Fanny Cradock

Fanny Cradock (1909-1994), television chef, was born on 26 February 1909 at Leytonstone, Essex, the daughter of Archibald Pechey, corn merchant, and his wife, Bijou Sortain. By the time of her first marriage Cradock was referring to her father as an "author", although there is no evidence to support the claim; she also embellished her surname, giving it as Primrose-Pechey. Little is known about her parents, but Cradock often said her father was a wealthy gambler when he married her mother.

The family was said to winter in Nice, where Fanny spent time in the hotel kitchen watching the chefs. In an alternative version, she was abandoned by her mother and brought up by grandparents. In fact, everything about Fanny Cradock was preposterous. She was one of the first television "chefs", but was a poor cook. Though it was part of the act to abuse him, she was devoted to her husband Johnny.

Aged 17 (although she gave her age as 21) Fanny married Sidney Evans, an RAF pilot. His plane crashed shortly after the wedding - "I married on Wednesday, settled his debts on Friday and he died on Sunday", she told friends afterwards (though in other accounts the crash was four months later). In those few days she became pregnant with her first son, Peter. When he was a toddler she locked him in a room at home while she did her rounds as a door-to-door saleswoman of encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners.

The child was at most a year old when, in July 1928, Fanny married again and had a second son, whom she abandoned when he was four months old. Now penniless, she ran a ladies' dressmaking shop; she couldn't herself sew a button on, but she had a knack for dressing her customers. In 1939 she married her third husband, but within a few weeks had left him for Major John Cradock. Johnny, as he came to be known on television, was married with four children, whom he left for Fanny. It would have astonished and outraged their fans, but Fanny and Johnny were not married until 7 May 1977, when she was 68 (though she gave her age as 55), saying she was the widow of her second husband, though he was still alive. In fact, by now Fanny was a double bigamist.

In the late 1940s she and Johnny joined the Daily Telegraph as columnists under the nom de plume Bon Viveur. The women's editor pointed out the solecism (it should have been Bon Vivant, gourmand), but Fanny's common touch paid off: in a later copyright dispute with the Telegraph she was able to cite the earlier argument. As well as writing a cookery column, Fanny and Johnny became restaurant critics, after a fashion.

It was a natural progression to live cookery demonstrations for the Gas Council, stage shows, and (after Fanny had her nose bobbed), television, where, from 1952 until the 1970s, they developed Johnny's character as the subservient sidekick, good only for handing Fanny her frying pan and knowing which wine to serve. Fanny's trademark was food so over-decorated it was baroque. Her rudeness and churlishness were renowned, and led to her downfall, when she savaged an amateur cook on Esther Rantzen's The Big Time. She was never asked to appear on television again.

Following their initial success, the Cradocks lived in a house in Blackheath, in south London, which they encouraged gossip columnists to refer to as "Hollywood-style". Their lifestyle included lavish parties, a cabin cruiser moored near Cannes, and fines for careless driving of their Rolls-Royce. Fanny appealed to an audience that disappeared with the food revolution of the 1980s, one that forgave her pretensions and snobbery, and even the abuse she heaped on anyone who dared to call her Fanny, rather than Mrs Cradock.

She died in a nursing home, in Hailsham, Sussex, on 27 December 1994.

• Extracted from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Paul Levy.

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