OBITUARY: Fanny Cradock
Thursday 29 December 1994
Fanny Cradock was a preposterous character, the foodie you loved to loathe. With her monocled husband Johnny, both of them dressed for going to a ball, rather than working in a kitchen, the pair delighted and astonished television audiences in hundreds of early cookery programmes, starting in 1955. In Kitchen Magic they put on airs as they demonstrated souffles and eclairs. It was not a parody, however, but Fanny and Johnny's genuine idea of how our social betters wined and dined.
In a mocked-up studio kitchen, Fanny, with a pinny over her evening gown, kept up a constant flow of chatter, quite often disparaging Johnny's knowledge of food, while she busied her hands in the flour-jar. Johnny (in his dinner-jacket), whose knowledge of wine originally began and ended with Barsac, showed he had learnt a little something about wine, but accepted his wife's chastisement on matters culinary. Rationing had just ended and viewers adored the performance.
Fanny always claimed that she was born to the bon viveur classes. The vulgar title the Cradocks used for their cookery and restaurant columns in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, "Bon Viveur", is a mid-19th- century expression for one who lives a life of luxury, and was chosen over the protests of the women's editor of the Telegraph, who pointed out that the correct expression was bon vivant, "gourmand". Fanny's common touch paid off: in a later dispute with the Telegraph, she cited the earlier argument, and they ceded copyright in the title to her. Though she was contemporary with Elizabeth David, she had litle in common with the high priestess of post-war food; rather, Fanny Cradock was the Lady Docker of food.
The gossip columns of the late Fifties and Sixties regaled readers with tales of Fanny's champagne breakfasts, her cabin cruiser moored near Cannes, her fines for careless driving of her Rolls Royce and her two days spent interviewing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (and Fanny's and John's surprise that the Duchess did not mention a single one "of France's 11 top-ranking three-star restaurants".) Her rudeness and churlishness were renowned.
Born in 1909, she was christened Phyllis Primrose-Pechey (though, when aged 75, she was reported as giving her real name in Chelmsford Crown Court as "Phyllis Nan Sortain Cradock"). She always said that her father was a wealthy gambler in his thirties when he married her mother, then a flighty teenaged beauty. The parents spent the winter season in Nice, and while the father lost the family fortune in the casino, the mother was being wooed by admirers who would give the young Phyllis some money as a bribe to leave them alone.
She claimed that her introduction to cookery came about because she used to make her way to the hotel kitchens and sit on a shelf, watching the chef perform. Her other kitchen experience was gained from the grandmother who cared for her until she was 10.
Phyllis followed in her mother's footsteps and eloped at 16 with an RAF pilot, but she said that he died in a crash four months later, while she was pregnant with her first son, Peter (who now lives in Nairobi; another son, Christopher, runs an inn in Exmouth). It was often said that she had a second marriage, but she divorced this unnamed husband and never mentioned him, though sometimes she said that she had had a son by this marriage.
Shortly after her first marriage, her father went bust, bankrupted, she said, by her mother's extravagance. She was poor herself then, a young widow who said she had supported her child by selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, until she became a court dressmaker. This business failed when war broke out.
In 1939 at a troop concert on the Hackney Marshes, she met the old Harrovian Major John Cradock, whose father had a woollen business. He joined Fanny as a full-time partner in "Bon Viveur" in 1952. Following their success they lived in a house in Blackheath, in south London, which they encouraged gossip columnists to refer to as "Hollywood-style". There they gave gigantic private parties, and cashing in on their television fame ("popularity" was never quite the right word for Fanny's and Johnn y's appeal), they travelled the country doing public cookery demonstrations for the Gas Council. In fact, they moved house a lot. They were burgled repeatedly at Little Benfleet, near Clacton, Essex, and lived for a time in the Channel Islands and in the West Country.
Neither Fanny nor Johnny ever revealed their ages. It was once reported that they were not married until 1977, only 10 years before Johnny's death in 1987 (aged 82). It was not easy to get the facts about the Cradocks straight: the couple used to menace interviewers by threatening them, "Misquote and we'll sue." She used to give the credit to Johnny for encouraging her to write - nine novels under the pen name "Frances Dale", plus 11 children's books and journalism as well as many cookery books. In fact, she longed to be a journalist, and later confessed that she "had applied to the Daily Express for 18 years and got no answer".
I cherish a 1959 volume called Wining and Dining in France with Bon Viveur, which contains the Cradocks' extraordinary advice on how to choose a restaurant. It begins, "Avoid establishments hemmed in by a fringe of mouth-organ motor-cars from the U.S.A."and continues, "Pay absolutely no attention whatever to motoring organisation symbols of recommendation. . . Never expect to eat and drink really well where there is a sign out `diner-dansant'! Eat first, dance afterwards and get the best out of both."
The Cradocks' secret was the snobbery and pretension of the times. In the post-war era they made their hungry, servantless readers and viewers feel they still belonged to an elite. They chided their readers to "stop fussing about those confounded lavatories. Use the pedals or the privies without complaint. Some of France's most primitive establishments provide some of France's most memorable meals."
As for the food itself: "It is ridiculously simple to make a good souffle. It is monstrously hard to roast a gigot of lamb to perfection, to cook a proper piece of calf's liver (which no English butcher has yet learned how to cut) . . . it is impossible to find a real potato salad in the British Isles (except in a few private houses of course)."
This is what the Cradocks' audience wanted to hear - that and the abuse Fanny heaped upon the heads of everyone from her fellow television presenters to Margaret Thatcher (she "wears cheap shoes and clothes"). It was a far cry from the foodie revolution of the 1980s.
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