10/20/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
CLARISSA DICKSON WRIGHT AND JENNIFER Paterson are on a mission. Darting in and out of stores in London's bustling Berwick Street Market, they squeeze, then purchase an eggplant here, inspect and reject an artichoke there and stop at a sausage shop. "Hello," says Dickson Wright when the owner appears. "I'm Clarissa Dickson Wright, Fat Lady."
That title used to carry weight only in Great Britain, where Dickson Wright, 50, and Paterson, a self-described "60 going on 70," star in Two Fat Ladies, an eccentric cooking show that, since it started last year, has become the BBC's version of must-see TV. Now America's Food Network is getting a piece of the action. Since Sept. 5, when they began airing the half-hour show on weekends, it has turned into FN's hottest new program. "There's been an overwhelming response by our viewers to the Fat Ladies," says Food Network CEO Erica Gruen. "People love them."
The Fat Ladies aren't surprised. "The millions of people that flock to our show find us a breath of fresh air," says Paterson. Adds Dickson Wright: "We're unconventional and not worried with what the latest nutritionist told you that you shouldn't eat. We eat what we like." And what they like—bubble and squeak (potatoes and cabbage), pumpkin prosciutto gnocchi, tomato summer pudding, among other dishes—is liberally seasoned with irreverent one-liners thymed just right. During a recent shoot at a Boy Scout camp-out, Paterson asked Dickson Wright how one starts a campfire. "Rub two Boy Scouts together," she quipped. On their Tonight Show appearance Sept. 24, Paterson casually told Jay Leno how she once cooked sheep's testicles thinking they were sweetbreads. "They're the most unexpected kind of stars," says Fat Ladies producer Patricia Llewellyn, who created the show. "Two posh, fat, middle-aged women, when all TV wants are 25-year-old anodyne blondes."
Girth and mirth aren't the only things the women have in common. Both come from upper-class London families. Dickson Wright's father, Arthur, was surgeon to the royal household and a gourmand from whom she learned her way around a roast. "I hated my father, and he hated lawyers," says Dickson Wright, explaining why she enrolled in law school, becoming a trial lawyer at 21. After her mother, Molly Bath, an Australian heiress, died in 1975 (her father had abandoned the family in 1968), Dickson Wright inherited a sizable fortune but began drinking heavily. Her dipsomania peaked at two bottles of gin (and 100 cigarettes) a day, which, she says, "took away the ambition" to practice law.
To earn a living, Dickson Wright, who by then had squandered much of her fortune, began cooking privately for a London tycoon. She lost that job in 1987 after being arrested for not showing up in court on a drunken-driving charge. She avoided jail but at once entered detox and an alcoholism recovery program. In April, Dickson Wright celebrated her 10th year of sobriety.
Paterson's past is only slightly less dramatic. Born to an army major father and a homemaker mother, she attended English convent schools until she was expelled at 15. "They said if I left, the school might settle down," she recalls. She eventually moved to Portugal, where she worked as a nanny for wealthy families. Paterson returned to London and became a jill-of-all-trades: editor for a mystery magazine, assistant to a hermaphrodite sculptor, a regular on Candid Camera in the early '60s and a cook turned columnist for London's The Spectator magazine (a job she still holds). "I've no qualifications," says Paterson. "I get jobs by mistake."
Except, that is, for her collaboration with Dickson Wright, which Llewellyn engineered after having met both women separately. "Jennifer and I hit it off," says Dickson Wright, who lives in a rented 17th-century lodge in Edinburgh and, like Paterson (who resides with an uncle in a London flat), has never married. "It was as if we had cooked together all our lives. Very strange."
So is their show's title, but the two aren't bothered by being called fat. "I don't think I'll ever see thinness," says Paterson. As for Dickson Wright, she had a different gripe about the show's title. "I used to get put off by the Ladies because it sounds like the public lavatory," she says. "But I'm getting used to it now."
LYDIA DENWORTH and LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London