The Real... was, in fact, the weekend's prize programme. "We never liked her cooking, did we?" mused two of her friends. "No... made the children sick, didn't it?" These friends were the key to the programme, which a lesser director than Lucy Sandys Winsch might have made camp and shrill. Perceptive, charming and articulate, they represented an endangered species: interviewees who remain in possession of both themselves and their opinion, in the presence of a camera.
With a strange fondness, they sketched Fanny's monstrous and manic life, which included two abandoned sons ("Oh darling, conceived in hatred and born in fear"), four marriages, bigamy, an actress mother named Bijou, a swingeing contempt for hygiene ("maggots are good for you"), cancer cured by faith and a stint as a door-to-door vacuum saleswoman.
With Fanny, what was real was no different from what was image. She was a perfectionist, domineering, controlling, fantastical, a terrible old ham and a terrifying loose cannon. That was why audiences were compelled by her: they knew they were getting something real. That was why she was in a different league from most of what passes for "personality" on television today.
All the stuff about brandy butter stuck with angelica and watermelon baskets was just the excuse for Fanny to embody herself beneath a spotlight. When she packed the Albert Hall with her cookery shows she must have held the audience in petrified thrall. All the mad energy of her extraordinary life went into stuffing mushrooms up a turkey: the turkey, like everything else she came into contact with, had no choice but to surrender.
What, one wonders, would Fanny have made of Bridget Jones Night (BBC2, Saturday)? Her Grimaldi eyebrows would have raised the lacquered roof of her hairline, the carmine wings of her bow tie mouth would have buckled in contempt, and she would have been right. This was desperate scheduling on an already tired theme. Programmes about how to pick up men and about single girls in sitcoms were linked, ostensibly by the Bridget Jones phenomenon, but really by the willingness of women to make pompous idiots of themselves on television, pontificating about being female and over 30 as if they had just invented the idea.
"We are the pioneer generation," Mariella Frostrup informed us during Singletons, a discussion show in which five successful and beautiful women analysed their terrible predicament. Thank God for Janine di Giovanni, who politely extricated herself from this oddly humiliating debate by making it clear she was represented by no one, least of all bloody Bridget Jones, except herself. Fanny would have been proud of her.
Thomas Sutcliffe is awayReuse content