Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey, better known as Fanny Cradock, was born in 1909 to a hedonistic and talented, although intrinsically lazy singer named Bijou who, finding a child an encumbrance to her ultra selfish lifestyle left her at the age of one in the care of her grandmother. Fanny Cradock became an English restaurant critic, television cook and writer extraordinaire who came to the attention of the public in the immediate post war years when attempting to educate and enervate the average housewife with an exotic, if somewhat eclectic approach to food and how to cook it.
She invariably worked dressed in a glamorous ball gown without even a cook’s apron. Her contention was that women should feel good whilst cooking, that it was easy and enjoyable, rather than messy and intimidating. She is probably best remembered for her TV appearances with Major Johnnie Cradock who played the part of a slightly bumbling husband at her cookery demonstrations.
In the course of her shows Fanny made frequent concessions to the economic realities of the era, suggesting cheaper alternatives which would be within reach of the average housewife’s purse. Fanny’s combative persona, dramatic make-up and waspish comments to virtually everybody she came into contact with appealed to the public and bolstered her growing reputation.
1) Fanny was a lonely child who believed she was psychic from an early age. Convinced that she had a hotline to the court of Louis XIV of France she was subsequently expelled from boarding school for holding a seance in the school library. That same year she met a handsome RAF pilot named Sidney Evans and married him when she was 17. Three months later, in February 1927, he suffered a fatal crash, leaving Fanny widowed and pregnant only three weeks after her 18th birthday.
2) In 1928 she was forced into marriage with Arthur Chapman, a once wild character who was drinking heavily to dull the pain of a leg injury he had sustained in a serious motorcycle accident, when it became clear that she was once again pregnant. But within a year, his newly adopted life of quiet simplicity became an anathema to her and she asked for a divorce. But by then, Chapman had become a convert to Catholicism, and refused to grant her one. She left anyway leaving him to bring up their baby son, Christopher.
3) Subsequently, reduced to living in a squalid bedsit in Kensington with her two year old Peter and down to her last pennies, she resorted to locking the little boy in the room each day while she went out to work, washing-up in a canteen and selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Eventually Peter was rescued by his paternal grandparents who agreed to adopt him on condition that Fanny had no contact with him until he was 21.
4) Once again free of encumbrances she met a rich young playboy named Greg Holden-Dye and soon they were engaged. Having long lost contact with Arthur Chapman and despite placing newspaper adverts announcing her betrothal, she heard nothing from him, she persuaded herself and her fiancè that he was probably dead and they married shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939.
5) That Arthur Chapman was far from dead became evident when she bumped into him, quite by chance in London. But by then, the fact that her new marriage to Greg Holden-Dye was bigamous was academic since she had already left him for Major Johnnie Cradock, a married man with four children. He became her right hand man first in her cookery demonstrations and her later foray into television. Since Arthur Chapman still refused to divorce her, Fanny changed her name to Cradock by deed poll and she and Johnnie set up home together in a dilapidated cottage near Stratford-upon-Avon.
6) Drawing on her love of food Fanny wrote a recipe book called ‘The Practical Cook’, published in 1949 when food rationing was still in force, and offering such tempting delicacies as rose petal jam and baked hedgehog, it was a great hit and soon the invitations to give cookery demonstrations at luncheon clubs grew swiftly, soon becoming sell-out events.
7) Fanny is credited with introducing the great British public to unusual dishes from France and Italy, popularising the pizza and the Prawn Cocktail as she and Johnny worked together on a touring cookery show. Fanny advocated that every dish, every recipe she used, had a french name in order to bring Escoffier into the British kitchen. But though her food may have looked extravagant, it was generally cost-effective.
8) The Cradocks work for the British Gas Council, appearing at trade shows such as the Ideal Home Exhibition and making many “infomercials”, instructing cooks, usually newly wed women, on how to use gas cookers for basic dishes became the basis for their growing fame.
9) When Fanny’s shows subsequently transferred to television, the BBC published her recipes yearly in a series of books that soon consolidated her new found status as the foremost ‘clelebrity’ chef of the day. She and Johnnie enjoyed a long and successful TV career spanning nearly 20 years. Her series Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas is only one of several she made that have been repeated in recent years on the UK digital television channel Good Food, usually in the run-up to Christmas.
10) It was Fanny’s dreadful behaviour on Esther Rantzen’s show The Big Time, in 1976, that brought about her downfall. The show involved giving amateurs the chance to take on tasks normally performed by professionals. Rantzen had invited a Devon housewife named Gwen Troake to prepare a banquet for the former Prime Minister Edward Heath. Openly sneering at Mrs Troake and pretending to retch as she described her menu, Fanny could hardly have been any more condescending. Rantzen later described it as “like Cruella de Vil meets Bambi”
The public agreed and Fanny’s career as a TV chef was effectively over.