Fanny Cradock: First lady of food

Terrifying, strange and rather grand – and that was just her cookery. In the centenary year of Fanny Cradock’s birth, John Walsh pays tribute to the original television chef

She had mad glittering eyes, the face of a supercilious horse, the maquillage of a French clown and demeanour of a woman in constant search of an argument. She was rude to everyone: BBC colleagues, helpers, members of the public, fellow cooks and her long-suffering partner, Johnnie. Much of her life was a lie, a cover-up, a delusion, from her date and place of birth to her marital status. It’s not even clear that she knew much about cooking – about which ingredients blend most harmoniously together – though few people felt disposed to confront her. One look at the way she prepared a Christmas turkey on TV, plucking irritably at little folds of breast to loosen it until she could slide mushrooms under the skin, and you get a shuddery sense of what Johnnie had to endure.

Endure it he did, though, for 40-odd years, and something about Fanny Cradock appealed to British audiences: her certainty, perhaps, her bossiness, her air of innate superiority, as if she were a grande dame condescending to offer cookery tips to the great unwashed. She was a howling snob, a scold and a terrible mother but, for 20 years from the mid-1950s to 1976, she was the queen of British cuisine.

Her eccentric dishes, with their dubious sauces and vegetable dyes, may be out of favour in 2009, but her memory is proving oddly tenacious. Delia Smith said her career was inspired by the Cradocks’ TV shows. Jamie Oliver confessed that she was the inspiration behind Jamie’s Dinners. Amy Winehouse told newspapers that she planned to welcome her husband, Blake, home from prison by cooking him an old-fashioned dinner: “I’m all about Fanny Cradock,” she said. Gordon Ramsay has nominated her as his dream dinner-date.

Fanny Cradock was the prototypical Ramsay. There were TV cooks before her, but she was the first with real celebrity status. She even patented the Ramsay style of exasperated rudeness and set the template for the furious, doctrinaire, do-it-my-way kitchen tyrant so familiar on television today.

She was born Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey in 1909 in Leytonstone, then part of Essex, the daughter of Archibald Pechey, a corn merchant, and Bijou Sortain. When the baby was a year old, Bijou gave her away as a birthday present to her mother, dumping her on a billiards table. Fanny had a hard early life. At 17, she married an RAF pilot called Sidney Evans who crashed four months later, leaving her widowed and pregnant. She married again at 19, but abandoned her husband, Arthur, and their son, Christopher, to live in London. There she made a pittance selling vacuum cleaners door to door, running a dressmaker’s shop and then working in restaurants, where she found a niche.

In her twenties, too poor to raise her first son, Peter, she gave him away – in a curious echo of her own abandonment – to his parental grandparents. She married a third husband bigamously, but dumped him after eight weeks when she met Major John Cradock of the Royal Artillery. He was married with four children, but he left them for Fanny and never saw his family again. Television viewers always assumed Fanny and Johnnie were married, but they only tied the knot in 1977.

The Daily Telegraph was their passport to stardom in the late 1940s. Fanny wrote fashion items and beauty tips for its pages under a brace of noms de plume. In 1949, shortly after her first recipe book, The Practical Cook, was published, the paper’s women’s editor asked her to take some weekend breaks in the country to see if any “worthwhile” restaurants had emerged since the war. Fanny and Johnnie contributed a column called “Bon Viveur” and visited hundreds of hotels and restaurants, in Britain and abroad. They accentuated the positive, and wrote only about good ones. From this coign of influence, they moved into public performance, staging cookery demonstrations, first for the Gas Council, later for paying customers under the title Kitchen Magic. They were “Major and Mrs Cradock”, a kind of practical comedy starring a henpecked dipsomaniac and his super-competent wife: they cooked huge meals on theatre stages and served the result to the audiences. They even filled the Albert Hall for a festive extravaganza during Christmas 1956.

Fanny had her crooked nose straightened in 1954 and tested for a pilot TV show a year later. For the first show, in 1955, they were given a tight brief: to produce three party dishes, serving eight guests, at a total outlay of 6s/6d in old money (321/2p today.) Thereafter, Cradock liked to emphasise in her TV cookery demonstrations how her ingredients, though seeming expensive, wouldn’t break the bank. “Of course if you can’t stretch to butter,” she’d say, “then dripping will do.”

As the show took off, she and Johnnie basked in new-found wealth. They moved to a house in Blackheath, south London (a property that she tried to persuade newspaper diarists to call “Hollywood-style”) and threw extravagant parties. They bought a Rolls and broke a record by driving it to Monte Carlo in 16 hours. They even kept a cabin cruiser moored at Cannes. It exploded in 1967, leaving them both badly burnt.

Her cooking style and eccentricity of approach may strike us as deranged. She piled brandy and cream on to everything, in homage to her beloved Escoffier. Eggs were a lifelong favourite, especially hard-boiled and in anchovies. She invented Green Cheese Ice Cream – ice cream with Gruyère cheese, dyed green. Her four-hours-in-the-making steamed chocolate pudding was like a section of flyover. She was excessively fond of offal: her recipes for veal brains cooked with cream or kidneys flambéed in brandy put one in mind of the dishes (“Liver in Lager”) available in the ghastly restaurant run by Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet.

There was also something sweetly barmy about her clothes. She took to wearing formal frocks and ballgowns (sometimes even a tiara) for her TV demonstrations – looking like a dolled-up socialite who has strayed below stairs to help out in an emergency. Johnnie was a less colourful figure; his role seemed to consist of tasting (lots of) wine and being upbraided for his lethargy by his not-quite-wife. With his monocle and put-upon air, he became a “character”, a silly-ass throwback to the 1930s, becalmed in the swinging Sixties.

Amazingly, Fanny was still going in the 1970s, ever more grotesquely made-up and festooned with rosettes. Her last Christmas special was in 1975 when she was 66. Her sign-off was nothing less than regal: “May I say how much I admire the housewives of Britain in these appalling present conditions, for their courage in trying to give their families another super Christmas. So, like Tiny Tim, I say: ‘God bless you all.’”

She didn’t, however, retire. She was disgraced by her own rudeness. In 1976 she turned up on a BBC talent show called The Big Time; she’d been brought in to advise Gwen Troake, a Devon housewife, who had won a competition to organise a three-course dinner for Edward Heath and Lord Mountbatten. Cradock treated Troake with magnificent condescension. On hearing of her proposed menu, she made I’m-going-to-puke noises. She wouldn’t let poor Ms Troake serve her magnificent coffee pudding, but suggested a naval-themed alternative which proved disastrous. The public responded with fury, and Fanny’s BBC contract was terminated two weeks later. Thereafter, her only television appearances were as a faded celebrity on Blankety Blank and The Generation Game. She died in 1994, aged 85.

With her croaky voice, garish make-up, mad glittering eyes and strict manner, Fanny Cradock was a gift for parodists and mimics (Round the Horne, the radio show, featured a rasping termagent called “Fanny Haddock” while on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour she was known as “Lady Macbeth.”) But her interests and obsessions – spiritual healing, fertilisers, ouija boards, Atlantis – suggest a more inquiring mind that she’s given credit for. Her adoration of Escoffier was heartfelt and well-founded, although she seldom seemed to follow his central precept of “faites simple”. She published 100 cookery books which sold in thousands, and inspired untold millions of housewives to be brave and adventurous in the kitchen.

When the Queen Mother met Fanny and Johnnie, she told them that she read their columns and believed they were “largely responsible” for improving standards of catering in Britain. Reportedly, Fanny was so startled by the accolade, she forgot to curtsey. Perhaps her own opinion of her cooking wasn’t that high. But perhaps the Queen Mother had a point. It wasn’t the food that changed everything. It was the determination.

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