Fanny Cradock - The Life and Loves of a Kitchen Devil

Julia Darling
Theatre Royal Studio, York
(2005)

Fanny Cradock's name probably won't mean much to people under the age of 40, but if your televisual memory extends to the mid '60s and beyond she will need no introduction. Britain's first TV cook may have been on a mission to reform our stodgy national diet, but her appeal owed more to her commanding personality than to her recipes - which relied heavily on artificial food colourings, even though her show was in black and white. It was Fanny's hectoring manner, inch-thick makeup and outrageous dress sense that made her a legend in her own lifetime, together with her screen partnership with husband Johnnie (a self-effacing chap with a monocle who hovered at a respectful distance, like a courtier attending a Byzantine empress). But Fanny's TV career was only part of her extraordinary life.

By choosing to tell Fanny's story in the form of a one-hander Darling has laid a heavy burden on her impersonator. I use the word "impersonator" advisedly; Fanny Cradock, like Mae West, raised the art of self-parody to such dizzy heights that she looked and sounded like a man playing a woman. Sandra Hunt revels in her character's awesome self-confidence and astringent tongue, sweeping across the stage in her flamboyant frocks and savaging inept sound engineers, but she's a little too… well, feminine. Author and actress are at their best when Fanny takes a break from the studio and lets us in on some of the secrets of her private life, although it would probably take a TV miniseries to do justice to some of her revelations.

For example: those of us who wondered what on earth the Cradocks saw in one another need wonder no longer. Fanny was a firm believer in faith healing, ghosts (she was expelled from boarding school for holding a séance) and reincarnation. Apparently Fanny and Johnnie were lovers in Atlantis, but Fanny's dad - who happened to be King of the doomed continent - disapproved of the affair and had Johnnie's head chopped off. This would certainly explain Johnnie's humble demeanour when he was reunited with his princess in twentieth century England. He officially became Fanny's fourth husband just a few years before his death, Fanny having carelessly omitted to divorce hubby number three before bigamously tying the knot.

In spite of a few minor flaws, such as Fanny's tendency to break into doggerel verse at the drop of a soufflé, the play is a compelling portrait of a woman whose ruthless ambition was the product of an emotionally barren childhood. Brought up by her grandmother after her teenage mother lost interest in her, Fanny lost no time in dumping her own two sons with relatives and didn't meet them again until they were grown up (they promptly disappointed her and were cast out of her life again). Fanny Cradock was not a likeable woman and, according to author Julia Darling, she didn't give a damn whether people liked her or not. At the end of her life she had only one regret - that she was never made a Dame of the British Empire.

The production runs until 26th February

J. D. Atkinson