It’s not every day you get to interview one of the world’s top six biking icons. Who was also voted one of ‘1000 people nastier than Mick Hucknall’. I asked Clarissa Dickson-Wright “Are you missing your Fat Lady friend?” “It sounds awful to say ‘no’ but because we were only together for filming I don’t really think she’s gone. I’m quite certain Jennifer’s sat up there with her bike propped up against a cloud, chain-smoking cigarettes while teaching the heavenly choirs how to sing jazz.”
Was it true that Clarissa was the youngest woman ever to qualify for the Bar? “I think I still am. My father wouldn’t pay for me to go to Oxford unless I read medicine which I didn’t want to so I stayed at home and read law at University College. Largely because I hated my father and my father hated lawyers.
“I’d never cooked anything until I was 21. We always had servants and we had this wonderful cook who was illiterate and had no desire to learn to read at all. My mother was deeply embarrassed that cook couldn’t read. But she had the most amazing memory. If you wanted cook to learn a new recipe you read it to her and if it was terribly complicated you read it to her twice. She and my mother had a great working relationship and because my father was very prominent in the medical world we entertained a good deal. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen because I loved food. When I was 21 my father went off his head and left home and my mother said ‘Now we can have some really jolly parties but there’s no one to cook.’ I said ‘Well I expect I can cook’ and I could. It’s a natural talent – like some people can sing or paint.”
I was beginning to enjoy myself. This was one witty, funny, interesting lady, fat or otherwise. Something she said struck a chord for I myself gave up the legal profession. “So…” I ventured. “What was the bridge between law and cooking on TV?”
“My life only makes sense if you know I’m an alcoholic.” (Clarissa is very upfront about her drinking.) “Well I was a very public drunk wasn’t I? Nobody says ‘Good heavens, Clarissa, you weren’t an alcoholic!’ Everyone says ‘Dear God, I thought you were dead!’ if they haven’t seen me for a bit.
“My mother died and left me an obscene amount of money. I went round the world to sort out her affairs and, it was an extraordinary thing, all ambition left me. But I fell into cooking by accident. I was visiting a friend who was cooking on a charter yacht in the West Indies. Her father died back in England and she asked me to take over. When I eventually got back to London I found I’d inherited, as a bad debt, a drinking club in St James’s. What my infinitely respectable mother was doing lending money to this old girl with a drinking club I’ve never managed to find out. I saw myself as one of the last drinking club queens of London, sitting on my bar stool, swinging my legs, with people buying me drinks until I fell off. I was thirty, not quite a society beauty but not bad looking and I must say, quite sought after. Because I don’t like things that don’t work and because there was nowhere to eat in the area I changed the hours, gave group membership to Christie’s and The Economist and started serving food between twelve and six. I didn’t actually need to make money at first, I was still rich. But then the looks went, the money went, the lovers stopped coming and it just became a hard grind. Eventually it all got too much of an effort and … I got sober.
Her life seems a series of jump cuts. “How did you get the role in ‘Fat Ladies’?”, “I owe it all to the cardoon. Do you know what a cardoon is?” “An edible thistle,” I ventured. Clarissa claps her hands, in schoolgirl fashion. “Hooray, well done, so few people do. It’s a barely edible thistle. I had this mad obsession. I decided I owed it to the British nation to restore it to the cardoon. Pat Llewellyn was making Sophie Grigson’s Eat Your Greens at the time and somebody said “Have you seen Clarissa’s cardoons?” They were grown by an admirer in a field in Chapel St Leonard, near Skegness. Do you know Skegness?” I knew the town only from ancient railway posters proclaiming ‘Skegness is So Bracing’ and from ribald postcards mailed from Butlins by racy aunts. “Exactly. Pat arrived and demanded ‘Thrill me with your cardoons.’ I must have done because she said. ‘Ooh you’re really good at this television lark, we must do something else.’ Much later she met Jennifer over lunch and watched her ride off on her motorbike. Pat had what she described as ‘a vision,’ which she’d sold to the BBC. I’d only met Jennifer Patterson once, at a lunch party in Tuscany. I think the BBC thought we’d fight, thought that was the dynamic. But the minute they put us together it was us against the rest. There was this hooligan element. Do you remember the episode where we changed places? We were doing about five miles an hour then I accelerated away and whooped ‘Look, we’re doing the ton already!’ Of course we weren’t but the BBC felt they had to delete the line. I don’t think Triumph ever forgave us. Here was their new superbike, a more powerful version of the one Marlon Brando rode in The Wild Ones and we borrowed it and went cooking.”
I’d read an American review of Two Fat Ladies describing it as ‘heavy on humour and calories’. Was that the reason for its success?
“I think it was. You know sales of butter and cream went up 19% during the series and the pundits attributed it almost entirely to us.”
“And you advocated lard?”
“Lard and beef dripping are the two fats that you can actually heat so high that you seal the food through immediately. The best fish and chips to my mind is the kind that’s cooked in beef dripping.”
Whatever upsetting dieticians and cardiac surgeons, Clarissa has been the focus of much hostility (viz. the ‘nastier than Mick Hucknall’ web poll) over her high profile ‘Face of the Countryside’ role, in particular for her support of foxhunting. “I’m number three on the antis’ death list. I have all my post checked by Special Branch. In the early days of Clarissa and The Countryman one of the antis got hold of a copy of the BBC schedules. So this well orchestrated chorus of protestors rang up while the programme was on, screaming about all this terrible cruelty to animals. They didn’t realise the North Lonsdale Foxhounds episode had been put back. On screen, I was actually in The Scilly Isles cooking a lobster!”
Hates? “BBC humour. In one episode we were fly-fishing one of the best beats on the Tamar. They wanted me to come down the river in a pedalo, waving a minnow shouting ‘Yoo-hoo, look what I’ve caught. How silly.”
Thirty years a fisherman myself, I have qualms about killing things I don’t eat. “Why don’t we eat foxes?” I demanded. “Foxes kill things that we eat, that’s why we kill foxes. We don’t eat them because carnivores aren’t good to eat. With the possible exception of man – although man’s an omnivore. When I was ten I saw a picture in National Geographic of a native chief holding up a fork. In the article he laments ‘Nothing tastes as good now they don’t allow us to eat ‘long pig’.” Our eyes met and I had an alarming mental picture of being roasted on a spit, pan beneath to catch the dripping. I changed the subject. “Does success bring its own problems?” “Yes. There’s nowhere in the world where I can go without being recognised. It’s a good job I have no secret vices any more.”
Last meal on earth? “The day they hang me I shall have a wing rib of beef – with the bone in. “
Two Fat Ladies was the most successful cookery programme ever, capturing 70 million viewers, dubbed into 14 languages and subtitled into another eleven, including Inuit. If Pat Llewellyn (who also discovered Jamie Oliver) is reading this article I have a deadly idea for her next culinary extravaganza. Provisional working title is: ‘The Fat Lady and The Bald Geezer’. I’d be happy to sit in the sidecar.