Swill Magazine Issue 5 - Out Now

The women who defined food television in the 1990s

Molly Pepper Steemson

Clarissa Dickson at the  Waterloo CupI was introduced to Two Fat Ladies from my mother’s bed — squashed up against her by a wall of cats and cushions — and I will be forever grateful to her for it. They are my first memory of television. As Patricia Llewellyn says in the introduction to the second cookbook (Two Fat Ladies Ride Again), “[television is] an industry where women’s success in front of the camera is mostly defined by youthful good looks and anodyne personalities.” Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright had neither. Instead, the show paints a bold picture of what women can be. 

The Two Fat Ladies were not wives or mothers. They did not dress themselves, or their personalities, up for the camera. They related to that camera, and to one another, in a way that is entirely unselfconscious. They were women who acted upon instinct, and their instinct was to entertain. On screen it is clear how thoroughly they entertain their hosts, and one another, but they entertained their colleagues, too. Shoots were, according to Llewellyn, “characterised by hilarity”, with both of the fat ladies playing “terrible tricks” on her. The brilliance of the show is that whatever the joke is (and there are many of them) the audience are in on it too.  

The premise – two fat, posh, middle-aged (Paterson and Dickson Wright turned 68 and 49, respectively, the year filming began) women in a motorcycle and sidecar, rollicking around England cooking in other people’s kitchens – is absurd. The title sequence and accompanying theme song are absurd. Every programme begins with Jennifer Paterson singing “grab that crab, Clarissa!”, to which Dickson Wright responds, “eat that beet, Jennifer!” The tune ends with the pair singing (although it is generous to call Dickson Wright’s efforts singing) in unison: “the two fat ladies are itching (up), to get into your kiiittcccheeenn!”. They’re having too much fun to care about making fools of themselves. 

Both fat ladies were snobbish and highly prejudiced, but their prejudices were often practical. They were both staunchly against Britain’s membership of the European Economic community. In Fortune’s Kippers Smokehouse in Whitby, York, they ask the proprietor – provocatively – whether he still sends kippers, wrapped in paper, in the post (as was tradition). He replies, “we can’t post them anymore – it’s EEC regulations”. The ladies have a field day. Paterson calls out “dreadful people!” just as Dickson Wright condemns Europe (“Bloody Brussels!”) before stating, “do you know that there are 56 words in the Lord’s Prayer, and 2600 in the EEC regulations for the export of duck eggs?” Neither Paterson nor Dickson Wright lived to see the UK leave the European Union. As far as I know, nobody has resumed delivering pungent smoked fish via Royal Mail.

There are valid criticisms that you could level against them. A flagrant disregard for a balanced diet, or reasonable caloric intake was one. Paterson’s constant smoking and disdain for basic kitchen hygiene (a number of jokes, to camera, about how she has “definitely washed her hands”, wink) was another. Both women did, at times, speak in sweeping generalisations about other races and ethnicities in a manner that ran from provincial to prejudiced, even through a low-definition, late-90s lens. Suzanne Hamlin, in her 1998 review of Cooking with the Two Fat Ladies (as it was published in the USA), wrote that none of the six recipes she tested worked as described, and that “eccentricities and farce failed to be compelling in a cookbook that purported to be useful”. I disagree, and not only because of her charmless and small-minded take. When my mother died, I inherited all four of the Two Fat Ladies cookbooks, complete with her post-it notes and pencil markings, and I cook from them still. Jennifer Paterson’s Fish Pie recipe is by far the best I know. Perhaps the ladies’ recipes didn’t cater to American tastes. It was, after all, the country that Dickson Wright thought was responsible for the world’s most serious ills: fast food, political correctness, and plastic surgery.


This is an excerpt from the latest issue of Swill. Want more? Order issue 5 today 

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Molly Pepper Steemson