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Interview - Clarissa Dickson Wright

Up on the moors, a prickly meeting with Clarissa and Johnny...

Clarissa Dickson Wright; 'I get death threats, but I'm not worried about that.'We drive south-east from Edinburgh under a cloudless sky and luminous autumn sunshine. There is no heat in the rays, but they bathe the countryside with a cold, milky shimmer that is unmistakably, alluringly Scottish. Once past the sturdy, neat villages of Haddington and Gifford, the scenery changes abruptly as the woodlands and fields give way to a bleaker and more beautiful prospect: the rolling heather moors of the border country.

At 1,200ft above sea level, we begin to see the Lammermuirs looming in the distance, their purple flanks lightly speckled with clusters of sheep. Every now and then, my companion, the photographer Christine Boyd, slows down as a pheasant scuttles across the road.

Although the moors around us look empty and barren, they are teeming with wildlife; rabbits, foxes - and grouse in particular. After admiring the flash and glint of peaty brown streams, now in full spate as they course down the hillsides, we concentrate in silence for we have to count cattle grids carefully in order to reach our destination.

This pastoral tranquillity is broken when a sports car roars up behind, then impatiently overtakes. Except it doesn't. On a dipping two-lane road, the car draws level and stays there; our engine bonnets practically touching as both vehicles hurtle together towards what seems like certain doom.

"Christ - look at that maniac!" I exclaim to Christine.

"I know," she says, risking a sideways glance. "Oh God," she then yelps. "It's Clarissa."

And so it is. A maniacally grinning Clarissa Dickson Wright is hunched over the dashboard of her shiny Saab, one hand on the wheel and the other frantically waving across in greeting.

"Wave back, quickly," I say, and only when we nervously flutter our hands in her direction does she seem satisfied. She then points forwards helpfully, gives a thumbs-up sign, then stamps on the accelerator and zooms away. For the rest of the journey, we see the occasional, distant flash of her brake lights as she expertly takes a corner or breasts a hill.

Clearly - let's hope so anyway - Dickson Wright knows these quiet roads extremely well. Since she moved to Scotland seven years ago, she has become accustomed to making the trip from her home in Musselborough to the 5,000-acre hill farm where her childhood friend Sir John Scott Bt tends to his flock of 1,500 black-faced sheep.

Forty years ago, Clarissa and Johnny grew up together on the East Sussex downs; playing with his pet ferrets and terriers, disappearing all day on their ponies with a packet of sandwiches for sustenance. In the intervening years, their paths forked and their lives were shaded with troubles.

Although both were born to money and privilege, both had it removed. Barrister Dickson Wright became an alcoholic and saw her glittering career at the Bar float away on a lake of gin. Scott's father, Sir Walter, lost much of the family fortune at Lloyd's when the Torrey Canyon sank in 1967.

Famously, Clarissa sobered up and found success as one half of the eccentric television cookery team, Two Fat Ladies. Johnny, in the meantime, found his own particular kind of peace, with marriage, children and a tenant hill farm in this magnificent corner of the country.

How did they find each other again? On the first day that Clarissa moved north in 1993, there was a message waiting for her to call a mysterious telephone number. When she did so, a familiar voice boomed down the line.

"Hello, Petal," said Johnny.

"Hello, Silly Nit," cried Clarissa.

By the time we reach the whitewashed cottage, Petal is striding about in the yard in proprietorial fashion, yakking merrily with little Nit. Looking rather like one of Ken Dodd's Diddymen, Clarissa is wearing the most extraordinary pair of plus-fours - fashioned from cherry-coloured corduroy - a striped orange shirt and a green, padded body-warmer.

Surprisingly for one so keen on country pursuits, her pallor is as grey as porridge and her rotund shape tapers away to little feet, clad in plimsolls and thick blue socks. Following a childhood riding accident, she has a metal plate in one of her feet. "It doesn't go off when I go through airports - it goes off when I fall flat on my face," she cries. Nit finds this very amusing.

Johnny cuts a rather more dashing figure. Although slight and wiry in his gently fraying, Tattersall check shirt, he has the compact toughness and ruddy complexion of one who spends his working days out on the Berwickshire hills in all weather.

"He shoots me rabbits to make pâtés and terrines with," says Clarissa, although the truth is that they have cooked up something much more startling together.

A Countryside Alliance

Finding themselves living in a countryside threatened - as they see it - by urban and political misunderstanding, the two friends were fired by the idea of making a television series designed to show the gritty realities of country life and the positive side of field sports.

"And I said, if I am going to do this, I want to do it with Johnny," says Dickson Wright.

"It was an incredible opportunity to get the countryside portrayed as it really is. And Clarrie is the BBC's most valuable property," says Scott, revealing a touching loyalty to his friend.

"I am a valuable asset to the BBC, I was in a position to get what I wanted," says Clarissa.

As much to their surprise as anyone else's, the BBC agreed and the popular series Clarissa and the Countryman was born. Trawling across the country in pursuit of rural action, we see them at a hind cull in Mull, wildfowling in Norfolk and hare-coursing on the Altcar estate, among many other hunting, shooting and fishing escapades.

It angers Dickson Wright that field-sports devotees are always portrayed in the British media as "toffs with braying accents or half-witted yokels with a straw in their mouth". She hopes that her programmes will go some way towards dispelling this image. "Field sports are classless," she says. "You meet all types there - chefs, district nurses, policemen."

Her high-profile endorsement of hunting has, unsurprisingly, made her a target for anti blood-sports activists. In one televised scene in the series, we hear someone in the crowd chanting, "One Fat Lady's dead. One to go", in reference to the death of her former cooking collaborator, Jennifer Paterson. Dickson Wright remains unperturbed about this or, indeed, any controversy which the Countryman programmes might engender.

"I get death threats," she says. "I'm not worried about all that. I get sent dreary letters, but if anyone actually did anything to me, I would stand up and say so. There would be the most almighty fuss about it."

I don't doubt it for a minute. The formidable Dickson Wright is also keen to take on the Blair government, professing herself to be "appalled" that they accepted a donation of £1.1 million from the International Fund For Animal Welfare, an American association that, she claims, is banned as a terrorist organisation in certain parts of the world.

"But I think they [the Government] are moving back from the brink on this. I hope so, because it will lead to civil war if they don't. It really will. I mean, Oliver Cromwell was a country squire."

In the book that accompanies the series, Dickson Wright writes: "We believe passionately in a way of life that is under threat from misunderstanding, misconception and bureaucratic interference. Our energy will have been in vain if those of you who are Townies, or who do not understand the points we are trying to make, do not read this book with an open mind and a willingness to. Listen to us."

Townie Versus Country

As a mission statement, it is startlingly unequivocal. In Johnny and Clarissa's heathery world, the distant towns are hotbeds of ignorance and wilfulness, whereas kindly country folk are wreathed with wisdom and common sense at every turn. The speculation that the recent outbreak of swine fever was caused by a townie rambler's discarded ham sandwich is the kind of news that they relish.

In a perfect example of this kind of rather narrow-minded cogitation, Clarissa's attention is suddenly distracted by the sight of four people moving slowly across a nearby moor with metal detectors.

"What on earth are they doing?" she says crossly.

"Don't worry. The gamekeepers will get them," says Scott.

It does not, for a second, occur to either of them that the searchers might have every right to be there. One can only suspect that their bid to portray the country "as it really is" will be a singular vision of the country as they know it.

"No. It is the experience of living in the countryside," insists Scott. "Life in the country is built around traditional country sports, which the present Government is determined - for its own political ends - to destroy."

`People in towns say it is so easy - you just sit there and watch things grow and then whinge when you don't get decent prices or subsidies," says Dickson Wright. "What they don't realise is what hard work it is. Gruellingly hard. It is one thing to have people sitting there saying it, but it is another to see them actually doing it."

Clarissa changes into hiking boots and finds a hat somewhere that she crams atop her greasy, bobbed hair. Johnny fires up his pipe, as we move across the yard to climb into his Jeep and head out to the moors. His four-wheel-drive vehicle is impressively splattered with mud and festooned with bullbars.

"Ooh. I've only ever seen one of these in a supermarket car park before," says Christine. Then Scott's Jack Russell terrier becomes sexually attracted to my furry handbag, which I've left on the ground, and attempts to urinate on it.

"Yikes," we townsfolk cry in unison.

As we drive through the moors, conversation turns to the kind of country matters that really interest me: food. As Scott chats away, his countryman eyes ceaselessly rove over the hills, checking his flock, looking for signs of anything untoward.

Every year at this time, his hill lambs are taken from their ewes and sold, but the "tragedy" is that there is no domestic market for them because they are too small. They either get sold through the store market system - and are fattened up on turnips before they appear in cellophane wrappers on supermarket shelves - or are shipped abroad.

"They are heather-fed, with a flavour that is unique to Scotland, but no one wants them here," he says. "After eating the turnips, they cease to be organic and lose all their lovely, gamey taste. But the French, the Italians and the Spaniards love them."

It's true. I can recall once ordering leg of lamb in Extremadura in Spain and being taken aback when the plate arrived with a whole, tiny baby leg on it. It was delicious.

The butcher David Lidgate is trying to persuade the Meat and Livestock Commission to add a new specification to recognise and make available different breeds of lamb to British consumers. Until then, we'll just have to stand back and watch all these goodies being shipped out as farmers such as Johnny Scott are forced to sell their lambs for pounds 10 each, while they retail on supermarket shelves at pounds 14 a kilo. Sometimes it's not hard to see why they all complain so much.

Apart from the more glamorous hunting aspects in the programme, Dickson Wright and Scott are keen to show the coarser side of country living, although some of it had to be edited, because the BBC felt that townie viewers were not quite ready for the bloody reality of farm life.

"They didn't want to show the skinning of the dead lambs," says Johnny.

"Quite fascinating," says Clarissa with relish. "You take the skin off the dead lamb and put it on to the live lamb . . . "

"So the ewe thinks it smells like her lamb," says Johnny.

"Or you put the lamb in a bucket of hot water and then rub it all over with the dead lamb's liver. Then it comes out hot and steaming. Mummy thinks it's hers and licks it all clean."

Clarissa, I say, you've never lived on a farm. And now you're a townie from Musselborough. How do you know all this stuff?

"Because Johnny told me," she says, and the pair bellow with laughter as we drive along the silent moor.

It hardly needs explaining that as their friendship was forged and then interrupted in childhood, it has been held in a state of suspended animation ever since. When together, they instantly regress to the kiddie companionship of yesteryear, which they admit that others do not always find amusing.

"Our friendship is really energising. We have the same sense of the ridiculous, things that other people don't find in the least bit funny," says Johnny.

"When we were filming," says Clarissa, "we would make some puerile remark at breakfast, then sob with laughter. Everyone else would just sit there looking pompous. I think they were missing out on something."

Like what, I say, keen to get in on the joke.

"Well, Clarrie had this little strap hanging down from her shooting stool," says Johnny.

"And it became known as my tapeworm," shrieks Clarissa. "It just reduced us to tears."

It will be interesting to see how their giggly, exceptional relationship transmits to the small screen. Although Two Fat Ladies was an enormous success - "Clarissa is the most famous cook in the world," says ever-loyal Johnny - I always felt that the joshing liaison between Dickson Wright and Paterson struck a false note. Away from the food and the cameras, they clearly had nothing in common at all.

"I used to instigate all the conversations between us. Jennifer was away in a dream quite often. Or away with a dram," says Dickson Wright. "With Johnny, there is much more batting back and forwards. We made it up as we went along."

Strangely enough, although Clarissa and the Countryman was a joint production between BBC Scotland and the BBC in London, neither camp could come up with a technical crew that was knowledgeable about country matters. This meant that Clarissa and Johnny - the former in particular - took more control than is usual for television presenters.

"It was very important that we got it right. We didn't want to make Carry On in the Country," says Johnny.

"They wanted jolly japes and me cooking. Never!" says Clarissa. "I am a bad- tempered old bat, such a perfectionist, so there were clashes. I can be quite ferocious."

It is not hard to imagine the achingly polite Scott trailing behind Dickson Wright's impressive bulk, up hill and down dale, pouring diplomatic oil on the troubled waters she created.

`Hasn't he got a wonderful voice, a beautiful butterscotch voice?" agrees Clarissa, who is also loyal to a fault to her friend.

With others, however, she can be more chilly. When filming the hind cull in Mull, Dickson Wright ticked off her technical team for turning up in the wrong clothes.

"They were very plucky, but they turned up in designer snowboarding anoraks and those awful fleeces that have no wool in them at all," she tuts.

"And visible. The hinds could see them," sighs Johnny.

"Light blue fleeces," shrieks Clarissa.

We leave the Jeep and wander down to a stream to take some photographs. Sadly, Dickson Wright's "Buttock Man" is not on hand to help us navigate the bank, which has been washed away by recent rainstorms. During the filming of the series, the poor chap was permanently on hand to hoist his charge in and out of agricultural vehicles or to propel her forwards on the more rugged stretches of terrain.

One day, cracking under the strain, he got a bit cheeky. "So I said wipe that smile off your face or I will crack my stick around your head," she says, as she and Johnny collapse with laughter at another of their impenetrable jokes.

Eventually, Clarissa Dickson Wright and Johnny Scott found a producer with whom they could work well. She learnt quickly about countryside matters; she was resourceful and intelligent.

"She had a really good handle on things. And then, she promptly gets pregnant. Wonderful for her, but a great shame," says Clarissa.

But then that's country folk for you. They are quite happy to let nature take its course - unless it happens to inconvenience them.

Copyright: Jan Moir

  • This interview was first published in October 2000. © Jan Moir

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