Clarissa Dickson Wright: Broadcaster, cook and former barrister who found worldwide fame as one of television's 'Two Fat Ladies'

 

A former barrister who gave up practising as a result of her alcoholism, Clarissa Dickson Wright became, with Jennifer Paterson, half of the Two Fat Ladies, a pair of cooks teamed up for a television series in which they travelled Britain – Paterson on a Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle, with Dickson Wright in the double-width sidecar.

Over four series (1996-99), Two Fat Ladies gained a cult following as the duo visited various locations – from an Army garrison to an all-girls' school – and prepared strong-flavoured meals with little regard for modern rules of healthy eating and a disdain for vegetarians. Nevertheless, they advocated the use of fresh ingredients bought from farms and roadside markets in preference to supermarkets. In another slap in the face to political correctness, Paterson was often seen ending episodes by smoking a cigarette and drinking alcohol. This sometimes brought mention of the fact that, as a recovering alcoholic, Dickson Wright no longer drank.

But the recipes became almost secondary to the eccentric pair's anecdotes, which frequently drew on tales from their well-connected families. Sometimes the banter would take place in locations such as Westminster Cathedral, where Paterson's uncle was a senior aide to the Archbishop of Westminster.

Dickson Wright, right, with her fellow 'Fat Lady', Jennifer Paterson; the programme ended when Paterson died in 1999 Dickson Wright, right, with her fellow 'Fat Lady', Jennifer Paterson; the programme ended when Paterson died in 1999 (PA) The duo, a precursor to the Hairy Bikers, sang the theme song and their fame spread to the US, where Saturday Night Live parodied the programme, with Brendan Fraser and Darrell Hammond cooking dishes sautéed in pure buttermilk. Dickson Wright's position in popular culture was further enhanced by a guest role as herself in the "Huntin' Shootin' Fishin'" episode of Absolutely Fabulous (2003).

Known to film crews as "Krakatoa", she was the outspoken member of the pair and continued being outrageous long after the death of Paterson in 1999. She once called fellow television chef Jamie Oliver a "whore" as the face of Sainsbury's, following criticism of a salmon farm he visited for one of the supermarket's commercials. Another time, she described Gordon Brown as "that foul man".

Dickson Wright was born in London in 1947, the youngest of four children in a Roman Catholic family with servants. Her father, Arthur, was a surgeon to the Royal Family and her mother, Molly, an Australian heiress. The comedian Alexander Armstrong was a cousin. During her childhood, her alcoholic father was violent towards her mother and herself.

After attending the Sacred Heart School, in Hove, East Sussex, Dickson Wright studied for the Bar at Gray's Inn and took a law degree at University College, London. In 1968 she became the country's youngest barrister, at 21. "I was blonde and skinny with great legs – though I say so myself," she told The Spectator in 2007. "We all had tremendous fun. I had sex with an MP behind the Speaker's chair in the House of Commons"

By then, her father had left her mother, who died of a heart attack in 1975. Dickson Wright drank away her £2,800,000 inheritance over the next 12 years and was asked to leave her chambers as a result of her frequent absences. Later, she was disbarred for practising without chambers.

She continued to spend her fortune travelling the world then in 1979 took a job as a cook at a drinking club in St James's Place, London. Later, she became cook-housekeeper for a Sussex family but was fired because of her alcoholism. After being charged with drink-driving, Dickson Wright attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and spent 10 weeks at the Promis rehabilitation clinic, in Kent.

In 1987 she began running the Books for Cooks shop and café in Portobello Road, London. When, seven years later, the owner sold it, she managed the Cooks Bookshop in Edinburgh.

While cooking for a Tuscany lunch party in 1992, Dickson Wright had met Jennifer Paterson, The Spectator's boardroom cook and food writer, who wanted to discuss her use of a wood-fired pizza oven. Two years later, a television producer, Patricia Llewellyn – who had made Sophie Grigson's 1993 series Eat Your Greens, which featured Dickson Wright's screen début – paired them up for the pilot of Two Fat Ladies. "Frankly, I couldn't see the BBC powers going for a show with two virulently anti-politically correct, middle-aged women," said Dickson Wright.

Following Paterson's death, she teamed up with her Berwickshire hill farmer friend Johnny Scott to tour rural Britain in Clarissa and the Countryman (2000-2003) and hosted several One Man and His Dog specials (2000-02).

She filed for bankruptcy in 2003, owing more than £90,000 and blaming two failed business ventures, as well as the BBC, which she claimed "dithered" over committing to a further series of Clarissa and the Countryman, leading her to turn down other work. Her catering business, Clarissa's Company, set up in 1998, had closed after three years when it lost the contract to run the café at Lennoxlove House, East Lothian, family seat of the Duke of Hamilton. Its replacement, R17, which ran the Parachute Café at the Museum of Flight, near East Fortune, East Lothian, folded a year later.

Dickson Wright returned to television in guest roles, then as a presenter, with Adam Hart-Davis, Victoria Coren and Mark Ravenhill, of Balderdash & Piffle (2006), a series exploring the histories behind peculiar words and phrases. In 2012 she was sole host of Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, investigating the origins of these daily meals. In 2009, Dickson Wright – a fervent campaigner for the Countryside Alliance – and the racehorse trainer Mark Prescott received an absolute discharge after pleading guilty in a private prosecution to attending two hare coursing events in Yorkshire two years earlier but believing them to be legal because the dogs were muzzled.

Her autobiography, Spilling the Beans, was published in 2007. As well as writing four Two Fat Ladies cookbooks with Paterson, Dickson Wright was author of The Haggis: A History (1996), Hieland Foodie (1997), A Greener Life (2005), Clarissa's Comfort Food (2008), Rifling Through My Drawers (2009), Potty! Clarissa's One Pot Cookbook (2010) and Clarissa's England: A Gamely Gallop Through the English Counties (2012).

She was the first female rector of Aberdeen University (1999-2005). She never married, although had a relationship for several years with a Lloyds underwriter who died, aged 49, after contracting a virus from swimming in the sea in Madeira.

 

Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmeralda Dickson Wright, television presenter, cook and barrister: born London 24 June 1947; died Edinburgh 15 March 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk