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Clement Freud, food critic and wit, dies at 84

Stephen Fry leads the tributes to the deadpan radio broadcaster

Sir Clement Freud, the distinguished bon viveur, humourist, gastronome and former Liberal MP who gave a speech calling on the House of Commons to serve finer wine, has died nine days short of his 85th birthday.

A grandson of psychiatry's founding father, Sigmund Freud, and the estranged brother of the artist Lucian Freud, Sir Clement became almost as celebrated throughout his life thanks to an array of careers that ranged from soldier and restaurateur to journalist, politician, radio broadcaster and self-parodying dog food marketer.

A statement released by his family said he had died at his desk in north London on Wednesday evening. Friends and colleagues yesterday paid tribute to one of British comedy's driest intellectual wits. Only two weeks ago Sir Clement had recorded his last session of Just A Minute, the BBC Radio 4 show which he joined in 1967, where panellists compete to see who can talk for the longest time without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Stephen Fry, his fellow Just A Minute panellist, led the tributes yesterday, praising the 84-year-old's "raffishness".

"I was lucky enough to do a couple of Just A Minute and I became immensely fond of him," Fry said. "I was at first very afraid of him. A lot of people were. There were stories that he was immensely grouchy, he was rude sometimes to people who asked for autographs. I never experienced that side of him at all. And another element to him which perhaps should not go unmentioned is his raffishness, if you like, his air of disreputability."

Sir Clement became a household name in the 1960s when he appeared, in a typically deadpan manner, advertising Chunky Meat Minced Morsels dog food alongside a bloodhound. At the time he was a fêted food critic and Fleet Street's highest-paid journalist. But he agreed to the self-parodying adverts on the condition that he was paid the same salary as prime minister Harold Wilson.

Born into an already-famous Jewish family in Berlin, he came to Britain with his brother Lucian in 1933 to escape Nazi persecution "before the habit caught on". He barely spoke English but quickly adopted his new country, serving in the Army as a liaison officer during the Nuremberg trials.

Sir Clement returned from the Second World War to open the Royal Court Theatre Club in Soho before breaking into journalism, first as a sports writer and then as a food critic. In 1973 he turned to politics, gaining Isle of Ely for the Liberal party. No one was more surprised than Sir Clement, who bet £1,000 on himself at 33-1 odds.

He remained in Parliament for 15 years but returned to writing and radio after losing his seat in 1987. He leaves his wife Jill and five children, including the PR Matthew Freud and the broadcaster Emma Freud. His funeral will be held next week.

In his own words

* On measuring the height of a building using a barometer: "I would enter the building and find the janitor. Then I would say to the janitor: 'If you tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.'"

* On receiving new titanium and plastic knees: "Regardless of the surgeon's promise that I would be able to dance the tango by Remembrance Day, I am still pretty lame. When propositioned recently by a woman to 'come upstairs and make love', I had to explain that it was one or the other."

* On denying yourself life's luxuries: "If you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving, you don't actually live longer; it just seems longer."

* On his grandfather Sigmund Freud: "He was to me not famous, but to me a good grandfather in that he didn't forget my birthday."

* On the police: "I think our police are excellent, probably because I have not done anything that has occasioned being beaten up by these good men."

* On being cheeky: "Cheek is when someone of diminished responsibility goes to the BBC and elects to be chairman of a panel game on the basis that he might have some idea of how to control people whose... words he doesn't understand."

* Comedian and writer Tony Hawks, who worked with Sir Clement: "Through his great intellect he would always bring out the best in you, because you sometimes would think 'Who's doing the show?' and when you knew it was Clement, you thought 'Oh, I'd better be on tip-top form'."

* Stephen Fry, who was a fellow contestant on Just A Minute: "There were stories that he was immensely grouchy, he was rude sometimes to people who asked for autographs. I never experienced that side of him. An element to him which should not go unmentioned is his raffishness, if you like, his air of disreputability. He, during the 1950s and 1960s, was a real Soho figure, he knew all the girls of easy virtue, he knew the pimps and, of course, the restaurateurs, which is where he learnt his business as a chef."

* Mark Damazer, BBC Radio 4 controller: "He had style and he had content. Call it what you will – dry, lugubrious, droll, deadpan – it was a unique way of dealing with the show's inherent verbal challenges."

* Gordon Brown: "I first met Sir Clement more than 30 years ago when he was rector of Dundee University and I was rector of the University of Edinburgh. I was proud to have known him and the whole country should recognise the achievements in his life."