No-nonsense chef Fanny Cradock is the subject of a new biography, Keep Calm and Fanny On! The Many Careers of Fanny Cradock. The book includes anecdotes from the likes of Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith, nature commentator David Attenborough and Just a Minute panellist Gyles Brandreth. TOBY PORTER tells her story and KEVIN GEDDES talks about why he decided to write about her.
Phyllis Nan Sortain “Primrose” Pechey was an English restaurant critic, television cook and writer frequently appearing on television, at cookery demonstrations and in print.
The reason her name may not be familiar is because she was better known as Fanny Cradock who, with Major Johnnie Cradock, her seemingly bumbling hen-pecked husband, blazed a trail as Britain’s first big TV chef.
She had 24 series on TV from 1955-75. She worked in ball-gowns without an apron, claiming viewers should feel cooking was easy and enjoyable, rather than messy and intimidating.
She popularised the pizza in this country. And she wrote 52 books and booklets on cookery, plus 22 novels, 15 travel books and 11 children’s books.
Fanny Cradock was the daughter of the novelist and lyricist Archibald Thomas Pechey and Bijou Sortain Hancock, who spent extravagantly. Archibald also had gambling debts, many run up in Nice.
They moved from Leytonstone to Herne Bay in Kent, then Swanage and Bournemouth in Dorset to escape his debtors.
By 1927, he was in bankruptcy court with debts of £3,500. Cradock spent the next 10 years of her life destitute in London, selling cleaning products door to door and working in a dressmaking shop.
She married four times – twice bigamously.
- Sidney A. Vernon Evans on October 10, 1926, when she was 17, he was 22. He died in a plane crash on February, 4 1927, leaving her pregnant with their son Peter Vernon Evans. Thanks to Johnnie Cradock, Peter later became a sous-chef at the Dorchester Hotel.
- By July of the following year Cradock had become pregnant again, and married the baby’s father Arthur William Chapman in Norfolk. The couple had a son Christopher, but their marriage lasted less than a year. Arthur would not give her a divorce, and was given only a single line in Fanny’s autobiography.
- Cradock moved to London and married again on September 26, 1939, as Phyllis Nan Sortain Chapman; her husband this time was Gregory Holden-Dye, a racing driver, driving Bentleys at Brooklands in Surrey. This marriage lasted only eight weeks as she had soon met the love of her life, Johnnie Cradock. Fanny later concluded that as Chapman had not granted her a divorce, her marriage to Gregory was not lawful, and so never mentioned it.
Johnnie, a major in the Royal Artillery, was also married, with four children. He soon left his wife, Ethel. Fanny, unable to marry him, changed her surname to Cradock by deed poll in 1942.
Fanny and Johnnie Cradock began writing a column as Bon Viveur in The Daily Telegraph in 1950.
In 1955, Cradock recorded a pilot for what became a BBC television series on cookery. She gave every recipe a French name. Her catchphrases included “This won’t break you”, “This is perfectly economical”, and “This won’t stretch your purse”.
Fanny and Johnnie moved to Blackheath – to 134 Shooters Hill – in 1958.
They wanted to hold lavish parties in a house with enough space for their huge range of kitchen equipment. Fanny described her kitchen at 134 Shooters Hill as one of the finest anywhere.
The BBC recreated that kitchen in the studio for a series called Kitchen Party which featured the couple’s celebrity friends.
As she grew older, she applied more and more make-up and wore vast chiffon ball gowns on screen.
Johnnie suffered a minor heart attack in the early 1970s and was replaced with the daughter of a friend, Jayne and other assistants. She would always say she hated electric stoves and ovens – but did not reveal she worked for the British Gas Council.
Her fall came suddenly. In 1976, a housewife, Gwen Troake, won the Cook of the Realm competition – the prize was to organise a banquet for Conservative opposition leader Edward Heath, and Prince Charles’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten. The BBC filmed it for series The Big Time, and asked Fanny Cradock, by then a tax exile in Ireland, to advise Troake on the menu.
Fanny cringed when Troake went through her menu of seafood cocktail, duckling with bramble sauce and coffee cream dessert, saying it was too rich. “You’re among professionals now, dear,” she declared.
Viewers reacted angrily. The Daily Telegraph wrote “Not since 1940 can the people of England have risen in such unified wrath….”. Fanny wrote an apology to Troake, but the BBC terminated her contract two weeks later.
When Fanny was misinformed in 1977 that her third husband Arthur had died – he actually lived until 1978 – she married Johnnie on May 7, 1977. The then 68-year-old recorded her age as 55 on the marriage certificate, even though she had a son who was nearly 50.
When she appeared on the television chat show Parkinson with Danny La Rue, on being told he was a female impersonator, she stormed off the set. Her final BBC appearance and her final television appearance was in 1988.
Fanny and Johnnie Cradock spent their final years in Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex. She died following a stroke on December 27, 1994.
‘A unique fascinating woman’
Kevin Geddes first became fascinated with Fanny Cradock when she died in 1994. He found some of her cookbooks in a charity shop and was soon hooked, writing a blog and connecting with other fans.
He said: “I remember seeing Fanny Cradock on TV when I was young, probably not cooking but on game shows and chat shows, but it wasn’t until she died 25 years ago that I really became fascinated with her.
“I then found some of her cookbooks in a charity shop in Edinburgh, which I began cooking my way through, blogging about and engaging with other retro-fans through social media. As I cooked her food, I started to research her life alongside and suddenly the book seemed inevitable.
“The more I found out about Fanny, her life and her many careers, the more I admired her.
“She was a unique, fascinating woman who had careers to match. I’ve loved meeting with her friends, family and colleagues to capture their memories of her for this book.
“It became popular to talk Fanny Cradock down after she died – she became the butt of many jokes, and many myths circulated about her life and personality.
“She could be extremely difficult, and certainly by the time she had reached ‘old age’ she had alienated many people who were then keen to vent.
“However, these myths and stories often mask the reality, leading people to forget all that she achieved. Without her, the television cooking programmes we watch today would be very different.
Fanny forged a strong career path at a time when women in particular did not have careers, especially in broadcasting and publishing.
“She was a fascinating character, once seen never forgotten. She came from a different time, with different food and different presentation, but this remains popular with people today who are looking for ‘food with fun’, a splash of colour and a smile.”