James Corden (Sunday Times Magazine – July 2017)

Outside Television City in Los Angeles – the CBS building – here’s a giant billboard of James Corden smilingly promoting the Late Late Show, which has been one of the most runaway successes a television host has ever had. He inherited the show when it was bottom of the rung for guests and viewers alike. Now The Late Late Show’s You Tube channel has over 2.6 billion viewers and after his first year the show was nominated for 4 Emmy Awards in 2016. Once inside he reminds me that he’d been working at CBS for nine months and the show had been on air for several weeks and he still had to show ID to get into the building.  Not any more. In 2015 he was knocking on publicists doors hopeful to get someone to sit on the sofa and he could only dream that proper stars could do Carpool karaoke with him. A year later he’s driving around the grounds of the White House with Michelle Obama and Missy Elliot singing Get Your Freak On.

I’m here to watch the show, which is fast paced, high energy and filled with joy.  The guests were Diane Lane, Benicio del Toro and Michael Fassbender.  And a new Carpool Karaoke with Harry Styles was premiered. I’ve sat in taped talk shows many times. They’re usually boring with sound bites edited and re-taped, mistakes etched out and filmed over. Not here. It’s a continued burst of infectious jaw aching laughter and pace with the odd self-deprecation where he’ll say things like he thinks he’s thin until he watches the show back. But more of that later.

Afterwards in the green room I tell him his show was great and he seems genuinely touched, modest to a fault. He’s bringing the show to London June 6-9th He’s more anxious than excited about it.  The UK loved him as a Fat Friend (he co-wrote wrote with Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame) and in Gavin and Stacey but then he became scrutinised. He could do no wrong and then he could do no right. He was called arrogant. His sketch show with Matthew Horne was panned yet on stage in One Man, Two Guvnors he enthralled. He took it to Broadway in 2012 and this in many ways set him up to become the talk show that he is – part musical theatre performer, part television actor, part existential joy. The guests all love him. He manages to be funny without being cruel. A rare gift.

The next morning I see him on the rooftop of the CBS building. He’s mid shoot and pretending to eat a chip from a newspaper wrapping. Quintessentially English but not necessarily quintessentially Corden. He tries to be good about the chips and he’s already done an hour in the gym. Once we’re ensconced in his office he abandons his desk in favour of a cosy sofa and comforting green juice. He shrugs, “I try.”

The office outside is filled with rails of suits and shoeboxes from Prada and Paul Smith. In one of the boxes is an award from Victoria’s Secret. TV’s sexiest host. He blushes pink and shuts the box tight.

With Corden there’s no interview tightrope walking. There’s no awkward moments. There’s no warm up. He’s very much as he is on TV. Always on always present, always to the max. Producers and assistants weave in and out to ask questions about the London shows. He asks them if he can tell me who the guests are or anything about it. They tell him no and he obeys.

Is he excited to return to the UK with a super successful show? “I feel more anxious than excited. Shows have gone across America but taking it to the UK brings a lot of technical problems.  What does the stage look like? How do we build the set? How do we afford it?”

Is he also anxious that the Brits may not embrace him in the same way as the Americans? You see him thinking as if it’s the first time it’s occurred to him but he’s used to people embracing him and then not embracing him.  “I guess, maybe but not really.  I think we have to be mindful that we are making a show or a predominantly American audience but it airs in 150 countries so were just going to make it as exciting as we can.”

So the guests that you’re not going to reveal. Do you choose people that you love or people that you already know? (he always seems to get on intimately with the occupants of his sofa). “I never know who they’re going to be till they’re here at the show. Most people are lovely and the environment of our show is warm and we just create organic conversations as much as you can.”

Of course nothing was organic as the start of his because American publicists did not want their clients to share a sofa with other guests. They were used to the traditional talk show format with guests coming on separately. “That’s where Graham Norton’s show was unbelievably useful.  We couldn’t book anyone for a long time.  The show traditionally had not been a slot with the widest of audience and after driving around to publicist’s offices they would often say my clients don’t sit with anyone else and I would say but they already did a year ago on Graham Norton. So we were starting below zero and that can be incredibly daunting. But what you have to do is take in all of the negative and make them plus points and people love an element of discovery. And as much as I was painfully aware of how unknown I was here, I had done my 10,000 hours.”

Malcolm Gladwell said you had to have done 10,000 hours of something to be good at it in his book The Story of Success and now in a total of 2 years, on You Tube alone, 2.6 billion You Tube views and ten million subscribers making it the fastest growing subscription channel in history. “It’s lovely,” he beams. There’s a padded heart on his shirt which seems a perfect metaphor. He’s wearing his heart on the outside and he’s not afraid to show the love. People feel at ease with him which is why Carpool Karaoke – the guests and James sing as they drive around in a car – works so well.

“There’s a humanising environment.” Oddly Mariah Carey was the first Carpool Karaoke of the Late Late Show although the idea had been premiered with George Michael back in 2011 and Gary Barlow for Comic Relief in 2017. Was he nervous? “Not really because I knew it was a good idea but in many ways I’m always nervous. I’m a fan of nerve. Nerves are good because if you’re nervous of something it matters. You want to do your best.   Like when we did One Man, Two Guvnors I remember so vividly the first preview of that show at the National Theatre. I wasn’t onstage for the first seven or eight minutes and I’d wait behind this door. The most nerve-wracking moments of my career have been behind that door and the day before this show started airing and I was behind the curtain and you know there’s a moment where you’re going out on the stage you have to enjoy nerves.

Does he fear being judged? “Of course, everybody does.” You’re only ever setting out to do something that’s your best. No-one sets out to do something bad.  You just want any criticism to be fair.” His eyes look a little distant. A little pained. Ever such a little.  Perhaps because there was a tine I the UK where criticism was heaped upon him. Was that one of expected? Was it one of those we’ll build you up to knock you down? Themes? He wasn’t allowed to stay on a Gavin and Stacey high forever. He nods. “It got out of proportion perhaps but the fundamental ting was the work I was doing wasn’t good enough. The sketch show (with Matthew Horne) wasn’t good enough. I hosted the Brits not well enough and then the film came out called the Lesbian Vampire Killers and it was awful. Really bad. But in many respects I’m thankful to it because it makes you realign yourself and think this is a serious thing and you’ve got to take your work seriously. The only time I got obsessed by it was the only time I felt there was an enjoyment I the bashing.”

I’d meant to warm up to this moment. I hadn’t meant for this difficult stuff to come so early in our conversation but he doesn’t mind. “Also something has changed in the retelling of this that somehow my career was over. I was responsible for the film, the Brits and the show that wasn’t good enough but it wasn’t like my career was over. At the very point that all these things were happening I was writing series 3 of Gavin and Stacey the most anticipated comedy of the year. So if that’s my low point I’ll take it.”

The shows finale which went out on New Year Day 2010 had an audience of 10 million and considering the show started off on the scarcely watched BBC3 this was an absolute milestone.  Does he feel he’s more appreciated in the US because Americans like a warmer tone and maybe the British humour is crueller? “No. Victoria Wood was warm, French and Saunders were quite warm. I don’t subscribe to that notion. “I don’t have any interest in making people feel uncomfortable. It’s not enjoyable to be constantly elevating yourself as a superior being which is what it is when you’re mocking someone or something. It can be funny once or twice but it’s a sure-fire way to get your show cancelled if you have one note and one tone. You have to keep changing it up and making it interesting for people.

I think the biggest difference is America doesn’t have a national press. It’s harder to get a momentum going…” The Corden bashing seems to him “a long, long time ago. It was before I met my wife about 8 years ago.”

This co-incides with a period where he seemed to be looking for love at all the wrong parties. He was on/off with Sheridan Smith then he met his wife Julia who worked for Save the Children and has been described as ‘a hot Mother Theresa’. He chuckles, “That wasn’t my line. That was Ben. Ben Winston my best man (and producer at CBS). It feels like another lifetime. Then I did a series called The Wrong Mans which I’m very proud of the I was in Into the woods and then I moved to America and launched this show. I’ve had my ratio of hits to misses. I hope I’m on the right side of hits. The misses had zero impact on my career. I never felt I came here and had to start again. I just carried on. Some people wrote things which weren’t very nice but you carry on. I think there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance and I would say I haven’t always trodden that line properly. I can understand why people might think I’m arrogant but I also don’t think it’s true.  I do have a sort of confidence if you like which can be perceived as something different. I don’t even know if that’s true. I think you can’t sum up the people of Britain buy what a few journalists have said. You can find something bad in anybody.”

And as Corden well knows, you can also find something good in anyone or any situation. “Part of the reason we want to take this show home is we felt a huge and overwhelming sense of positivity from the UK.  To appear on Carpool Karaoke you can’t take yourself seriously, yet Corden has had Adele, Michelle Obama, Stevie Wonder (driving) Madonna, One Direction, Katy Perry. Harry Styles, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Justin Bieber singing live with Corden, all of which have gone global. He has introduced a new audience to the show so they feel invested in its newfound success. Carpool Karaoke has had a zillion Facebook shares which means there’s a genuine anticipation for his return to the UK.  And I think he returns to feel the love.

Corden was born in August 1978 (38) in High Wycombe, the only boy with two sisters. His father was a musician in the Royal Air Force and is now a Christian bookseller. Corden seems remarkably well adjusted. His childhood was nothing like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but when he grew up both of his parents were in the Salvation Army. “Being in the Salvation Army was a huge part of our life until our parents realised that the particular Salvation Army we went to was full of the least Christian people you could ever meet. They were people who just wanted to wear a uniform.”

His mum and dad had the uniform but he left before it got to the stage of him wearing gone. “Maybe all churches are strange organisations because religion is one thing and people are another.” Is he still a Christian? “I don’t know…” There’s a pause while we shuffle cushions around on his couch. “I struggle with it sometimes. I am not one to question science. Science is great but at the same time if you’re growing up in a house but have the overwhelming feeling that all of this can’t be for nothing, it means you don’t know.  I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as heaven and hell but I hope there’s something else.”

Now a few years back when he was going through a bad time his mum and dad came round and his dad said, “We should all pray,” and they did. He found it comforting. “It was essentially my parents saying ‘you’re not on your own now. We’re here.’ And it’s incredibly moving when you spend any of those moments with your parents. I feel very fortunate that I’ve always had supportive parents… they pop up in the show and I’m sure they’ll be in London every night. My dad will be playing in the band.” (He plays saxophone, clarinet and flute).

They were in the audience at the Grammy’s and possibly will be again next year when he hosts the 70th Grammy’s in Madison Square Garden. This ear he’s not doing the Tony’s. “I felt I might have a little too much on my plate but the Tony’s is one of the best nights of my career.”

He was really at home on stage there. He knew everybody who was winning and losing. “It was an unbelievably supportive room.”

I’m not sure if it’s thinking of his recent trip to New York on the red eye and back again the next day but he yawns. I yawn. Why is yawning contagious? “It’s weird isn’t it? Also why can’t you tickle yourself?” we laugh.  It’s a very good thing laughing is contagious. “We bank on that on our shows. Last night he’d had a drink with Michael Fassbender and Benicio del Toro while Harry Styles was rehearsing. “It was lovely,” he smiles “And Harry. I’m very proud of him. I believed in all of those boys.”

At one point Styles moved in with the show’s producer Ben Winston who was like a godfather mentor figure. Did he ever have a mentor? “There have been people who have been unbelievably influential. Shane Meadows who cast me in a film called 24/7, a boxing movie with Bob Hoskins. He was 24 at the time. If you’re 17/18 working with a director who’s 24 you think oh, you don’t have to wait to do anything. You can just do it. He was an incredibly influential person in my life and the other one is theatre director Nick Hytner. I’ve worked with him twice in the History Boys and One Man Two Guvnors and these were both incredibly formative points in my life. I remember when I watched the first cut of the first ep of Gavin and Stacey. I was incredibly down and called him and he said are there three moments that you think are good enough and I said yes. I suppose so. And he said if you think there’s three there’s at least 10. It’s a bit like if you watch the movie of the book you wrote you’re visualising what was going on and what could never ever be but the more you live with what’s on screen the more you’ll fall in love with it.” He was completely right.”

Fortunately for Corden a lot of people fell in love with it.  Corden created Gavin and Stacey with Ruth Jones when he saw his peers, the other actors in The History Boys and his flatmate Dominic Cooper being offered roles in movies – leading roles and he would get offered the fat boy who delivers a TV to Hugh Grant. If there was no future for chubby boys as leading men he would have to create one so he and Jones created Smithy who was so loveable in Gavin and Stacey.  Does he miss acting? Being onstage? Acting on TV? His schedule is so intense it makes it almost impossible although he did do a few days shooting for a little part in Oceans 8.

He also plays Hi Five in Emoji Movie which opens this summer. It’s a big part and it’s super cute but it’s animated voiceover so it’s the kind of movie you can show up in your pyjamas and still do a great job. From doing so many TV shows he’s not only put in his ten thousand hours but his comedic timing is honed to perfection.

“I’ll be really disappointed in myself if I didn’t do another play.  I’m doing this show 4 days a week but not 4 days a week until I die.  We’ll see. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”

Corden was always a natural actor and prankster. When he was about 13 “I called in Richard and Judy on This Morning and told them I was being bullied at school. I was off school on a teacher training day but my Auntie Marilyn recognised my voice and called my mum and then I had to hang up. I’m not proud of it but I guess there were worse things I could have been doing at the age of 13. I said I was Chris from Buckinghamshire or something.”

In reality he was never bullied at school. He was never the fat boy who had to make jokes to be popular, and he even says there were plus points. 2my size and shape has helped me as many times as it hasn’t and that was the very thing that made me want to write.  That’s when I started talking to Ruth Jones about Gavin and Stacey.  There were eight of us boys as History Boys, all of similar ages and points in our careers and I’d be the character who’d drop a TV off or be the newsagent and everyone else was coming in with film scripts under their arms. And I had to think I’m only being offered these parts because some people would say if you look a certain way you’re not interesting to people and your stories are not as valid as other people’s. I always felt like I’d be offered a lead in something and then it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen and that’s when I thought OK. I ‘m going to have to muscle my way in here because no one was saying come and have a seat at the big table. That’s how the writing of Gavin and Stacey came about.”

His weight has been constantly fluctuating. He’s been stones bigger than he is now and lighter. He lost a lot of weight doing Amelia Freer diet that was successful for Boy George (look up) Her book was Eat Nourish Grow. “It’s always going to be a constant battle. I went to the gym this morning and look at the green juice. I’m trying.  There’s so secret to it. It’s eating less and doing more and trying to avoid bread. That’s my biggest weakness.”

And what about drinking? “I don’t really drink very much. I’ve never been a big drinker. I’ve never been let’s get a glass of wine. There’s a delicious cocktail at the Soho House called Eastern Standard and I like them but my biggest problem is avoiding toast. My children are always eating toast. Me and my wife in bed with marmite on toast at 10.30 watching Big Little Lies.” He beams, an extraordinary ear to ear blissful beam.

He has a six year old son Max and a 2 year old daughter Carey. “There’s not a diet I haven’t done. I’m trying to be good and going to the gym and there’s a dance class I like to go to every now and then.”

Is he not too famous for a dance class open to the public? “No, clearly not. Who is too famous to do a dance class?” Harry? “No he’s not.” Katy Perry? “No. once you’re in it you’re in it. You can’t start living your life like that.”

I tell him about when I did a Pilates class with Nicole Kidman and there were 300 paparazzi’s outside the watching us leave. He enthuses about the dance class. “It’s called Plyo-Jam and it’s dance using Plyometrics. Lots of jumping and moving and sweating for 45 minutes and old fashioned fucking star jumps.”

He finishes off his green juice. Very LA. “We’re here for another few years without question unless I get fired. We’ve just bought a house and we feel very settled as a family.”  Does hot Mother Theresa Julia work? “Yes. She’s got an amazing job looking after two and a half children – me being the half.” Where and how did you meet? “Through my old flatmate Dominic Cooper. They’ve known each other for years because they grew up in Blackheath. He introduced us.”

Was it love at first sight? “It was for me. I doubt it was for her but for me she’s incredible. People always talk about me and how much work the show must be but it’s nothing compared to what she does. Our daughter was only twelve weeks old when we moved here. I had to come out earlier because my daughter didn’t have a passport. It was a massive thing to just pick up our life and come here, you know.  And we’re happy because we’re together all of the time. It’s not like I’m doing a movie where I say I’ll be back in a few months or a play with eight shows a week where every night you’re on your own. Predominantly this show is me being here in this office coming up with ideas and then we go and shoot stuff and do the show. Home every night.”

So in a way it’s more stable for them as they see more of you. “Without a question. Yes. I’m off at weekends and that’s just glorious. I watch football on TV and play with my children.” Is he a good husband? “I hope so, yes. I certainly try to be.” Was he a good boyfriend? “I hope so otherwise I don’t think she would have said yes.” What about other relationships. His on/off with Sheridan Smith. Was that fun? “Yes,” he says hesitantly. “I really don’t want to talk about other relationships in my life because I wouldn’t want to read about my wife’s ex- boyfriend. I don’t know if Sheridan has got a partner but I don’t imagine he would want to read about fun times that we had so I always try to be respectful.  We certainly dated for a while.”

Does he stay in touch? “No, no. I don’t. No.” Is that because your wife wouldn’t like it? “No. it’s because we were together, then we weren’t.” And that’s it? “Yes.” Seems very definitive. Is he like that? “I don’t know if I’m like that or not but that’s the situation. My previous girlfriend before that, Shelley, I was with for seven years. We lived together and I think there’s a reason you stop being together so then to carry on in any other way is not my thing. It’s not anything that I’ve ever thought about doing. It doesn’t mean there’s any acrimony but it’s just not part of my life.”

It seems weirdly brutal if you think about it and especially odd for a man who’s so full of warmth but it has a logic to it. Things aren’t working, no children involved. You get on and concentrate on another relationship that IS working.  Is he the same person at home as he is at work? As full on? “I try to be but sometimes the days here are a spiral of constantly talking and I get home and the last thing I want to do is talk. However my wife would have spent the day talking less so I’ve realised is wherever you are and whatever you’re doing you just try to be present in that moment right there. Like I’m trying to be as present as I can in this interview as opposed to thinking after this I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. It’s the same in your home life. I try to be a present father and a present husband. It’s something you have to learn to do really.”

Does he sleep much? “Are you kidding? Last night I slept like a baby. 10 o’clock until 6am because the last two nights I was on a plane to New York and only got three hours sleep on a plane. Not fun but sometimes you’ve got to do it. You just don’t have any choice.”  He yawns again. “I could genuinely fall asleep right now but I’m not going to. I consider my job being the thing I have to care about every single second until the moment the show begins. Then all I have to care about is enjoying myself. That’s all I can do.

Shirley MacLaine

There’s no entourage, no publicist, no hotel suite, just Shirley Maclaine sweeping in to Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica with a big floaty scarf and lots of turquoise and diamond jewellery. Her greeting is a stare with the big twinkly spidery eyes. She exudes an aura that is powerful, certain, and a look and sharpness that can be instantly withering.
We can’t find a place to sit where our conversation is not drowned by a trumpet playing band so we go to the restaurant where everybody is extremely old school charming to her. It seems she’s well known in there. Well enough so that when she asks for cappuccino and an extra cup of just foam it arrives fast and fluffy, no questions asked.
The last time I met her she’d been wearing a wig, a good wig, but nonetheless a wig. This time it’s her own hair styled in the pixie cut that fell so beautifully into place in her Bob Fosse 1950s dancing days. Her skin looks plumped up and smooth. She had a face lift when she was around 50. The rest of the face lines have settled in around it amicably. She’s now 76 (77 April 24).
“My skin’s always been good, but I’m old now and I’m gaining weight and I hate it.” In her latest book I’m Over All That gaining weight is one of the things she’s not over. Dressing up, paying attention to fashion, scheming for film roles, feeling anger at world leaders, caring what people think of her and high heels are all part of the stuff she is completely over. Along with being polite to boring people. God forbid she thinks you’re boring. She would have no time at all, and no problem simply “meditating” right there and then or perhaps she means falling asleep.
Today though she’s very awake, very alive and animated. The voice in her book is always sure of itself; occasionally cruel, always brutal in its honesty. In the book she talks about having loved her ride and appreciating relinquishing the reins. In person though there’s none of that aching nostalgia and feeling that it’s the time to grow old and invisible.
Her book is a mixture of Hollywood gossip, sex on set, tales of Elizabeth Taylor sparking in diamonds and crying into champagne, and other such manipulations. Plane rides on Frank Sinatra’s private plane where there’d be fights with jelly beans.
Her relationships with world leaders, Pierre Trudeau, and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The night she spent in a suite that had been rented for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign and when she was sleeping a man entered and climbed into bed with her. She had no idea who he was so she rolled on the floor away from him. It happened repeatedly the same night so she didn’t know if it was one persistent man or several.
Alarming revelations are tucked in between her thoughts on religion, nature, UFOs, reincarnation, fame and ageing. She doesn’t pine for the good old days. She sets them out quite brittlely, fragmented, as if they happened to someone else. Understandably she talks a lot about getting older and fatter.
“I’m not talking vanity. It’s health wise. I don’t want to buy more clothes that are bigger. I’ve been putting together a live show because I miss the live audience. It’s a retrospective of my stuff, not just the acting but the dancing, footage from my shows and television specials. I’ve been cutting it all together and that’s what’s got me in this frame of mind. I am looking back. Look at those legs.”
When you look back at the young Maclaine she was super alluring, but not in an overt way. She had a dancer’s body and a distinctive haircut that made her look like she wasn’t trying and didn’t care. Think Sweet Charity, Can Can, The Apartment.
Did she think of herself then as sexy? “No, never, never, never. I’m a dancer. You have to be a team player and never think of yourself as a diva. And that’s held me in pretty good stead. I’m easy to work with except I’m very disciplined and I want efficiency.
“I should be doing my yoga but I can’t any more, I’ve a spine problem. Really I should pay attention to my posture.” She rises up theatrically in her chair. “I got the bad back from wearing heels and dancing in them. The things that seemed so important don’t matter now.”
I mentioned that I saw Annette Bening, her sister-in-law, at a party and she was carrying her Louboutins. “Yes, she and I talk about how hard it is to wear high heels all the time.” Does she see much of her brother, Warren Beatty. “Sure… he’s very complicated. We’re friendly. They’ve got four kids. We interact. I love Annette.”
Wasn’t there a time when she wasn’t close to her brother? “Oh yes. You know, families go in and out, up and down, I can’t remember when, just like all families.”
Annette is very thin, isn’t she. “Don’t you wish you could be like that, that thin?” I stop thinking about the fried calamari appetizer instantly. Maclaine doesn’t mean to be insulting. That’s just her way. She continues, “To do that you don’t eat much.”
She shows me her Louis heels. The highest she goes these days is a couple of inches.
In her back there’s a chapter: I’m Not Over Vanity, But I’m Trying. She talks about her body a lot. Perhaps because she grew up in the kind of Hollywood that created body fascism. Was it as harsh for actresses to be in shape then as now?
“Probably worse, because it was studio time. On the set of Trouble With Harry (1955), her first movie, Hitchcock wanted me to eat every meal with him. So I put on 10lbs in the first week.”
When she was an actress on Broadway she lived off her own lemonade made at cafes with quarters of lemon and sugar that were on the table, and peanut butter sandwiches. So obviously going from that to the multi-course Hitchcockian meal might add a couple of inches.
“The head of the studio called me in and said ‘What are you doing? We are trying to cut the scenes and you are a different person’. I had gone up to 136lbs. when you are under contract they did that because they owned you they thought, but I wasn’t owned. I didn’t stop eating for the rest of the picture. I said now I’ll have to keep eating so that I would match.”
Does she think Hitchcock had an eating disorder? “”Doh. Just look at him. He had trouble with food. He would lose 20lbs before a shoot. He knew the food would be catered by who he specifically asked to cater it and he would just eat his way through the film. It was very fine good food.”
She says with admiration, “Marlene Dietrich ate only every other day. She taught me how to put a very fine gold chain under your chin to keep it lifted.”
Maclaine talks about her own facelift and when she came home with stitches in her face she couldn’t have energetic sex. “That’s when I got into gentle sex, gentle orgasms.” She’s laughing a big dirty laugh. “Some deep emotions called don’t pop my stitches.”
Who was your lover at the time? “Oh he was very respectful, but no names babe. He’s gay now. Such a lot of people are bisexual.”
After talking about the gurgling gentle orgasm she says that she didn’t love sex so much unless she was emotionally involved. ” It wasn’t that interesting to me. I could never do it unless I was emotionally interested.”
What’s more interesting is how she stayed emotionally interested. Throughout most of her sex life she was married to a film producer turned businessman, Steve Parker, twelve years her senior. For most of that time he lived in Japan with their daughter Sachi. They divorced in 1987.
While married she had passionate, tumultuous affairs. None of which lasted for more than three years. Thus the marriage itself provided both the freedom and the barrier, the protection if you like. “It was an open marriage. A very open marriage.”
It went on for 28 years while she had what she calls “serial monogamous relationships” with many others including Robert Mitchum, Danny Kaye, Yves Montand, Australian Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.
“Being married was a protection not to marry again. If I had been single then it would have been discussed with the people I was with and I really don’t agree with marriage. It’s not something I would do.”
When you she married in the first place did she think differently? “No, I felt the same way. That’s why it was an open marriage. I was 19. He was my helpmate, my friend, my counselor. When I came to California from the east he was there, so I didn’t go into the world of Hollywood single.”
Somehow not being single in Hollywood was important to her. It’s as if she were in some way vulnerable or prey. Maybe on a very basic level she feared losing herself. Her parents Kathlyn Beatty, a drama teacher, and her father Ira, philosophy teacher turned juvenile detention officer and heavy drinker, had a claustrophobic and dysfunctional marriage.
In her book she tries to explain the contradiction. “What was I doing with all my hormones and attractions and longings when I always felt so strongly the need for freedom. Most of the men I was with wanted to get married. I was already married and I stayed that way precisely so it wouldn’t become an issue.
“My husband and I had a liberal arrangement regarding each others’ lovers. We were friends. We stayed married so we wouldn’t be tempted to marry again. I don’t understand the need for the institution and I could never live a life where I felt tied down to a promise just because my love hormones were raging at the time.”
Why did she divorce from Parker? I read it was about money. “I thought that it was, but it wasn’t. He didn’t want anything. But by the time we separated it was really just over.”
For a long time though if other lovers “got serious with me about divorcing Steven and marrying me, that was not good. All of them did that, and that probably took three years. That was their cycle. When you start looking back you see your behavior patterns and you realize you unconsciously conducted yourself to give them three years.”
Does she not think she should have given them any more than that? “Huh. To do what? I don’t think so. You can’t really control or not whether you have freedom from emotional intensity. It’s just a rhythm. I was kind of shocked myself. How do people do it for 25 years? I guess I did it one year for the body, one for the mind, and one for the spirit. It started with the body, then the mind, then the spirit, then it was done. Ha.” Loud dirty laugh.
What about the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme who was assassinated in February 1986? “We had broken up but we made arrangements to get back together, then he died.” You were about to break the three year rule? “No, it had been two and I thought we could add another year. He was a brilliant man, a brilliant leader. He didn’t believe in any of the stuff I believed in. we didn’t argue but he thought it was ridiculous. I liked his intelligence. Very left wing intellectuals always interest me. And they are always the most suspicious of my metaphysics. He was planning to come to New York and hoping to be Secretary General of the UN.” It must have been terrible when he was killed? “It really was. I talked to him a week before he died. We were planning on seeing each other. He was an extraordinary person. Not good looking. Not a big man, which I usually like.” We get very very sad talking about it.
Robert Mitchum was a big man. “Robert Mitchum was so complicated. My dad was complicated. And I like complicated men. But he was not exactly like my dad. He was very intelligent. He was intense, he was light, he was funny, he was impossible. Interesting to me. Good ground to plough. So much was under there.”
Did she ever get to the core of him? “Mmm, maybe. No, I would have got bored if I got to the core. Once you’ve got to the core what’s the point of ploughing anyway. I wasn’t looking for a lasting relationship, I never have.”
She speaks with sparkly-eyed fondness for Danny Kaye who came to visit her on set in Paris and flew her to New York and cooked her Chinese food. “He was a great pilot. He used to take me to dinner all over the place, not just across the Atlantic. If he wanted a steak he would fly me to Texas. He was a fabulous cook. That was three years. I can’t remember how that ended, but there was someone right after him. I think we’re all kind of cyclical. We have a rhythm and three years was mine.”
There’s an absence of sentiment and nostalgia in the way she speaks. It’s all very matter of fact. Perhaps that’s why her most intense love relationship now is with her dog, a rat terrier called Terry. Her eyes fill as she speaks of her love for her. She seems utterly contented. Certainly not lonely for any man. She chats on about her life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she lives most of the time. Laughing with good friends and coming home to watch DVDs in bed with Terry.
She’s working on her one woman show – An Evening With Shirley Maclaine – and has a new movie out, Bernie, with Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey “I play a woman who’s a real bitch. She’s very wealthy and everybody hates her. I love playing those parts.
“Jack plays the head of an undertaking firm. We have a relationship and I become very possessive. I make life impossible for him so he shoots me and puts me in the freezer under the frozen peas.
“I’ve got other things coming up but I don’t know if I’m going to talk about them yet.” That’s great I say. A lot of people when they reach a certain age and they’re not leading ladies any more they find that difficult. You know how that goes? “No, I don’t know how that goes.”
Did she never find it difficult to reach a certain age and get offered different sort of parts and then get offered less parts? Did she never reach a point where she felt invisible? “No,” she says loudly and defiantly. I’m not sure if she’s going to snarl at me, but then she just laughs. Moods and shapes shift with her pretty quickly. One minute she’s laughing with you cozily, the next looking at you as if you’re something on the sole of her shoe. And then she’ll do that just kidding face and we’re laughing again.
Her book swoops like that too. From serious to angry, political and metaphysical, to Hollywood insider. And she manages to talk about people with love and disdain at the same time and in equal measure. Such as how Elizabeth Taylor got diamonds to go on a lunch date. You’re not sure if she’s talking in awe or contempt. Or both. Although she says she loves Elizabeth Taylor.
Did she herself get diamonds? “Sure, I got bribes to get married. No names. I said no, but I did not give the diamonds back. They’re in the bank. They may come in handy if I want to get more water rights.”
In the book there’s a chapter called I’m Not Over Making Money. “I think it’s going to cost money for what’s coming up. I want to make a huge garden. I want to collect rainwater. Solar is expensive. Who knows who else might need help. That sort of thing.”
She has always been unafraid to speak her mind. A lot of actresses are driven by insecurity. But not her. She says that she’s never manipulated to get a part.”
“I’ve given up more parts than I’ve been afraid of losing. If an actress called me and I was up for a part but they were so in need of that part it meant everything. To me it meant something, but not that much. I’m basically not competitive. I like the idea of playing a part that required a lot of thought, so there were parts that I wanted because they were interesting.”
What were the ones you gave away? “Oh, I should have played Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More but Ellen wanted it so much. I should have played Breakfast At Tiffany, but I gave that up because of Audrey. I didn’t take these things seriously.”
Why didn’t you take Breakfast At Tiffany? Because you didn’t want to be a hooker? “Oh no. I went and did something called Two Loves with Laurence Harvey. Some terrible thing that three people saw. I liked the script. It was about a teacher in New Zealand working with Maoris.”
You got to go to New Zealand? “No, we filmed it in the studio. I thought that Breakfast At Tiffany was too souffleish. The Apartment started with 29 pages. I just liked the idea of working with Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder. I didn’t know what it was going to be about, neither did he. He wrote it based on the chemistry Jack and I had on set. It didn’t seem amazing at the time. We didn’t know anything when we started. When the first review came out it said they don’t know if they’re making a comedy or a drama.
“After the first screening Marilyn Monroe was standing outside the screening room wearing a gorgeous fur coat and leaning up against the wall. I walked up to her and she walked up to me and she opened her coat and she had absolutely nothing on and told me, ‘You were wonderful.'”
Why does she think she did that? “Well, she didn’t get along with Billy Wilder.”
So she did it to punish him? “Probably. Isn’t that interesting.”
Such a punishment. The first screening of a brilliant movie ends and there’s no attention for Wilder or MacLaine or Lemmon, it becomes not about The Apartment but about Marilyn. “Yes, it really tore up the whole place. I don’t know what that was about. He was awful with her and she was with him. That was not a good relationship.”
What was it about their chemistry? “She couldn’t act. I got along with him. He was very autocratic. He was Austrian. You don’t tell Billy Wilder his script isn’t right. I feel he always needed a strong woman character in his pictures. When he started doing them without it just didn’t have the tension.
“He used to have this editor, Dylan Harrison, and he’d see the dailies and say ‘Billy, you’ve got to shoot the whole day over because you didn’t break my heart’. With men only he didn’t break hearts. Dylan died after our last picture. Dylan was the real Billy Wilder. Without him he was too harsh. He hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes I minded it. I tended to dig my foot in – let me do this, let me do such and such. But after a while with him it’s the law of diminishing returns.
That’s what happened with Marilyn. She couldn’t remember dialogue and he’d be very harsh and she’d forget more. Although I didn’t know Marilyn, that was the only time I saw her and I saw all of her.
“There was one other time when she was doing Something’s Got To Give. She had lost weight and got into shape, but she was doing her number which was not showing up on time and Fox called me to replace her and I said ‘No, I’m in the same union as she is’ and then she died.”
Well that would have been weird to replace her. “Well, it all happened before the picture got started. They did tests. Of her in a swimming pool and Dean was cast in it. I’m not sure if they ever did the picture with anyone else. Maybe it was not made.” (It wasn’t. Marilyn was sacked from the film. She was rehired, but then died).
Her voice and entire body language softens when she talks about Dean Martin. He was never neatly packaged into a three year cycle. Martin was the one man she couldn’t get. “I had a crush on Dean. He was the funniest. His imagination was funny. His brain, I’m not so sure.
“Frank wasn’t funny. Frank would get extremely autocratic. He could and would run the show in every which way, and he didn’t want to work hard.”
MacLaine became a non-sexual mascot for the Rat Pack. One of the boys. “I never had a thing with Frank or Dean or Sammy or Joey Bishop, but I couldn’t have an affair with someone if I was hanging out with them if I wanted to. I was the one they protected, like I was their mascot daughter.”
She says that they didn’t even drink very much. “It was all a show. It was like an adult kindergarten. I was one of the boys. We all played together. But I would always clean up the trashed room.”
It’s the only moment in my whole time with her where she seems uncertain of her role, of who she is. One of the boys? Or caretaker, love object?
She talks in her book of an unrequited longing for Martin and once she even went round to his house to tell him how she felt. But his wife and kids were there and she ended up playing with the kids and had a kiss on the cheek goodnight. And the unspoken sweetness continued. Probably it meant more to her that way.
Does she ever wonder what would have happened if she’d had the affair with Martin? “No,” she says sharply. Does she ever think that about anyone? “No.” She doesn’t fill the silence. There’s nothing unrequited or lonely in your life? “No. I’d had enough. Come on. I’m nearly 77, I’m not interested in that any more…” Then there’s another pause, and a softening. “I mean if something came along.”
She smiles a crooked smile. Hard to tell if she’s serious. “I’m very content. I’m very busy and creative. I have a wonderful life. I have a lovely home in New Mexico. I come to LA and I go to New York and I have wonderful times.
“I think with someone who is as independent as me I don’t think men are all that interested. Unless a man has got a control trip going on, but I’d see that right away. This subject is boring,” she announces.
I wonder if it’s all been about her strong desire never to be controlled. Before I can formulate another question I can see she’s moved on.
She doesn’t mean to be offensive. In fact she’s very charming when she wants to be. She just wants to speak exactly what’s on her mind.
It’s getting dark in the Shutters restaurant and her twinkly eyes squint to see what’s written on my notepad. She orders more foam for her cappuccino. The waiter goes off and brings back a cup of pure foam like a cloud.
How close is she to her daughter? “You know, she’s 53, she’s doing her own thing. She’s doing a little theatre. She’d like to do more. I’m close with my grandkids. They live back east so I have to wait till they’re here.”
For most of the time when her daughter was growing up she lived in Japan with her father. It was deemed a healthier environment than Hollywood and dragging her from film set to film set. But there were long gaps in communication. Does she try to make up for lost time? “Yes, we try to, but she has her own life. She wants to be on her own. She’s going through a divorce now and I don’t want to talk about it.”
As if by magic at that moment Antonio Banderas, looking super svelte, and Melanie Griffiths, looking super baby-faced, appear to meet with her. Although it felt like me and MacLaine could have talked for hours, I realise with the arrival of this Hollywood couple she is in her true element. This is her Hollywood life and I have merely been a guest. I hope that we’ll meet again in this life or another.

 

 

Jennifer Saunders

I meet Jennifer Saunders just outside the theatre where Viva – the Spice Girls musical which she is wrote – is rehearsing. We are to have a late breakfast. She arrives in a camouflage jacket with diamond studs and a multi-coloured scarf, choppy blonde hair and an alarmingly fresh face and her usual slightly peering eyes. She announces, ‘I’m so hung over. I think I still have a level of alcohol in my blood. By lunchtime I’ll be tired.’
She had a weekend party and this morning has been looking after her new grandson Freddie and coos she has been in bed with the baby. ‘I had a proper little cuddle. He’s divine.
‘When he enters the room everyone starts looking at him and when he leaves the room people start looking at pictures of them on the phone. I don’t know what type of child he will grow up to be because he has people worshipping him all the time – Freddie worship. The other girls love him too.’ Freddie is the son of her eldest daughter Ella.
Saunders seems to have no worries about being a grandmother at 54. ‘I absolutely love it. People say isn’t it weird seeing your baby having a baby and it kind of isn’t. It doesn’t feel weird at all. I love having a baby around and I never had a boy child. I did want a boy child because I had this romantic idea that a boy child when he’s 16 takes his mother out for dinner. I think I once saw that in a restaurant, a boy taking out his mother for her birthday. I’m going to have to force Freddie to do that now.’
We discuss the lack of stress in the grandparent grandchild relationship. ‘I haven’t got the responsibility of sending him to school or telling him off. He’s simply there to be worshipped.’
She thinks it’s a strange time for an interview, not quite breakfast, not quite lunch (11am). We order scrambled eggs and toast, perfect hangover food, but the Café Zedel can’t cook until lunchtime and instead they offer us boiled eggs and giant pastries, pain au chocolats the size of brogues.
Saunders is amused, her face arranges itself into a supercilious giggle. She offers a similar expression when I ask wasn’t she surprised to be asked to write Viva Forever! The Spice Girls musical after French and Saunders had mercilessly sent up The Spice Girls in their spoof The Sugar Lumps and the Mamma Mia sketch they did for Comic Relief – Mamma Mia creator Judy Craymer is the impresaria behind Viva.
Craymer called Saunders’ agent to see if she was interested and that was deemed to be a very good sign. ‘It meant a) she doesn’t take herself too seriously, and b) she has a good sense of humour. I immediately thought I am the one who is going to do this. No one else is going to do this. I have to do this thing.
‘When Dawn and I were The Sugar Lumps we always used to go to Spice Girls shows. My girls loved them and I thought I don’t want someone to mess this up for my girls.
‘I don’t have a favourite Spice, I love all of them. Well, maybe my favourite is Emma because I’ve worked with her a lot, but Mel C is also delightful. When you see them now they just are that same gang, they fit into all those roles again. A little bit badly behaved, a little bit loud. You never felt they had to behave. That’s what I always loved about them.
‘Victoria is really funny. She’s the most naturally witty one. She doesn’t take herself seriously, she just looks as though she does.
‘I love Geri’s energy. I love Mel B’s refusal to say anything she doesn’t mean. And the truth is I love the songs. And they actually have their own narrative which makes it easier to write around.
‘There were certain themes, here’s me and my mates, don’t fuck with me and my mates, let’s misbehave. And then a story came.
‘Loosely the story is adopted girl, mother wants to let her go, can’t let her go, is over protective, and then…
‘She doesn’t really want to find her biological mother but she’s on a TV talent show that thinks it would be a really good idea. You see it on X Factor. They have chosen the one with the story.’
Did she conceive this idea when her own daughters were leaving home? ‘No, but I have had that empty nest syndrome. When the girls left it was a slow grieving process. you go, oh look, we’re just on our own again. It’s my husband and me. Oh, What do we do now? “Good Morning.” “Yes, good morning to you”.’ She says this pulling her awkward face. She and husband Ade Edmondson have been married for 27 years and the period of just them together in a big house has not been prolonged as he is about to tour with two different bands, The Bad Shepherds and The Idiot Bastard Band.
‘Gradually you adjust. You miss them. You miss their friends too. You miss the general hubbub of people always being there.
‘I didn’t think about empty nests when I was writing this. It was more having to let someone go out and make their own mistakes. You can’t learn from other people’s mistakes.’
Was it based on the relationship she had with her mother? ‘No, that relationship was much more old fashioned. I mean you would call your mother’s friends Mrs. Nowadays you would call everyone by their Christian name. it was quite formal and I am emotional with my kids. They see the shit as well as the good. I was brought up really well. I had boundaries where if you crossed the line you know you are in trouble. I think my kids sort of get that.
‘I don’t think I was a great rebel except in my head. I’ve never been able to do rows. I cannot do confrontation. You know that fight or flight thing? I’m flight. I just don’t want the argument.’
Eggs arrive. At first we don’t know if they are hard-boiled or soft-boiled. Saunders takes it and attempts to peel it, pauses, ‘If it cracks now we’re in shit.’ It’s a cold hard-boiled egg.
She says that after her father died of cancer eight years ago the dynamic changed in the relationship with her mother. ‘We became much closer. She is a coper. She was born to cope. She is strong and funny. She had a stroke and I was there. She forgets words and cries with laughter when the wrong ones come out. We literally laughed her way through the stroke. By the time the paramedics arrived she was crying real tears of laughter, probably to do with relief. But she said, “Will you go up to the donkey upstairs and bring down my…” The donkey? She meant draws. She just laughed and laughed. She recovered well because she’s a doer and a coper.’
Saunders moved to Devon to bring up her children and now lives mostly in London, the reverse of most people.

It is very rare for Saunders to look right at you. Most of the time she mumbles into her scarf or looks away, allowing me to get a good look at her skin which is dewy smooth, hardly any wrinkles.
The idea for Viva came up in 2009. They narrowed it down to which songs they wanted to use and she started to write the treatment.
‘I think we started in January, so I was three months into chemotherapy,’ she says matter of factly. She has never overplayed her cancer, never come over the victim. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009. She has never used the word battle and I feel would wince if it was ever used for her. It’s one of those things that she probably didn’t like to confront, she shrugged it off because she’s a coper.
How was it possible to write on chemo? ‘I don’t know. Luckily Judy was very sympathetic. I remember struggling to organise my thoughts. When you are doing chemo you have a load of time. I just thought I am not not going to do this job and by the time I’m finished it everything will be fine. Judy would be so brilliant she would come round the house with a bottle of vodka and the tunes and we would sit and drink.’
Vodka and chemo? ‘Oh yes,’ she says jauntily. Really? ‘Oh yes. You can drink when you are doing chemo. You’ve got so much shit in your body you may as well be drunk. We sat and listened to the songs endlessly and it was so helpful.
‘Why do we need to listen to these songs again and again? She was right. It’s the only way in.’
Most people might lie down and vomit. Singing Spice Girls songs and writing a musical does sound a rather extraordinary way to get through chemo. It sounds superhuman.
‘No, not really. Some people hold down full-time jobs. I didn’t have a vomit problem. Didn’t feel vomity at all. I ha brilliant anti-sickness medication and it worked. For some people it works well and some people it doesn’t. I was very lucky. There are some days when you feel a bit grim and other days, you know, towards the end of a session, okay and you know it’s not killing you. Just makes you feel rotten.’
I note the way she doesn’t say I she says you to distance herself from it but I am struck by her strength and bravery. I just did a week of antibiotics and felt suicidal.
What is it really like? ‘You feel chemical, that’s what you feel. You feel you are part of a big chemical thing but you tell yourself it’s a cure not a disease and you’ve got to get rid of the disease. The chemo is the belt and braces. It feels shit when it’s working.
‘You think, yes I feel absolutely shit, it’s doing its job and you just get on with it, you get on with stuff.’
Did she have any paranoia moments of depression? ‘No. sometimes you feel horrible. Sometimes you feel emotional. And then sometimes when you see your skin goes to fuck you have moments where you think I hate this. But there’s always a point where you think you might as well get over it and life gets back vaguely to normal.’
Are things normal? Has she finished the meds? ‘No, you don’t finish. I’m still on hormone therapy and I’ll be on that for the rest of my life. It’s the reverse of HRT, it takes all your hormones away. It takes all your oestrogen away because what I can’t have is oestrogen because my cancer is oestrogen sensitive. You go on to tamoxifen or some other oestrogen therapy which takes the hormones our so you are basically in menopause. You are from the moment you start chemo because it kills everything.
‘In a funny way, more than the actual chemo, which I found was a grit your teeth and get through it kind of thing, I found the hormone thing a more subtle change and it was much harder to take. You are plunged into menopause. It makes you depressed. That whole side of you, what it is to be a woman, which is hormones, it just goes. You have to get through it but it takes a while.
‘It took me a year on tamoxifen to get used to it, to not be grieving for your oestrogen. It’s an odd thing but I found that much harder than chemo. It’s the thing they least warn you about. They go right, now we go on tamoxifen and everything will be fine. You have to do it. I hated the tamoxifen when I first got on it. I don’t hate it now because I’m adjusted to it. I thought there has to be something else.
‘I went to the doctor and asked him: Is there another drug? He is the most brilliant doctor and he explained to me: If you were my wife I would insist you take this. And he explained: What it needs is someone to really explain how important it is to you and the side effects. They are quite psychological but also physical. And I honestly imagined that I would very quickly turn into a very small leather handbag.’ She makes a creaking sound of a small leather thing.
Having an instant menopause rather than a gradual thing seems to be the most difficult thing for her. ‘I get very depressed and I’m still on anti-depressants. I see it as you need to boost yourself up because suddenly you have no oestrogen and your serotonin goes down, everything depletes and you start thinking…’ She makes a moaning sound. ‘So take a bit of anti-depressant and it’s fine again. It’s a juggling act, isn’t it, what to put in and what not to, but I find I am happy now.
‘I am free of cancer. I did this thing the other day where my doctor said do you want to have a big scan. You know when some people have cancer they are totally neurotic and worried about it coming back, which has never bothered actually because I just say it’s not coming back, it’s fine.
‘But he said, you know your insurance will pay for you to have a full MRI, CAT and all these other scans and it’s two years since you’ve finished your treatment. Two years is the peak of possible recurrence, so I went and did it. The weird thing is I’ve never been to a hospital in my life until the cancer thing, but I kind of like going into clinics now. Oh, I’m going into this one and that one. Do take some blood. I find it kind of reassuring.
‘I did grieve a bit when I wasn’t having the chemo any more. I was used to sitting in the little chair and then the nurse would come and do it. It was like that was your job for that long and it was reassuring. So the thought of one of these scans made me think “Oh that would be quite nice, won’t it.” You get injections, go a bit radioactive, then you get put in the big banging machine for a bit. I actually quite enjoyed it.’
I tell that is kind of weird and she must have been deprived of attention as a child in a big way. She laughs, ‘Yes. But I do love that stuff now. Bang, bang, bang, oh it’s my turn.’
Actually she is the opposite of attention seeking. She kept her cancer quiet until she had finished her chemo. She had been seen a couple of times but no one guessed she was wearing a wig. ‘I had very good wigs. Two of them. One was a real hair wig which was a lot of trouble. I was lucky in that most of the chemo happened during the winter so you could just wear hats. I didn’t mind that aspect of it.
‘What is weird is all of your hair falls out. Everything. Your eyebrows. Your pubic hair. Your leg hair, arm hair, your nose hair. The weirdest thing is your nose hair because you are constantly snivelling and you get nose bleeds a lot. You are a bald person with a nose bleed. I didn’t mind that and it’s a funny thing. Of all the things to care about my hair was the least thing I cared about. At least I didn’t have to have a wax for the best part of a year.
‘Hair grows back and it comes back everywhere. I was looking at my face and thinking it’s so hairy. Suddenly everywhere was hairy.’
We try to order toast instead of the giant pastries. Instead a waiter arrives with bread. Everything we ordered had been got wrong. ‘This is the most hilarious breakfast I’ve ever had.’
Soon she must go to the theatre for a run through. Did the Spice Girls have any changes they wanted to make? ‘No, nothing like that. They could make suggestions but generally they were enthusiastic and nice.’
After this what else does she have coming up? ‘I’m thinking about a film of AbFab on the basis that The Inbetweeners was a successful film. I don’t know about doing more telly. I’m thinking of setting it in the South of France. I always imagine the Riviera life, that search for the nostalgic idea of glamour… It’s hard for me to think beyond press night at the moment.’
She still rides horses although not as much as she used to. ‘Ade said, “You’ve had a good run, but if you fall off…” And he was like: Just stop. At the moment I’ve just started with a power plate. It’s a thing that jiggles you stand on it and do certain positions. I’ve also tried to start jogging. But I walk my dog a lot.’
Her dog is a whippet called Olive. ‘She’s the most beautiful dog in the world. Everyone knows Olive. The other day I was at the station in Devon and I had Olive and there was a woman who looked at Olive and recognised her. “Oh, it must be Jennifer Saunders because this is Olive.”‘ She puts on proud dog mother face which is very similar to proud grandmother.
Her skin does not look grandmother like. ‘It’s ridiculous that I’m a grandmother but it’s the nicest thing. Sometimes I do think a bit of Botox might be good but I haven’t done anything. I think I should really give up drinking for a bit then I’d lose weight, but then I think I can’t be bothered. It’s just so nice to have a drink.’

© Chrissy Iley 2012
I meet Jennifer Saunders just outside the theatre where Viva – the Spice Girls musical which she is wrote – is rehearsing. We are to have a late breakfast. She arrives in a camouflage jacket with diamond studs and a multi-coloured scarf, choppy blonde hair and an alarmingly fresh face and her usual slightly peering eyes. She announces, ‘I’m so hung over. I think I still have a level of alcohol in my blood. By lunchtime I’ll be tired.’
She had a weekend party and this morning has been looking after her new grandson Freddie and coos she has been in bed with the baby. ‘I had a proper little cuddle. He’s divine.
‘When he enters the room everyone starts looking at him and when he leaves the room people start looking at pictures of them on the phone. I don’t know what type of child he will grow up to be because he has people worshipping him all the time – Freddie worship. The other girls love him too.’ Freddie is the son of her eldest daughter Ella.
Saunders seems to have no worries about being a grandmother at 54. ‘I absolutely love it. People say isn’t it weird seeing your baby having a baby and it kind of isn’t. It doesn’t feel weird at all. I love having a baby around and I never had a boy child. I did want a boy child because I had this romantic idea that a boy child when he’s 16 takes his mother out for dinner. I think I once saw that in a restaurant, a boy taking out his mother for her birthday. I’m going to have to force Freddie to do that now.’
We discuss the lack of stress in the grandparent grandchild relationship. ‘I haven’t got the responsibility of sending him to school or telling him off. He’s simply there to be worshipped.’
She thinks it’s a strange time for an interview, not quite breakfast, not quite lunch (11am). We order scrambled eggs and toast, perfect hangover food, but the Café Zedel can’t cook until lunchtime and instead they offer us boiled eggs and giant pastries, pain au chocolats the size of brogues.
Saunders is amused, her face arranges itself into a supercilious giggle. She offers a similar expression when I ask wasn’t she surprised to be asked to write Viva Forever! The Spice Girls musical after French and Saunders had mercilessly sent up The Spice Girls in their spoof The Sugar Lumps and the Mamma Mia sketch they did for Comic Relief – Mamma Mia creator Judy Craymer is the impresaria behind Viva.
Craymer called Saunders’ agent to see if she was interested and that was deemed to be a very good sign. ‘It meant a) she doesn’t take herself too seriously, and b) she has a good sense of humour. I immediately thought I am the one who is going to do this. No one else is going to do this. I have to do this thing.
‘When Dawn and I were The Sugar Lumps we always used to go to Spice Girls shows. My girls loved them and I thought I don’t want someone to mess this up for my girls.
‘I don’t have a favourite Spice, I love all of them. Well, maybe my favourite is Emma because I’ve worked with her a lot, but Mel C is also delightful. When you see them now they just are that same gang, they fit into all those roles again. A little bit badly behaved, a little bit loud. You never felt they had to behave. That’s what I always loved about them.
‘Victoria is really funny. She’s the most naturally witty one. She doesn’t take herself seriously, she just looks as though she does.
‘I love Geri’s energy. I love Mel B’s refusal to say anything she doesn’t mean. And the truth is I love the songs. And they actually have their own narrative which makes it easier to write around.
‘There were certain themes, here’s me and my mates, don’t fuck with me and my mates, let’s misbehave. And then a story came.
‘Loosely the story is adopted girl, mother wants to let her go, can’t let her go, is over protective, and then…
‘She doesn’t really want to find her biological mother but she’s on a TV talent show that thinks it would be a really good idea. You see it on X Factor. They have chosen the one with the story.’
Did she conceive this idea when her own daughters were leaving home? ‘No, but I have had that empty nest syndrome. When the girls left it was a slow grieving process. you go, oh look, we’re just on our own again. It’s my husband and me. Oh, What do we do now? “Good Morning.” “Yes, good morning to you”.’ She says this pulling her awkward face. She and husband Ade Edmondson have been married for 27 years and the period of just them together in a big house has not been prolonged as he is about to tour with two different bands, The Bad Shepherds and The Idiot Bastard Band.
‘Gradually you adjust. You miss them. You miss their friends too. You miss the general hubbub of people always being there.
‘I didn’t think about empty nests when I was writing this. It was more having to let someone go out and make their own mistakes. You can’t learn from other people’s mistakes.’
Was it based on the relationship she had with her mother? ‘No, that relationship was much more old fashioned. I mean you would call your mother’s friends Mrs. Nowadays you would call everyone by their Christian name. it was quite formal and I am emotional with my kids. They see the shit as well as the good. I was brought up really well. I had boundaries where if you crossed the line you know you are in trouble. I think my kids sort of get that.
‘I don’t think I was a great rebel except in my head. I’ve never been able to do rows. I cannot do confrontation. You know that fight or flight thing? I’m flight. I just don’t want the argument.’
Eggs arrive. At first we don’t know if they are hard-boiled or soft-boiled. Saunders takes it and attempts to peel it, pauses, ‘If it cracks now we’re in shit.’ It’s a cold hard-boiled egg.
She says that after her father died of cancer eight years ago the dynamic changed in the relationship with her mother. ‘We became much closer. She is a coper. She was born to cope. She is strong and funny. She had a stroke and I was there. She forgets words and cries with laughter when the wrong ones come out. We literally laughed her way through the stroke. By the time the paramedics arrived she was crying real tears of laughter, probably to do with relief. But she said, “Will you go up to the donkey upstairs and bring down my…” The donkey? She meant draws. She just laughed and laughed. She recovered well because she’s a doer and a coper.’
Saunders moved to Devon to bring up her children and now lives mostly in London, the reverse of most people.

It is very rare for Saunders to look right at you. Most of the time she mumbles into her scarf or looks away, allowing me to get a good look at her skin which is dewy smooth, hardly any wrinkles.
The idea for Viva came up in 2009. They narrowed it down to which songs they wanted to use and she started to write the treatment.
‘I think we started in January, so I was three months into chemotherapy,’ she says matter of factly. She has never overplayed her cancer, never come over the victim. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009. She has never used the word battle and I feel would wince if it was ever used for her. It’s one of those things that she probably didn’t like to confront, she shrugged it off because she’s a coper.
How was it possible to write on chemo? ‘I don’t know. Luckily Judy was very sympathetic. I remember struggling to organise my thoughts. When you are doing chemo you have a load of time. I just thought I am not not going to do this job and by the time I’m finished it everything will be fine. Judy would be so brilliant she would come round the house with a bottle of vodka and the tunes and we would sit and drink.’
Vodka and chemo? ‘Oh yes,’ she says jauntily. Really? ‘Oh yes. You can drink when you are doing chemo. You’ve got so much shit in your body you may as well be drunk. We sat and listened to the songs endlessly and it was so helpful.
‘Why do we need to listen to these songs again and again? She was right. It’s the only way in.’
Most people might lie down and vomit. Singing Spice Girls songs and writing a musical does sound a rather extraordinary way to get through chemo. It sounds superhuman.
‘No, not really. Some people hold down full-time jobs. I didn’t have a vomit problem. Didn’t feel vomity at all. I ha brilliant anti-sickness medication and it worked. For some people it works well and some people it doesn’t. I was very lucky. There are some days when you feel a bit grim and other days, you know, towards the end of a session, okay and you know it’s not killing you. Just makes you feel rotten.’
I note the way she doesn’t say I she says you to distance herself from it but I am struck by her strength and bravery. I just did a week of antibiotics and felt suicidal.
What is it really like? ‘You feel chemical, that’s what you feel. You feel you are part of a big chemical thing but you tell yourself it’s a cure not a disease and you’ve got to get rid of the disease. The chemo is the belt and braces. It feels shit when it’s working.
‘You think, yes I feel absolutely shit, it’s doing its job and you just get on with it, you get on with stuff.’
Did she have any paranoia moments of depression? ‘No. sometimes you feel horrible. Sometimes you feel emotional. And then sometimes when you see your skin goes to fuck you have moments where you think I hate this. But there’s always a point where you think you might as well get over it and life gets back vaguely to normal.’
Are things normal? Has she finished the meds? ‘No, you don’t finish. I’m still on hormone therapy and I’ll be on that for the rest of my life. It’s the reverse of HRT, it takes all your hormones away. It takes all your oestrogen away because what I can’t have is oestrogen because my cancer is oestrogen sensitive. You go on to tamoxifen or some other oestrogen therapy which takes the hormones our so you are basically in menopause. You are from the moment you start chemo because it kills everything.
‘In a funny way, more than the actual chemo, which I found was a grit your teeth and get through it kind of thing, I found the hormone thing a more subtle change and it was much harder to take. You are plunged into menopause. It makes you depressed. That whole side of you, what it is to be a woman, which is hormones, it just goes. You have to get through it but it takes a while.
‘It took me a year on tamoxifen to get used to it, to not be grieving for your oestrogen. It’s an odd thing but I found that much harder than chemo. It’s the thing they least warn you about. They go right, now we go on tamoxifen and everything will be fine. You have to do it. I hated the tamoxifen when I first got on it. I don’t hate it now because I’m adjusted to it. I thought there has to be something else.
‘I went to the doctor and asked him: Is there another drug? He is the most brilliant doctor and he explained to me: If you were my wife I would insist you take this. And he explained: What it needs is someone to really explain how important it is to you and the side effects. They are quite psychological but also physical. And I honestly imagined that I would very quickly turn into a very small leather handbag.’ She makes a creaking sound of a small leather thing.
Having an instant menopause rather than a gradual thing seems to be the most difficult thing for her. ‘I get very depressed and I’m still on anti-depressants. I see it as you need to boost yourself up because suddenly you have no oestrogen and your serotonin goes down, everything depletes and you start thinking…’ She makes a moaning sound. ‘So take a bit of anti-depressant and it’s fine again. It’s a juggling act, isn’t it, what to put in and what not to, but I find I am happy now.
‘I am free of cancer. I did this thing the other day where my doctor said do you want to have a big scan. You know when some people have cancer they are totally neurotic and worried about it coming back, which has never bothered actually because I just say it’s not coming back, it’s fine.
‘But he said, you know your insurance will pay for you to have a full MRI, CAT and all these other scans and it’s two years since you’ve finished your treatment. Two years is the peak of possible recurrence, so I went and did it. The weird thing is I’ve never been to a hospital in my life until the cancer thing, but I kind of like going into clinics now. Oh, I’m going into this one and that one. Do take some blood. I find it kind of reassuring.
‘I did grieve a bit when I wasn’t having the chemo any more. I was used to sitting in the little chair and then the nurse would come and do it. It was like that was your job for that long and it was reassuring. So the thought of one of these scans made me think “Oh that would be quite nice, won’t it.” You get injections, go a bit radioactive, then you get put in the big banging machine for a bit. I actually quite enjoyed it.’
I tell that is kind of weird and she must have been deprived of attention as a child in a big way. She laughs, ‘Yes. But I do love that stuff now. Bang, bang, bang, oh it’s my turn.’
Actually she is the opposite of attention seeking. She kept her cancer quiet until she had finished her chemo. She had been seen a couple of times but no one guessed she was wearing a wig. ‘I had very good wigs. Two of them. One was a real hair wig which was a lot of trouble. I was lucky in that most of the chemo happened during the winter so you could just wear hats. I didn’t mind that aspect of it.
‘What is weird is all of your hair falls out. Everything. Your eyebrows. Your pubic hair. Your leg hair, arm hair, your nose hair. The weirdest thing is your nose hair because you are constantly snivelling and you get nose bleeds a lot. You are a bald person with a nose bleed. I didn’t mind that and it’s a funny thing. Of all the things to care about my hair was the least thing I cared about. At least I didn’t have to have a wax for the best part of a year.
‘Hair grows back and it comes back everywhere. I was looking at my face and thinking it’s so hairy. Suddenly everywhere was hairy.’
We try to order toast instead of the giant pastries. Instead a waiter arrives with bread. Everything we ordered had been got wrong. ‘This is the most hilarious breakfast I’ve ever had.’
Soon she must go to the theatre for a run through. Did the Spice Girls have any changes they wanted to make? ‘No, nothing like that. They could make suggestions but generally they were enthusiastic and nice.’
After this what else does she have coming up? ‘I’m thinking about a film of AbFab on the basis that The Inbetweeners was a successful film. I don’t know about doing more telly. I’m thinking of setting it in the South of France. I always imagine the Riviera life, that search for the nostalgic idea of glamour… It’s hard for me to think beyond press night at the moment.’
She still rides horses although not as much as she used to. ‘Ade said, “You’ve had a good run, but if you fall off…” And he was like: Just stop. At the moment I’ve just started with a power plate. It’s a thing that jiggles you stand on it and do certain positions. I’ve also tried to start jogging. But I walk my dog a lot.’
Her dog is a whippet called Olive. ‘She’s the most beautiful dog in the world. Everyone knows Olive. The other day I was at the station in Devon and I had Olive and there was a woman who looked at Olive and recognised her. “Oh, it must be Jennifer Saunders because this is Olive.”‘ She puts on proud dog mother face which is very similar to proud grandmother.
Her skin does not look grandmother like. ‘It’s ridiculous that I’m a grandmother but it’s the nicest thing. Sometimes I do think a bit of Botox might be good but I haven’t done anything. I think I should really give up drinking for a bit then I’d lose weight, but then I think I can’t be bothered. It’s just so nice to have a drink.’

Click here to read Chrissy’s interview with Joanna Lumley

Anjelica Huston

We meet at Shutters Hotel on the beach in Santa Monica. Lovely views of the bright blue sky and pale sand. We order lobster salad and white wine. Almost unheard of at lunchtime anywhere in California. Anjelica Huston has never been a conventional woman, one that fits in easily or accepted convention. She’s always been attracted to the dark side, the gothic, most at home playing Morticia in The Addams Family, chopping the heads off roses or being a witch or a mafia bad girl in Prizzi’s Honor for which she won her Oscar.
She’s known for having an alpha presence, yet men in her life have cast heavy shadows: her father, the macho director John Huston, for whom the term hellraiser seems too weak a cliché, and for being involved with Jack Nicholson, larger than life womaniser straight out of the same mould.
She has always had a dangerous presence, edgy. Her face has been called imposing, imperious, corvine. She herself joked it was the kind of face that was only ever seen on old coins.
Today it’s the same interesting face, although the eyes look a little surrendered. She looks well put together, blue Palazzo pants, black patent leather, Tori Burch mules, a soft white T-shirt with net inserts that reveal pale flesh, although perhaps not as vampiric as it once was.
She smells exotic, the scent she’s always worn, Patou. But there’s something that’s very much not the same and no matter how light she might try to make the conversation there is a profound sadness. Two years ago her husband of 18 years, Robert Graham, the sculptor, died. The year before that he was sick in hospital. It’s been an extremely grueling time for Huston. First of all a period of reevaluating love and what it meant, concluding that this was the man she has loved most in her life. And then losing him.
Her hair is still striking, lustrous, but not as dark as it used to be. And her mouth still looks like it was drawn on. A cartoon mouth that turns up and down at the edges as she expresses pain or joy. Intense brown eyes that are not afraid to look right through you.
She talks about death with a disconcerting familiarity. Ostensibly we are here to talk about Horrid Henry, a rather sweet 3D children’s movie where she plays the cruel teacher wearing a prosthetic nose, mouth and wrinkles.
Somehow odd to be talking about something flimsy after we go into the year she spent hoping her husband was not going to die and how it’s taken her a while to accept “widowhood”. She makes me shiver inside every time she mentions the word “widow” it comes with such pathos. It hurts every time she describes herself thus.
I mention in an attempt to be cheery that I came across an interview with Jack Nicholson, her long time love, where he referred to breaking up with her. He said ‘Anjelica annihilated me.’ Her mouth doesn’t quite turn up at the edges. She already knows what he said by heart. She says that he rather spoilt it by in the next sentence saying that he wouldn’t like to change anything, he’d just like to deal with it better.
“I think he recovered quite well. I’ve seen that quote floating around for a bit and the caveat being would you like to go back and make things work and the answer being no, I’ll let that one rest. I paraphrase.”
Interestingly she paraphrases in a slightly more negative way. He actually said, “I have made a mistake, but I don’t want to go back and correct it. I would rather deal with it.”
She says, “You can’t go back in time but you can move forward. I talk to Jack. I don’t speak on a day to day basis but we keep in touch. It’s a nice relationship, mature.”
Quite nice that you were able to annihilate. “Well particularly if they deserve to be annihilated.” A small smile. “At least he let that be known. I remember after we broke up there being a kind of photo layout of him and his new paramour in Life or People magazine with testimonies from his friends as to how he’d found the love of his life. I found that incredibly…” She’s searching for the words, and then just laughs. “There have been so many paramours since then.” She instantly changes the subject.
There’s something dismissive though in the way she speaks about him. Yes they still speak. Yes they’re still friends. It’s not so much that she’s dismissive of him but dismissive of that adrenalin fuelled passion, the intense uncertainty of their relationship where infidelity didn’t necessarily mean betrayal until Nicholson very publicly had a one-night stand that turned into a few weeks, Rebecca Broussard got pregnant, and there was no turning back.
Huston had already been trying for a baby. She remembers the photos in the lifestyle magazines of Nicholson and girlfriend and baby. It was all too public. It’s as if she’s seeing the magazine spread in front of her still.
Perhaps she can take a small delight in the fact that if she was the love of Nicholson’s life he was certainly not the love of hers. She talks about how hard it was. How she couldn’t think straight or do anything except look after her husband.
“When my husband was sick it was impossible for me to work. I dedicated my time to him and now for the first time I’m having the opportunity to look outside. Oddly nothing came to me at that time. I had very few offers. Perhaps people knew what was going on. Perhaps it was just luck that I had enough time to devote myself entirely.”
In the last year I did three movies. There was one called The Big Year with Owen Wilson and Steve Martin. I’ve got to know Steve Martin a lot more and I don’t mean in the biblical sense. I’ve been around him for many years and I never thought that he particularly liked me. But on The Big Year I suddenly saw this other side of him. Compared to the Steve Martin I’d known all those years before he was practically emollient. He was jovial, arranging dinner dates. I think it was because he’s happily married and I found him to be an inventive actor, quite clever. The Big Year is about competitive bird watching and I play a sea captain and Owen Wilson and I have an ugly past where I forced him off the boat with a knife.
“I did another movie. The title keeps changing although it’s being alluded to as a ‘cancer comedy’. It’s a movie that emphasizes the crazy things and emotions that surround a serious illness.”
So she did a movie dealing with serious illness and death just after she’d experienced it. That was harsh. “Life is harsh. My life has always reflected my work. My life, my work. I don’t know which comes first. I don’t know if that’s just what I’m sympathetic to or it’s fate.”
The waiter seems over attentive, very keen to listen in. she says she doesn’t know why she chose this restaurant. It’s always been unlucky for her. Once she fell over, slipped on the floor by the bar, was on the ground and nobody came to help her.
She grew up in Galway, Ireland, in the guest house of a big rambling house called St. Cleran’s Manor House. Her father loved Ireland. He loved hunting. He loved the freedom. He hated McCarthyism, control. She too has adopted Ireland. It’s in her heart. She was very moved by the Queen. “How fabulous was the Queen’s speech,” she says with pride.
Her father got rid of the house when her mother died and his new wife didn’t like it. Something that also causes an ache.
Has she been back to Ireland much? “I’ve been back a couple of times since Bob died and that’s been good for me. I’ve been back to the house. It’s in a bad state. It was a hotel. Merv Griffin of all people bought it. It had a sushi restaurant in it. It was a very strange experience when I went back there. it was like being Alice down a rabbit hole. If you could imagine going from a home with very functional rooms to everything being displaced, every door I opened went into a room or bathroom and some of it not so beautiful. They chopped a lot of the woods down and you could see big mansions to the right and left uninhabited and some half finished. I guess that had been the Germans that were visiting. The cook and the housekeeper sweetly offered me cup cakes and some booklets of St Cleran’s Manor House when it belonged to Merv Griffin. You want to see the place functioning and the fire burning.”
Perhaps she should buy it? “Ha. I’d have to be in a very different place. Those places cost so much to keep. If there were any rich Irishmen who wanted to marry me that could go together quite easily. Even if they were gay that could be arranged.”
The food arrives and she smiles at the waiter. This time he leaves. She talks about the director of Horrid Henry. “He’s such a nice man. He came all the way to California and asked me to play Miss Battleaxe. When I saw her she had purple hair and a pointy nose, so I asked for prosthetics and he said no, no, no one’s going to be using prosthetics and I said I don’t know how to go about this part unless you let me have a little pointy nose and a little pointy chin. They didn’t stick on very well but I thought it was integral to her character that she be pointy. I got fixated with this one nature programme that they have on the BBC where a couple set a trap in the shore lands of Cornwall and they caught a common shrew and he had a very long nose, a plaintive look but a hateful shrewish little face, so I thought I’ve found my template.”
She demonstrates the look. “Exactly like Miss Battleaxe.” Conspiratorially she says, “She gets kindlier. She redeems herself in the end.”
Sometimes her voice is like a cat’s purr. A cat who’s been sipping cognac and had a few cigarettes, warm and crackly. It wasn’t her worse experience with prosthetics. It took only a few hours to get on and off. “Witches took five hours to get on and three hours to get off. At the end of the day you wanted to tear it off but you had to do it piece by piece.”
Was she worried at the way she would look as Miss Battleaxe or in Witches. “No, I knew what I was letting myself in for. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a kids movie. You’re not looking for subtlety. And I have less and less vanity.
“I don’t like looking bad accidentally. But if it’s my choice to play a hideous looking witch I should be able to do that. But that’s not to say if I see a horrible looking picture of myself I won’t cringe ‘How could this happen?'”
I remember she told me she tried botox once and her husband told her a sad story and she couldn’t react to it so he got upset. She laughs at the thought of it completely impassive to his tragedy. I’m wondering does she really find it still funny or perhaps it’s too sad. Her face doesn’t betray.
“That was the last time I did botox, but one of the oddest things about my present moment is that right now there is no one in my life to tell me what I shouldn’t do so I find myself relying on what people have told me in the past. I don’t know if I should rush out and do all the things that were forbidden. I’ve seen some really good looking women in their sixties with not a line on their face and it’s a different kind of look, a certain amount of not so haggardness, smoothness. I looked very tired after that year and a half is what I’m trying to say. (When she was looking after her dying husband). I don’t know that a little lifting, a little botox, is such a horrible idea this year as it was last. I don’t feel adamant about it any more.”
Isn’t botox quite detrimental to acting as it promotes expressionlessness?” “That’s true and that’s a reason for not doing it. But a few of my friends have had little lifts here and there. I wonder if I go in and have a face lift that in the next few weeks they’ll have an innovation. I just don’t like the idea of pain. It’s not much of a priority in my life.”
Is there another man in her life? She shakes her head looking more relaxed, less savaged by grief. She perks up. “It’s strange I’ve never had a period in my life since I was 15 that I didn’t have a boyfriend or several. It’s taking some getting used to. There are some moments where yes, I have been lonely. You come home after a night out and you go, what’s missing? Oh yes, there’s no one to talk to about it. So you certainly feel that emptiness, but at the same time I don’t feel compelled to fill that space. The first thing I did when Bob died was I couldn’t stop digging holes. I made a garden behind my house feverishly. I went up to my ranch and planted trees. I think that was a healthy thing for me. But I haven’t met anybody that I would want to be with in that sense.”
Maybe it’s too early. “Maybe. I don’t think I’m putting out the signals. I don’t care really. I’m still living in a house I shared with my husband. I can’t imagine establishing a life with somebody in that house.”
Is she comfortable living in that house? “Not only comfortable. I think it’s beautiful. There is a studio that he built that he was going to work in for ever and ever. It’s a very big property. Venice is where I moved for Bob. Venice has been good for me, character building. If it hadn’t been for Venice I’d be behind some gate on Mulholland Drive. I’d be a recluse and afraid of mixing with the public. Venice takes the starch out of you. There’s a very immediate sense of living that you have down here. Positive character building but not altogether easy. When I first came I was jumpy because I was overly recognised and I thought that would infringe on my freedom or my security. And that’s what happened to a lot of celebrities. The next thing you know you are a prisoner. It’s pretty easy to stay behind your gates and stay away from the rest of humanity. Much better to deal with being alive.
There is a sense of sadness when she says that, as if something without Graham is not alive. She’d always been attracted to bad boys and risk takers and taking risks. All of that shifted when she married Graham.
She was 39 and felt “as you go through life people reflect what you need. “Great love affairs don’t necessarily make great marriages or even great friendship. Robert, he was kind to me. I got married because I finally met someone who told me what they were going to do and did it. He was single-minded in his pursuit of me and a genius in his own right.”
All her life previous to this she had been the pursuer. “Pursuing is not a happy place,” she shudders. The pursuing seems lifetimes ago, but still too close.
I remember when I met her before we ended up crying. She had said that losing Jack was “like experiencing a death in the family. It was terrible abandonment and loneliness. He symbolised a whole life for me. He was my family.”
Thinking about it now, their relationship was very fractured at the time. The fact that he was family was perhaps a projection. Now she has lost her actual family, her husband. She’s very aware that her father was the first imprint, a vibrant character who was cruel to actors when he directed them to test them, and was scant with his praise. She would have to make do with a wink or a nod. When he first directed her in A Walk With Love And Death it was a harsh experience. Yet when she won his love it was worth winning.
It seems that all her life, until Graham, she had to pursue, win over, challenge. With Graham the love was just there. Does she feel his presence? “I had one thing happened shortly after he died. I have a shrine to him and I asked him a question and it was answered immediately in a way I can’t be specific about. I have a sense of him everywhere. That he could just walk through the door and I won’t be particularly surprised. And then there’s the knowledge that he’s not going to.
I’ve been following a poet, a Mexican poet whose son was killed by the cartels. He said the effect of the death is so profound that he’s never going to write poetry again. ” She said it as if she has complete empathy.
” He talks about God and the afterlife and the questions that only get answered when we die. …. So I don’t think I’ll know until then. It’s already an act of faith that people think they will know at that moment.”
Her voice is soft, a profound sadness radiates.
Is she religious? “Sometimes. I’m mostly pragmatic. I search less because I know the answer is more remote. It’s like when you chase something it runs away more. If you chase a horse you never catch it. One has to have a lot of energy for those things.
“In terms of spirituality what you put out there is what you attract. The object is to get yourself to a place where you can be receptive, where you can be kind, where you don’t have to be defensive, where you can be at ease in your own skin.”
The dessert menu comes. We decide to share a chocolate tart. “If you’re going to have dessert why go for the fruit.” Good to see she’s all or nothing.
“I have just got a TV series (Smash). For the next half a year at least I’ll be in New York. If I’m going to spend half of what’s left of my life in New York I may as well enjoy it.” It’s a series about Broadway with Jack Davenport and Debra Messing and Katharine McPhee, an American Idol contestant. “A sweet thing. It’s very well written. I’ll put my dogs in cages and just go. I wish I could do the same with my horses. I have two dogs now Mecha, who’s a hairless Mexican dog but she has hair, and another one I think she’s a lhasa apso. I’m taking them on a boat at the weekend to Catalina island. We in California never go to Catalina island. In the olden Los Angeles days people used to make that trip to go to a ballroom, to gamble and drink too much.”
I think it was a boat off Catalina island that Natalie Wood fell overboard and drowned. “I am determined to gather my rosebuds, especially if I’m going to be in New York. I want to make the most of California.”
She says that since she wanted to fill up space with doing lots of movies that’s when offers came in. “You say it’s weird but if your life always works that way it doesn’t seem weird. The question is do you choose the work or does it choose you?
“Sometimes we attract things that are darker. Sometimes we chase rainbows because we think they are going to transform our lives. So many girls go after guys because they think it’s going to transform them. It doesn’t make life easier. Perhaps it makes life harder. Perhaps it just makes you be able to feel. Or perhaps you feel you’re going to go after some other people and see how that feels.”
Did she do that? “Yes. Absolutely. As soon as I got as I wanted I was like, is that all there is?” These days she says she’s not in pursuit of anyone. “Just my friendships and my affections with my animals and with people who are already on my side. Another very strange that happened in widowhood which I never expected is that people can react very negatively to you and be very nasty. That somehow you haven’t done enough. Or they’re owed something. I think that happens all the time around death. There’s an expectation perhaps of money or inheritance. You think people are going to wonderful and comforting and empathic, but they’re fucking greedy. That’s all I have to say about it. So you get a nice dose of human nature and it can take the sterm and drum out of you. In a way whatever can get you through this, even if it’s anger at a person or two for you to plight your sorrow, it will get you through it. It will get you through the pain because the pain is something that gnaws away at you and it’s like an affliction. Whereas at least with anger you can strike it out and get it out of you. That no suffering pain is very difficult. So in a way finding myself in a position where I had to be self-protective was good.”
She takes a fork full of salty caramel chocolate tart. “People don’t want you to be needy. They want nothing to do with a needy person. They want you as strong as an ox. People who have known you strong don’t like to see you needy. Eventually you get a little hardened. It’s not an easy time for women right now. Men have never been more shrill or more feminine. I’ve never known so many gay people. perhaps it’s the opposition. Everyone wants to settle in with people who are more like them.”
Does she? “Do I want to be a lesbian? No. I think when you undergo the loss of a mate sex is the least of it. It seems trivial. I look around right now if I’m in a restaurant or waiting for someone or on the street. I look at men and I think, how old are you? What kind of man would want a woman my age? Would it be a man with salt and pepper hair and a pinstripe suit? Who would it be? Would it be some sort of artistic type that would want to have a shag on the beach? Would it be Rupert Murdoch or Warren Buffet or Donald Trump? Is there a template for the perfect man now? At one point it was Brad Pitt wasn’t it. But who would it be now? I suppose Jack was a universal template.” A pause. A smile. She had Jack the universal template. “I don’t know where the template is now.”
We discuss that everyone’s template is perhaps based on some kind of psychological father figure. Her father was a womaniser who lived only in the pursuit of passion in that moment. He never thought of consequences. No surprise then that Nicholson and her father loved each other.
“I read another book about my father. Every time I read about him he’s making love to more women. This man has a more active love life than I do and he’s been dead 20 years. And then I read about my poor mother waiting around for him and tolerating his stuff. That’s not something I’d be tempted to do now.”
Has she ever done that? “I think I was doomed to replicate that kind of thing. But now, no. My type was, he’s out the door, he must be good. A gorgeous deep-voiced flatterer. The bad dad. I understand now that you don’t have to jump into anything. There’s a certain period of widowhood grace. I completely understand the way you would wear black clothing for a few years, to keep you away from the world. And that’s not unhealthy. You need it. When you’ve been administering to someone who’s incredibly sick, trying to be everything to their nothing, you pour so much of yourself out, you are vulnerable, you are shaky after that. You need a period to rebuild.
“There is this constant reminder that we are alone and there’s no mistaking that. It’s not really a deception. Once in a while you will leave yourself to be part of a couple. You stop making decisions on your own and for yourself. As part of a couple – I’ve been in that position where someone has said, what are you doing this summer? And I say I’m going to do this and that. And I get that sidelong look from my partner who’s like, what about we? You’re going to do what? What about us? And I think it’s not about us, it’s about me.”
In her relationship with Graham she never felt dominated. She was able to be her own person and be with someone else. She wouldn’t know how to do a relationship as one half of a couple. “My relationships haven’t lasted as long as myself, so as a single entity I’m going to own it. Going to New York scares me, but I’m going with it. Where I’m going to be, who am I going to be with, who I’m not going to be with – I don’t even have a child to make those decisions around. It’s all about me now.”
She talks about her horses that are upstate on her ranch. She is sad they won’t be going to New York. “They are extremely intuitive. They can tell by the feel of you if you are tentative on their back.” She talks about CeCe a big strong piebald mare with a big head, the horse that had been given to her by her father’s last wife.
“I’ve got to my ranch and said I’m going to ride all my horses today. I started with the ones I knew best and saved her to the end. I got on top of her and within seconds I was sailing back to the ground on a cloud of dust. I looked at her immense buttocks. She was an incredible animal and I was like a spider scurrying away from her and then I thought I really don’t need to kill myself this way. I used to take risks all the time to really really risk, but now I don’t stand up on the back of motorways going 80mph on an Italian autoroute. I was an athlete and a daredevil, I always took emotional risks, I always put myself in at the deep end.” Has she stopped? “I’d think twice before I took big risks now whereas I never used to think that way.” Does she regret any of those risks? “Not at all. Some were fun and some a bit hurtful. I got over it a lot of love poems later.”
She talks about the shift in her and the shift of her whole family to the east coast. Danny will be going east working on some projects and nephew Jack is in Boardwalk Empire. He used to go out with Cat Deeley. “I think they were both too big for the relationship. They both wanted big careers as well.”
Briefly there’s a look of nostalgia. You see her or you feel her reminiscing about big relationships with big characters, tumultuous ones. Now those love poems? “Thrown away or in the trash.”
Now and again you get a glimpse of a naughty look, a sense of adventure. She may not be wanting to ride the big bucking horse but gradually she’ll work out a new ride.

Sacha Newley (Sunday Times Magazine, March 08, 2015)

I first met Sacha Newley over a decade ago at an exhibition of his paintings. The paintings were graphic, sad, disconcerting; spectres from his Hollywood childhood that seemed to haunt him. The gilded family of Joan Collins, Anthony Newley with their young children Sacha and Tara peering out into fake happiness in the golden Californian sun.
Sacha still paints, largely portraits. He’s just finished one of Jeffrey Archer. And he’s also written a memoir, Hollywood Child. The title sounds like one of his Aunt Jackie’s novels, but it couldn’t be more different. The characters are all dark and shadowy, most of them self-involved and there is no happy ending.
It’s the story of a childhood spent in big houses in Beverly Hills and London. It’s the story of his relationship with his father who when he was born in 1965 was at the apex of his stardom. Anthony Newley was complicated and largely absent.
His father and mother divorced in 1969 when he was three. Throughout most of Sacha’s childhood Dame Joan struggled. She had initial fame as a Hollywood starlet but her husband had wanted her to give up acting. After their divorce she networked with a passion for little else.
His surrogate mother was his nanny Sue Delong, a giantess who would wrestle him to the ground and sit on him when he misbehaved and grind him. It was the only physical contact throughout his childhood.
Sacha Newley, huddled into an armchair in a London members club, has the hooded eyes; the big brown grey wells that carry all the sadness of the world just like his father. But there’s a fineness, an elegance to his face. You see the beauty of his mother Dame Joan Collins.
The book has been optioned for a film by Donald Rosenfeld, producer of Remains of the Day and Room With A View. The original publishers recently pulled out because they feared it would offend their best-selling author Jackie Collins because of its unflinching tales of her sister Joan. ‘They admitted they were worried about a conflict with one of their biggest selling authors and they said we would advise you to find a publisher with no family ties.’ Dame Joan has in fact read the book and said she enjoyed it. ‘She hopes Felicity Jones will play her in the movie.’
I am not sure if his mother’s skin is as rhinoceros thick as it appears on one of his early portraits of her, or she has got caught up in the idea of Felicity Jones playing her in a biopic. Mommie Dearest for the 21st Century.
Sacha says all the time his mother doesn’t analyse much. ‘All that baggage is what ages people. She just lets it go,’ he says in a way that’s only partly admiring. Dame Joan and her son have a fascinating relationship. No matter how selfish and unempathic she was in his childhood, he always describes her as beautiful, particularly as she is dealing the most terrifying emotional blows.
His childhood was by turns extraordinary and excruciating. He was the son of one of Hollywood’s most shimmering golden couples. In the early sixties Newley’s musicals were the Tony’d toast of Broadway. His shows in Las Vegas were events. And his mother of course was impossibly glamorous.
They were both such extraordinary people. Although I wasn’t aware that my life was extraordinary at the time. I didn’t know what normality was. I was aware of being in a whirl of light, of electricity. They were generating a great deal of buzz, so my world was on fire. It was like being in a movie. Although I only realised that later.
‘My father was a genius. There’s no other word really. That kind of protean talent that encompassed so many different fields and areas in a way that nobody has touched since. If he had been less gifted he might have made his mark deeper in one particular vein. To my mind he is the third in the holy trinity of Sinatra and Sammy Davis. But he never achieved that status because he wanted to do everything, and that was his undoing. And also the fact that he was what nowadays be called a sex addict.
‘The libido was outside the box, off the chart. Girls were his thing. Some men of that kind of stature are into drugs or booze. For him it was the girls. If you wanted to indulge in psychobabble you could say he was looking for a connection that he never really found. The Don Juan motivated by his lack of fulfilment.’
They seemed ill matched from the start, Anthony Newley the intellectual, sensitive actor, singer, composer, lyricist, and the out of work starlet Joan Collins. ‘In many ways they complemented each other. He had great depth…’ And Joan Collins had great shallow? Her son laughs, not even a little embarrassed.
‘He was the introvert. She was the extrovert. He lived the examined life and she is not prone to self-examination. She acts, he reacts. He has endlessly second-guessed his every motivation. She would never do that. He said that being with her was like hanging on to the tail of comet – exciting. Her energy was incandescent.
‘He would sleep all day to accumulate energy, and she was a broken pipe gushing all the time. He was fascinated by her.’
Does he think they ever really loved each other? ‘She loved him deeply, deeply. When he left he truly broke her in a way that she’s never been broken.’
The impression I have always had about Dame Joan is that she is unbreakable, so I was startled when in the book there is a letter that Sacha found in his father’s boxes after he died in 1999. ‘I couldn’t believe the letter when I read it it’s so powerful. It’s a cry in the wilderness that I had never heard from my mother.’
In the letter dated February 13, 1970, she talks about looking at the empty closets that used to contain her husband’s clothes. She writes:
“I am desolate and destroyed…
You are gone, to another house and another life…
And I – I – who wanted and wished for an end to our 8-year farce am utterly miserable…
There is – or would be no chance for us anymore – right??…
What the fuck happened to us?? —
Certainly I loved you terribly…
It’s like crying on someone’s grave – it’s gone gone gone – you and me – Tony and Joan – Finis.
It’s such a waste and I’m so sad—You’ll never know how sad, miserable, bereft I felt coming to the end of our marriage. You think I’m cold or don’t care—“
‘I was profoundly moved by it because it showed me an aspect of my mother that I had never connected to. There was a pulse of emotion that I just didn’t expect. She was 29, 30. A young woman easily fooled. He totally betrayed her and broke her heart because he was a womaniser, a sex addict. And also due to his problems. He could never enter a room without watching himself do it. He was like the witness of his own life. He was never there and so his experiences were never real to him.’
Anthony Newley peaked in the late 50s, early 60s. His film career thrived with acting roles in Dr Doolittle and with his collaborative partnership with Leslie Bricusse. They wrote the stage show Stop The World – I want To Get Off, which was also made into a film with the hit song What Kind Of Fool Am I? They also wrote Goldfinger.
Bricusse was a Cambridge educated composer and impresario. Newley a Cockney Jewish kid from the wrong side of the tracks who grew up without knowing his father. ‘In many ways Leslie was like a father figure and dad was like the upstart son. Leslie knew he had found a Vesuvian talent in my father and he knew exactly what to do with it. They wrote the score for Stop The World – I Want To Get Off in three weeks in a bathroom because the house in which my father was living was being renovated. My father laid in the bath and Leslie sat in the toilet. Evie Bricusse used to say that the laughter that emanated from the toilet was thrilling to hear because she knew their synergy was incredible.’
In many ways it was a troubled showbusiness marriage. ‘They were competitive and that sometimes sparked genius and sometimes just a fight.’
Newley was insecure but with a towering ego. ‘My father was very much the It Boy and he pursued my mother hard.’ They met when Collins was dating Robert Wagner. Wagner took her to see Stop The World and then they went backstage and that’s when Newley decided he was going to seduce her.
Collins had previously been engaged to Warren Beatty and in the book Sacha says she even got pregnant by him. ‘They were both young stars under contract and a child coming along would have been a problem so they made the decision.’ To have an abortion? ‘At least he pushed it in that direction. She wasn’t entirely suited to motherhood. That’s certainly true.’ Indeed she wasn’t.
It seems that she constantly ignored the emotional needs of her children in her relentless ambition. That said, the picture that emerges of her is that she had a lot more grit than you would expect.
The Seventies were a nightmare for her. She was in her forties by the time she returned to LA in 1975 and a nobody. She was on that treadmill, working it, going to every party she could. She was also with a man who was a non-starter in terms of supporting her.’
On the rebound she married Ron Kass who was an accountant at Apple Records, but for most of their marriage he was looking for work. ‘He used to squirrel away a lot of her money and waste it but she found out too late when guys in jump suits came to collect the television and the Bang & Olufsen. I was in England at boarding school at the time.’
Collins had to endure the horror of downsizing her Hollywood home although she still managed to make modifications to the new house, a 10 x 20 walk-in closet and a fibre glass jacuzzi in the garden for Kass. He comes over as a rather grasping man.
‘He was the first good-looking American wearing chunky jewellery to come along. He still had the job at Apple with The Beatles when they met. He had this wonderful town house in Mayfair and it was intensely glamorous. It was the time of The Beatles final albums. They were all at the house.’
After he lost his job they would have moved back to California. ‘I didn’t know why daddy wasn’t there any more and I didn’t know why my new step daddy was there. I didn’t connect with him at all except over his car. He had the most marvellous Maserati convertible. He already had three children and once he’d had a child with my mother there was no feeling that he needed to connect with me.’
Kass and Collins had a child, Katy, who was involved in a terrible accident. When she was eight she was hit by a car when playing with a ball. She was in a coma for a month while her parents lived in a Winnebago in the parking lot at the hospital. ‘Katy never really recovered. She faces lingering challenges. Katy’s accident was one of the factors in the marriage ending. Instead of bringing the both of them together it drove them apart as grief can do sometimes.’ Soon after they separated Kass got colon cancer from which he did not recover.
At the time the young Sacha could only sense frustration, anger, loneliness, unhappiness and upheaval. Just as he had settled at the progressive King Alfred’s School in Hampstead he was moved back to California. He was given a Dalmatian puppy called Pirate when he was in London but the puppy savaged a Tiffany lamp and was promptly taken back to the pet shop.
‘I was devastated. It’s an emotional beat in the boy’s story.’ Suddenly he is referring to himself in the third person. But perhaps it’s not so suddenly. He has quite often painted portraits of himself looking down on a young self or another self, or in some way outside of himself. And now referring to the boy without the puppy he says, ‘He is lonely. And I don’t think he understands what has happened. Nowadays I think parents explain everything to their children, almost to a fault. But my mother never felt that was necessary.’
Much later on he realised that his mother was not without her own stresses. As she tried to assert authority his elder sister Tara had a teenage rebellion and refused to be told what to do. Collins said, “I’m your mother. I can tell you what I want to.” And Tara responded, “Well, why don’t you act like one.”
‘Tara was more forceful and connected with her feelings and emotions. I just wanted mummy to love me and I wanted a connection with the mummy I found so dazzling. She nourished me in the way a muse nourishes: at a distance.’
When he was 14 he and Tara went to live with his father on the other side of Beverly Hills. He felt he was punishing his mother because she had abandoned him. ‘So we abandoned her right back. Our dad at this point represented Shangri-La. His world was full of warmth, fire lit and granola. We could talk about our feelings here. It was night and day from being at my mother’s. They were living very different lives.
‘My mother’s house was like a streamlined vinyl cigarette, a speedboat. And my father’s was an old creaking galleon. My father’s world felt loving by comparison. But the house soon became too small for us all and we were yet again looking for another home, looking for the place where we would all finally feel happy and get along. And of course that never happened.’
His father sank his millions into a mansion once owned by Joan Crawford. He claims it was haunted and doomed, unlucky for everyone who bought it. His mother and Kass started working on The Stud together and that briefly re-cemented the marriage. ‘When we left to live with dad my mother went into a spiral of drinking quite heavily and Ron would take Polaroids of her when she was asleep or drunk and he would threaten to publish them if she ever tried to leave him.’
Throughout his childhood, with its constant shifting of emotional sands and changing locations, he didn’t feel he had a connection to anybody. The big space around him was to be filled by the big butch nanny Sue. ‘She was big in every way but her story weirdly does not appear in any of my mother’s biographies. She is lightly airbrushed out of the narrative.
‘Sue held it together. She held the world together as far as I was concerned. She was my continuity.’ There is a pause as we sip tea and venture into another corridor of pain. The relationship with Delong seems strangely S&M. ‘It was, yes,’ he laughs, a haunting laugh. ‘There was quite a lot of S&M. She would not just sit on me but sit and grind me into the carpet. I loved it, I didn’t love it. It was like the relationship boys might have with their older brothers, but in my case it was with a woman who was employed so it had a different frisson about it.’
Her presence in the book is visceral, shocking. After all the complex and taut emotions of the over thinking father and the never pensive mother, Delong’s physical presence and sheer physicality must have literally shaken his world. There is no description of his mother ever kissing or hugging him, yet this woman seems to be always chasing him, grabbing him.
‘Sue was an orphan and grew up as the eldest girl in a family of three boys. She was a giantess. Very butch, short haircut. Had a lady friend now and again who would pop by for a glass of beer and a chat. I think she was probably bisexual.’
Could she be more different to his mother who always looked so extremely feminine? He nods. ‘I think it’s true to say my mother didn’t receive a great deal of affection from her father. In fact he was a glacier. My mother didn’t get physical warmth from her father and a girl needs that.’
Is he saying she didn’t receive warmth so she didn’t know how to give it? ‘I think so,’ he nods sadly. ‘I think so. Sue was always standing by to sit on me if I acted up. And Sue I think understood the unspoken brief from my mother which was “I am overwhelmed. I am in a new marriage with two kids from a previous marriage and the boy is acting out. Manage this for me.” And Sue was only too happy to do that.’
He was totally accepting of being punished by Delong and being disconnected from his mother. To complain that he was unhappy or lonely never occurred to him. ‘I think to have made that connection with my feelings would have been dangerous.’
His mother never discussed feelings. ‘She was always concerned to hold things together, give the impression that things were good. Stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on… Maybe I’m continually apologising for her.’
He is of course continually apologising for her. It is as if he wants her to be understood, to come over well, even when she’s behaved without sensitivity. Collins of course never wants to explain.
‘She is very realistic about her shortcomings. She said: “I was never a porridge stirring kind of yummy mummy. That’s not who I am.” And she is at peace with that.’
Even for someone who eschews analysis and introspection, this book must have been a gruelling read. She didn’t even ask him to change the references to her wearing a wig. ‘I think it’s common knowledge that she wears wigs. Her real hair is frail and thin so the wig has always been a way to enlarge the aura.’
Has she always worn wigs? ‘Yes. Maybe she did the odd beehive in the Sixties but it was mostly wigs.’ Has he ever seen her hair? ‘Yes. When she’s in the South of France and comfortable she’ll walk around without make-up. She has great bones. Her actual hair is thin. It hasn’t seen oxygen or light for 50 years, like various parts of psyche which also haven’t seen enough light. If she goes out without a wig there’s always a headscarf or a hat.’ Quite incredible to think that she was undaunted by her thin hair. Sacha shrugs, ‘Into every life a little rain must fall.’ He smiles benevolently and I can’t get the image of frail-haired Dame Joan out of my head.
She did point out one factual inaccuracy. It was an episode about his sister Tara nearly drowning in the pool of their house in Beverly Hills. It was not Tara at the bottom of the pool. It was Sacha himself. ‘I think that’s a good metaphor for my childhood. Drowning in a pool in the middle of a party.’
I think the false memory is a more interesting metaphor. The fact that he was drowning and he thought it was someone else. Perhaps he has inherited his father’s ability not to be present in his own life. ‘Exactly. All too often I witness my life rather than live it. And why does one absent oneself? Because of pain.’
The conversation morphs into talking about his father’s pain which was ongoing throughout his life and how he hired a private detective find his father. ‘He took Tara and I along for their first meeting which occurred in 1973. We went to this forlorn pebble dashed estate north east of London. In this dingy house a little man with National Health specs answered the door. Inside his little house it was a shrine to dad, all the cuttings and posters. I think it crushed my father. All I sensed at the time was a kind of confusion from him. I think he was very disappointed by the man he found because in his imagination he’d built up his father to be wonderful and then he discovered this puny little man. As much as he tried to restage the love affair between his mother and father it didn’t work.
‘He flew George out to Los Angeles and he went to live with grandma at the beach. After three weeks it was all over because he was grasping and difficult and rude.’
Sacha’s childhood was filled with characters who were difficult and disappointed, all alienated from each other. And in the background always a party with a smattering of A-listers. ‘It’s the only antidote to alienation: have a party. The thing about showbusiness is unless you have a regular gig there’s no security. You are serving a profession which is highly selective, highly judgemental and withering to your self-esteem at all times. The human soul is fragile and showbusiness is not good for it, but it is an addiction, a drug. It gives you a form of fulfilment which is illusory. It doesn’t last and it doesn’t build anything in the self.
‘Performers, entertainers, have to stay in touch with their inner child. It behoves them not to grow up. That keeps them in touch with their fantasies. My father was doing that on stage and mirroring that back to my mother. So she would feel that she wanted to be in that magical state as well. Her best friends Natalie Wood and Dyan Cannon were in the make-up chair at 20th Century Fox and she was at home being a mum. She wanted to get a piece, and he didn’t really want her to go back to work. They had huge rows. That first row I remember vividly as I heard it through the intercom. I was three. It was like static booming. We couldn’t make out the words, we just knew there was a tempest in the house coming from mummy and daddy.
‘That’s why when my father’s movie Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? came along she was desperate to work. Her agreeing to it gives you an idea of how naïve she was.’ Basically Anthony Newley had created a porn film where she starred as Polyester Poontang.
‘Flower was his nickname for her and it’s hard to square Flower with Alexis Carrington but they are in fact the same woman. Joan had her head well in the sand when she arrived on a beach in Malta to shoot the movie. It was a porno with my father as Casanova. Much later than that she realised what he was doing was confessing to the world he was a sex addict. There’s a scene in it where Heironymous played by my father has a serpentine line of women stretching out in to the distance and my father is in a bed with a tent around it saying, “Next.” And one by one they go in.’
He never really found what he was looking for. After Joan he married an air hostess from Texas called Dareth Rich. ‘I was very attracted to her. She was a sexy woman. I think a lot of young boys get hung up on their stepmothers although she wasn’t very charitable in the end to me.’
He has two half siblings from this marriage; Christopher, who is sailing around the world in a small boat, and Shelby, a nurse. He doesn’t see much of them. ‘It’s an oil and water thing. It never quite works and I don’t think they need or want the connection.’
It was after she became pregnant with Christopher in 1979, when they had been together seven years, that Rich demanded Newley marry her. Soon after the marriage Vegas stopped employing him and his wilderness years started.
‘His show Chaplin did not transfer to Broadway after huge expenditure and then he got cancer. To salve his despair he started an affair with a 19-year-old and that was the end of the marriage. She threw him out, so he went to live at grandma’s house firstly in LA and then back in the UK.’
When he left California he had a yard sale where he sold his $3,000 suits that he wore to perform in Vegas for $15 each. ‘A big pick-up truck full of Mexican gardeners jumped out and started trying on the suits and bought the lot. The same suits that my father wore on stage at Caesars Palace were now being worn by Mexican gardeners.
‘When he came back to England in the late 80s he and grandma lived in an attic flat off Kensington High Street. My father always had great anger towards grandma because she allowed him to be evacuated during the war. He was billeted with an old crone out in the provinces and they had to share a room and a bed. She would wash naked in front of him every morning. He was eleven and she stank and one night she rolled over on top of him and almost suffocated him. For the rest of his life he could not share a bed with anybody he was so traumatised by the experience. Even in his late sixties when grandma was 94 carrying his porridge up the stairs while he was sick he would say to me, “I’m so angry with her I can taste it.”’
First of all he did an ill-fated show at the King’s Head pub theatre in Islington, Once Upon A Song, which was a disaster. He got a few episodes of EastEnders playing a crooked car salesman. ‘After that Scrooge came along. It hurt his pride that it was a Leslie Bricusse musical because he always wanted to think he could make it without Bricusse.’
He received great reviews but it was to be his last act. He had cancer which started off in the kidney but ended up in the liver and brain. He had eleven years of cancer treatments and finally died in 1999. His last words were, “It’s all a book.” Anthony Newley, it seems, was not present in his life even in death.
Sacha’s nanny Sue Delong also met with a tragic end. ‘After Sue was fired she went to work for Jackie (Collins) until Jackie discovered her trying to smother one of her daughters and then she went to work for Natalie Wood until things started going missing in the house. Then she went to the East Coast and worked for an art dealer until her terrible boundary issues got the better of her and she was let go.
‘At this point she checked herself into a low rent rooming house in Lower Manhattan and swallowed a bottle of pills but she was so enormous her body absorbed the poison and she woke up three days later with a terrible headache. Then she promptly put on her clothes and went back to the pharmacy and bought double the dose but by the time she got back two detectives were waiting for her so her second suicide attempt was foiled. (The police had been called by concerned neighbours).
‘She then came back to England where she had all kinds of health problems and she wrote to all of her former employers begging for money. One of the letters was to me. She asked for a drawing. I still feel guilty about it but I never replied. She was dead a few weeks later by asphyxiation. She locked herself in her car and fed the pipe in. We scattered her ashes in the East River. A surprisingly tiny amount of ashes for such an enormous woman.
‘Sue gave me something. When she first arrived I said I wanted to climb the tree and she allowed me even though my mother screamed from the top window to stop me. She encouraged me to climb higher and I did and unaccountably I burst into tears. Sue gave me continuity, she gave me a human sense of home. She let me climb trees and she gave me a toughness and self belief as a boy which I could never get from my father because he was a very feminised man. This woman gave me my boyhood self. I was physically revolted by her.’
In the book he dedicates as much time to describing Delong’s wobbling mountains of flesh as he does to his mother’s ravishing beauty. ‘Sue wore ghastly clothes, Spandex trousers and Spandex T–shirts. She looked a sight. Compared to this my mother was such a goddess. I was so polarised in my vision of women – with no middle ground.’
Being the son of a woman generally recognised as a world class beauty must your expectations of women. In one of his paintings, Mother and Child, the woman looks a little bit like Joan and a little bit like his first wife Angela Tassoni. Does he think he was searching for his mother in his first wife? He nods sadly, ‘Without question. I was under the deluded belief that they had similar energy but because of Angela’s Italian heritage I felt there was a yummy mummy thing and she held out hope that I could have some kind of synthesis of the two things I wanted.’
Is he saying that he wanted his mother and wife to be the same person? ‘Well, I guess yes.’ I needed to be hit squarely across my nose with a baseball bat and wake up.’
Before his marriage to Tassoni he was in a relationship with Diandra Douglas, former wife of Michael, nine years his senior. ‘Definitely seeking the mother and seeking the connection to the glamorous woman in the big boudoir.’
He is all about finding the connection that was missing in his childhood. Perhaps while looking for his mother he became his father because of the constant introspection. He had a therapists as a kid. But the therapist did not never last long because he was always moving or his mother ran out of money. One of the therapists offered art therapy which turned out some snakes ‘This was of course phallic so I could connect to my inner male. It was very powerful for me. I had a pet snake, Baxter, that my father bought me. When I was at school he tried to escape his aquarium and slit his throat.’ The snake is a recurring image in his paintings.
‘I’m not sure I have survived. But one hopes I can put the pain into my painting and writing, which is not always easy.’ After his marriage broke down three years ago he moved back to Britain. He now has a new partner Sheela Raman. ‘She is an extraordinary woman and she has given me a clear vision of myself, no longer the funhouse mirror version, and that’s really helped me. She is a writer working on a novel and a journalist.’
Being a long distance daddy to his daughter Ava (by Tassoni) seems torture to him but moving back to Britain has brought him closer to his mother physically and emotionally.
‘Mum and I of late have been recalibrating. I suggested we have a series of lunches together, just us, so that we could really talk about stuff without any distraction and we’ve achieved a level of connection that we’ve never had before. She is extremely well. Her life is still far too dramatic by half. There’s always something going on but I don’t think she could handle peace.’
Does he love her? ‘Beyond. My love for her goes deeper than I could ever really process and her importance to me is profound. I think of my childhood as a gift as much as it caused me difficulties.’
Just as it can’t have been pleasant to see her son’s vision of her looking way more troubled and lined than the world has ever seen her, she gamely hung the picture in the dining room. Michael Caine referred to it as “the picture of Doreen Gray.” ‘It’s very honest. She hung it up perhaps because Robin insisted.’
Robin (Old Etonian art dealer Robin Hurlstone) was her partner at the time. ‘He was magnificent in his sensibility and intellect.’ Why does he think that relationship didn’t work? ‘Because he didn’t want to play the game. He didn’t want to be Mr Joan Collins. But it did not end well. My relationship with my mother improved dramatically under his watch.’
Dame Joan has had five husbands. The first she married when she was 19 was movie star Maxwell Reed. A few months ago she announced she was raped by him before the marriage.
‘Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about her. He was a big movie star. Glamorous and a bully. He bullied her into marriage when she was 19. She was a stupid little girl and she wanted to get away from home, from her father.’ She wanted to get to Hollywood and Maxwell Reid was her ticket there. ‘Maxwell Reed wore more eyeliner than she did. He was a very questionable man. She’s always gone for the questionable, my father included.
‘When she was with Peter Holm, husband number four, I think that was an attempt to find her real father again. The discipline, the lack of emotion. He was actually a deeply nasty individual.’
Has she finally found happiness with Percy Gibson (He is 32 years younger. They married in 2002). He and Sacha are the same age. (49)A raised eyebrow: ‘They seem to get on incredibly well and I have a good relationship with him too.’ Perhaps at 81 she is finally a little less relentless, a little more peaceful. ‘Her life still seems far too dramatic. There is far too much happening. She is always dealing with some disaster. As much as she says she longs for a peaceful life I don’t think she can handle it.’
How does she feel about becoming a dame? ‘Delighted, of course,’ he says without a hint of sarcasm.

 

 

Jackie Collins (March, 2014)

Jackie Collins & Chrissy Iley
Jackie Collins & Chrissy Iley

Jackie Collins’ kitchen is exactly how you’d expect it to be – exotic, efficient, ultra modern, luxurious, vast. What you don’t expect is that she is in it so much.
It is bright white, two double refrigerators, two double ovens, endless hobs. And a collection of brightly coloured cows line the windowsill.
She is preparing lunch for me with some of the recipes from the Lucky Santangelo Cookbook, inspired by the life and loves of her fictional heroine. She has always determined that Lucky ‘is the woman I would like to be in another life.’ And they are of course inextricably linked.
Lucky is the feisty heroine of her best selling Santangelo novels. A powerhouse woman, daughter of a former mafia boss who now runs his empire and enjoys dangerous passions and sun drenched sex in exotic locations where she/Collins have picked up many signature dishes from destination restaurants.
The recipes have actually featured in the books. Sometimes as celebration dishes or as seductions. The cookbook is also inspired by Collins’ own British childhood and life in California.
In Los Angeles she eats out 50 per cent of the time. At 76 she looks svelte, womanly, and just like you expect her fictional character to look – dramatic dark eyes, statement jewellery, ageless with long lustrous chestnut hair. ‘Extensions,’ she whispers as she sautés mushrooms for her meatball sauce.
‘I have never been on a diet. I eat what I like. Food is one of life’s great enjoyments. There are so many books coming out now, don’t eat this, don’t eat that, be gluten free, I think **** it, I just want to enjoy myself and eat delicious things. Not over indulge but just eat what I love. I know I’m the odd woman out in this town but I’ve never gone on a diet and I’ve never had a facial. Which is why I can write about women in this town with an amused eye because I’m not one of them.’
Collins is of course queen of the stories about Hollywood wives, Hollywood divorces and Hollywood sex lives. The relationships in her books have more twists and turns than an alpine road. Does she believe that relationships would be more stable if there was more home cooking? ‘I do actually. Not just the wife cooking, but the husband too. Just paying attention to what each other likes. That’s what happens in these celebrity marriages. They are so surrounded by gofers, go for this, go for that, laugh at my jokes, tell me I’m wonderful. Real life gets lost in the shuffle.
‘When my husband (club impresario Oscar Lerman, who died in 1992) was alive and my kids were little I would cook a lot and every meal he would say “that was the best meal I’ve ever had, it was delicious”. It wasn’t true but he said it night after night. And my fiancé Frank (Calcagnini – they became engaged in 1994 but he died in 1998 from a brain tumour) loved all my pasta dishes and all the Italian dishes – he was Italian American.
‘I love cooking for men.’ Does she think the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? ‘All men are little boys and what do little boys like to do, eat and play with themselves. Big boys like to eat and have sex.
‘I am an experimental cook. I look at recipes but then I add something, or I try to make something that I’ve had in restaurants that I like. The meatballs are in the cookbook (with veal), but I’ve adapted them to turkey today.’
She stirs her delicious smelling tomato sauce. ‘I always use extra virgin olive oil,’ she says spicily. ‘I always like to deal with extra virgins.’
Has cooking always been important to her? You imagine her on a leopard skin chaise longue surrounded by her collection of panthers sipping a cocktail while writing a sex scene in longhand. You don’t imagine her hard at work in the kitchen, even if she does have a kitchen as large as most people’s entire apartments.
‘Cooking says that you can do anything you set your mind to. People say oh I can’t boil an egg. That’s stupid. That’s like people who say I don’t’ understand social media. Also stupid. If you want to survive in this world you have to be able to cook. If you can’t cook you are going to depend on restaurants or other people and that’s ridiculous. I can make food out of anything. I can take out a packet of rice, chop up a pepper, an onion and a tomato, and there’ll be a fabulous rice dish out of nothing. You don’t have to go to the supermarket every ten minutes. I usually freeze pasta sauce, or meatballs or meatloaf, things like that.’
Jackie Collins and Lucky Santangelo have much in common. They are independent, they are capable. Although Jackie points out, ‘I have had cooking disasters. One Christmas the oven failed. I never look at the turkey. I wrap it up in foil and take it out five hours later. The oven had malfunctioned so it was raw and we ended up ordering pizza.’
The whole family were waiting, including her sister Joan. ‘Joan can cook. Spaghetti Bolognese. That’s all she cooks.’
What is Joan’s favourite dish? ‘Her Spaghetti Bolognese. She likes my chilli a lot. She has a seafood allergy. She can’t eat seafood. I feel so bad for her because I love seafood.’
We sidle over to a bowl of lemons, or rather a small fishing boatload picked from her garden earlier that morning. She uses them amply in her cooking and also to make cocktails, including the Jackie Collins – vodka, fresh lemonade, lime, raspberries, simple syrup – named after her by LA celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. And Lucky’s Killer Margaritas – lime zest and juice, lemon zest and juice, grapefruit juice, sugar, tequila, Triple Sec, salt optional.
Collins likes to cook with music and mixes her margaritas to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or Enrique Iglesias’ Hero. There is an ever-present TV on in the kitchen and appliances line the room – several blenders, sandwich maker, orange juice squeezer, coffee makers.
‘I entertain a lot. Sometimes if it’s more than 20 people I have a caterer. Otherwise I love to do it.’
She lets me look in her cupboards, which are immensely clean and tidy. One houses several varieties of virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Another teriyaki glazes, jams and marmalades. Another different teas and coffees. And another for spices and Bisto. There is a note that says do not put anything on the top shelf. ‘That’s because I can’t reach it.’ Jackie Collins would never ask for help in the kitchen, not even to pull down a spice or a bottle of olive oil. One of her fridges, which is the size of a walk-in closet, is stocked fully with ice creams and frozen yoghurts.
‘I picked these lemons this morning. All off the tree. That’s what happens when you live in California and have a lemon tree in your back yard. I like to slice the lemons very thin, cover them in Cointreau, add some sugar, and then you have the most incredible lemon zest.’
What made her decide she wanted to do a cookbook? ‘I thought I’d like to give something back to my fans who kept asking me about all the moments that have been punctuated by a specific meal in my Lucky Santangelo books.’
Some of the recipes are accompanied by excerpts from the book in which they first appeared along with the music they would have listened to while they were preparing and eating them.
The recipes are old school exotica. No opportunity to lace with alcohol or plump up with cream is missed. Champagne and lobster feature in sauces. The desserts are an interesting mix of sumptuous and homely, like Jackie herself.
What recipes did her mother give her that have inspired her? ‘She would make cakes from scratch and I would wait for her to get a phone call and go out the kitchen and eat the raw cake mix. That’s when I first started hanging out in the kitchen. Then I would watch her cook chicken, not in the traditional way. She would put it in a pan, cover it in oil, then butter, then paprika and herbs and leave it for two hours. She wouldn’t even open the oven to poke at it.
‘I realise you have to be an instinctive cook. I prefer electric ovens so I know exactly what’s going on with my food. My mother would make mostly cakes and roasts when there was my older sister Joan, my younger brother Bill and me at home.’
Joan didn’t pick up the cooking gene then? ‘No. Joan does a fantastic spaghetti bolognaise and that’s more or less it. ‘
She has a recipe for cherry pie. ‘It’s very virginal, isn’t it. I love pie. I love cheesecake and I love making it very very creamy and very very soft. I don’t like New York cheesecake because it’s very dense. I like so you can taste the creams and the different flavours. I got the cheesecake recipe from a very old cookbook that I found in my mother’s kitchen. I changed some of the ingredients, like I’d add orange zest or lemon zest or chocolate to make it different. And that’s what you can do. You can take a recipe from this book and you can experiment.
‘I’ve always loved food right from when I tasted cake mix. When I was a child in England if you had a can of peaches it had to be eked out because there were food shortages. Back then if you wanted cream you had to put your finger in the top of the milk to get the cream out. Sometimes for dinner I’ll just have a whole can of peaches and cream. It reminds me of my childhood. I also love shrimp, caviar, smoked salmon. White fish is too boring.’
Does she think she gravitated towards these luxury items because of growing up with food deprivation? ‘Probably. But I eat things because I like them. If you give me broccoli with a fabulous sauce I would eat it. But plain broccoli? I don’t think so. I do love peas, there’s a recipe for them in the book with onions, garlic and cream.’
The kitchen is filled with the tantalising aroma of tomato sauce and mushrooms. I taste the sauce that I’ve watched her make and it is entirely delicious.
‘I cooked for 38 people for last Christmas lunch. Three turkeys, a ham, seven different vegetables, roast, mash and sweet potatoes, gravy and bread sauce. That’s why I have four ovens.
‘Most of the family were here in including Joan with her daughter Katie and her husband Percy. I love Percy. My brother Bill with his gorgeous wife Hazel. And lots of friends. Percy and David Niven Jnr always do my carving. Joan is always trying to help. You don’t want a lot of people in the kitchen, you want to put a notice on the door saying: I know you want to help but please keep out.’
Does she think she’s a good cook because she loves food or because she loves entertaining? ‘Both. I started to cook because I picked it up from my mother – delicious English roast potatoes. Michael Caine taught me how to make Yorkshire pudding, he’s a fabulous cook. I had a birthday party for him a while ago, I cooked him meatloaf.

‘If I go to restaurants I sample what they have and then I might do a version of it. Or sometimes I will give them recipes. For instance Craig’s, my favourite restaurant (every time I’ve been there I’ve seen Jackie along with Elton John and George Clooney) now make me scampi. I told them how to do it.
‘I also love Mr Chow’s and Trader Vic’s who do fabulous hors d’oeuvres and spare ribs and Rock Sugar who do an amazing pear martini and caramel chicken and princess shrimp.
‘I’ve collected dishes from restaurants all over the world and tried to recreate them. I don’t know the exact ingredients but I know what I’d like it to taste like in the end.
‘I don’t go out every night. If I’m at home by myself I might have a bar of chocolate and ice cream because I might have gone out for lunch.
‘Yesterday I ate a whole pear pie. So delicious. That’s all I had all day until the evening. I never eat breakfast unless I’m in a hotel where I’ll order has browns, eggs and bacon.
‘I usually write in the morning. I just have green tea and maybe some crackers until dinner usually. I’m not that interested in food unless it’s something I love.
‘Food has always been important to me. My philosophy is eat what you enjoy. Don’t eat for the sake of eating. Eat only what you love and you’ll never put weight on.’
Collins’ MO is to eat what she wants when she wants and if it’s delicious she’s always satisfied. Against all odds she turns out to be a do it yourself kind of person.
‘I’m a quick cook. I like to take short cuts. I wanted to make recipes that were simple but delicious. I love pasta and I love lobster and I love cream sauces. I think it’s quite a sexy book.’
There are lots of sexy scenes between Lucky and her husband Lenny. ‘They are almost making out when they are eating and Enrique Iglesias is playing in the background.
‘I wanted to write a fun book. This is my 31st book and these recipes have been around for a long time. Food is a seduction when you think about it. The most seductive meal I’ve ever had, I was a young girl in London and I had a blind date with a prince. He arrived in this Mercedes where you open the door and it lifted right up. A fantastic car, but I didn’t like him much. He said he wanted to cook for me. I went to his apartment and he had a jug of champagne filled with white peaches. He cooked mash potatoes that were so creamy with delicious teeny-weeny fried onions and an incredible steak. It was the most seductive meal ever. I didn’t end up with him but I ended up with the car for a couple of days. He almost got me with that meal and I’ll always remember the champagne and white peaches.’
What would be her most romantic meal? ‘A small portion of lobster rigatoni is very sexy followed by perhaps a steak or a beef stroganoff. I picked that one up when I was in Russia. This fabulous restaurant that I was in served it and I asked them for the recipe. I don’t think I would want to go there now. I
‘I have this friend who is a very famous singer, like the Madonna of Russia. I was there with her and her husband. Bodyguards surrounded them at all times. Bodyguards just shoved people out of the way. Russian men are very rough. I’ve watched a few of them with their women. There was one famous ballet dancer who was going out with a famous actress here. He would march into parties in Hollywood and go up to women (deep Russian accent) I want to furck you, I want to furck you [NB I know we can’t say furck but I thought it was funny, maybe we should say sleep]. The actress would just laugh because she knew he didn’t mean it. They stayed together for a while, a couple of years. I like writing about Russian men. Sometimes they are powerful. Sometimes they have a sexy thing about them. And that’s what I put into the stroganoff. A bit of sex and power in a dish.’
I think she loves excess and luxury because of the simplicity and food shortages of her childhood in 1940s Britain. The recipes all seem to embrace the celebration of a life well lived and are surprisingly simple to execute.
What does she feel would be her most celebratory dish? ‘I would like to start off with teeny baked potatoes with black caviar in them followed by a fabulous shrimp cocktail with pink sauce, then a thin sliced steak, incredible mashed potatoes and peas with onion accompanied by the Jackie Collins or a pear martini. I’m not a wine drinker, I do like sangria because it’s sweeter.
‘For family suppers I would make shepherds pies. I like to use Bisto. I like them to have a crispy top and I serve with Heinz Baked Beans. Then I might make some ice cream with my ice cream machine.
‘I used to have big parties where we’d play charades. I’d make a shepherds pie for those. I would do everything myself and serve Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Dudley Moore, Michael Caine and their assorted wives and sometimes Angie Dickinson. I’ve got wonderful pictures of those parties. I’ve always taken lots of pictures. I’m going to do a picture book next.
‘I am a Nigella fan. I don’t really watch cookery shows but I did see her show because she is very sexual when she cooks dipping her finger into the cake mix and sucking it. I would never let anyone dip their fingers into my food. I like to use a spoon,’ she says as she hands one to me for the final sampling of her meatballs and tomato sauce accompanied by brightly coloured salad. Simple, delicious, with a touch of exotic.

· Jackie Collins’ The Lucky Santangelo Cookbook (Simon & Schuster) is published on April 8.

Carrie Fisher (Saturday Times, November 19, 2011)

Carrie Fisher’s house is like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel. In the winding path leading up to it there are grassy verges with giant toadstoolsand on the porch a wooden bird swings with a key in its mouth. There are stained glass churchy looking windows that make the light inside dappled and spooky. There’s a moose head over the fireplace, tan leather couches, vintage tapestry candlewick cushions, oak carved picture frames and owls. One wall is covered in oil paintings of Victorian cats and poodles. Everywhere there’s glass baubles and fairy lights, hand-painted lamps.
Tchotchke collected over a lifetime. Carrie Fisher is a hoarder of objects, yet maybe the sentiments behind all of them she’s had to relinquish from her mind.
Carrie Fisher had an A-list mind. It was sharp and sarky and required at all the best parties. Although she partied a little too hard, was bipolar, depressed, ended up in rehab and in hospital rooms having her stomach pumped a few too many times.
As she has documented in Postcards from the Edge and Wishful Drinking. Her latest book Shockaholic is about the shock therapy she had to level her out, to kick back those addictive demons and her desire to mute out once and for all the shrieking feelings that tell her she is not good enough.
She can’t remember the exact moment where she decided ECT wasn’t as frightening as something from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or Frances, that it wasn’t a punishment or an act of control or submission or tantamount to a lobotomy. She can’t remember that because a lot of her brain, the bits with the pain in it, has been shocked out of existence.
She describes it as ‘like getting your nails done if your nails were your cerebral cortex.’ She goes every six weeks and she says it feels as if her brain once set in cement was blasted open like a Hoover dam.
A lot of people float in and out of her house; her cleaner, her cook, her assistant, her mother’s assistant her mother Debbie Reynolds lives in an adjacent house.
She arrives tiny, bare feet, unpedicured, thin legs in black leggings, large breasts pulled inside a purple cardigan. Long dark hair pulled back. Her eyes look haunted and at the same time blank.
She is smoking a pretend cigarette. ‘It’s a pacifier with vapour. It makes me look like an idiot.’ I admire her moose and she tells me that she’s having a tiger’s ass delivered for the other side. ‘You see, that’s what I’ve been missing all my life. A life without a tiger’s ass is not worth living and not worth writing about.’
She likes to write everything down. Little phrases going round and round in her head constantly being perfected. Her clever mind took her such a long way, further than all the galaxies that Princess Leia could never even imagine.
She’s just been to the dentist and had a tooth pulled. She can’t have any pain medication. ‘My teeth are all new as of last week.my whole thing with painkillers is you take them when you’re not in pain. And right now with the ECT I’m on a blocker so I can’t feel painkillers even if I took a truckload.’
Fisher always liked to block things out and now all of her short-term memory is completely dissolved. Large chunks of her vocabulary , something that was very precious to her, have gone and been replaced by simpler versions of the same word. She thinks that maybe it has improved her writing, made it more straight.
This book is definitely different to the others. It’s hard to put your finger on what’s missing. Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s just more direct. It’s certainly compulsive reading.
It’s hard to put your finger on what’s different with this book. It feels direct, raw. It is certainly compulsive reading. ‘I am a terrible liar and this book… I got frightened that it was too personal.’
The book talks about waking up next to her dead friend Greg Stevens, a gay Republican political operative, celebrating Michael Jackson’s last Christmas with him, her relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, who stole her father Eddie Fisher away from her, and making up with Eddie Fisher, and losing him again when he died.
They had a lot in common. Nice singing voices, a desire to be heard and a desire to take drugs. But more of that later.
There is no filter mechanism with Fisher. She says everything she’s thinking. Most of it comes out in an unstoppable jumble of random thoughts that are tenuously linked.
‘I went to the shrink and I said I don’t have any secrets except the secret I get loaded. He said maybe that’s my only of giving myself a private life.’
When she was born she was public property, her birth across all the tabloids. She was born in the goldfish bowl. ‘You know how you saw your father more on TV than you did in real life. I don’t think many people would say, “Oh God. You too.”‘
A man with platinum hair peers in. ‘He lives with my mother. They are lovers. He is her gay husband. She’s copying me.’ The man turns out to be her mother’s carer. But Fisher did indeed have a gay husband, chairman of CAA Bryan Lourd. He’s an uber agent, flamboyant, generous, well-loved within the Hollywood community. Didn’t she realise he was gay when she married him? ‘He must have forgotten to tell me. And my mother also had someone come in and die in her house.’
She likes to talk about history repeating itself. Stevens was one of her greatest friends. He liked to as Hollywood folk call it ‘party.’ Apparently he had not been partying the night he died, but he took three OxyContins and he was next to her.
This was the catalyst for her mind to implode. She felt haunted. She felt grief and she seemed to process all of it in quite a psychotic destructive way.
Her daughter Billie suffered because she was full-time crazy. She feels very guilty about this now. Billie went to live with her father and now is studying at NYU. She doesn’t remember exactly how bad it was for a teenager to be living with a bipolar mother who got back into drugs.
‘The short-term memory is shit so I keep notes. Do you want some cereal?’ She is snacking on a bag of Jenny Craig cereal. Since her ECT therapy she forgot what she had to do not to gain weight. She gained 60lbs and has now lost 50 of them by sticking with Jenny.
In her book she writes, “Craig is great. Craig is good. Thank you for this portion appropriate food. Amen! And by men I mean the four or five that might look at me again in a few Jennified months.”
As she puts what look like Rice Krispies in her mouth one by one she puts on naughty face. ‘This is my contraband. They hide the snacks from me because I’m a truant. I like to get away with something. Also I slipped – Baskins and Robbins chocolate ice-cream. You don’t think I’m good all the time?’
Fisher would hate to be thought of as good. ‘I don’t know what the fuck happened. I went on the road. I wasn’t exercising, which I did freakishly do ever since I was in a mental hospital. I would exercise in the morning, then go to the mental hospital so at least I had control of my physical body. For 15 years I was exercising regularly. I went on the road. I was older. I would eat crap. I ate ten peanut butter balance bars a day and full fat Coca Cola.’
You didn’t have Diet Coke? ‘I don’t know why I didn’t. I got a little manic. It all started when Greg died. Then I started doing ECT and I’ve been more productive these last four years but I got fat. I stopped the drugs, but instead I was eating and shopping. And the sex. This was with strangers. People at bus stops. I didn’t have a relationship.
Manic depression comes with excessive promiscuity, spending. And then I stopped. And I stopped the substance abuse.’
She’s joking about the sex. She has not got rid of her addiction to shocking. She was supposed to have stopped the substance abuse years ago but somehow she got someone to give her OxyContin.
‘You die in your sleep. I have done that. But I didn’t do this this time. When I slipped four years ago I did it. That was my moment in the sun. everyone was devastated. I shouldn’t have but I did. I shopped. I brought presents and sent them all around the world. They had to stop my Barneys card.
‘I was spending everything I was making and I had to maintain this residence while I was on the road. Now I’m allocated a certain amount of money and I like getting away with something. She puts on a little girl’s voice. ‘Hi, can I have another $400 because I want to get shoes.
‘But between the shopping and the eating and the ECT I had the most productive four years of my life. The little slip thing didn’t do my daughter any good. She’ll never be able to think that I’ll be OK forever. Nobody who has been an addict can ever think that.’
She speaks about Billie with surprising maternal pride. ‘She’s kind, good, a fantastic girl. She’s a DNA jackpot. She just worries about me sometimes and I’m sorry for that but that’s her good little heart. She hated me for a minute there, sure. I did too. It was like a club. I wasn’t stumbling around or anything, I just checked out.’
She talks about shopping, sex, all with the same tone. ‘ECT is attractive if you’re suicidally depressed. I wasn’t suicidal but I came to a point where nothing was helping and I thought I was a burden on everyone. Being depress, being bipolar, medication I was or was not taking was not working. They flew me back from my show to do the ECT. You get to the end of the hall. There were no options. And this has made things possible.’
She means she was in a vicious spiral? ‘And now I’m circling the dream. They asked me to do it before and I said no. I’m not suggesting you feel a little bit blue get some ECT. But if you’ve exhausted the options of talk therapy coupled with medication and hospitalisation stays and none of this works you are obliged for the sake of your family to try it.’
She says ECT doesn’t hurt. ‘They put you to sleep and there’s no convulsions. It’s a short acting anaesthetic and they put you next to this thing that looks like a DVD machine. And the doctor puts these two little pieces of film here.’ She points to her temples. ‘They say dream a nice dream. You have a headache, you come home, you take a nap, you’re done.’
Only the other night did she move back into the room in which Stevens died in 2008. How did she end up sleeping with him? ‘The house was full.’
I’m only there for one afternoon and there’s been a constant stream of guests. Sean Lennon had a room there and James Blunt wrote a few songs in her bathroom that has a piano while he stayed there.
‘It’s a clubhouse. It’s fun. No wonder Greg wanted to die here.’ And then shouting: ‘No. He wanted to live here. Imagine, just three little pills and then he died. Like bam.’ She goes over the minutes of the night or as much as she can remember them, which is actually quite a lot for someone who has had their brain cells zapped. Even the shock therapy can’t quite remove it.
What you’re never sure of with her is the chronological order of events and when they happened. It all spills out of her like separate dream sequences.
‘I went to AA the whole time. It’s because of AA I’m not dead. But they don’t want me to talk about it because generally people talk about it then they get loaded. I went to meetings and I lied. I went to AA meetings on drugs.’
I think she’s very remorseful about this. It’s just her voice isn’t remorseful. It doesn’t register sad or happy. It’s as if she can only feel the emotions in the present.
‘In this period of time I have been doing ECT and AA. Anything with letters in it. My bra size was so big it was an L. Beverly d’Angelo (an actress friend who likes surgery) wants me to go in and have twin reductions. Right now I’m ignoring them. I hear it’s a painful surgery.’
She tells me that she read that she had a breast lift but didn’t remember it because of the ECT. Googling herself was another addiction. ‘I don’t like to look. This morning I read one about me being gay. People say bad stuff about you, like I’m not bankable.’
She lists the current Top 10 bad things said about her on Google. It’s strange she can remember. For instance if she sees a movie she can watch it over again because she can’t remember the ending, but she remembers everything bad said about her on the internet.
‘Even if I had half a brain that half would remember each bad thing. It’s emblazoned.
‘I can watch a movie from start to finish and not remember seeing it, so I’m constantly entertained,’ low chortle. ‘It happens with books. I keep getting to this passage and going wow this is really familiar. It turns out I’ve been reading American Pastoral three times. It’s about ageing.’
‘With age comes wisdom and a whole bunch of other bad shit, bloat and wrinkles and terrible things with the neck. I say in life you can live on one side of the magnifying glass or the other. The side that makes big things small or the side that makes small things big.’
And she can do that without mind numbing drugs? ‘Yes. You learn to be surrounded by the right friends. I don’t want my daughter to have to worry so I will do what it takes. When I slipped it was with opiates. I had to lie to get them and remember I don’t like lying.’
Does she think she and her daughter’s relationship survived the patch when she was in an altered state? ‘We did. But it cost. My purpose is to make her life comfortable. For her to live in a space where she’s the best person she can be. That she can be as happy as she can be in life. I have failed her but she has forgiven me. She will always have the hairs on the back of her neck stand out. They’ve been trained to.’ By this she means Billie will always be frightened of what her mother might have got up to.
‘She is doing incredibly well. She’s had the same boyfriend for two years. No one deserves this good a daughter, except maybe Nelson Mandela. She is studying music and music business, so there’s a little bit of her being like her dad, and there’s a creative part of her. She’s very responsible. She’s got a good voice. She takes singing, writing and philosophy.’
How does she get on with her ex-husband? ‘We have a good relationship. His hairs are also trained. The three of us went to Amsterdam for her birthday. And then we went shopping and decorated her apartment. We were in ABC (trendy homeware store in New York) for the entire day. I asked Bryan to get back together with me. I told him it would be good for his image. It could be seen as compassionate, weird and complex. I didn’t really mean it. He said what about his boyfriend? I said it would all stay the same.
‘Then there was that hurricane that wasn’t a hurricane and I’m in New York. Bryan, his boyfriend Bruce, and Billie are all somewhere else. Billie calls me and says “Daddy says you should go to the apartment” and I say I’m smelling a reality show. The idea of me moving into the apartment with Bryan, his boyfriend and Bryan’s boyfriend’s daughter who’s four. I thought maybe I could sleep with Bryan’s boyfriend, and then Cindy, my lesbian assistant, could sleep with Billie’s boyfriend.’ She booms with laughter at her own scenario.
‘We’ve come a long way. Even if we weren’t always in the best of shape our priority has always been our daughter. But we are actual humans, so we might have not got along as one might not.’
She loved him madly at some point? ‘Yes. I picked him to have a child, so it’s not like I’m unaware of his strengths.’
Was he a love of her life? ‘No.’ She picked him for his DNA? ‘No. He took very good care of me. He’s a good father. He was a reaction. He wasn’t Paul.’
She’s talking Paul Simon. They went out for six years, were married for two, divorced for one, and got back together for another three. Twelve years altogether. He counts as love of her life.
Does she mean that Bryan was the opposite of Paul? ‘I mean he’s a caretaker. Paul probably is a bit more now but he and I were not a good mix in a relationship. And to have brought other people into it would have been a scream. We understood each other. We had a blast. We were way too similar.
‘We stupidly read our horoscopes one day – we are both the same sign. It said Librans either get along like a house on fire or they fight like cats and dogs. We were a good match in this way but it didn’t work. It would be interesting if we wrote down what we were saying to each other. Sometimes we totally understood what the other person wasn’t saying. We are the same species and that does not make a good relationship.’
It makes a passionate yes. ‘Yes,’ said deadpan. They probably had great sex. ‘Probably.’ A dry laugh. ‘We had make up sex we broke up so often. Every time we broke up I would take that lamp with me and he knew it was for sure.’ She gestures to a hand painted glass lamp on the piano. ‘I would get that lamp and I would say I’m leaving. It cost $20,000. That was my break-up lamp.’
Interesting the treatment hasn’t made her forget any of that stuff. Her recall about Paul Simon is vivid and she is the most animated talking about him. ‘Yes, I remember Paul very fondly. I remember I took a lot of LSD at that period as well.’ Does she remember the LSD? ‘Very fondly.
‘Oh, shall I call my doctor now and say my foot hurts, I need some LSD.’ You get the impression she is used to calling up doctors for whatever she wants. She shared a dentist with Michael Jackson and bizarrely they spent his last Christmas together.
‘His kids are adorable. He was a good dad. He gave them whatever it was he hadn’t had himself. All that love. And you can see it. You cannot fake that.’
The dentist, Dr Chandler, is now deceased. He was happy to let his kid hang out with Michael Jackson and sleep in the same bed and then suddenly there was all those allegations of abuse.
‘He killed himself. Don’t you think he might be guilty? His own son stopped speaking to him and said it was all a lie. He trapped Michael. That guy was a monster. He was evil and manipulative and dark. Whereas Michael was good and sweet.’
Did she not find it scary that she and Jackson had a dentist and doctor in common, evil facilitators? She doesn’t answer directly.
‘Arnie (Klein) was his skin doctor and probably gave him pain medication because of the burns he had. I don’t think he would have had Demerol. But you know, doctors in this town, the bigger the celebrity the larger the prescription.’
What was Michael like to hang out with? ‘Well he wasn’t ordinary. There was no one like him. He was a mensch. He had a sweet kind of presence. He loved people and he wanted everyone have what they wanted. He wasn’t dark, he was just really odd, and wouldn’t you be? I’m odd. But there was a very ordinary part to him and there is to me.’
Part of her oddness comes from always being in the spotlight, even if in her case to start off with it was bathing in her mother’s glow. ‘We were in the public eye. He was in the iris, I was more in the whites. We both had complicated intense relationships with our parents. He danced his stuff away. When we went to the ranch we found out in the morning he was in this dark room and he’d been there dancing all night. Sweet.
‘It must have been hard for the siblings to have him and the mum, you know, always having to apologise for what he was so that you didn’t feel diminished by it. You never want to say this is a problem. Michael wanted to fit in. He wanted to make you feel comfortable, and when he couldn’t his solution was drugs. He trusted children because they couldn’t come up with ways to manipulate him or wrong reasons to love him. He liked people that didn’t know who he was. That somehow diminished something ugly. They were innocent, therefore he was innocent. But he wasn’t so innocent that he didn’t know when people around him were corrupt.’
Did she see him often with her short-time stepmother and his fantasy mother Elizabeth Taylor. ‘Oh, they were very peaceful together. They didn’t have to explain anything. They didn’t have to make the other person feel not so bad about being famous. It’s a very complicated club to be in.
‘When Paul and I were together the issue of celebrity was neutralized. We didn’t have to talk about it. We didn’t have to say fucking shit here come the paparazzi. Whereas to everyone else that seemed the weirdest thing in the world. What rendered that manageable was finding an ordinary space in this extraordinary one.’
Is she ever in touch Paul Simon? ‘Not really. Paul and I didn’t have children together. It was a very intense relationship. I don’t know how people do that. We can’t stay in contact because we had that kind of relationship: boom, boom, boom. It would be hard to maintain it to settle into some other kind of one. We have communicated through a friend of mine in England. He’s got a life now, a peaceful place. I saw him perform at Glastonbury and he’s fantastic. Introspective, intellectual.’
We backtrack to Elizabeth Taylor. Not that she purposely doesn’t want to talk about Paul Simon. It’s as if we’re constantly talking about everything at once and I can never be sure that our interview isn’t like that book she keeps reading over and over again and forgets that she’s read it.
‘Elizabeth Taylor and I became friends. She would ask me to present her awards and I would say “Here’s to the woman. Thank yo for getting Eddie out of the house.”‘
By Eddie she means Eddie Fisher, her father, who left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor. ‘She called me at one point to get Eddie’s number. I didn’t realise they hadn’t spoken. He didn’t believe it was her. Then she was telling him to talk to his doctor about his medication. They had a sweet talk. I called her when Eddie died and she cried. She was a good person.’
Was Eddie a good person? ‘Good person. Terrible father. I did not have a traditional relationship with him. (He was absent from most of her childhood and appeared later on in life.’ At one point they were drug buddies. Later on they became inextricably close.
‘I loved him and I know who he was and that’s because I stopped needing him or expecting him to act like a father.’
She thinks the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. They both had similar addictive personalities. ‘I knew he was insane and to a certain extent I catered to it. I made him laugh. He was hilarious and a darling, a child, a boy. He wasn’t a man at all, but not like Michael, he was sexual. Sex for him was an appetite. He was a darling man and I miss him.
‘My mother came over the other day and said “lots of pictures of Eddie in here.”‘ She pulls face of disapproval. ‘He had just passed and somehow all the pictures had arranged themselves around me in the room.’
Her mother was upset to see so many pictures of the husband who left her? ‘She took note.’ They never made up then? ‘No. they both came to my show the same night. He was in a wheelchair and she was in my dressing room and he came to see me and she hid behind the costumes. Then she went out into the hall and they met in the elevator. But it was the only chance they had to see each other.
‘He could always sing and once he sang at my show and they gave him an ovation and he stood up out of the wheelchair. He’d been healed by show business. I feel cheated that he died. We were having such a good time.’
She didn’t have him in her childhood and then she found him again. They seemed to be children together. ‘Then I got him only to lose him again. But at least I got him. He would have flirted with you. He was also really losing it. He thought this guy I was seeing who was white and 39 was Barak Obama. We both loved Barak Obama.
‘He smoked a lot of drugs and he liked to smoke a lot. We got him this pipe that looks like a woman’s ass. I used to get him strippers- although he hated the last set of strippers I got him. There’s the holocaust and then there’s Eddie’s strippers holocaust. They put chocolate on their tits and had him touch it. He didn’t like that. It’s not a good memory to have. I wish ECT had given you a menu: take this bit.’
Will she forget today? ‘I will forget details. They are not my strong suit. I forget words. I am used to being lickety split. And now I don’t connect as fast. Who knows if it’s ECT, LSD or AGE.
There’s a kind of optimism though. ECT has given her hope, not despair. ‘I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m going to go on the internet. Maybe there’s a web site I can start for over the hill celebrities. I would like a British boyfriend. I would like him to be black and a professor at Oxford. The white thing hasn’t worked and basically I worship Obama.
‘Salman is saying I could be Lady Rushdie. I’m having Halloween with him, but I know he likes much younger women.’ Her white fluffy dog starts wagging its tail excitedly. ‘That’s because my mother is here. Can you imagine sharing a dog with your mother? Can you imagine him having to choose between the two of us?’ Suddenly her voice breaks from its monotone. There’s an edge of competitiveness neediness, and we glimpse the old Fisher, the one who needs the dog to love her most.

Victoria Wood (June 2001)

Victoria Wood is folded away in the corner of a café. She looks compact, as if she’s willing herself not to be noticed, not to be famous, not to be the icon she in fact is. That’s not how she sees herself. She’s the consummate real person that writes so magnificently about real life and all its peculiarities.

She’s looking down at an imaginary Blackberry, consumed with her own thoughts, busy, occupied, self-sufficient. She looks unmistakeably her. Her hair short, blonde, with an overgrown fringe swept to the side of her face. Her large blue eyes peering underneath it.
When I say hello the contented self-contained figure seems ever so slightly self-conscious. I feel in the first few sentences of talking to her that I’m torturing her.
“No, people always think I hate doing interviews. I don’t. I wouldn’t do them if I didn’t like them. I have to say that at the start of every interview.”
We are here to talk about the play that she’s written, and is directing -That Day We Sang – it is to be the highlight of the Manchester International Festival. It’s about a children’s choir who sang and recorded Nymphs And Shepherds in 1929 and they reunite in 1969. The children’s choir existed, so did the reunion, everything else is fiction.
“Basically it’s the story of two middle-aged people, Tubby and Enid, who meet again in 1969. I didn’t have to research much of it because I was there. (She’s from Bury and was 16 in 1969 and somehow being 16, and feeling what that was like, and coming from Bury has never been far away from her thought processes). I talked to two ladies who were in the choir. They were 92 and 95.”
Wood’s comedy usually takes its basis in real seemingly unimportant people. She’s very relatable to. Once won a poll of people you’d most like to live next door to. Perhaps she has a huge faith in ordinariness.
She has an amazing ability to connect with a group. Spent years doing sell-out stand-up where her audience felt part of her. One on one however she is shy.
Her play starts by incorporating the shyness of two middle-aged people who were in a children’s choir and reunite to talk about it on Granada TV. “I saw a documentary which I thought was Granada in about 1975 and I remembered it for years. And then they found it for me and I watched it and it was nothing like I remembered it in any way. I’d invented the whole documentary in my head. It was strange, but that was the starting point.”
The play is typical Wood: tragic-comic, filled with achingly observed minutiae. Only Victoria Wood could have several minutes of successful dialogue devoted to yoghurts and their being slimming. Yoghurts were peaking in 1969.
She grins. “Yoghurts had to taste horrible or it wasn’t slimming. Do you remember Ski? It was 11p in my day.”
The yoghurt is a device that plugs into her memory, a catalyst for her to weave in other emotions. “They get very upset when they go to watch it on telly and it’s a little five minute thing. They go with a married couple and the married couple are quite rude because Enid’s not married and they say your life’s not worth anything unless you’re married. Tubby takes her off to give her a cup of tea and comfort her and he starts to befriend her.”
Interesting that she decided to put the bit in about “You’re not worth anything unless you’re married.” I wonder if that’s reflecting her feelings.
“People think you’re missing out if you’re single, I’m sure they do.” She always seemed very happy to be married to magician The Great Soprendo, Geoffrey Durham, crediting him with giving her confidence and was devastated and shocked when the marriage fell apart in 2002.
“Anyway, he’s trying to get a romance going in a very sensitive way and what he doesn’t know is that she’s having an affair with the boss. He’s making advances and she’s rebuffing him and he doesn’t know why.”
She smiles, giggles nervously even at the potential tragedy. “I did enjoy writing it but I felt under a lot of time pressure. I only finished it last Wednesday because I was writing something else at the same time – a screenplay about a fraudulent pianist called Joyce Hatto. She died about five years ago. She was a fraudster because her CDs were not by her. I’ve just torn myself away from the desk to come here,” she says. Remembering it makes her forehead furrow with tension. “It’s awful doing two things at once. Horrible.”
Is it harder to write a script than writing a character that she herself will perform? “No, it’s different. I haven’t written anything for myself for ages. I’ve been in script mode for ages. I’m not really in perform mode.”
She performed recently. She was Eric Morecambe’s mother Sadie in Eric And Ernie. (which is up for a BAFTA) It was on over Christmas. “Oh yeh, acting. I thought you meant being a comedienne. Morecambe and Wise; I keep forgetting that.
“Acting I don’t do much of that. Eric and Ernie, I didn’t write that.” Although it was her idea and she was a producer of it and many people assumed she did write it because she gave such an incredible performance that was quite far from herself of the stage mother who held Morecambe and Wise together.
“I feel very bad for the writer (Peter Bowker). He just won a BAFTA. If acting comes up then fine. But mainly I like writing, putting things together and producing.”
Maybe people assumed she wrote it because she dominated it. She made it her own. She got a lot of praise for it and her performance. “Yes, I have had accolades,” she says almost under her breath, her head bowing.
She has a clutch of writing and acting BAFTAs and a CBE. She doesn’t seem affected by them much
“Acting is not my favourite thing. I don’t like wearing costumes and wigs. I suppose you can do it without costumes and wigs, but then I’d just be playing myself and there wouldn’t be any point.”
She spent many years playing herself super successfully. Not in that mode any more. If that mode was about exorcising insecurities it’s long over. Instead insecurities are nurtured and put to good writing use. Does she find now that she’s writing she is spending too much time in her head?
“Once you start producing you’re out of your head. Once you start casting and talking to directors it’s great. Anyway, I don’t mind it. Once I get it out of my head and on to paper I’m happy, and I like to know at the end of it I can go out and see people.
“I do like writing. I like it a lot more than I used to. I used to find it scary and now I’ve got used to it once it gets going. I used to find it hard to start. Fear of the blank page. The first thing you write down won’t bear any relation to what’s in your head and that’s always disappointing, but I’ve learnt to deal with that disappointment,” she says with an almost raised eyebrow.
Reading her script it flows effortlessly. She tells me it wasn’t like that to write. “You have to polish and polish. I started in January, but then had to go back to Hatto. I did two drafts and all the songs in three months, so that is fast. But I’m not moaning. It was a lot of work and a lot of weekends, but you just keep going.”
You get the idea not so much that she enjoyed it but that it fulfilled a need to just keep going, to not stop think or feel. She likes the idea of reunions though. “I’ve been to school reunions. It was brilliant. I was the last one to leave. I was there all day with my friend and that was 20 years ago.”
Maybe they call came to see you? “No I don’t think they did. They came to see the school and the teachers. I was no big deal, honestly.”
I can’t imagine that was the case. Did she keep up with the people with whom she was reunited? “No. I’ve had the same two friends. I just see them. Two friends from school that is I do have more than two friends.”
Does she make friends easily? “I think I do make friends easily. But I’m in the business where people make friends really quickly, it’s a great business to be in for making friends. Instant connections. Always loads to talk about. You have to get on with people straight away if you’re rehearsing a play.”
Do those instant friends sometimes instantly disappear when the play is over? “They do. They serve their purpose. You have a working relationship. You can’t keep up with everybody. Your life would be a nightmare. There’s always one for every job, always somebody you pick up.”
She orders a latte and stares at it. Sometimes there’s a pause in conversation. I wouldn’t really say it’s an awkward silence. It’s a silence where she feels perfectly content and I feel anxious that she might stop feeling content. She’s a strange mixture of high and low self-esteem. But most of the low self-esteem was many years ago. Mostly it’s hidden. Not just from me, but from herself.
Did she always envisage herself writing? “No. I started off writing songs for the telly and then went on to do sketches and then stand-up and I spent a long time doing stand-up and writing sitcoms and plays. Always looking to do something new.” She’s always overstretched herself. “Yes, but it’s good though. I like to be busy.”
I read that there was a chunk of her life where she survived on only four hours sleep. “Only weeks when I was doing Dinner Ladies. When you do a sitcom for the BBC it starts on a Monday and you record on a Friday so it’s all very pushed. I’d always want to change things so I’d work through the night to make sure on Tuesday it was as I wanted it.
“I don’t think I changed the story lines. I can’t remember. It’s a bit of a blur. It was ten years ago. It’s always on though. Because of what they wear it doesn’t look dated. Tabards,” she says, really enjoying the word. It makes me think of Mrs Apron in Acorn Antiques.
“I never knew a dinner lady. I heard a documentary on the radio about girls who worked in a canteen. You just use your imagination. ”
You imagine her always switched on, never relaxed. “I don’t work all the time. I’ve just worked a lot lately because my son went to college in October and I thought I’d better have a lot of jobs on so I wouldn’t feel…” she searches for the word. Emptiness syndrome, I offer. “So perhaps I did cram in too much. I was worried about that but it’s been alright because he’s here all the time.
“My daughter (Grace) is in Verona. She’s doing languages and having a year abroad. He does music, composition and music technology. He is more like me. She is the intellectual like her father, and he’s funny,” she says very pleased with that.
Does she think one is born funny? “I think you are born funny but having a funny parent helps the way you develop. My father could be funny. My mother had no sense of humour as she was always claiming very proudly as if it was something to be proud of.”
You see something in her now that wasn’t there before, a sudden flash of barb. Her mother must have inspired a whole mixture of interesting emotions. “My mother, she didn’t believe in praise. She’d never say anything was great. I think that’s quite northern, to not make people feel too good. I didn’t mind if she was proud of me or not, it didn’t bother me. I was never trying to please her.”
Was she trying to please herself? “No, I was trying to get on. Get on with the job and make a success.”
She has a brother and two sisters. “I can’t talk about them. They don’t like it. They are very private.” She was the youngest.
Her father was an insurance salesman like Tubby, the character in the play “He’s not based on my dad but it’s a job I know. I know what buildings my dad worked in and it gave me a grounding.
“My father was more of a praiser, not hugely more, but I knew he liked what I did because he was very interesting in songwriting and comedy. He wrote songs himself for the insurance company’s annual do.”
Does she think she is a self-contained self-confident person? “Yes. I am self-confident and I am self-contained.” Was she always? “No, not at all. Not as a teenager and not as a young woman.”
There are glimpses of the angst-ridden teenager, the one who feels everything too sorely, usually in her work. The Woods that’s here today is a woman who has decided nothing will bother her.
How did she acquire confidence? “It’s just what happens when you get older (she is 57). You know who you are and you know a lot of things are just not worth worrying about. It just came on me gradually that I mind about things a lot less.”
I tell her that I have a reverse process going on. I mind about things a lot more. She looks surprised. So it wasn’t just being more successful that made her more confident? “No, but it’s nice to be earning a living. I’m always happy that I’m earning a living and that I’ve bought a house, things like that. Straightforward things but they mean something. We’ve all got our insecurities. We never forget what it’s like. And as a writer you just plug into different bits of your own persona and expand that to suit the story.”
Maybe writing makes them go away? Maybe that’s the cure? “I don’t think there is a cure but I keep things more simple than I used to.”
What does she mean by that? “I’ve had a very complicated life and now I don’t worry about so many things.” You mean there’s less going on? I feel like we’re talking in riddles. “I’ve got my friends and my kids and I’m alright. I don’t have a boyfriend. I’d love to talk about a boyfriend if I had one. I’d be delighted, but I don’t have that so that’s what I mean. I’m simplified.”
I read that for a long time she’d separated but you didn’t divorce. “I am divorced. I’ve been divorced for years. It was horrible, hideous, I wouldn’t recommend it. He’s in another relationship. I don’t want to talk about him.” Durham lost ten stone at Overeaters Anonymous and then lost Wood.
So has she chosen to be on her own because she needs her life to be uncomplicated without emotional friction? “Well I think there’s not much of a chance for me finding somebody of my age. Gentlemen of my age are dropping down 30 years to find girlfriends.” That’s not always the case. “You’re right. I need to get out of the house.” A small pause. “When I’m not working so much I do go out with my friends and have cups of tea and sometimes cups of champagne.”
How is her relationship with food? “It’s doing very well thank you.” She once did a documentary about the dieting industry, she herself lost weight, strove to be healthy and exercised well after she turned 50. She said she used to eat all the time and was never hungry. “That’s true. I was never hungry. You’re not if you eat all the time. You never get that feeling of hunger because that’s a scary feeling. You want to be full. You want your mind to be distracted. You want to put a wall between you and real life. It’s like the drink or the fags or the drugs. It’s all the same. Some people have addictive natures and some people have odd relationships with food. I do have an addictive nature, but it’s manageable. I think having children soaks up a lot of your addictiveness because you’re occupied in a healthy busy way.”
That must have been why she was worried about her son Henry leaving. “His laundry still comes to my house. I don’t know why, he just leaves lots of clothes there. I can’t explain his strange addiction to buying T-shirts. If I buy something I have to get rid of something at the same time. I’m an anti-hoarder. I fear being my mother because she hoarded. If you buy something you get rid of the same amount of things to Oxfam.” That’s very controlled. “There’s no harm in a bit of control.
“My mother was terrible. She’d get things off mail order, bedding, towels and shoes. I mean she was in bed, she didn’t even walk. No idea why she was ordering shoes. Thank God she didn’t have the internet. She had a completely choc-a-bloc bungalow and in the garage there were wardrobes and each wardrobe was filled with books. Everything was full. I can’t bear it. My other liked having things. She liked parcels in the post.” Maybe that was her version of eating? “She did eating as well. She had a food problem and a hoarding problem. It’s going a long way back to when I was eating all the time. It’s not part of my life now.”
She talks so viscerally about her mother I can see falling back into those patterns would be horrible for her. “I’ve been lucky.”
Does she find it cathartic to write characters with similar insecurities? “I don’t even think about it. The people in your head have all got a little of yourself but you don’t connect it consciously. You’re telling a story.”
When she’s written her screenplay what will she do? Will she take a break? “I won’t go anywhere. I just won’t write for a bit. I’ll just have an ordinary life.” Will she be worried about having that space? “No, something will always come up. I’m always being asked to front documentaries. I’ve got a few of my own in mind. But for the moment I’m running out of brain. Working makes me happy, but also being out in the open air. I can’t think of what makes me unhappy I’m pretty even keeled. I think when you’re not in a relationship you are not even keeled. You are not bumping up against somebody having highs and lows. That’s what I meant about keeping things simple. There’s more emotions flying about. When you’re not in a relationship you don’t have those emotions.”
Does she want to be even keeled? “I don’t know. I need to stop working and taking stock because it’s been very work orientated for the past two years.”
Does she think she’ll ever feel passion about acting again? “I’m more interested in directing people than acting with them and I think it’s interesting to change what you do. It doesn’t denigrate what you did before. I adored it now I do something else that I adore. I like change, I like to feel I’m learning all the time. I always hoped I’d be performing as a child and a teenager. I feel lucky that I managed to do it and now I like doing something else.”
With that she returns to her anxious face and says she needs to get going, she has a script to get back to.