After a brief ride around my blog, oftentimes newcomers ask me to provide a reason why I love old films. A follow-up question revolves around why, for heaven’s sake, I don’t have a job working for Turner Classic Movies. I have no gratifying answer to the latter; it’s all I can muster to respond, “Well I don’t know, but my résumé and I keep tryin’ once a week.” But a single reason why I love old films? One needs only to look at my nightstand to uncover a glaring answer to that multilayered question. Always within eyesight from anywhere in the apartment, I can see on that nightstand my Liza Minnelli concert tickets leaning up against my Cher tickets. A ceramic cat that paces from coaster to candle holder, ensuring the safety of these precious documents, has guarded both ladies staunchly for months. Yes, perhaps that nightstand reveals a few other things about my personality, but trust me, I thought of all those jokes before you did, so let’s settle down, shall we? A friend once asked me, “Is there anyone you like who’s under 50?” A shrug and a half-smile was the best I could do before offering up, “Judy only made it to 47; does that count?”
So why do I love those old films? Simple – because they just don’t make characters like they used to. Liza’s voice may not reach the heights that it once conquered with ease, but after all these years, she’s still such a character, old chum. Her charm, humor, and, oy, that laugh of hers all shine like her red sequins, allowing her to captivate her audience the second she dazzles herself on to that stage. And Cher . . . well, come on, it’s frickin’ Cher! The rest of the world is unaware that it is, in fact, my father who is responsible for Cher’s long career. One day at the farmers’ market in Los Angeles, Sonny, Cher, and (at the time) Chastity were crossing the road in the parking lot, when Dad almost ran them over. His eyes locked with Cher’s as he slammed on the brakes, and I can only imagine what kind of dirty look her face muscles were able to assemble in those days. Had it not been for Dad’s catlike instincts, the universe may have had a distinctively different entertainment landscape.
Today we lost another character, quite unlike the glittery ladies mentioned above, but a character just the same. Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the two chefs who made up the dynamic duo on the cooking show, Two Fat Ladies, died this week at the age of 66. Riding in the sidecar of a Triumph Thunderbird motorbike driven by Jennifer Paterson (who passed away in 1999), Clarissa and Jennifer were two of the most entertaining characters a young boy could hope to discover. In its infant days before the reality game shows took over, the Food Network brought Two Fat Ladies into my living room, and immediately I was setting the VCR timer to record as many shows as I could capture. Today the DVD box set occupies a top shelf of mine, also within the ceramic cat’s jurisdiction and watchful eye. While other young men papered their teenage bedroom walls with pictures of thinner but equally buxom women, I was ripping up my Two Fat Ladies calendar and filling an entire wall with 12 hilarious photos of Clarissa and Jennifer, compulsory viewing for all passersby.
As they motored from place to place, often cooking in the U.K.’s most beautiful cities and kitchens, they were hardly shy about offering their personal opinions when it came to the culinary arts. Singing the praises of using real cream in the first episode, Jennifer teaches us, “Yogurt is perfectly fine for your breakfast . . . or if you have a poor tummy . . . or if you’re a vegetarian or something.” Clarissa was equally prepared with humorous zingers about vegetarians, always delivered dryly as she packed her pheasant and pickled walnut terrine with layers of bacon. While preparing her cake pan, Clarissa offered as guidance, “You really want to get it well greased. You know, did you see Last Tango in Paris? Something like that.” In one episode while Clarissa was off camera preparing a Welsh lamb pie, Jennifer took over and prepared a tartine sandwich . . . it was “Be Kind to Vegetarians Week,” as long as they could eat an anchovy. When Clarissa’s pie was ready, she and her lamb shuffled back into the shot, while Jennifer welcomed her with, “Here comes Madam.” The funny bone is not without its curiosities, but by golly, that tiny play-by-play comment of Jennifer’s and the sisterly tone that she lends to the word “Madam”give me the giggles every time. From venison medallions with blackberries to devilled kidneys and lamb in filo pastry, these two characters embraced everything sweet and savory about their lives, both in and out of the kitchen.
Therefore today we say cheers to Clarissa Dickson Wright! Cheers to Jennifer Paterson! And cheers to the characters that have survived all these years with drivers like my father out there on the road.