Lugubrious master of all trades he engaged in
SIR CLEMENT Freud, who has died suddenly aged 84, was one of those rare English characters who managed to excel in several spheres: caterer, theatre club owner, journalist, broadcaster and politician. These diverse activities were underpinned by one of the distinctive personalities of the age, lugubrious but engaging.
He came to politics relatively late in life, winning for the Liberal Party the Isle of Ely constituency at the 1973 byelection, caused by the death of the sitting Tory MP, Sir Harry Legge-Bourke.
Freud was by then in his 50th year and he held the outwardly rural conservative seat for 14 years, through the next four general elections, finally losing the redistributed seat of NE Cambridgeshire in 1987. During that time, he endeared himself to his constituents, who had taken to him as a character.
A grandson of Sigmund Freud, the psychiatrist and originator of psychoanalysis, he was born in Berlin, one of three sons of Ernst Freud, an architect, and his wife Lucie (Brasch). His elder brother is the artist Lucian. The family fled the rise of Nazism in 1933 and moved to London.
His father enrolled him as an apprentice in the kitchens of the Dorchester hotel, after he had been educated at a Hampstead prep school and St Paul’s school, southwest London, where he had to learn English virtually from scratch. This versatility was put to use when he served as a liaison officer at the 1946 Nuremberg war crimes trials, following war service with the Royal Ulster Rifles.
He returned to the hotel business in Cannes, in the south of France, and during the 1950s his cookery journalism led him into writing on sport and other subjects. In the 1960s came his celebrated pet food television commercial and the start of the broadcasting career that lasted for the rest of his life.
Thus he was a self-made man and had a ready sympathy for the underdog that was invaluable in dealing with constituents’ problems. He also displayed endless personal kindness towards his parliamentary colleagues and friends, although he could be an awkward dining companion in any restaurant that he did not know himself.
He stood loyally by the Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, but when Thorpe became hopelessly engulfed in public scandal, he was the one who persuaded him to resign in 1976, the letter being composed and signed in Freud’s London home.
He involved himself ahead of time in three eventually successful cross-party campaigns in the House of Commons: against cuts in the BBC overseas service (1981); by introducing a Bill on Sunday trading (1980); and bringing in a freedom of information Bill.
On the day of the Callaghan government’s defeat in a no- confidence vote in March 1979, he was made the tempting offer that if he stayed away and abstained, the government would ensure his freedom of information Bill became law before the expected general election. He refused and both the government and his Bill fell.
He bought a house at Mepal in his constituency, holding an annual fundraising fete, ably supported by his wife Jill.
His wit was much appreciated. “We’ve lost the tree vote,” he announced. “More than 16,000 trees in the Isle of Ely have signified their intention of voting Tory,” was his response to a lavish poster campaign against him.
In the Commons, he kept his wit in check and was a most effective spokesman for the Liberal Party on education, the arts and broadcasting. Behind the scenes, he was appointed chairman of the Liberals byelection unit, during which time he masterminded Liberal victories at Edgehill (1979), Bermondsey (1983) and Brecon (1985).
His nose for victory and skill at gambling provided him and favoured colleagues with a small, regular source of income at the conclusion of each of these campaigns. However, his advice was not always sound.
He organised an invitation to tea at the Commons for the prospective Liberal candidate for Bermondsey – where a byelection was expected – with the candidate to be accompanied by his wife.
The unlucky individual was to be persuaded to avoid the perils and publicity spotlight of a byelection and get him to stand down in favour of a young bright local lawyer, Simon Hughes. The plot backfired when the wife told people in Bermondsey that the party thought so highly of her husband that they had been invited to tea at the Commons.
Fortunately the byelection was sufficiently delayed for a later, democratic coup to take place.
If gastronomy was his power base and politics his most open bid for public influence, it was his long career in the media that enabled Freud to enjoy the widest popular acclaim. Four decades with the BBC radio game Just a Minute, starting in 1967 and continuing until earlier this year, almost suggested that the game could have been designed for him.
To hear him, like an immobile spider, patiently eliminating the other contestants as they tried to talk for a minute on a given subject without hesitation, deviation or repetition, was always a slightly uncomfortable joy.
Allowing his rivals to tire themselves by talking until they had almost reached the minute, and then challenging them and talking with stony slowness for the remainder of the time, was a technique that seemed to owe rather more to his distinguished psychoanalyst ancestor than to the usual easy flamboyances of show business.
If his capacity not to be ruffled in any circumstances and his ingenuity in bending the given subject to what he wanted to say, was a little chilling (he was sometimes hissed by the studio audience like a pantomime villain), it gave him a distinctive public personality that was useful in his other excursions into the media.
These were extensive. After his early hotel catering experiences, he opened, as proprietor, the Royal Court Theatre Club in 1952, and was therefore well placed to share in the Royal Court’s fame when John Osborne and other radical playwrights shook up British theatre from their base in Sloane Square, west London, in the mid-1950s.
One visitor to the club was a newspaper editor who offered Freud a way into sports journalism for the Observer, which he continued until 1964, two years after he had given up the club.
For two years from 1961, he was the cookery editor of the then fashionable magazine Time and Tide. In the 1960s he wrote, sometimes as reporter, sometimes as sports writer and sometimes as columnist, for the Observer magazine, the Daily Telegraph, the Sun, the Sunday Telegraph, the News of the World and the Financial Times.
His continued to diversify his press outlets in the ensuing decades, from the Daily Express, the Radio Timesand the Guardianto the New Yorkerand Punch.
His books included Grimble(1968), Grimble at Christmas (1973) and Clicking Vicky(1980) for children; Freud on Food(1978), The Book of Hangovers(1981), Below the Belt(1983), No One Else Has Complained(1988), The Gourmet’s Tour of Great Britain and Ireland(1989) – and an autobiography , Freud Ego(2001).
His work to improve the standard of food dispensed by public institutions such as British Rail proceeded on the back of the media publicity generated by his involvement.
He was revered in the 1990s for supposedly bringing trains into the poached salmon (with Chinese leaf, dill and Dijon mustard) belt, although here his influence was perhaps nowhere near as long- lasting as his services to Just a Minute. “The presentation’s got better but the contents got worse,” said one disenchanted traveller afterwards.
Freud was on less intractable ground with the award-winning television commercial in which he and his bloodhound friend Henry – in reality a number of different dogs, all equally hangdog in appearance to him – endorsed Minced Morsels.
Freud was twice elected rector of the University of Dundee (1974-80). On his departure from the Commons, he would have been appointed to the House of Lords but for the notorious meanness of Margaret Thatcher towards Liberals. He was knighted instead for public service in 1987.
He married Jill in 1950. She survives him, as do three sons, one of them the PR expert Matthew, and two daughters, one of them the broadcaster Emma.
Clement Raphael Freud: born April 24th, 1924; died April 15th, 2009.