Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas: The Kitchen Diva Reconsidered

Photo: BBC

Photo: BBC

“Sherry in trifle is horrid! I’m sorry if I offend you. … I use an inexpensive sweet white wine called Sauternes. Spelt always with an ‘S’.”

UPDATE, 15/12/13: Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas is currently airing in the UK on the Food Network. Check listings for details.

With all the Savilegate revelations of recent months and consequent shattered reputations, I thought it would be interesting to reconsider another huge BBC television star from the 1970s.

One who, unlike Sir Jimmy Savile, was utterly reviled and disgraced during her lifetime: TV chef Fanny Cradock.

I remember Fanny Cradock well from my childhood. Never without her signature kabuki makeup and diaphanous evening gowns, Fanny presided over her television kitchen like a stern society hostess from a bygone era.

She started presenting her BBC cooking series in the 1950s and by the time I was watching it in the mid-1970s and in repeats thereafter, Fanny had perfected her presentation skills. Like her contemporary across the pond, erstwhile Smith College basketball star player Julia Child, Fanny Cradock was a natural in front of the camera.

But, unlike the giggly, sometimes bumbling Julia and her “Bon Appétit!” war cry, Fanny was strictly no-nonsense.

She talked directly to her audience —  as she saw it, the oppressed British housewife — in a conversational style that, while it could be hectoring, was also full of warmth and humour. There were echoes of the cooking stage act she and her longterm partner/husband and collaborator Major Johnnie Cradock had produced in the 1950s.

While piping rosettes of cream onto a trifle — “they’re frightfully important” — Fanny would dispense sage advice for anyone looking to one-up the Joneses. “Don’t tell that woman next door [how to do it],” she warned, “and then you’ve got a bit of one-upmanship … which is always satisfying.”

What really distinguished Fanny Cradock from Julia Child, though, was that in series like Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas, you never really saw Fanny do any actual cooking. She mostly encouraged viewers to do their best, whilst garnishing, piping, embellishing and assembling things, all with the aid of her distinctly less-glamorous assistant, the mute Sarah.

In Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas, Fanny always exhorted the viewers to refer to “The Booklet.” This was her Bible that accompanied the series. Like Delia Smith after her, and who has acknowledged Fanny as an inspiration, the recipes contained in “The Booklet” were tried and tested. Fans knew that if they followed them exactly, they would work.

Fanny always encouraged her viewers to think big, and to think glamorous, but she was mindful of limited time and limited budgets. World War II and rationing were not distant memories for Fanny’s audience, nor were the days before labour-saving home appliances like washing machines and vacuum cleaners.

She stressed that her ingredients, utensils and accessories were inexpensive and that her recipes were time-saving. Fanny’s message to housewives was clear: follow my rules and your family will eat well and cheaply, and you’ll have more time to do other things.

(Imagining Fanny’s reaction to this year’s appallingly condescending ASDA television advert — all mum lives for is to serve others, and she’s completely fine with not even having a chair to sit on at the Christmas dinner table so balances on a little pouffe — makes me laugh out loud. A lot.)

Hence, the homemade custard that Fanny said would keep in the fridge for three weeks before using, or the bejewelled brandy butter that could be made in early December, dyed green, embellished with “cheap scraps” of angelica and candied peel, piped into “an ordinary glass coupe“, wrapped in cellophane and left to stand until Christmas Day. Yum!

What would Fanny think of today’s obsession with “Best Before” and “Eat By” dates?

For anyone too young to remember Britain in the 1970s it’s important to point out that Fanny Cradock was not the total oddity she seems now. Yes, she was completely over the top, with the Yorkshire Terrier-style bows in her hair, and the jewels and the chiffon, but the middle-aged and elderly women of my childhood also sported eyebrows that had been drawn on with an eyebrow pencil. (Though maybe not quite so high up on their foreheads.)

Ladies of a certain age and upwards sported perms that had been coloured all shades of blue, violet, pink. We were not allowed to go to school with dyed hair, but I remember one of our elderly dinner ladies was prone to a rather fetching lime green rinse.

The late, lamented Jennifer Paterson, one half of the Two Fat Ladies, was a Fanny Cradock for the 1990s with her huge rings, nail varnish, hair bows and healthy disdain for the food police. Similarly, with her passion for cream, butter and offal, cooking Head Girl Nigella Lawson remains a  posher, more stylish Fanny for the Noughties and on.

However, unlike Jennifer Paterson, Fanny Cradock did not die a beloved television personality. Even by the mid-1970s her waspish public persona and music hall style was going out of fashion. When Fanny excoriated a housewife on BBC talent show The Big Time, she’d finally gone too far. Viewers turned against her, and the BBC swiftly terminated her contract.

From then on Fanny Cradock did the rounds of the television chat shows and panel game shows, with appearances on Blankety Blank and The Generation Game. Her appearance grew ever more cartoonish and she more crotchety until at last the grand dame of the television kitchen was put out to pasture.

One thing I’ve been wondering as I watch Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas is which came first: Fanny’s drag queen makeup, or drag queens’ Fanny makeup (as ’twere)?

Danny La Rue was the leading female impersonator of Fanny’s day, and his schtick was to look like a real woman, not a panto woman. In fact, my dad sat next to Danny La Rue at Midnight Mass once and said he’d never have known he wasn’t a woman if he hadn’t known who he was.

In the same vein, what did panto dames look like pre-Fanny Cradock? I’m sure there’s a PhD thesis or at least a journal article in there somewhere. Fanny Cradock, Drag Queens and Panto Dames: Discuss.

Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas airs weekdays on the Good Food Channel. Check listings for times.

Follow me on Twitter: @TVClaw

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