WITH her wild, glittering eyes and scolding voice, Fanny Cradock was the original celebrity chef with a tongue sharper than any of her knives.
For years, the posh and flamboyant first lady of food was a TV staple who did her cooking caked in make-up and dressed in ballgowns while making exotic recipes.
As she introduced the nation to banana candles, flambéd veal brains and green-dyed potatoes, her plummy, monocle-wearing husband Johnnie stood at her side, wine in hand, being barked at by his beloved battleaxe.
It was far from what viewers were used to seeing on telly in the Sixties and Seventies — and today’s food shows — but Delia, Jamie and Gordon all credit her as an inspiration.
Now, more than 40 years on from her sudden and public fall from grace, the BBC has put her shows online to introduce a new generation to her rainbow-coloured creations.
But while she was influential to the point that the Queen Mother said she was “largely responsible” for improving the nation’s culinary skills, her image as the perfect housewife was as fake as the eyebrows pencilled on halfway up her forehead.
Fanny was a snobby, bigamist bully, who abandoned her two sons and was not able to marry Johnnie — despite taking his name — for nearly four decades because her second husband refused to grant a divorce.
Her recipe for surviving the stresses of showbiz was a concoction of amphetamines and sleeping pills which pals referred to as her “hundreds and thousands”.
Fanny’s ruthless bile was legendary. She branded the Duchess of York a “trollop”, Margaret Thatcher “cheap” and Les Dawson as “a lump of lard”.
One of her tips for cooking a goose was: “Think of someone you do not like, take a fork and stab it viciously all over.”
It was that uncompromising approach to life which got Fanny to the top — and back down again to a lonely, penniless end.
Born Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey in Leytonstone, East London, her dad Archie was a hopeless gambler while mum Bijou squandered what little they had on champagne and oysters before dumping infant Fanny on a billiards table as a “gift” to Fanny’s grandmother.
Raised by her grandparents, Fanny was married at 17 to RAF pilot Sidney Evans. Within five months she was pregnant, and he had died in a plane crash.
Sidney’s parents adopted baby Peter after discovering Fanny had locked him in her cramped flat while she spent the day selling cleaning products door to door.
By 1928 she was a mum again and married to engineer Arthur Chapman, but she grew bored of her alcoholic husband and their life in Norfolk and fled to London to work in restaurants. She did not see their son, Christopher, again until he was 28.
Catholic Arthur refused to divorce her but it did not stop Fanny marrying wealthy racing driver Gregory Holden-Dye in 1939.
The marriage was annulled after eight weeks — she had met Johnnie, a married Army Major with four children. He never saw them again. Fanny recalled: “Our marriage is the golden thing in both our lives. Only two things separate us — rugby and the lavatory.”
Although unable to tie the knot until Arthur died in 1977, they always presented themselves as husband and wife.
She took his name and they wrote hotel and restaurant reviews until Fanny eyed a move into TV in 1954. But her vanity meant she had one thing to do ahead of her BBC audition — get her crooked nose straightened. She had the surgery, filmed a pilot and was presenting her first series in 1955.
She featured food rich with brandy, anchovies, eggs, offal and cream, while hen-pecked Johnnie was always by her side, tasting little spoonfuls and glugging liberal slugs of wine.
On one occasion, after his wife had made doughnuts, Johnnie turned to the camera and, with a straight face, told viewers: “May all your doughnuts look like Fanny’s.”
On-screen, she was exasperated, hurried and a tyrant. There was never any doubt who was the boss.
An aide recalled her once screaming at Johnnie off camera: “Don’t you ever speak to me like that again. You’ll be back where you came from so fast you won’t know what’s hit you I am Fanny Cradock and don’t you forget that.”
Her fame brought luxuries including a Rolls-Royce, a boat in Cannes and grand parties at her South London home, which she encouraged gossip columnists to describe as “Hollywood style”.
An awful lump of lard who pulls funny faces. He’s greasy, horrible and disgusting. I hate him
– on Les Dawson
Such coverage, however, meant it was repeatedly burgled.
By 1975, at the age of 66, her confidence was practically regal.
She signed off her Christmas special with: “May I say how much I admire the housewives of Britain, in these appalling present conditions, for their courage in trying to give their families another super Christmas.
“So, like Tiny Tim, I say, ‘God bless you all.’” But this arrogance brought about her spectacular downfall. As she once said: “I have always been extremely rude, and got exactly what I wanted.”
I hate her quack-quack singing. I tried to show her how to cook an omelette. She didn’t understand a word
– on Cilla Black
That was until she appeared on The Big Time, a hugely popular show fronted by Esther Rantzen in 1976.
Before an audience of millions, Fanny was supposed to offer advice to a homely Devon housewife who had won a competition to organise a three-course dinner for Edward Heath and Lord Mountbatten.
Instead, she tore into poor Gwen Troake, pretended to the camera that she was about to throw up, rolled her eyes, gagged and demanded she change her menu as, “You are among professionals now”.
Furious viewers bombarded the BBC with complaints. Fanny was sacked two weeks later. Her only TV appearances afterwards were as a faded celebrity on Blankety Blank and The Generation Game.
She’s just a trollop. The way she dresses, the way she talks, the things she does all lead me to think that
– on The Duchess of York
By the time Johnnie died of lung cancer at the age of 82 in 1987, the couple were long forgotten.
Heartless to the last, Fanny only spent five minutes with her dying husband in hospital and did not attend the funeral.
Friend Yvonne Norris told Fanny’s biographer: “I walked in one day and Johnnie said, ‘Thank God you’ve come. She’s abandoned me, hasn’t she?’. I didn’t know what to say.”
There was no one left to care about Fanny with Johnnie gone, as she had burned her bridges with her sons.
Christopher’s attempt at a reconciliation in 1957 had been wrecked after his mum accused his girlfriend of trying it on with Johnnie by kissing him on the cheek.
Similarly, Fanny disapproved of Peter’s fiancee and, after he refused to dump her, used her contacts to ensure he could not pursue his own dream to become a chef.
When old friend Phil Bradford visited Fanny at her filthy, tiny flat in Chichester, West Sussex, in 1991, he feared the isolated widow was on the verge of suicide.
He made sure that she spent the final years of her life cared for at a nursing home.
Few mourners attended her funeral after she died from a stroke, aged 85, in 1994.
Contemporary chefs later hailed her “brave” approach to flavours — and thanks to the BBC iPlayer, we can all brave a cold green omelette tonight.