Clarissa Dickson Wright, the British-born former barrister and champion of rural life whose cookery, earthy humor, erudition and authorship earned respect in the food world, died March 15 in Edinburgh, Scotland. She was 66.
She was most famously the remaining co-star of “Two Fat Ladies,” a BBC television cooking show in which she and Jennifer Paterson, clad in leather caps and goggles, traveled in a vintage motorcycle and a sidecar to prepare and bestow a feast upon the inhabitants of abbeys, farmsteads and public schools in England and Scotland.
As she piquantly described it, the show was about “two fat old bats on a Triumph, traveling around the country and cooking.”
Although Ms. Dickson Wright had been in Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary since early this year, her death came after a sudden illness and its cause was not disclosed, said her friend and literary agent Heather Holden-Brown.
“She was a fantastic writer, extremely articulate, and an excellent food historian who absolutely knew her own mind,” said Holden-Brown, who worked with her since 2006. Ms. Dickson Wright wrote or co-wrote 16 books, including “A History of English Food” (2011).
“Two Fat Ladies” originally aired from 1996 to 1999, and was shown on the Food Network in the United States. (Reruns continue to draw viewers on the Cooking Channel.) Paterson died of cancer in 1999.
Her former TV cooking partner, Ms. Dickson Wright once recalled, “had the instant reactions and the naughtiness of a child. She wanted to be the woman in the circus ring with the spotlight on her, and in the end she was.”
Their plump, ambidextrous hands tamped down fish pies, shaped Christmas puddings and filleted the organic beef of Prince Charles’s farm at Highgrove — all in service of traditional English dishes. As they cooked, the ladies exchanged bits of culinary knowledge and philosophy. They were upper crust yet unpretentious, and reliably entertaining.
Ms. Dickson Wright, who made bluntly clear her preferences for luxe cooking heavy on creams and animal fats, directed her best-known bon mots at “manky little vegetarians.” She advised businessmen to cook as a way “to relax after the ghastly things they do in the city.”
Not to every critical taste, the show nonetheless prospered and drew millions of viewers. When the women toured the United States in 1998 to promote their show’s companion cookbook, they were feted like British royalty.
At the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, Ms. Dickson Wright chatted at length poolside with a “sweet handsome young man” who turned out to be actor Keanu Reeves. Alice Waters, the influential author and owner of Berkeley, Calif.’s Chez Panisse, took them to a farmers market, which inspired the “Two Fat Ladies” stars to get involved with a huge farmers market project in Britain.
Ms. Dickson Wright had, in her own words, “a splendidly enjoyable life” — an assessment she made at age 60 despite her own struggles with alcoholism, bankruptcy, disbarment and the death of a man whom she described as her “one real love.”
She was born Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright on June 24, 1947, in London, the youngest of four children to parents Arthur Dickson Wright, a renowned surgeon, and the former Molly Bath, an Australian heiress.
Her childhood was privileged but, she said, burdened by a father who became a violent alcoholic. He beat his wife and threw Clarissa against walls without provocation. Still, he recognized his daughter’s intellect and spent hours quizzing her with questions from TV game shows. She and her father shared a love of fine food, and he kept a constant supply of caviar on ice and had squab flown in from Cairo.
Eleven-year-old Clarissa was sent off to boarding school. Two years later, her father informed her that she should study medicine. She countered with her own intentions of becoming a lawyer, which enraged him so much that he refused to pay for her university education.
At 18, she lived at home while she studied law at University College London. At 21, she became one of the youngest female barristers in the country. Her father also left, freeing the mother and daughter from ongoing physical abuse. Her parents eventually divorced.
Molly Dickson Wright died unexpectedly at age 67. She left a sizable inheritance to Clarissa, then 25, who was devastated at the loss. She began drinking that very day and spent the next 10 years or so in a drunken haze, yachting in the Caribbean and draining all the money.
Back in England, she met a man she identifies in her autobiography only as Clive, a two-time divorcé and a fellow alcoholic. They partied hard. He died in 1982 of what appeared to be alcohol-related causes, sending her further into a downward spiral.
After a wretched time spent at a detox center, she took a series of domestic jobs, working as a home companion and a private cook. She relapsed, finally jolted into action after a bad fall.
At 40, Ms. Dickson Wright emerged sober from 10 weeks at an addiction treatment center. After months of clean living and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she happened upon a cookbook shop in Notting Hill whose owner was in need of someone to run it.
The Books for Cooks shop thrived during her seven-year stint there, and Ms. Dickson Wright credited the job with initiating her turnaround.
British TV producer Patricia Llewellyn met Ms. Dickson Wright while she was at Books for Cooks and filmed her cooking cardoons, a vegetable that Ms. Dickson Wright passionately loved. The experience, and Ms. Dickson Wright’s subsequent radio appearances, prompted Llewellyn to unite her and Paterson, barely acquainted, to star on “Two Fat Ladies.”
Ms. Dickson Wright, who is survived by two sisters, spent her post-TV years traveling and living a private existence in a coach house in Inveresk, Scotland. She spent nearly 27 years sober, yet kept a wine cellar for dinners with visiting friends. She cooked good, fresh, simple food for herself, happy to patronize the local butcher and fishmonger.
She called her 2010 autobiography “Spilling the Beans.”
Clarissa Dickson Wright, who has died aged 66, sprang to celebrity as the larger of the Two Fat Ladies in the astonishingly popular television series.
Clarissa Dickson Wright was a recovering alcoholic, running a bookshop for cooks in Edinburgh when the producer Patricia Llewellyn was inspired to pair her with the equally eccentric Jennifer Paterson, then a cook and columnist at The Spectator. The emphasis of the program was to be on “suets and tipsy cake rather than rocket salad and sun-dried tomatoes,” the producer declared. Hence bombastic tributes to such delights as cream cakes and animal fats were mingled with contemptuous references to “manky little vegetarians.”
Not all the reviews were kind. Victor Lewis Smith in the London Evening Standard referred to the ladies’ “uncompromising physical ugliness” and “thoroughly ugly personalities.” Another critic quipped: “Perhaps handguns shouldn’t be banned after all.” Most, though, became instant addicts and predicted future cult status. By 1996 the program was attracting 3.5 million viewers.
The Triumph motorbike and sidecar which sped the two fat ladies around the countryside might have appeared contrived (although Paterson was a keen biker), but their kitchen-sink comedy could never have been scripted. Clarissa Dickson Wright would come up with such lines as “look at those charming looking fellows” when describing scallops, and advise businessmen to come home and cook “to relax after the ghastly things they do in the City.”
Not content to confine themselves to the kitchen, the indomitable pair ventured out into the field, gathering mussels in Cornish drizzle—using their motorcycle helmets as pails—and perilously putting out to sea in a sliver of a boat to catch crabs.
Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmeralda Dickson Wright was born on June 24 1947, the youngest of four children. “My parents had great trouble deciding what to call me in the first place,” she explained about her abundant christening, “but then they were so delighted they had finally found a name, they got pissed on the way to the church.” To decide which name should come first, “they blindfolded my mother and turned her loose in the library, where she pulled out a copy of Richardson’s Clarissa.”
Her father, Arthur Dickson Wright, was a brilliant surgeon who was the first to extract a bullet from the spine without leaving the patient paralysed; he also pioneered the operation for stripping varicose veins and his patients included the Queen Mother, Vivien Leigh, and the Sultana of Jahore. He had met Clarissa’s mother, Molly, an Australian heiress, while working in Singapore.
Clarissa’s first memory was of eating a hard-boiled egg and a cold sausage on a picnic at Wisley at the age of three. Her father, though basically miserly, did not stint on household bills. He had pigeons flown in from Cairo and a fridge permanently full of caviar. Clarissa remembered consuming “deeply unhygienic but delicious” things wrapped in banana leaves.
When her parents entertained, Clarissa read recipes to the illiterate cook, Louise, who in turn would squabble with Clarissa’s mother about what they were going to serve. One day, Louise stood at the top of the stairs: “Madam,” she said, “if you make me cook that I’ll jump.” “If you don’t, Louise,” Mrs. Dickson Wright retorted, “you might as well.” (Clarissa also had memories from around this time of Cherie Booth “always doing her homework in school uniform in the middle of louche Hampstead parties—she was a swot.” Later she observed the budding union between Booth (“desperately needy”) and Tony Blair (“a poor sad thing with his guitar”). Later still she observed that the “wet, long-haired student” that she had known had been replaced by a man with “psychopath eyes. You know those dead eyes that look at you and try to work out what you want to hear?”
Clarissa’s father became a progressively violent alcoholic, so that when he came home “one would take cover.” He broke three of her ribs with an umbrella and on another occasion hit her with a red-hot poker. She later confessed to poring over botanical volumes in search of suitable poisons and scouring the woods for lethal mushrooms.
Boarding school proved a wonderful refuge. She then did a Law degree externally at London (her father refused to pay for her to go to Oxford unless she read Medicine) and was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1970. It was while she was at home studying for her Bar final that a letter arrived for her mother while the family was at breakfast. It turned out to be from her father, announcing divorce proceedings. After her father left the house Clarissa Dickson Wright never saw him again.
She was by then a regular pipe smoker, consuming two ounces of Gold Block a week. The first woman to practise at the Admiralty Bar, she received excellent notices from, among others, Lord Denning, and was elected to the Bar Council as a representative of young barristers.
Things started to go awry, though, when her parents died in quick succession in the mid-’70s—her mother in 1975, her father several months later. Her father left his entire £2 million fortune to his brother, explaining his decision in a caustic rider to his will. Clarissa’s mother, he wrote “never helped me and sought to alienate my children.” Clarissa’s sisters had married men either too old or too young, and her brother’s fault was to be “seeing Heather (one of Clarissa’s sisters) again.” As to his youngest daughter: “I leave no money to Clarissa, who was an afterthought and has twice caused me grievous bodily harm, and of whom I go in fear of my life.” The family contested the will to no avail.
It was Derby Day when Clarissa came home to find her mother dead. “It was a shock I quite simply couldn’t handle,” she recalled. She went to her boyfriend’s house and surprised everybody by pouring herself a large whisky: “I remember thinking ‘Why have I waited so long? I’ve come home.’ I felt this enormous sense of relief.”
Her “habit” soon consisted of two bottles of gin a day, and a bottle of vodka before she got out of bed. “Suddenly it was as if I’d done it,” she remembered of her consequent loss of ambition. “I could hear the eulogies at my memorial service in my head, so what was the point of actually going through the mechanics of doing it.” In 1980 she was charged with professional incompetence and practising without chambers; she was disbarred three years later.
Financially this presented no immediate hardship since her mother had left her a fortune. Yet by the age of 40, Clarissa Dickson Wright had blown it all on “yachts in the Caribbean, yachts in the Aegean, aeroplanes to the races—and drink.”
“If I’d had another £100,000,” she conceded, “I’d have been dead.”
At rock bottom she went to the DSS to ask for somewhere to live, only to be told: “We’re not here for the likes of you, you know. You’re upper class, you’ve got a Law degree.”
She began to cook in other people’s houses. “Of course it’s only the upper classes who will become domestic servants now,” she reflected. “Other people feel it demeans them.” One day, when preparing to cook for a house party, she was on her knees, cleaning the floor. “I looked up,” she remembered, “and said ‘Dear God, if you are up there, please do something.’” The next day she was arrested for refusing a breathalyser. “I was carted down the long drive just as the house party was coming up it. From then on, I was inexorably swept into recovery.” It took place at Robert Lefever’s Promise Recovery Centre at Nonington, not far from Canterbury. She retained an affection for Kent ever after.
Clarissa Dickson Wright owed her proportions to drinking six pints of tonic a day over 12 years, leading to “sticky blood” (a condition normally associated with people taking quinine tablets over a long period) and a very slow metabolism. Of the ungallant nature of the Two Fat Ladies title, she said, “Well there are two of us. I have a problem with ‘Ladies’ as it sounds like a public convenience. But which bit do you object to? Are you saying I’m thin?” Her size did not deter suitors. “I get more offers now than when I was slender,” she said. “Especially from Australians. They’re crazy about me.”
It could also be a formidable weapon. On Two Fat Ladies she was known as “Krakatoa” for her temper, and once put two would-be muggers in intensive care. “I didn’t go around beating people up,” she said, “but if people were aggressive to me, then I hit them.”
A knowledgeable food historian, she argued that the “use of anti-depressants is directly relatable to the decrease in use of animal fat (a stimulant of serotonin).” She did not own a television, but went across the road to watch the rugby. Her choice for Desert Island Discs ranged from “The Drinking Song” by Verdi to “Ra Ra Rasputin” by Boney M. The desert island of her imagination was “a Caribbean island during the cool season with lots of shellfish… and perhaps the odd hunky native that one could lure to the sound of music.”Following the success of Two Fat Ladies, Clarissa Dickson Wright was elected a rector of Aberdeen University and opened a restaurant in the grounds of the Duke of Hamilton’s 16th Century Lennoxlove House.
Then, after Jennifer Paterson died in 1999, Clarissa Dickson Wright presented the One Man And His Dog Christmas Special. She later went on to appear (from 2000 to 2003) in the series Clarissa and the Countryman, with Johnny Scott. It was remarkably un-PC, but the real reason for the fact that the BBC dropped her, she claimed, was that she was too pro-hunting.
Her support for the Countryside Alliance did see her plead guilty to attending a hare coursing event in 2007. She had thought it legal as the greyhounds were muzzled and the magistrate gave her an absolute discharge. “I did not get a criminal record for that,” she said. “I was quite looking forward to going to jail in Yorkshire and writing the prison cookbook. It would have been a rest.” In 2012 she again raised eyebrows when she suggested that badgers shot in any cull should be eaten. Badgers, she noted, were once a popular bar snack: “I would have no objection to eating badgers. I have no objection to eating anything very much, really.”
Her autobiography, Spilling the Beans (in which she claimed, among other things, that she once had sex behind the Speaker’s chair in Parliament) was published in 2007. That and other ventures such as the “engaging county-by-county ramble” Clarissa’s England (2012), and a return to the small screen (filming a three-part series for BBC Four on breakfast, lunch, and dinner) saw her finances steadily improve. One supermarket chain offered her an “awful lot of money” to promote it, but she could afford to turn it down. “I don’t regret it. I used to say that all I had left in life was my integrity and my cleavage. Now it’s just my integrity.”
Her faith was less well defined than her views on field sports. “I’m not a very good or compliant Catholic. I reserve my right to disagree. My ancestors fought with Cromwell. Other ancestors went with Guy Fawkes. So we’re bolshie on both sides.” She admitted attending Mass to “give thanks” and enjoyed AA meetings, describing them as “better than television.”
The love of her life was a Lloyd’s underwriter named Clive who died from a virus caught in Madeira. Latterly she said that she had a long-time admirer. “We are very companionable,” she noted. But they did not live together. “Heaven forfend! I don’t mind cooking his meals, but wash his socks? No.”
Reprinted from The Telegraph
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