❉ Kevin Geddes’ biography seeks to reclaim Fanny Cradock’s reputation, writes Michael Seely.
“Dear Fanny Cradock, remembered forever as an elderly and forthright figure from the days when strong women were presented on television as either rude or bullying battle-axes or just rude bullies, usually with a mild husband pecked away to the core.”
During my days as a kitchen porter back in the 1990s I once worked with a TV chef who wore loud checked trousers. He had recently been acquitted of an unfounded charge made against him by a waitress and was making a guest appearance at my university gaff. I welcomed him back into polite society by throwing out his carefully prepared boiled down stock into my bin. Well, he did put his big saucepan full of bones floating in a disgusting looking brown liquid next to the pile of washing up the rest of the kitchen staff had deposited for my professional inattention. To be fair, it was a clean bin I had just poured it into and not the sink. There was a feeling that no one would notice where it had been temporarily and accidentally deposited. I was not fired, and this man, who once winked at Judy Finnigan on ITV’s This Morning, was awfully nice about it. I doubt Fanny Cradock would have been so kind. Waste, for her, was a sin. Her husband Johnnie, may have poured me a drink.
Dear Fanny Cradock, remembered forever as an elderly and forthright figure from the days when strong women were presented on television as either rude or bullying battle-axes or just rude bullies, usually with a mild husband pecked away to the core. Fanny had once been a national institution but since her death, she has become a memorable joke with painted eyebrows, argues her biographer Kevin Geddes.
Out of context, these cracks at Fanny may appear to have some foundation. Just look at the jaw-dropping pictures of some of her garishly coloured cookery creations. These photographs of green mashed potatoes and other creations are frequently put up on social media accounts. One account usually pops up around this time of year for a playful run of images for the rest of us to gawp at – I myself have compared one particular creation to the Brains of Morpho from Doctor Who. Clip shows invite us to marvel at her pretentious presentation manner. The need for clip shows to reduce someone’s life and achievements into a couple of bite sized clichés has reduced her reputation into little more than a limp prawn cocktail.
The author gives us his mission statement in his introduction which is to tackle head on the myths that surround Fanny Cradock such as whether there was any contract for the BBC to cancel when she infamously criticised a Devon housewife’s menu in The Big Time in 1976, and her relationship with staff both on and off the screen. Context, dear, context. Flipping over myths is a thankless and hard job. Fans of whatever persuasion tend to accept the first thing they read or hear and it is difficult to correct it with subsequent facts. As a biographer myself, I know that pain.
Geddes successfully explores her life and incredible body of work in print and on screen and explores what she was like as a person. It does not helped that Fanny was not adverse to a spot of myth-making herself, which considering her pre-fame private life was hardly surprising. It took her a while to find her one and only true love, and did not marry him until much later in life, but if your public personae is bordering on the fictitious, why not?
Fanny’s performance was – of course – exaggerated for appearance and memorability, although it was certainly there at times in her true character. The bright colouring was deliberate in order to make the food memorable, but any colour in post-war and austere Britain was exciting. According to Geddes, Cradock’s cookery books were there to persuade the British housewife that cooking was a joy to do rather than a daily chore to endure, something we in the 21st century could do with reminding when we complain that twenty to forty five minutes or so in the kitchen is eating into our valuable Netflix boxset time.
Born in 1909, Fanny Cradock comes from a long since vanished age. The bygone era also included the days when food was not as cheap or as plentiful from a supermarket as it is now. You did not waste a scrap. Oh, what would she have made of our times of plenty? Cradock wanted to make meal times exciting, expressions of love and commitment. She campaigned against the post-war food policies the government of the day were enforcing. I cannot imagine our generations surviving on a wartime rationing regime, or managing to grow our own extra food, or coping to live with the seasons.
The book delves into those hitherto neglected areas of her life – the journalism, the novels (she had the same British publisher as Adolf Hitler), her ‘make do and mend’ dress making skills – again before mass cheap imports from abroad made repairing things a waste of time, children’s book writing. Eventually she became a fixture on the television on both channels. She was a huge and influential star. Who’d have thought a chef could entertain sell out audiences at the Albert Hall by simply cooking? She persuaded the BBC to screen a live fifteen-minute excerpt, quite a technical feat. But she was a performance artist and created an act, dressed in her ball gown and appearances by Johnnie (not as often as the myth suggests) with a monocle in his eye. The actual food was not as important in retrospect, but she respected other chefs and wanted to memorialise her favourites.
She worked for the independent channel but they were never quite knew what format outside of cooking to give her, and were happy for other programmes to ridicule her much to her discomfort. ‘Do you think women have far too much to say about themselves?’ asks Hughie Greene in an interview. Women were allowed to complain on television, but not to be too assertive about it. Fanny was assertive. She even turned cookery into an unsuccessful stage play, and the account relayed in the book suggested that it nearly became a manslaughter case as food poisoning was rampant among the cast. Few interviewed for the book actually liked her cooking and noted her lack of observance to hygiene.
You come away from the book with a feeling that she was an intense woman, totally career-driven, perhaps, and I can understand this, using work as a way of combating personal demons and guilt whether it was over her children, their various fathers, covering up illnesses, living in sin with Johnnie, and trying to make a comfortable living. Or perhaps she just wanted to entertain, for that was all she did if you think about it, and pretty good at it she was too. And when she went too far, she apologised. Which is more than most of us would do.
❉ With a Foreword from Nicholas Parsons, ‘Keep Calm and Fanny On – The Many Careers of Fanny Cradock’ by Kevin Geddes, is out now from Fantom Publishing, priced £19.99. Order your copy now!
❉ Writer Michael Seely is a regular contributor to We Are Cult, and is the author of acclaimed biographies of director Douglas Camfield and Cyberman creator, scientist Kit Pedler. Michael Seely’s Doomwatch guide ‘Prophets of Doom’ is to be reprinted by Telos and will be out early in the new year to coincide with the programme’s fiftieth anniversary.