Raucous and irreverent, Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson are television cookery's latest wheeze. But are the two fat ladies all pastry and no filling? Rose Shepherd chews it over ...
You don't have to like Two Fat Ladies - Jennifer Paterson, Clarissa Dickson Wright, the latest, most unlikely TV cooks. See if they care! They might not like you, either. And don't pretend to find them priceless, just because they're morphically challenged. They are, themselves, after all, irredeemably politically incorrect. They're raucous and irreverent. Not everyone is comfortable with them - but then, they never asked if we were sitting comfortably.

Anyway, for many of us, for the past two weeks and the next four, Wednesday night will be Fat Ladies night. We will settle down to watch the pair, bursting out all over. The scripted bits, the "ahoys!" and "perchances" are painful, but when they assert themselves, defy direction, come on all unrehearsed, they are a terrific antidote to the stage-managed precision of most other cookery programmes. "Sharks!" said Jennifer in Week One. "Don't like them at all. Yuck! I think they're very, very evil fish." And, in Week Two, "None of this nonsense about yoghurt instead of cream! Yoghurt is very good for your breakfast, or if you have a poor tummy, or you're a vegetarian or something." No one can freight the word "vegetarian" as Paterson can, and no one could put words like that into her mouth.

These women are widely travelled, widely read, the programmes are larded with their wit and erudition. They have, as the saying goes, bottom. And there is all too little bottom in television today. In a medium that traditionally makes more of its personalities than would meet the naked eye, Jennifer and Clarissa, by contrast, have been shrunk to fit the small screen. It's a squeeze. The camera, trailing them as they stump along in a rolling gait, cannot do them justice. Whoever coined the phrase "larger than life" would have had in mind something more manageable, less characterful than this.

The trick of the series - if it is a trick - is to give us a sense of keeping company with two individuals who endlessly make each other laugh. The story of Clarissa's brother's death, too horrible to be told here or on TV, is a source of huge mirth to Jennifer. (If I tell you it is worse than the story of Clarissa's grandmother in Little Venice, who put both feet through the same leg of her knickers and fell to her death down the air-raid shelter stairs, you will get the picture.)

Some might carp that Two Fat Ladies is just a TV producer's jolly good wheeze - all pastry and no filling. They would be wrong. Both are estimable cooks, with experience of domestic service, but of a rather lavish kind. Jennifer once cooked for Ugandan ministers in a flat in Queen's Gate. "It was marvellous, my dear. Wonderful mustard velvet sofas, and sort of Assagai spears and beer all up the wall ..." She was sacked for gross discourtesy, but bounced back to cook for The Spectator, serving halibut ceviche and guinea fowl for Prince Charles the day he came to lunch.

Clarissa has run a luncheon club in St James's, and a pheasant farm. She used to drink and smoke more than the doctor orders, but now does neither. When she "got sober" she managed Books for Cooks, a specialist shop in west London until she, too, was dismissed. She was formerly a barrister. (Advice to anyone considering firing a barrister: don't.) Today she has her own bookshop in Edinburgh.

Their style of cooking is a tremendous antidote to Delia Smith's , whose food comes cling-wrapped and is measured to the nth degree. Much as we love Delia's dinners, one wouldn't want to watch her once, twice, three times over, as I did the Fat Ladies. They're refreshing as a squirt of lemon in the eye, doing for this country something of what Antonio Carluccio does for Italy, reminding us that food comes from the ground, and on the hoof, that it's not all about supermarkets and drive-thrus, that old traditions of production survive. Misses Paterson and Dickson Wright are showing us, in the days of BSE, that Britain can be a match for Europe as a food producer when it tries.

Here are a couple of unashamed carnivores, who can say baa to a black- faced sheep, boo to a goose, and then fall to and consume them with a will. (If Jennifer is to be believed, the geese of Gascony like nothing better than to be force-fed until their livers burst.) She told on Wednesday night - when making supper for the lacrosse team of a girl's public school - how she once cooked testicles, "real testicles", which she found in the souk in Bengazi. Mistaking them for sweetbreads, she soaked and sauted them. Delicious! Is it a wonder that some men get up, switch off, or shuffle out to make a pot of tea? This woman would have your testicles on toast!

They are not the first, of course, to get out and muscle in. There is, indeed, something of a vogue for it now but they are funnier, earthier, more graphic than the rest. Keith Floyd, gastronaut and arch showman, who is frequently to be found out of doors and out of control, pales beside this duo. Gary Rhodes, with his cooking-is-easy-peasy-fun approach, lacks one dimension, at least, in comparison (well, he's just a boy; he can learn). The celebrity chefs, with their layer-on-layer dishes, their culinary towers of Babel, their carpaccio of angler fish, mango coulis and chicory marmalade, seem suddenly so esoteric. Jennifer and Clarissa "slosh it in", they "muck it about a bit", they pay scant attention to presentation, to inky-dinky culinary conceits and frippy garnishing. This is good, honest, robust stuff, knocked up by enthusiasts.

And yet, I don't suppose I shall be cooking the coley pie, or the meat loaf ("Use your fingers, for heaven's sake! All this squishing is lovely, and probably very good for your hands"). I shan't venture on the fillet of beef Will Moreland or the chicken with walnut aillade. Because the cooking, the food, its sources are not what it's about. There is Clarissa, pushing 50, Jennifer somewhere in her sixties, both loud and brave and raunchy. Has no one ever told them that a lady doesn't shout or swagger, or sing snatches from Captain Courageous at the top of her voice, or proposition strange men in the street? What a change from all those vacuous presenters with nothing between their ears! No, the appetite that Jennifer and Clarissa really satisy is for this: grown-up women behaving badly.

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