Obituary: Jennifer Paterson

Andrew Barrow
Tuesday 10 August 1999 23:02

JENNIFER PATERSON was a newly-discovered national treasure and one of the most unlikely stars of the modern media circus.

It is hard to believe that the cookery programme Two Fat Ladies - each episode of which opened with Paterson and her co-presenter Clarissa Dickson Wright roaring into view on motor-bike and sidecar - first entered the national consciousness only three years ago. Several more series and international fame were to follow as the so-called "roly-poly" couple built up a huge following in America, Australia and across Europe. The delighted, tumultuous applause that greeted the Two Ronnies' Fat Ladies spoof at a recent Royal Variety Show showed how large a place Paterson and Dickson Wright had won in the public's heart.

Part of the joy of Two Fat Ladies lies in its incorrectness on all levels. Both presenters were militantly anti-vegetarian and anti-slimming. In the cookbook that accompanied the first series, 19 recipes - or receipts as Paterson insisted calling them - featured cream or double cream. Butter was equally generously employed and many dishes were accompanied by fried bread.

Even from a hygienic angle, the programme excited controversy. The sight of Paterson's be-ringed fingers and luridly painted fingernails digging into bowls of uncooked ingredients disconcerted viewers accustomed to more whimsy-mimsy presenters and the more tiresome refinements of modern cuisine.

Perhaps, above all, it was the posh and privileged voices of the two ladies, never mind their generous figures, that created such a stir. In lively but not always good-tempered on-screen exchanges, there were passing swipes at the "disgrace" of supermarket fish, "revolting" public house scotch eggs and other modern horrors. Precise quantities were often replaced by a phrase like "generous slurp" and words like "ravishing", "heavenly" and "delectable" flew about in the charmingly obscure locations where they were seen slaving over a hot stove. Occasional tension between the talkative pair and unfounded rumours of off-stage disharmony added an extra frisson.

The credit for putting together the effervescent, hard-drinking Paterson, already 68 years old, together with the younger but even broader reformed alcoholic and former barrister Clarissa Dickson Wright must go to the television producer Patricia Llewellyn. Neither lady knew each other though both were well-established in culinary and social circles. Dickson Wright had run a cookery bookshop in Notting Hill, west London, now relocated in Edinburgh, and Paterson had for many years cooked a weekly lunch at the Spectator office in Doughty Street.

Jennifer Paterson was a self-taught cook and self-invented personality long before she appeared on television. Born in 1928, in a nursing home in Redcliffe Gardens, South Kensington, she spent her earliest years in China where she remembered being given "delicious titbits" by her Chinese nanny and being permitted to concoct "little messes" which were put in the oven for her. "My greatest treat," she recalled, "was to be brought up a little snipe to crunch."

Paterson's father, Robert, served in the Seaforth Highlanders in both world wars. His Far East posting with the Asiatic Petroleum Co was his only civilian job. He played the cello and flute and wrote full orchestral works, none of which were ever performed. On her mother's side, Paterson had two distinguished uncles: Monsignor Francis Bartlett served as senior priest at Westminster Cathedral and Anthony ran the artists' material shop near Buckingham Palace.

In the early 1930s, the Patersons returned from China and took a house at Rye, across the road from the writer Radclyffe Hall, who gave their infant daughter "a sweet little carpet-sweeper". Little Jennifer's education began at the nearby Assumption Convent in Ramsgate, where the food was "exceptionally good" but her behaviour was not. She was punished by being made to eat at a table with screens round it and then by expulsion. "They said if I left, the school might settle down."

Paterson always wanted to be an actress but did not fulfil this ambition until years later when she appeared as Lady Bracknell in a stylish amateur production arranged by an Anglican vicar in Chelsea. She was also to work as an extra on Derek Jarman's Caravaggio (1986), but all this was in the future. As a teenager, she went to Kingston Art School, acquiring a skill with the pencil she was rarely to use in adult life.

Instead she hovered on the edge of artistic circles working in 1944 as an assistant stage manager at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, during a production of The Ghost Train, and then made friends with Truman Capote, whom she encountered underwater in Sicily. For some months she worked on the London Mystery Magazine. A more down-to-earth posting was as resident matron at Padworth College in Berkshire.

During the early 1950s, she met the television performer Jonathan Routh and worked backstage on his early Candid Camera programmes. In his Good Loo Guide (1965), "Miss Jennifer Paterson" is credited with personally recommending the Gents at Scotts Restaurant in Coventry Street. She pronounced it "a place where gentlefolk may really feel at home".

It was at Routh's Sloane Street flat in 1973 that Paterson threw her notorious 45th birthday party. The event was attended by innumerable clergy and finally raided by the police, inspiring the hostess to cry out, "Here are the fuzz! Have some fizz!" Also present was Routh's girl-friend, the misunderstood millionairess Olga Deterding. She and the penniless Paterson became staunch friends and Paterson ministered to the heiress when Routh left her.

During the late 1970s, when Deterding began entertaining again in her triplex apartment overlooking Green Park, Paterson acted as master of ceremonies and facetiously suggested that she and Deterding should live together and become "the most famous lesbian couple in London".

By this time, Jennifer Paterson, dark hair swept back into a tight bun, had become fully established as a London character, whizzing around on a motor-bike, and seen and heard at all the best parties. Sometimes drunk, never disorderly, she was always a force to be reckoned with. Meeting the newly installed Cardinal Basil Hume on the Carlisle train, she offered him a gin and tonic. "Are you two together?" asked the steward when the offer was accepted.

For many years, Paterson enjoyed her reputation as a "fag hag" and even recommended her unmarried television producer Patricia Llewellyn to find herself "a nice poof". She was a regular at the Colony Room Club in Soho and served on the committee of the even loucher Rockingham Club. In modern times, she complained that the glamour went out of homosexuality "when they made it legal", adding, "Anyway, sex is only an excuse for cuddling". Of her own spinster status she declared. "I enjoy it more and more, especially the more I see of unhappy married couples."

Until the last years of her life, Paterson remained seriously impoverished, living in any number of places, frequently out of a suitcase. For a while, she resided in an Eaton Square penthouse loaned by the elderly Violet, Duchess of Westminster. Some of the duchess's costume jewellery had already been used to adorn one of Paterson's motorbike helmets.

Paterson's eccentricity was underpinned by innate goodness, devout Catholicism and an almost enfant terrible innocence. She ministered loyally to friends who were ill, appearing at their bedsides with "ramekins of this and that". To Jeffrey Bernard in hospital she brought ice for his vodka and when the artist Patrick Procktor was struck down with a burst stomach ulcer, she materialised with an asparagus mousse.

Though regarded by A.N. Wilson and others as the best cook in England, her career as a professional cook was not fully launched until May 1977, when she began 11 golden years presiding over the Spectator lunch, bobbing to and fro between kitchen and dining room and constantly surprising staff and their star guests with her unbridled merriment. "Who is the quaint little person in the kitchen?" asked a bemused Barry Humphries and when Enoch Powell began holding forth on one of his most solemn themes, Paterson came up, ruffled the politician's hair and said "Coochie-coochie-coo!"

Her finest hour at The Spectator was in December 1986 when the Prince of Wales was guest of honour. "Don't do anything controversial" she was told but went ahead and served raw halibut and guinea fowl on a bed of finely sliced trinity and was rewarded by two visits to the kitchen from the heir to the throne, whom she addressed as "Your Majesty".

In 1988, her reign at Doughty Street ended on a sensational note when she arrived one Wednesday to find half the cutlery missing and the kitchen in a disgusting state. In a most uncharacteristic tantrum, she began hurling dirty plates out of the window. "My kitchen is inviolate," she explained, "I can't stand people mucking about in it." A shouting match followed on the staircase with the then editor Charles Moore, and ended with Paterson being sacked. "And like all good cooks she went" never to serve another meal at that illustrious address though she continued to write for the magazine and her first cookery book Feast Days (1990) was a compilation of her witty Spectator contributions.

Television brought Paterson's exuberantly wayward personality and succulent recipes to an audience of millions but her feet remained firmly on the ground. Sometimes protesting that fame had come too late to be fully indulged, she remained a regular attender each Sunday at the Brompton Oratory and every day during Lent, when she also gave up drink.

She remained an upholder of certain traditional values, mildly shocked by some of her co-presenter's jokes, though her own conversation could be pungent. "My good man," she once rebuked a stranger. "I'll shout at whoever I like!" Such unabashed buoyancy was a reflection of her unquenchable appetite for life, fun and naughtiness.

Occasionally, over the last 40-odd years Jennifer Paterson came to cook, writes Anthony Blond. She arrived on her scooter, with white helmet emblazoned with glittering false eyebrows, and the food. Soon the sound of music from the basement - arias in a deep bass voice - indicated that Jennifer was at work. All she needed was whisky and attention - a lot of both - and a scrupulously small fee. Then she wobbled off into the night back to the dusty apartment shared with her mother and uncle, in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral.

Her faith encompassed her and she it. She could rustle up a saint for every dilemma and was a canonical expert on which one for what. She recommended St Rita for the recovery of lost objects and St Joseph - much underrated in her view - for general purposes.

She engineered and enjoyed more fun than anyone I have ever known, her own laugh being Hanoverian, seismic and unstoppable, but she could be difficult, argumentative, demanding and censorious. (She was never dull.) She was a rolling stone, like a character out of Fielding, and certainly never paused to gather moss.

She was once briefly housekeeper to a Ugandan diplomat, but disapproved of his habit of dragging back what she called, to his face, "white trash". She wouldn't enter his room if she suspected an alien presence, but banged on his door and announced in her stentorian voice "your eggy's ready now Mr Ruanda".

When she was already known at The Spectator, I wrote to Naim Attallah suggesting we commission her, "a Catholic spinster of this parish who should come cheap and might one day become a star", to write for us. A copy of this letter, unkind but not inaccurate, was sent inadvertently (?) to Jennifer, who showed no resentment but simply rang up to say she had found a much better publisher, so sucks (she had, too, John Murray).

Fame and fortune did not distort by a scintilla the integrity and persona of Jennifer Paterson. She never spent money when she had none and did not need to when she had a lot. Cheques for five-figure sums were stuffed into her handbag along with the (fatal) Woodbines. She remained until her dying day, on and off the screen, the same, an original, honourable, brilliantly performing human being. Perhaps her estate will be worth enough for her friends to lobby for her canonisation.

Jennifer Mary Paterson, cook, writer and television presenter: born London 3 April 1928; died London 10 August 1999.

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