Obituary: Clarissa Dickson Wright, television chef and barrister
The vision of Clarissa Dixon Wright and Jennifer Paterson arriving in an idyllic village on their motorbike and sidecar is one of the iconic images of mid-Nineties television. Two Fat Ladies was a programme devoted to down-to-earth cooking and fun. Dickson Wright was the one who travelled somewhat precariously in the sidecar and both wore old-fashioned motor bike leathers and goggles.
The recipes were also often from a bygone age and used non-PC ingredients such as lard, raw eggs and unpasteurised milk products. They loved cooking in copious slabs of butter. Both championed cooking with home-grown and fresh ingredients, and avoided fads, fashions and gimmicks.
It was this unconventional approach that viewers loved. The ladies had no truck with looking good or stylish in front of the camera: they behaved as they liked. Paterson smoked like a trooper and Dickson Wright was a recovering alcoholic. Significantly, as the two chattered away informally at the end of the programme, Dickson Wright drank lemonade. They became one of the best loved – and most unexpected – double acts on television.
Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright was the daughter of a family that had originally come from Aberdeen. Her father was one of the Queen’s surgeons and a serious alcoholic.
She was brought up in north London and read law at Gray’s Inn where she became the youngest barrister at the bar. She had a distinguished career as a barrister but it was blighted by her addiction to alcohol. Dickson Wright swore never to touch alcohol again and remained true to her word.
During her years of recovery, Dickson Wright worked in Books For Cooks in London’s Notting Hill Gate and became popular with foodies – professionals such as Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David and Delia Smith and amateurs.
In 1992 the London shop was sold and Dickson Wright moved to Edinburgh where she opened Cooks Bookshop near the Grassmarket.
One day a television producer, Pat Llewellyn, called her out of the blue. “Come to London,” Llewellyn said. “I’ve had an idea.”
She was introduced to Jennifer Paterson and when they were told that Llewellyn wanted to send them round the country on a motorbike and sidecar, “we fell about laughing”, Dickson Wright recalled.
So Two Fat Ladies was born. They made a pilot programme in 1994 on a pouring wet day and, despite Paterson driving the bike into a field, the BBC commissioned a series.
Their trips incorporating the folklore and traditions of the area became a hit and the two became household names.
Paterson’s driving continued to give rise to some concern especially, Dickson Wright noticed, after a visit to Glenturret Distillery near Crieff where they had filmed on a grouse moor.
Other Scottish venues included Lennoxlove House in East Lothian where Dickson Wright cooked Duntreath Roast Grouse, East Fortune, also in East Lothian, where she brewed up some exotic chocolate egg snowballs and Ardnamurchan in Lochaber where she concocted trout baked in sea salt with beurre blanc sauce.
The very last programme the two made (in 1999) was against the dramatic backdrop of Floors Castle during a Kelso race meeting. Dickson Wright prepared Barmbrack with rhubarb.
After that series, Paterson was diagnosed with cancer and died within weeks. Dickson Wright mourned a friend. “It was a great achievement for two old bats who the press labelled eccentric,” she recalled.
The programmes were successful because they were both so unpredictable. They raised a withering eye at vegetarians and Dickson Wright would burst into song with such phrases as, “Hurrah! Get rid of all lentils. You’ve no idea how randy they make vegetarians.”
Dickson Wright could be an intimidating figure on location. Much as crews loved her sense of laughter they christened her Krakatoa because if you didn’t notice the rumbling you could find yourself in trouble.
In Scotland Dickson Wright lived in a cottage in Inveresk, near Musselburgh, and worked hard to establish the cook shop. It did not prove easy and after she had been declared bankrupt for the third time in 2004, the shop was closed.
For six years from 1998, Dickson Wright was also the first woman to hold the post of Rector of Aberdeen University. Her outgoing and congenial personality was hugely popular with students and she inaugurated a medieval feast in support of student hardship funds.
Dickson Wright, a former Scotland on Sunday food columnist, wrote widely on cookery matters. As well as her prize-winning A History of English Food, she wrote her best-selling autobiography, Spilling the Beans. Dickson Wright was a keen supporter of the Countryside Alliance.
Her outgoing and exuberant personality gave her an immediate connection with people.
“Believe me on one thing,” she once said. “I have had a splendidly enjoyable life.”