking Channel. Scooting around the countryside in an old-fashioned motorbike and sidecar, the two presenters were undeniably eccentric, posh and opinionated. Paterson’s bright red fingernails were slightly macabre as they probed at a side of meat, while Dickson-Wright more often looked like she may have come straight in from a badger cull. They were both a long way from the neat and tidy prissiness and the exact measurements and careful style of someone like Delia Smith.
She had inherited a fortune from her father, a surgeon to the Royal family, but she drank it all away. It took her 12 years to get through the £2.8 million. Then she sobered up. This year she would have been on the wagon for 27 years. It was “my own stupid fault” she admitted. She said growing up with money didn’t help you to realise that it didn’t grow on trees. In later life, she revealed that her father was violent and beat her, her mother and three siblings. “Fond” was as much feeling as she could muster for him. He could not stop her from being the best law student of her generation though, and a qualified barrister. Dickson-Wright was the youngest ever women called to the bar, aged 21.
That legal training served her well as she never lost the art of persuasive oratory, as in forceful and bossy tones she could lecture at length on her favorite topics. One of these was game, and her authoritative text A History of English Food, published in 2011, contained many recipes for foods that have gone out of favour, like partridge, rabbit and badger, which she recommended to treat like pork. She also ate things most people would flinch at, like rooks and swans. It was a culinary curiosity that knew no bounds.
A champion of country sports, Dickson Wright was convicted for hare coursing, but she got off as her dogs were muzzled. Along with anti-hunt campaigners (she had a famous falling out with Brian May of the group Queen, who suggested it was she who should be broiled or braised) she reserved great ire for Labor politicians and for vegetarians.
It was a campaign to re-introduce the cardoon (exactly, the what? It is an edible thistle) to the nation’s dinner plates that drew her to the attention of the producer who teamed her with Patterson and created the Two Fat Ladies. Her qualities of encyclopedic food knowledge, erudition and Bertie Wooster-like quintessentially English mannerisms, made her a natural on television.
Baptised as Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmeralda, she had a glut of names to carry around as well as a lot of weight. She joked that all of her pounds came from decent food, never junk. An advocate of high-fat, she declared that people on antidepressants would do better to eat cream buns, as animal fats released serotonin. People should eat beef and cream and not feel guilty about it, was her mantra.
One of her anecdotes was her claim to have had sex behind the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Commons. She said it always made her laugh when she watched “politicians pontificating” in the solemn chamber. Her contempt for Tony Blair was especially intense, as he brought in the ban on fox-hunting and she named a dish Bollocks to Blair in her contempt. She had known him as a young law student when he had the nickname Miranda due to his long hair. Her partner Clive was also an alcoholic, they met in a drinking club, and were together until his death from kidney failure aged 40. She always said she had other lovers but only one true love of her life, and that was Clive.
Her agent said she had lived a life “fearlessly and with conviction” and that she was “loved dearly by her many friends and fans all over the world.”
The Two Fat Ladies have both gone now, but the legacy of the colorful character of Clarissa Dickson-Wright lives on in her books and her advice to eat and enjoy love good, wholesome food.
By Kate Henderson