Interview: Two Fat Ladies - Cooking their goose, and eating it
Saturday 20 December 1997
The Two Fat Ladies are revelling in making a Christmas dinner to give the health police palpitations. As Jennifer Paterson prepares a huge, plump goose stuffed with pate and prunes, she licks her lips in anticipation: "What I love is that there's masses of fat left that you can treasure." Clarissa Dickson Wright, meanwhile, is working on a sweet which is off the calorie Richter Scale - a Christmas pudding ice-cream bombe filled with brandy butter. "My brother and I used to compete to see how much brandy we could get into half a pound of butter," she gleefully recalls.
This scene from BBC2's Two Fat Ladies: Christmas shows them doing what they do best - cooking a belt-straining feast and putting up two fingers to politically correct health puritans in the process. "I never believed British people were turned on by political correctness," Dickson Wright asserts. "It doesn't fit in with our psyche. We've got too much of a sense of humour. The American writer Bill Bryson says in Notes from a Small Island that he's amazed by how much we laugh. The last time we had political correctness - with Puritanism - it didn't last long because they all had their heads cut off. The puritans now don't like us because we're so non-PC. We just bounce around enjoying ourselves.
"People enjoy food," she continues. "This particular health fad has been going for 10 years, and I haven't noticed people living longer as a result. They're just getting adrenalin burnout from going to the gym too much. Jennifer and I challenge the girls on healthy diets in the office to see who can keep going longest. They fade at midday, and we're still going at two in the morning."
I'll bet they are. What has so captivated people about the Two Fat Ladies is their infectious enthusiasm. Averaging 4.1m viewers an episode, theirs is the most popular cooking show on television. They have shifted more than 100,000 copies of their book, and people were queuing round the block in the pouring rain to have copies signed by them on a recent tour.
Fans are obviously drawn to two people with such an obvious lust for life. "I do love what I'm doing," Dickson Wright confirms. "When I worked in the law, I hated it. I'm enthusiastic about food. If people are doing what they enjoy, then they're more energised. We opened the Edinburgh Christmas Festival last Saturday, riding down Princes Street in a white Cadillac with pink upholstery. I got home at five o'clock and had 16 people coming for supper. But the moment I rolled up my sleeves and started cooking, I was recharged."
In explaining their appeal, Paterson puts it more succinctly - "The English like batty old women". She goes on to reflect that: "We cook for the table rather than a restaurant. We're not doing dainty platefuls with little garnishes, which people find off-putting. They know they can't make spun sugar themselves."
With their place in the nation's affections secure, Paterson and Dickson Wright can happily brush away criticism such as the Consumers' Association report earlier this month which condemned the Two Fat Ladies for being "patently not interested in healthy eating". "You couldn't have wished for better publicity, could you?," laughs Paterson. "It's like banning a book. That report is just part of the nanny state. All they work on are statistics. How do they know our food isn't healthy? It's very healthy. I'd like to have a look at them. The point is you don't eat goose every day, for goodness sake. They talk as though we pour down a pint of cream every day."
The other thing that really gets their goat is vegetarians. As a joke on the programme, Paterson gives Dickson Wright Linda McCartney's Meals Without Meat as a Christmas present. "Oh, Jennifer, just what I've always wanted," Dickson Wright says through gritted teeth.
"Vegetarians are fascists," declares Dickson Wright, in a tone that brooks no contradiction. "I'd fight to the death for their right to be vegetarian, but they won't return the compliment. I hate fascism in any guise - that attitude of `I'm one of the chosen ones, I know better'. Jennifer got a letter from Linda McCartney saying, `I'm sorry you don't like us'. If I'd been Jennifer, I'd have sent her back a copy of our book and said, `Try some of this'."
Paterson gets equally worked up on the subject. "Why are they always so cross?," she demands. "It's because they eat the wrong things. They look terrible; they're usually of a yellow colour. You go to a health shop and they all look so depressed. They need cheering up, poor dears. They're now getting rickets in Hampstead from sheer malnutrition. They haven't had that since the Plague. It's because they're giving their children this skimmed milk rubbish."
Just as they whack veggies, so they worship meat. "Sadly, I like looking at a beautiful piece of beef on the bone," Dickson Wright sighs. "I was at a Highland Show in the summer. There was a piece of beef in a case, and it looked like a jewel to me. I'd rather have that than a ruby. A man came up and said, `Do you know, you've been looking at that for five minutes?'"
As you might expect, the latest beef ban makes the Two Fat Ladies seethe. Dickson Wright recently received an invitation to a reception at 10 Downing Street, which she turned down. "Tony Blair obviously doesn't read my column in Scotland on Sunday," she snorts. "I'm extremely grateful I declined the invitation, because if I'd gone, I'd probably be in chains in the Tower by now."
Feisty, opinionated, but above all fun, the Two Fat Ladies make for wonderful company - a sort of larger-than-life version of the French and Saunders sketch about the two large country ladies who dismiss all problems as "stuff and nonsense".
They are well aware that they are surfing the fashionable wave of cookery programmes at the moment. "It's horrendous," Dickson Wright chortles. "These programmes are so popular because we've got a whole generation who didn't learn to cook at their mother's knee. Now they're settling down and getting married, they're realising they haven't got those skills. Our generation has a lot to answer for. The next generation may be more liberated sexually, but they sure as hell can't cook."
The Two Fat Ladies are canny enough to realise that the bubble may soon burst for TV chefs. "I'd have thought the trend would have burnt out five years ago," Dickson Wright says with wonder. "I'd be terribly arrogant if I thought people would still be clamouring for the Two Fat Ladies in five years' time. If they are, I'll probably be dead from exhaustion. Jennifer and I made a pact that if we ever got to series 27, we'd drive off a cliff together. So then we could have Two Fat Ladies - The Requiem. People will eventually learn how to cook and move onto something else. Maybe they'll watch gardening programmes instead. But that would be alright; I can garden."
`Two Fat Ladies: Christmas' is on Christmas Eve on BBC2 at 8pm
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