British Eccentrics: Fannying About With Food

Great Britain

Fanny Cradock (real name Phyllis Nan Sortain ‘Primrose’ Pechey) was primarily a live performer. Her parents, Bijou and Archibald, were usually bankrupt so Fanny tried various menial jobs before entering the restaurant trade, hailing Escoffier as a saviour of British cookery  She and her monocle-wearing Major Johnny ran a Daily Telegraph column (where they probably appeared quite normal) before they started turning theatres into restaurants.

In the early 50’s, Fanny would come onstage and cook vast dishes that would then be served to the audience (at this time there were hardly any houses with TV, remember). She was soon feeding hundreds of people each show. She and the Major became famous for an appalling-looking roast turkey, complete with stuffed head, tail feathers and wings. With fake French accents, they performed as a drunken hen-pecked husband and domineering wife.

Fanny came over as a monster, snapping her fingers in the faces of assistants, nagging Johnny, smashing around her pots and pans, chucking white sugar and pounds of butter over everything. As she aged she painted her eyebrows further and further up her forehead, somehow managing to look like a cross between Danny La Rue and Boris Karloff.

The public loved her, partly because she seemed to care about what she was spending (she was always saying ‘This won’t break your budget’ and being mindful of her audience, albeit in a haughty way) but her food was hideously garish (she was too fond of vegetable dyes and shoving cocktail sticks through maraschino cherries). She continued on TV and at live events right through Johnny’s heart attack and a variety of terrified assistants, also finding time to write awful romantic novels, until disaster finally struck.

In 1976 a housewife living in Devon won the Cook of the Realm competition, leading to the BBC selecting her to organise a banquet attended by key political figures. The BBC filmed Fanny advising on the menu. Cradock fake-vomited at the selection and humiliated the housewife on live television, telling her, ‘You’re among professionals now, dear.’

The public instantly turned on her. Fanny wrote a letter of apology but her contract was cancelled, the public felt betrayed and she was forced to retire. She was quite clearly a horrible human being (she walked off set after discovering that Danny La Rue was a drag queen) but her cooking was influential. Because she also worked for the British Gas Council she only promoted gas ovens, which was why my mother refused to have an electric hob. Here she is doing something disgusting with Christmas leftovers.


14 comments on “British Eccentrics: Fannying About With Food”

  1. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘ somehow managing to look like a cross between Danny La Rue and Boris Karloff.’

    Very accurate, and a potentially terrifying thought, if it weren’t for that mincemeat omelette, which might give me nightmares.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    What-you mean she actually CHOSE Fanny as her name?

    I suppose you all know about the brilliant 2006 bio-pic “Fear of Fanny” starring Julia Davis as Fanny and Mark Gatiss as Johnny?

  3. Brian Evans says:

    BTW, if you are from USA, fanny in UK is slang for a ladie’s front bottom, not bottom bottom. If you catch my drift. Ahem.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, those innocent eggs! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I am so glad I’d never seen this person before and with luck I’ll forget I ever saw her now. Think I’ll go back to Canada vs USA at the World Junior hockey tournament. (It’s Boxing Day after all.)

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    She was quite different from Percy Thrower and Barry Bucknell, who were doing similar work for gardening and DIY, Mortimer Wheeler and dear old Arthur Nexus, the original antique furniture guru and almost certainly an associate of Arthur Bryant. Is it something about cooking on TV?

  6. Brooke says:

    ” Is it something about cooking on TV?” Perhaps it’ something about the type of women cooking on TV. First learned of Ms. Cradock in a Clarissa (Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda) Dickson Wright TV cooking show when DW, looking very hefty, showed a film clip of Fanny, accusing her of ruining British cooking. Believe Cradock was also satirized in episode of New Tricks.

    And CDW and colleague in cooking crimes, Jennifer Paterson, put together some frightening menus on their cooking show, e.g. razor clams with bacon, followed by grilled cheese sandwich, then chocolate pudding. They also made very nasty remarks about vegetarians, people who don’t use fat, etc.

    In the US, Julia Child used TV to teach 2 generations to cook food badly but supposedly in the French style; she was followed by others like Martha Stewart. TV also brought us Paula Deen who promoted sugar, eating french fries for breakfast, etc. while she herself was being treated for diabetes and under contract to a pharma which produces drugs for diabetes.

    The list goes on…

  7. Ian Luck says:

    I love razor clams with bacon – best cooked in their shells in the embers of a fire – a rare treat indeed. Razor shells are aptly named – they look like an old straight razor, and are sharp enough to easily cut flesh. Razor clams live in burrows in the sand, and can dig themselves in very rapidly. Pouring table salt down their burrows will cause them to rise to the surface, where they can be picked up, preferably with gloves, as the glassy shell can cut your hands.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Fanny’s fall from grace is like ‘The Fast Show’s’ ‘Arthur Atkinson’, whose banter ‘being rude’ to audience members was a big part of his act. When he actually WAS rude:
    “Ere, is that a moustache on your face, or just shit?”
    He was booed off stage, and ‘Tommy Cockles’ gleefully said words to the effect of:
    “He went from The Talk Of The Town, to the whisper of the village. His contract was torn up, and he couldn’t get a gig anywhere. Do I care? No.”
    Always remember, though – as Johnny Cradock once said:
    “If you follow the recipe correctly, all your doughnuts will turn out like Fanny’s.” Indeed.

  9. Liz Thompson says:

    But Madhur Jaffrey converted me to cooking Indian food at home. It was a revelation after takeaways! I’ve bought two copies of her original TV series cookbook, the first one became too battered and food besmeared to read. I do remember the fearsome and terrifying Fanny, and the effect she had on home cooking. I remember it, but not with affection.
    Thank you Ian for that immortal quote about the doughnuts!

  10. Davem says:

    I used to deliver morning papers to her place in Blackheath when I was a kid … not far from your old neck of the woods Chris.

  11. SteveB says:

    Benny Hill did a wickedly accurate takeoff of Fanny and Johnny, I think Bob Todd played Johnny getting more and more drunk. I was just quickly scanning YT for it without luck.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Her eyebrows always amused me. She seemed to have a look of permanent surprise on her face, and as she aged, they rose higher and higher. I did wonder if, when she died, if they would have been found halfway down the back of her neck…

  13. John Griffin says:

    Razor clams also make a nice stew, started off using pancetta; the base can also be used to make a clam pasta. Used to collect a bucketful from beaches on Gower, especially Oxwich; squeezy bottles of salted water squirted into the depression of the burrow do the job well.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Two cookbooks kept me alive and healthy – both are not ‘Faffy’ at all. The first is one I have mentioned before – Graham Kerr’s ‘Galloping Gourmet’ cookbook, which I used most days when I lived in Yorkshire. It’s idiot proof, and is full of funny and odd asides. The other is ‘Meals In Minutes’, by Ainsley Harriot. Again, idiot proof, and beloved of my mum during her final illness. Lots of things in it that she liked, and that I’d cook for her. It’s also possible that it’s the reason I dislike cooking nowadays. It holds no pleasure now. Memory is a bastard, sometimes.

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