Clarissa Dickson Wright speaking at a Countryside Alliance fundraising dinner on Exmoor. July 2011.
© Mark Robinson (2011) / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.0
Life and Times
Clarissa Dickson Wright (24 June 1947 – 15 March 2014) gained overnight fame as one of the two principals on the TV series called “Two Fat Ladies.”
Besides being a TV personality, she was also a food historian, a scholar and an archivist. She was a guild butcher (only one of two women in England: the other one was the Queen Mum, whose position passed in 2003 to Princess Anne.) She was a devoted Roman Catholic, and a forceful speaker, owing to her training as a lawyer. She spoke Spanish and hated carrots.
She was also been a regular on Curious Cooks for BBC Radio 4, a contributor to British House & Garden, and a weekly columnist for Scotland on Sunday.
The “Two Fat Ladies” series did not make her wealthy. She did not get repeat fees from BBC on rebroadcasts of Two Fat Ladies because, though it was shown on BBC, it was actually made by an independent company.
Towards the end of her life, she lived in Musselburgh, Scotland, east of Edinburgh.
Clarissa was born in St John’s Wood, London on 24 June 1947. Her full name was actually Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson-Wright.
Her father, a Protestant, was Arthur Dickson-Wright (1897 – 1976.) He was a surgeon (MS FRCS Hon. FRCSI DTM&H) who practised at the Royal Free Hospital on Pond Street in London. Among his patients were T.E. Lawrence and the Queen Mum. Her mother, a Catholic, was Molly Bath, an Australian heiress.
Clarissa was educated at Sacred Heart Convent in Hove. She was accepted at Oxford, but her father would only pay for her studying there if she studied medicine. She refused his conditions, and went instead to University College London to study law. In 1968, at the age of 21, she was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn. In the same year, her father left her mother.
Clarissa practised law for a bit, then ran a catering business called “Clarissa’s Company”, during which she cooked on a yacht and at a London club.
Chronology of her career
- 1975 – Clarissa declared bankruptcy for the first time.
- 1975 – Clarissa’s mother died. Clarissa was left a good deal of money, but went through it quickly. To cope with the death of her mother, Clarissa turned to drinking. It put an end to her legal career.
- 1976 – Clarissa’s father died
- 1982 – Clarissa declares bankruptcy for the second time.
- 1987 – Clarissa is arrested for not showing up in court on a drunk-driving charge. She checked herself into a halfway house to dry out. At the height, she’d been going through two bottles of gin and one-hundred cigarettes a day. After this, she started working at the “Books for Cooks” store in Notting Hill, London.
- 1996 – The Two Fat Ladies series started, with the co-star being Jennifer Paterson (1928 – 1999.) Jennifer and Clarissa did not actually know each other before they were brought together by BBC2 for the series. They had met only once, at a party in Tuscany, Italy in 1991. The motorbike used in the series was a Triumph Thunderbird
- 1998 – At the request of her friend, Angus, Duke of Hamilton, she took over the catering at Lennoxlove House. But she had to leave the project early when he remarried.
- 1999 – Jennifer Paterson died halfway through the fourth series of the show, on 10 August 1999. It was going to be the last series anyway. In the spring of that year, Clarissa had started her position of Rector of the University of Aberdeen on 3 March 1999, a position she held until June 2005. It was to have just been a three-year time, but when the first time expired, she was so popular that she was reappointed for a second term on 9 May 2002. She was the first woman to hold the post, and the first Rector to hold two terms.
- 2000 – She started the series called “Clarissa and the Countryman” for BBC 2 TV. In it, she was partners with a sheep farmer, Sir Johnny Scott, to examine country activities in Britain. The show ran for three series. She and Scott became the target of anti-hunting radical activists.
- 2000 – Clarissa organized a medieval Fool’s Feast banquet on 1 April 2000, to mark the anniversary of the University of Aberdeen’s King’s College Chapel (its foundation stone was laid 2 April 1500.) The banquet was held in Elphinstone Hall at the University of Aberdeen.
- 2003 – Clarissa declared bankruptcy for a third time in October 2003, after a series of bungles by BBC over how they handled the timing of series three of “The Countryman”, and failure to renew for series four.
- 2004 – February. Clarissa was given Special Branch protection to protect her from anti-hunting radical activists angry that she had entered a greyhound in an upcoming hunting event in Lancashire in March 2004. In the same year, Clarissa set up her own bookstore in Edinburgh, Scotland called “The Cooks Bookshop”, off Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, with a Henry Crichton-Stuart as her business partner. The store was small, specializing in used and old cookbooks. The store received some threats from radical animal activists as well.
- 1996. The Haggis: A Little History (with Clare Hewitt)
- 1999. Hieland Foodie. Scottish Recipes, many historical.
- 1999. What We Eat and How We Eat It. 1901 – 2000 (An anthology of food writing that covers the 1900s, edited by Wright)
- 2002. A Caledonian Feast (with Annette Hope)
- 2004. The Game Cookbook
- 2005. A Greener Life: The Modern Country Compendium
- 2007. Spilling the Beans
- 2007. The Game Cookbook (with Johnny Scott)
- 2008. Clarissa’s Comfort Food
- 2009. Rifling Through My Drawers
- 2009. A Greener Life (with Johnny Scott)
- 2010. Sunday Roast (with Johnny Scott)
- 2010. Potty!
- 2011. A History of English Food.
- 2011. The Great British Food Revival (contributor)
- 2012. Garlic: the Mighty Bulb: Cooking, Growing and Healing With Garlic (with Natasha Edwards)
- 2013. Clarissa’s England
Literature & Lore
“I believe in bankruptcy: it gives you the chance to sort things out.” — Clarissa Dickson Wright. London: Daily Telegraph. 10 October 2003.
“…These dishes can, of course, also be done with prawns, or with the cheaper, frozen Canadian Lobster, which is finding its way more and more into the shops in this country. You can always tell a Canadian Lobster because its head is a different colour red, a more brick red, and it has a triangular shape rather like an old flinthead arrow. If people try to sell these to you as British Lobsters, get extremely stroppy with them indeed, because they are not the same thing and should not be charged at the same price.” — Clarissa Dickson Wright, “Two Fat Ladies Obsessions”, 1999.
“It is a well-known fact that I loathe Jamie Oliver.” — Clarissa Dickson Wright. In Forham, Alice. Clarissa Dickson Wright spills the beans. London: Sunday Times. 29 September 2007.
Farndale, Nigel. Clarissa Dickson Wright: ‘They don’t call me Krakatoa for nothing’. London: Daily Telegraph. 13 September 2009.