Life and Times
Jennifer Paterson gained overnight fame as one of the two principals on the TV series called “Two Fat Ladies,” and as co-author of the accompanying cookbooks.
She also wrote columns for The Spectator and The Oldie, did TV appearances on Food and Drink on BBC 2, and was often on the BBC Radio 4 programme called “Questions of Taste.”
She was a fan of things cooked properly, and not undercooked as was the fashion at the time. She commented on the pasta to a waiter in one Italian restaurant, saying “I asked for al-dente dear, not breaka-the-dente.” She also advocated a return to good, traditional cooking, modern shifting health science be damned.
Many felt she was a memorable character. She always had her fingernails brightly painted, and wore false eyelashes. She always watched TV with the volume exceedingly high. She smoked — Woodbine cigarettes — and drank like a fiend, yet was a devout Catholic, giving up alcohol for Lent, and attending mass every Sunday, even when they were travelling about the country filming the The Two Fat Ladies series.
She spoke Portuguese, because at one point she had lived in Porto, Portugal. She worked at one point for the artist Fiore De Henriquez as her personal assistant, and had been a housekeeper for a diplomat from Uganda.
Chronology of her life
- 1928 — Jennifer Mary Paterson was born 3 April 1928 at Redcliffe Gardens in Kensington, London. Her father, Robert Paterson, was an army officer in the Seaforth Highlanders; her mother was Josephine Bartlett. She had two brothers, Charles and James. As soon as she was born, her family went to China, for her father’s only civilian job, with the Asiatic Petroleum Company, where they lived until she was four years old. Her family then returned to England, living in Rye, East Sussex. Jennifer was sent to a boarding school at Assumption Convent in Ramsgate. At the age of 15, she was expelled from the convent school, and went instead to Kingston Art School.
- 1944 — She worked as an assistant stage manager in Windsor at the Theatre Royal for a production of “The Ghost Train.” Afterwards, for a short time she was a matron at a girls boarding school Padworth College in Berkshire. She then wrote for the London Mystery Magazine, and travelled about Europe, cooking for families and looking after their children.
- 1952 — Jennifer returned to England. At one point over the next few years, she worked for Candid Camera behind the scenes for Jonathan Routh.
- 1965 — Reputedly was in a film called “Fish and Millican.”
- 1973 — Her 45th birthday party at Jonathan Routh’s home on Sloane Street, London, became so rowdy that it was raided by the police. Upon seeing them, she shouted “Here are the fuzz! Have some fizz!” Throughout the 1970s, she was at all the best parties in London. She had many gay friends, but complained that the glamour had gone out of homosexuality when they made it legal.
- 1977 — In May, she became the in-house cook for the Spectator magazine office in Doughty Street to make weekly lunches. Sometime afterward, she began writing for them about food as well. The Spectator had run an article by a Digby Anderson, and Paterson challenged her boss, saying, “If he can do it, why can’t I?”
- 1980 — From about 1980 onwards, Jennifer lived with her uncle, Anthony Bartlett at 180a Ashley Gardens, in London. Her mother’s younger brother, he was Gentleman at Arms to the Cardinal Archbishops of Westminster, a post which he had inherited from his father. Her other uncle and Anthony’s brother, Francis Bartlett, was the senior priest at Westminster Cathedral. Her mother had already gone to live with Anthony when her husband died. Before that, Jennifer had lived in a penthouse in Eaton Square loaned to her by the Duchess of Westminster. Jennifer would live with her uncle until her death. She didn’t particularly cook dinner for him, if only because he was often out late with church work.
- 1988 — She lost her job at the Spectator for throwing dishes out the window. She had arrived to start cooking, and found that someone had left the kitchen in a state. She started tossing dirty mugs out the window into the next-door garden of the National Association of Funeral Directors. “Yes, the dirty mugs belonging to all those ghastly common people in advertising cluttering up my kitchen. I threw them all out,” she said when challenged. Spectator editor Charles Moore fired her on the spot. But after two weeks, she just started coming in again, and then within a month, he gave her her job back, and she continued as cook there until 1992. She also continued working for the magazine as a writer.
- 1986 — She was an extra in the film “Caravaggio.”
- 1990 — She published her first book “Feast Days”, a compilation of her columns in the Spectator.
- 1991 — She first met Clarissa Dickson-Wright at a party in Tuscany, Italy.
- 1996 — Patricia Llewellyn, a producer at BBC2, brought Jennifer and Clarissa Dickson-Wright together to do the series, “Two Fat Ladies”, which lasted 4 1/2 years until Jennifer’s death. The two travelled throughout the English countryside, and took over kitchens and cooked for people. There was butter, cream, lard, bacon, red meat, salt and offal everywhere. They journeyed in a Triumph Thunderbird 900cc: Jennifer drove, Clarissa sat in the sidecar. In her personal life, though, Jennifer actually drove a Honda 90cc scooter. Jennifer and Clarissa published 3 books based on the series.
- 1998 — Jennifer appeared as Justice Bradley in the film “What Rats Won’t Do.”
- 1999 — She appeared in part two of the episode called “Deadly Games” in the “Cold Squad” series. She also appeared as “Alice” in part one of the episode called “A Cinderella Story” in the “Da Vinci’s Inquest” series. She died later that year, halfway through the fourth Fat Ladies series. She wrote her will five days before entering the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, where she died on 10 August 1999. The funeral was at the Brompton Oratory, attended by over 1,000 people. She was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery, South London. She left her Honda 90cc scooter to the priest at Brompton Oratory, and to the Oratory itself, she left £286,548.
The last Fat Ladies show was taped at Knowlsley Safari Park (the fourth year had actually already been slated to be the last.)
She kept on smoking right up to the end, saying “it’s terminal cancer – so why not?”
1990. Feast Days: Recipes from ” The Spectator ”
1997. Jennifer’s Diary: By One Fat Lady
1999. Jennifer Paterson’s Seasonal Receipts (also published in various markets titled as A Fat Lady Cooks and Seasonal Recipes)
For co-authored books, see entry on Two Fat Ladies.
“Jennifer Paterson One Fat Lady, One Large Life.” Biopic on Jennifer Paterson by Patricia Llewellyn, 1999. ( https://www.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2b83f436cb )
Barrow, Andrew. Obituary: Jennifer Paterson. London: The Independent. 11 August 1999.
Moore, Charles. The Fat Lady Sings. London: The Spectator. 14 August 1999.