Fanny Cradock was an English TV chef before it was a genre unto itself. She was also, in no particular order, a proto-reality star for the analog age; a snob; a victim of the vagaries of public opinion that looked back to Marie Antoinette and presaged Paula Dean; the victim of a Leona Helmsley-esque class-based backlash but without the Marth Stewart re-launch; and progenitor of a hypnotic Grand Guignol performance art-style drag. In short, she is my kind of girl.
I love this completely spartan set, with it’s random use of negative space, teeny tiny stoves separated by a vast expanse of nothing and overall vibe which more closely resembles the kitchen in an Winnebago than today’s celebrity kitchens. I think Malibu Barbie had a more sophisticated kitchen than our Miss Fanny. Then there is timid Sarah, The terrified assistant. In another episode of this program, hapless Sarah had to endure finger snapping and the terse admonishments of a clearly nervous and hard-to-please Fanny, no doubt an impossible boss. Then there is the clothing. Can you imagine anyone but a movie star or a drag queen cooking in a synthetic pink chiffon gown with bell sleeves and half of the Harrod’s cosmetic counter on her face?
The Franny Cradock style puts the mean in demeanor. Her English formality and superficial patina of convivial politesse barely conceals a maniacal rage and pathological ambition calcified from an earlier era; like a fossil. This duality makes for very interesting television. In the opening shot, don’t we love her affected insouciance as she aimlessly throws the garland about a Christmas tree that looks like it was dragged out of dumpster? And who among us will soon forget the violent, staccato pinching of the turkey? It suggests that, though ostensibly dead, animals may very well have been harmed during the production of this show.Ah yes, let’s not forget the presentation of the food itself. I would go so far as to bet that there probably was not a single homosexual anywhere involved in the production of this show. It’s the only way to explain the visual characteristics of the production. After all, though the period was certainly responsible for some aesthetic factors, with a production values this bad, you just can’t blame everything on a low BBC budget and the fact of it being 1975.
So who was Fanny Cradock the person and how did she end up like Baby Jane Hudson in an R.V.? Most popular in the 1950s through the mid-1970s, Cradock was a popular fixture on English television and in the theatre, where she starred with her then-husband “Major” Cradock, and initialy proved to be somewhat influential in bringing more refined aspects of French Escoffier cooking to the UK and teaching housewives how to navigate their way around the kitchen on a budget. By the 1970s, Cradock’s style of cooking was considered a bit old-fashioned and she seems to have been demoted to hosting a series of annual Christmas specials, (from which the clip below is taken), before being summarily banished from television altogether, succumbing to death by public opinion by the housewives of Britain, the very people she had devoted her life to helping; such ingratitude.
In what I refer to as the “Gwen Troake Incident,” in 1976 Cradock was brought on as an expert panelist to evaluate the menu of an average housewife named Gwen Troake on a BBC broadcast called The Big Time After Miss Troake excitedly described her menu (“seafood cocktail, duckling with bramble sauce and coffee cream dessert”), Cradock recoiled as if from a hot flame and, in a final example of misjudgment, dismissed Miss Troake’s menu as “too rich” and verbally upbraided the housewife for being an amateur. “You’re among professionals now,” she sniffed, in what we know was very much the manner in which she spoke to her hapless helper Sarah (see the aforementioned finger snap in the Petit Fours episode). The housewives of England identified with Gwen Troake and revolted en masse, writing and calling the BBC to express their disdain for Cradock and thus, Fanny’s goose was cooked. Perhaps The Big Time should have been called The Last Time. Luckily, we have these wonderful videos to keep the memory of Fanny as moist as one of her birds.