Cook and television presenter
Cook and television presenter
Born: June 24 1947; Died: March 15 2014
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Clarissa Dickson Wright, who has died in Edinburgh aged 66, was one half of the Two Fat Ladies who presented the improbably successful television cookery programme in which she and the late Jennifer Paterson zipped around on a motorcycle and sidecar before knocking up traditional, robust dishes. But she had many other claims to fame.
Amongst other things, she was (until recently) the youngest woman ever called to the English Bar, manager of celebrated cookery bookshops, a campaigner for the countryside and a range of unapologetically politically incorrect causes, rector of Aberdeen University and, for many years, a serious alcoholic who sank two pints of gin a day.
She overcame her addiction (this June would have marked her 27th year of sobriety, an anniversary she regarded as more significant than her birthday) and was not afterwards shy about describing her years of hazy decline, during which she squandered her career and a considerable inherited fortune, ending up sleeping on friends' sofas and picking up strangers in Kilburn bars.
After rehab, and AA meetings, she ran Books for Cooks, a shop and café on London's Portobello Road which, under her stewardship, became a focal point for the burgeoning foodie movement.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a major resurgence in British cooking and the shop became a gathering point for chefs and food writers. After seven years, the owner sold the shop and Dickson Wright found herself out of a job, but she relocated to Scotland and took on the Cook's Bookshop in Edinburgh.
While working there, she received a phone call from the producer Patricia Llewellyn, with whom she had worked on a brief sequence for Sophie Grigson's Eat Your Greens (demonstrating the merits of the cardoon).
Miss Llewellyn, who was also credited with discovering Jamie Oliver for the series The Naked Chef, formed the idea that pairing Clarissa Dickson Wright with Paterson, who had been for many years the cook for The Spectator magazine, would make for entertaining television.
The series proved wildly successful. The pair's amused contempt for health fads, calories and vegetarians, their eccentric personalities, genuine expertise and interest in quality ingredients, won them a devoted following. At the height of its popularity, the programme attracted 70 million viewers across the world, and was dubbed into 11 languages. It ran for three series, until Paterson's death in August 1999, midway through the filming of the fourth season.
Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright ("My parents got pissed on the way to the church," was how she accounted for the name) was born the fourth child of Arthur Dickson Wright, a surgeon to the Royal household, and his wife Molly (née Bath), an Australian heiress. Though her father was irreligious, her mother was a devout Roman Catholic, and the children were brought up within the Church.
It was a prosperous household; the Dickson Wrights lived in a nine-bedroom house in St John's Wood, with several servants. But Clarissa's childhood was blighted by her father's alcoholism and his violence towards her mother. In particular, she dreaded the unpredictability of her father's behaviour, and was relieved to be sent to boarding school at Hove when she was 11.
Her father's one redeeming feature for Clarissa was his interest in food - he had pigeons flown in from Cairo. Her first food memory was of a cold sausage and a hard-boiled egg, eaten sitting in the woods by the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley in Surrey.
She chose to study law to spite her father (he wanted her to follow him into medicine) and went to Gray's Inn, where her contemporaries included Tony Blair - according to her, a "poor, sad thing" nicknamed Miranda, and "something of a fantasist". The Blair government's banning of brains, beef on the bone, and hunting later made her old classmate a particular bête noir.
Her father, who struck her with a poker when he discovered he would have to pay for her 21st birthday party in 1968, eventually left the family - after a last bout of violence in which he broke two of Clarissa's ribs. Shortly afterwards she graduated, as the youngest woman ever called to the Bar.
At first, her career went well, but she was greatly affected by the death of her mother in 1975, and began to drink heavily. She inherited £2.8 million from her mother, but after her father's death some time later, felt robbed of purpose. "My ambition to succeed as a barrister had rested on two premises: to annoy my father and to make my mother proud," she recalled in her memoirs, Spilling the Beans (2007). "Now both of these were swept away. My ambition disintegrated."
She stopped practising law, and took on a job as a cook at a drinking club in St James's Place. There she met the love of her life, another alcoholic by the name of Clive, with whom she lived until his death from kidney failure in 1982. She went rapidly downhill and, after a period of couch-surfing and picking up men in Irish bars in Kilburn, moved to the country as a housekeeper. Unsurprisingly, she was dismissed after crashing her employers' car while drunk.
By this stage, she was drinking a bottle of vodka before getting out of bed in the morning and two bottles of gin through the course of the day. Oddly, however, her health was worst affected by the six pints of tonic water she drank daily, which led to "sticky blood" - a condition usually brought on by quinine.
At last, she put her life in order and began - almost by accident - to work at Books for Cooks, which was near the halfway house where she lived after leaving rehab in Kent. The extraordinary success of Two Fat Ladies enabled her to pursue other interests.
She became a prime mover in the Countryside Alliance and became interested in food production and the obstacles faced by farmers - many of which she blamed on Tony Blair's government. She was a stout defender of hunting and, in particular, coursing.
With her friend Sir Johnny Scott, she presented Clarissa and the Countryman between 2000 and 2003. She opened a restaurant at Lennoxlove House, the Duke of Hamilton's estate, and took on the rectorship of Aberdeen University (her mother had been of Aberdonian stock), where she caused an outcry when she advised students who had got into debt to follow her example, and declare bankruptcy.
Never competent with money ("because I grew up with too much of it"), she shut up the Cook's Bookshop in 2004. She was badly shaken by the death of her brother, who was also an alcoholic, aged 57. In 2009, she pled guilty to attending a coursing meeting after the sport had been banned, but received an absolute discharge when she explained that she thought that, since the dogs were muzzled, it was legal.
In recent years, she made a return to television, with Clarissa's England (2012) and a series for BBC Four on breakfast, lunch and dinner. She had been ill for some months, and died on Saturday.
In Two Fat Ladies: Full Throttle, when giving her recipe for ham with pea sauce - "be very careful to ensure that the bubbles do not break the surface while it is simmering, or the meat will toughen" - she expressed the hope that somebody would cook the ham for her funeral as painstakingly and lovingly as she had done for her brother's.