Behind the Laughter
Behind the Laughter
To Mum, Keeley, Ollie and Molly
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About the Author
Nothing is ever straightforward in my life, and writing this book was no exception. In fact, at one point I truly believed there was a force out there similar to Darth Vader that really had it in for me. Each time I opened my laptop, his big glowing tube (OK, light sabre) would gather momentum and strike, causing disasters to happen – I was beginning to think it had all been sent to give me a reason not to do the book.
When you speak to real writers they find every excuse in the world not to write, from mundane tasks such as plants that need watering to ‘I have to watch This Morning – they’re doing a bikini wax on men’ or ‘I must clean my drains’ and even, ‘There’s a wild Alaskan bear in the garden!’ Yet once you’ve had a wee, brushed your teeth, found something nice to put on (and maybe a bit of mascara just in case), made a cup of tea, found your glasses, tied your legs to the table and started work, it’s so satisfying and therapeutic, if humbling and harrowing at times.
When what you’re writing happens to be your own story, the whole memory thing can be a bit of a worry. Sometimes you find yourself doubting you were in certain places at certain times and you do have to keep on confirming everything and consulting the reference library – in this case, my lovely mum. The mind is a trickster: it can play games with you. So, did I see The Beatles live in the Gaumont Cinema, Nottingham, in 1962 or was I backstage sitting on Paul McCartney’s knee? Did Julie Andrews inspire me to become an actress when I saw her in The Sound of Music at the ABC in Derby or was I actually in the film itself? In both cases, I’m sure you can guess the truth. So, you do have to be vigilant and honest, even if the real story isn’t quite as exciting as you would have wished.
The only thing is, when you’ve sat for a long time writing, your bum goes numb, you have to get up and the whole excuse thing starts all over again. I did have a genuine reason not to work on Christmas Eve: I’d had a very bad fall and cracked my ribs and injured my back in the process on a great big lump of ice. Naturally, sitting was extremely painful yet I gave myself every reason to work through the pain. How contrary is that?
It was a good job it happened at Christmas, too, because just before that, five of us – Zoe, Carol, Denise, Andrea and I – were thrilled to be asked to take part in the BBC’s Children in Need. I think we have Zoe to blame for the next bit: we were told they would like us to be Girls Aloud and sing ‘The Promise’ … wait for it, LIVE! Zoe is the only singer, Carol and I scatter cats for miles, Denise is passable and Andrea is, well, very tall.
We rehearsed with the Children in Need team and you could see it on their faces: the look of pain and knowing it was too late to turn back. Meanwhile, we started to love the song and the idea of being pop stars, but the more we got carried away the worse we became. Poor Zoe knew she couldn’t do any more with us! Later, we were fitted for our gold sparkly dresses (which were incredible) and then came the night itself. We were in a dressing room next to Take That, no less. In 2009 Robbie Williams had been a guest on Loose Women and we all fell in love with him. Carol and I went out with his lovely wife Ayda and his mum Jan, who I knew anyway, and got absolutely hammered. The next day Robbie let Carol know that he was very cross with us – he’d never seen his mum so drunk before.
While we waited to go onstage, I went out for a walk to calm myself down and Robbie passed me. ‘Hey,’ he shouted. ‘You OK?’ ‘No, Robbie – we’ve got to be Girls Aloud in a minute, we’re terrified!’ I told him. ‘Don’t be silly,’ he laughed. ‘We all think of you as Nanas Aloud, we love you all!’
I told the other girls this and it did calm us down – we didn’t have to be the proper Girls Aloud, just us. Of course, Take That went on and stormed the place and we were next up. There we were, the five of us, lined up in our full-length glittering gold dresses, big hair and sexy make-up, microphones at the ready … and knees knocking together in terror. At that moment all we could think was, ‘Why on earth did we agree to this?’
We were about to perform before an audience of 12 million people and it was one of the scariest things we’d ever done. As we walked on to a roar from the crowd, the music started up and the atmosphere was amazing. Every time one of us sang solo, the audience went mad – which was just as well because, hopefully, they couldn’t hear us then. It was electrifying and for those few short moments we really did feel like Girls Aloud (or as Robbie affectionately calls us, ‘Nanas Aloud’). Maybe we could start our own band for Nanas everywhere.
That was one of my highlights for Loose Women in 2010 and we know 2011 will bring us many more. The team backstage is wonderful – they work so hard and have to put up with us, too, but whenever we have our end-of-term parties or ‘after school’ drinks we are very close, a proper team. I’d like to say thank you to them all.
I have written a book before, a short novel called The Tannery. It was an extremely dark tale, very disturbing but fictional. This is so much harder because it’s the truth: you don’t want to come over as all sad or bitter, even pathetic, so you must guard against that. Luckily, seeing things in black and white can be highly therapeutic. They say there’s a book in all of us and I truly believe that. You know when your mum or granny says, ‘I could write a book’? Well, I honestly believe they can and should – my mum certainly could.
As you will see, I write as I act: from the heart. I don’t have any special technique … and I can hear you all agreeing with this. With me, what you see is what you get and I hope it gives you an understanding of who I am, my wacky behaviour, all the hurts and the triumphs along the way. You may recognise some of the things I’ve been through as being part of your own world because at the end of the day we’re all the same – just wrapped up differently. That’s why Loose Women is such a great show because there’s always someone you can relate to.
So, thank you for opening my book. You may well be shocked at some of the things that have happened in my life, but I hope you will laugh reading it just as much as I did writing it.
I was the spitting image of Winston Churchill when I was born; all I needed was a cigar and the appropriate ‘V’ sign. So pretty, I was probably not. I also had webbed feet à la Donald Duck. I’m not painting an attractive picture here, am I? In fact, I was the chubbiest, grumpiest baby in the world.
My birth, in what was perhaps a sign of things to come, was far from straightforward. Within hours I had to have a complete blood transfusion: the doctors feared I might be afflicted with the same condition which my brother Brett had suffered from when he popped out, 18 months earlier. He’d caused havoc by nearly dying: Mum lacked vitamin K, meaning Brett’s blood wouldn’t clot and instead poured out of every orifice in his tiny body. She was also desperately ill and too weak to choose a name for my brother – who, the doctors agreed, wouldn’t make it through the night. Remarkably, both survived; maybe that’s what made them into the strong, resilient people they are today.
I arrived in 1950, five years after the war had ended, but I never felt a thing. Indeed, my life was cushioned from day one. Shortly after I was born, the family moved from my grandparents’ house in the village of Beeston in Nottinghamshire to their very first home – a semi-detached down the road. It had a lovely garden and my mother would place Brett and me in our prams there to get some fresh air. Brett was good as gold, but I wriggled, squirmed and tried to escape until I ended up on at least one occasion hanging out of the pram by my neck.
My mother, Joy, was an extraordinary woman. Her own mother, like most women at that time, had been a housewife and had never gone out to work, but Mum had other ideas. Beautiful, determined and clever, she had energy and vision. And she knew what she wanted: to own a lovely home, send her children to private school and watch us make our mark in the world.
My parents met immediately after the war when Mum was a young woman and Dad was ten years older. Her day job was working for a friend in the clothing industry, but her real passion was ballroom dancing and modelling. She worked for various fashion labels, including Slix swimsuits and Chanel, and she won all kinds of prizes, both locally and nationally, for her dancing. My mother was, and still is, ultra-glamorous, stylish and elegant. Her wardrobe was bursting with beautiful dresses and the most glorious ballroom gowns. She seemed so magical, I used to love to dress up and try my hardest to look like her.
My father, Ron Hutchinson, was born near Sunderland in the North East. His mother died just after his birth and his father skedaddled from the family home, leaving Dad to be brought up by his aunties and uncles. I never knew much about his life up in the North, although I do remember visiting a terraced house where the door led straight into the kitchen and there was a rather large, jolly lady, who cuddled me all the time. It makes sense that she would be related to Dad as he was the most tactile man you could ever wish to meet.
I remember as you looked out of the back-room window of the house there was a large field and a pit, and so I always thought Dad’s family must be miners. They were Macams, which means ‘Sunderland-born’, never to be confused with Geordies from Newcastle. They did, however, have one thing in common: at New Year they had what was called the ‘First Footing’. It was one of my most joyous memories: I would sit on Dad’s knee and wait as midnight neared. Everything would go deadly quiet and as the clock struck twelve, in came a tall, dark and handsome man – probably a family friend, but to me a glamorous stranger – holding a piece of coal, a coin, salt, bread and whisky. Everyone would cheer and the party would begin. It may have been a superstition, but to me this was truly exciting; to Dad and his family it meant health, happiness and prosperity for the coming year.
Although he was happy at home and loved his family, Dad left at a very early age to discover the world. He had a natural wanderlust and curiosity about life till the day he died. At the age of 15 he joined the Army; that was before the war, which he managed to survive, unscathed. He led a charmed life: he attracted people, especially women, and a certain general’s wife took a fancy to him and insisted he become their personal chauffeur. As a result, the closest Dad came to battle was when the General and his wife had a row.
After the war, Dad drove for a General Palmer and had access to all the Army and Air Force bases, including the ones where the Americans were stationed, which meant he could get his hands on the so-called ‘black market’ goodies. He would turn up at my grandma’s house when Mum was at work with nylon stockings, chocolate, bananas and all manner of treats. Dad was so charming and handsome, he looked just like the heart-throb Errol Flynn and no one could resist him.
My mother would come home to find him having tea with my grandmother. Mum wasn’t short of suitors and was in no rush to settle down, but Dad was determined to win her over. He even took up ballroom dancing to impress her and became extremely accomplished. Later, he taught me the chacha, which we danced together on many an occasion. Eventually, his persuasive charm won Mum’s heart and the two of them married and set up home together.
Dad left the Army and began work for a company called Constance Murray, which made very upmarket men’s and women’s clothing. As the saying goes, he could sell snow to the Eskimos and so he was in his element in the retail trade. But it was when he sang that he came into his own: he was a Bing Crosby-style crooner and performed with all the big bands across the country.
I adored my dad. He was a warm and loving man and his love for me was unconditional. If I’d murdered ten people that morning he’d have said, ‘Never mind, darling – eat your breakfast and we’ll find a way.’ But he was also a restless dreamer, more often away than he was home, who never really allowed himself to be tied down to family life. We all used to joke that he should never have married and had children. It was only years later when I had my daughter Keeley and he came to live with us that he truly became part of family life and to every-one’s surprise proved to be a dab hand at childcare, cooking and housework.
In those early days it was Mum who organised everything and everyone, made the decisions and ran the show. She was the kind of woman who could do six things at once, and frequently did. Although she adored Brett and me, she wasn’t a stay-at-home mum but a force of nature, always full of ideas, plans and boundless energy.
I only remember one time when she was ill. She’d been up a ladder – she was always wallpapering or decorating – when she fell off. Her womb collapsed, so she had to have an emergency hysterectomy and then, as was the custom in those days, she stayed in a convalescent home for several weeks. I was still only three and not allowed inside, so my grandparents would take me there and I’d stand in the grounds waving up at Mum as she stood at the window.
My brother Brett was a lovely-looking child, blond and blue-eyed and angelic, while I was chubby and, as I have said, a potential body-double for Winston Churchill. As I grew older I became aware of how Brett’s good looks got him attention, or so it seemed to me, and maybe that explains why I became a potential serial killer. At two and a half years old, for some extraordinary reason I climbed out of my cot one night, negotiated the mountainous staircase, navigated my way around the house and picked up a knitting needle from my mother’s chair. At that point I discovered Brett sitting on the floor, watching the telly, and proceeded to shove the needle down his throat.
Of course it may have been that I was just plain curious as to how far I could submerge it: who knows what went on in my infant mind? Strangely, Brett – who was a strapping lad of four and much bigger than me – opened his mouth and allowed me to shove the needle in, at which point he started to choke.
The noise brought my mother running from the kitchen. She extracted said needle from my brother’s mouth while no doubt checking for puncture wounds and I was taken back to bed with a sore bottom. Peace reigned over the household once more, but not for long: minutes later I was off again and got down the staircase for a second time, found another knitting needle and tried the whole thing all over again. It beggars belief why my brother let this happen twice. This time I was well and truly punished, but I must have got the message because I never tried it again. After that the needles disappeared, although you might say I had my own Weapons of Mass Destruction long before the phrase was coined.
Around the same time, my mother enrolled me in a French nursery school. In those days it was unusual for a child to attend any kind of pre-school or nursery, let alone a French one, but Mum loved the idea of me learning French and so off I went in the nursery uniform of a little white dress with matching socks and sandals.
The nursery was in a big house and we spent the day in a room filled with little wooden chairs. It had elegant French windows and a large stove, where we warmed ourselves while drinking our milk. During our break we played on the lawn outside and at lunchtime we sat at a long table covered in white linen and used proper knives and forks. The staff were strict but kind and insisted on good manners. I remember on at least one occasion being removed from the room after banging my spoon on the table and having to wait for lunch until all the others had eaten.
I soon learned to sing nursery rhymes and recite my times tables in French. We danced and sang a lot, which I loved, and I think of the two and a half years spent at the nursery as a wonderful time. I felt secure and happy there. Perhaps that’s why to my mind, ever since then that little white dress, socks and shoes have symbolised all things good, safe and comforting.
At the age of five I had to leave the nursery and move on to a beautiful private school, the Dorothy Grants, which meant swapping my white dress for an extremely smart navy-blue skirt, white shirt and tie, a navy blazer and a posh blue overcoat with silver buttons, topped with a Panama hat. My uniform was very much of that period and I thought it was fabulous. The school was in an elegant old house, the teachers were kind and I was extremely happy in this environment, where I shone and loved every minute of it. On summer days we would take our chairs outside and have classes under the trees in the garden, which was so much nicer than being indoors.
Sadly, though, I was taught a harsh lesson while at this school. One day I waited at the gates for my mother to collect me, not knowing she had sent a message to say she was going to be late. After a bit I decided to walk home. Even in those days this was a daft thing to do, but I was only six years old and I was sure I could find my way. As I walked through the unfamiliar streets, however, I started to panic: all the roads looked the same. I kept on walking and suddenly I became aware of five kids behind me. They began to shout things and made fun of my posh uniform.
Within minutes I was surrounded: three girls and two boys were shoving and pushing me. They pulled at my hair and grabbed my satchel, I lost my hat and then one of them tripped me up and I fell onto the pavement. I knew my hands were scraped and bleeding, but I didn’t cry. Instead I jumped up and started to run as fast as my little legs could carry me. The boys kept up with me, still hitting and calling me names, but I just ran and ran. As I turned a corner there was a main road in front and a bus stop with a large red double-decker standing with the door open. I made for that but the driver had already sussed out the situation and shot round to help me, clouting one of the lads as he ran by. At this, I clung to the driver and cried. He was so kind and cleaned my bruises, then asked me where I lived. I told him the address and he sat me down in his bus, closed the doors and drove me right to my house. My mother was frantic but so grateful to the bus driver, who accepted a cup of tea and left after giving me a big hug.
While I loved school I enjoyed my dance and drama classes even more. As soon as I could walk, Mum enrolled me in the local dance school, which was run by a lovely lady called Mavis Levy. By the time I was three I regularly appeared in all the school’s productions, singing, dancing and acting. I wasn’t shy and I loved it all, especially as it so often involved dressing up in pretty outfits. In fact, such was my passion for the costumes that on one occasion I was willing to turn to crime to get my hands on a particular favourite.
I was standing backstage behind another four-year-old wannabe, who was about to go on for a ballet number. She was wearing the most beautiful pink sequinned tutu, which I had been coveting. In a moment of jealous fury when no one was looking, I gave her a shove. Unfortunately she tumbled down the two stone steps leading to the dressing rooms and sprained her ankle. Her shrieks of pain brought the adults running, and my wish was granted: I was given the tutu and sent onstage to do the dance in her place. I was thrilled, but my triumph was short-lived because as soon as I came offstage I was very aware of fingers pointing from those in the know. My dastardly deed having been discovered, I was immediately suspended from the show for several nights.
Through this experience I learned yet another invaluable lesson in life: envy is bad, get there by your own efforts and not through someone else’s misfortune. And so I did: soon afterwards I was doing a regular star turn, wearing a long Victorian dress and a huge hat as ‘Little Miss Lady Make-Believe’, singing ‘You’ve Gotta Have Heart’. I was very proud of this achievement because I wanted to be a singer like Dad, but sadly, as far as singing was concerned, this turned out to be my finest hour and since then I’ve never quite matched it. Despite my best efforts, and to my great disappointment, I don’t have an amazing singing voice (in fact, people have been known to stuff fingers in their ears when I launch into song) and once I’d outgrown the cuteness factor that was that.
Although singing wasn’t my foremost talent, I loved it, and especially when I got to sing with my dad. He was still crooning à la Bing Crosby and sometimes he would take me along to gigs and we’d duet together: our favourite was ‘Something Stupid’, the song made famous by father-and-daughter duo Frank and Nancy Sinatra. Dad had a wonderful singing voice and so, despite my less-than-perfect pitch, together we were a good act.
I was a good dancer, though, and I loved dancing just as much as singing, if not more. My mother would make me sweet little outfits and I would tap or pirouette my way across the stage in show after show. Mum would drive me to wherever we were performing, my costumes piled in the back of the car. She was very proud and encouraged me to perform not only by making my costumes and ferrying me about but clapping enthusiastically in the audience, too.
My talent for comedy also emerged early, completely by accident. Aged four and a half, I was due to open a show with a tap routine in my little white skirt, red blazer and tap shoes. Unfortunately I was desperate for a wee but there wasn’t time for me to go before I had to be on stage. Unable to hold it in, I did a big wee in front of everybody. The audience fell about, but I was in no mood to enjoy it: I fled in tears, my big moment ruined.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned to love making people laugh and made my mark as a comic actress. Perhaps this was prophetic because despite my best intentions I was always getting involved in things that went wrong.
When I was six I had a couple more brushes with crime, this time trying my hand at embezzlement. I decided to start a tea club for my friends and managed to persuade five little girls to go home and extract half a crown each (a considerable sum of money in those days) from their mothers. In return for handing the cash over to me, I told them that they would each get a badge made from cardboard, a sugar sandwich and a drink of pop. Delighted with my haul, I stashed the half crowns in my dolls’ pram, dipping into the money every now and again to buy one of my favourite sherbet dips – you know the kind, with a liquorice straw – from the corner shop.
I might have got away with this little piece of fraud had it not been for another scheme of mine a few weeks later. One afternoon I informed my friends that we would put on a bring-and-buy sale for Oxfam, which meant they had to extract more money from their mothers. When I told my mother the same thing, she said, ‘That’s a good idea – I’ll help you put up some trestle tables and we’ll sort out lots of clothes and bric-à-brac,’ and she went on to invite the whole village.
I can’t remember now actually how much profit we made on the day but it would have been a considerable sum and everyone believed they were doing their bit for charity. I, on the other hand, had only sherbet dips on the brain and went on to stash the proceeds in my dolls’ pram together with the remains of the previous haul. Ten sherbet dips, boxes of sweet cigarettes and many packets of wagon wheels later, I was one very happy little girl.
A couple of weeks on, a friend’s mother asked Mum how much money we’d raised. Being so busy, my mother assumed that Dad had taken care of the funds. As they say, the truth will out, and so it did, big time. Everything came to light: my tea-club member scam and of course the great Oxfam scandal. Now in my eyes I wasn’t stealing: this was enterprise. With the tea club the girls got treats, and the bring-and-buy would have been potentially worthy had I remembered to send the profit to wherever it was supposed to go. In fact, I had only borrowed a bit for the sweets, which I thought was fair enough given the hard work I’d put in, but that wasn’t quite the way my mother saw it. All was paid back, my tea club closed down forever and I was never made an Ambassador for Oxfam – another lesson for this wayward child to learn.
I never was very good at practical matters, perhaps because like Dad I was a bit of a dreamer. From the earliest age I lived much of my life in a fantasy world surrounded by imaginary friends. This wasn’t because I was a lonely child or didn’t have any other children to play with; it was simply a world of my own that I loved to be in. I used to carry on conversations with people who lived under the floorboards, or in the walls or underneath my bed – I would feel them tugging at my hand or leg, or hear them knocking on the floor. I’d talk to them for hours: there would be tears and laughter and arguments. It sounds strange but it was only the same as the little plays I would write and perform in my grandma’s house. I’d be every character, changing hats and voices as I swapped sides in a conversation.
I don’t think the adults around me were aware of this private world. While many children have highly creative imaginations, sadly as we reach adulthood we leave that innocence behind. And so I kept my secret friends to myself and chatted to them when no one else was around.
We were lucky to have a television at a time when many families were unable to afford one and I loved watching the children’s programmes because they fuelled me with yet more ideas, but books were my real passion: I am a bookaholic. My dream was to one day have my own library – I’m still working on that one. Back then, I would imagine the characters jumping out of the book and me being part of their world before they disappeared back into the pages. I loved all the animated shows and cartoons: I would have liked to work in the world of animation, given the chance. I adored going to the cinema and could well believe I was up there on that screen in whatever film it was: I might be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or Alice living in Wonder-land. At one time I even wanted to be John-Boy in The Waltons although that was more to do with the big-family thing than being a boy. Later still, in my teens, I fancied being Doris Day in all those films with Rock Hudson or Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, and then of course there was Audrey Hepburn with the wonderful Cary Grant.
Pretending to be someone else was as natural to me as breathing. I couldn’t imagine a place where I just had to be myself, and so for me it was a natural progression from a make-believe world into the exciting world of acting.
When I was six we moved to a large and beautiful house in the pretty village of Burton Joyce, on the other side of Nottingham. My mother had worked hard doing up our last house: walls were knocked down to create larger rooms and she then decorated and improved before selling on for a healthy profit so we could move up in the world. Our new home was detached, double-fronted and gabled; it had its own grounds, outhouses and driveway as well as an impressive flight of steps leading up to the front door. Inside were six bedrooms and spacious living rooms, perfect for the lavish parties my parents loved to hold.
The house cost £8,000, which was a vast sum in the early fifties, but Mum and Dad worked hard and had also been enterprising, plus they’d had a major stroke of luck. My father bought a clothing firm that had gone into liquidation and he inherited all the stock, which filled ten enormous lorries. He saw an opportunity to make a lot of money selling the stock on. At this point my mother held a very senior position at the French cosmetics firm Orlane but she chose to sacrifice her career to help run the business. And so they rented a three-storey factory with a shop underneath, which they named Joy’s Boutique.
While Mum organised and ran the new shop, Dad (who could never have stayed in one place for a whole week) hired a team of people and set them up with vans full of stock to visit various markets in the country. On Saturdays I used to go with him. I loved standing behind the stall selling the clothes to shoppers, but we didn’t make as many sales as we might have because we would stop for a long breakfast on the way. Mum used to tell me, ‘Make sure your dad gets to the stall by seven – you must get there early.’ We’d both promise to do so and then Dad would drive us to his favourite transport café, where he would enjoy a full English while I had tea and baked beans. We’d tuck in and Dad would say, ‘Don’t tell your Mum.’ Afterwards he’d play the one-armed bandit while I watched and we’d eventually get to the stall around midday.
Inevitably Mum found out, probably because the takings were not what they ought to have been, but in any case Dad was bored by then and so he let other people take over that side of the business. I don’t think he was a lot of help: he would go off in search of new stock or on some other escapade, leaving Mum to do most of the work. She must have felt impatient with him because so much of the responsibility for our lives, our home and our income fell on her shoulders. They did have rows and on one occasion I remember her throwing a boiled egg at him, but it missed and hit a very hot radiator. Fortunately it was painted yellow, as the runny egg stuck like glue and stayed there for a long time.
My parents didn’t actually spend a lot of time together – at home they were often at opposite ends of the house and during the day Dad would disappear on some mission while Mum would be left running the shop. She made it into a really successful business and now not only did we live in a beautiful house with a swimming pool, stables and a mini golf course but we had a gorgeous pink and white Cresta with wings on the back, a Mercedes coupé, a violet MGB (custom-built for my mother) and a Jaguar. Little wonder I had a passion for cars when I grew older.
Mum’s determination was awesome. We always had a house full of dogs, and one day she decided to breed them. We mainly had poodles so she bred a miniature version, which turned out to be another success. I adored the poodles, especially the puppies, which I would tuck into my dolls’ pram and then pet and fuss over for hours. I’m not sure if they enjoyed this quite so much because I was fairly strict and would insist they stayed put, shoving them back into the pram whenever they dared to try and escape.
Dad was a bit of a soft touch around the poodles. When one little white puppy was born with deformed legs, the vet told us that it ought to be put down, but Dad insisted on keeping her as a family pet. We called her Dinkum and although she had to walk on her elbows she managed just fine and lived to the ripe old age of 20.
At the tender age of seven Brett was packed off to a boarding school called The Rodney, a few miles away in a village called Kirklington. I was six when he left home, and after that I only saw him when he came back for the holidays and so for much of the time I felt as if I was an only child. I missed my brother very much when he went away despite the fact that he and his friends often teased and tormented me. They were rough-and-tumble little boys and, although a bit of tomboy myself, I was an easy target. And, to compound the problem, Mum often told Brett to keep an eye on me so I had to tag along with him and his friends. Unfortunately, the ‘games’ they thought hilarious frequently left me petrified.
One day they took me to the local recreation ground, where some distance from the swings and roundabouts was a large tree covered in gruesome-looking fungus. I had been extremely wary of this tree ever since Brett had told me that the fungus was poisonous and whoever touched it would die a horrible death. Clearly desperate to dump me so they could run off and play, the boys decided to tie me to the tree. They knotted some belts and ties together and after a brief Indian war dance with plenty of whooping, they bound me to the tree. But I wasn’t touching the fungus (they had left a small gap and this meant that if I stood up straight I could avoid it) and before they ran off and left me they warned that if I shouted or struggled I would touch the fungus and die instantly.
More scared of the fungus than anything else, I stood straining at my bonds, desperately hoping they hadn’t meant it and would come back, but too scared even to shout out. It was Dad who eventually found me, what seemed like hours later. By that time my knees were sagging and I was in serious danger of collapsing against the fungus so I burst into floods of hysterical tears.
Brett couldn’t sit down for a week after that incident but it didn’t stop him from planning more assault-course tortures whenever he wanted to get rid of me. He used to climb up trees, haul me up after him and then clamber down and leave me sitting on a branch, too high up to get down on my own. Sometimes he remembered and came back for me (once after a game of football, I remember), but on other occasions he forgot all about me and it was some astonished adults passing by underneath who spotted me clinging on for dear life and helped me get down.
And it was another kind adult who came to my rescue on the day when Brett couldn’t resist pushing me, fully clothed, into the swimming pool. Mum loved to swim, and long before we moved and had a pool of our own installed she sometimes took us with her to the local pool. On this occasion, aged four, I was standing beside the pool and wearing a pretty cotton dress when Brett gave me a shove and I hit the deep end. I remember the water closing over my head as my skirt floated up around me: I sank down and down until, thankfully, strong arms grabbed me and I was hauled out, choking and spluttering.
The incident so terrified me that I could never bear having water over my head and I refused to take a shower until I was 15, prefering baths. I did eventually learn to swim but despite my best efforts, the phobia has remained with me and even now I won’t go in the sea, if I go to the beach.
Of course Brett, who was only six himself at the time, had no idea how much this would affect me. He probably didn’t even stop to wonder whether I could swim: he himself was a good swimmer and he and his friends would push one another into the pool without a second thought, to emerge laughing and splashing. I’m sure he expected me to do the same. When my father built our swimming pool in the back garden (which was in itself hilarious as he and a gang of my boyfriends dug the foundations), it was all done to the right specifications but Dad didn’t bother to seal it and although it was quite a large pool we would often come down in the morning to find half the water had disappeared. We’d fill it up again and again, but half the water would be gone by the next day – no one ever worked out where it was going. Despite this, the pool gave us a lot of joy and we had many noisy parties.
Funnily enough, my father hated water and never went swimming, so perhaps my fear was genetic and being pushed in simply made it worse. He built the pool for Mum – it was she who loved swimming – and she was an excellent swimmer and even took part in synchronised displays. You know, the kind where you put a peg on your nose and perform a graceful underwater routine in perfect synch with others.
After the swimming-pool débâcle, Brett turned his attention to acrobatics and insisted I join in as his assistant. He liked to make me stand on his shoulders or balance on his knees as he floated on his back and he would also spin me round, faster and faster, by my wrists or ankles. I was always wary of this but he was my brother and so I had no choice. Usually, I would become terrified halfway through the trick, at which point he would insist I carry on.
Things came to a head, literally, one day as I attempted to balance with one foot on his knee. I wobbled about, lost my balance and came crashing down, hitting my head against the sharp corner of a wall. My forehead was sliced open and blood gushed everywhere, but even as I sat howling with pain, I knew Brett was for it and I would get all the sympathy. Most probably terrified, he tried to mop up the blood on my face with the sleeve of his jumper. Mum came running in from the kitchen to witness this gory scene while I of course lapped up every minute of it.
She rushed me off to our local doctor, whose name happened to be Hutchinson (the same as ours). In those days you had the same doctor for most of your life and all the family went to him. As Brett cowered in the corner, the doctor cleaned me up and decided my injury looked far worse than it was. I had to have stitches, though, and I still have the scar. The doctor made sure Brett was well and truly sorry while I revelled in the drama of it all.
Although I liked our doctor (who was stern but friendly), the dentist was altogether another matter. The first time my mother took me to see him I was placed in an huge black leather chair and there were shiny instruments everywhere. A man in a white coat opened my mouth – which I closed again very sharply, catching his finger. He shouted something at me and then the next thing I knew there was a hissing sound and an enormous black mask loomed in front of me. I tried to get out of the chair but an ugly fat woman, sweating profusely, held me down and the mask was put over my face. Then came the smell of the gas – a metallic stench that made me feel quite sick.
The next thing I knew I was waking up with the fat woman poking at my shoulders. As the dentist bent down and peered at me with his foul breath and strangely bad teeth, he said, ‘Come on, girl – open your mouth,’ and tried to prise my lips apart. The projectile vomit hit first him and then the wall in front of me with such velocity that it must have been the equivalent of a turbo-charged paint stripper. Disgusted, they threw me out and told my mother not to bring her ungrateful little brat back. The whole episode was truly a Little Britain nugget.
As for Brett, he could be my tormentor but he was also the big brother who looked out for me. So when he went away looking so small in his smart red and grey uniform, with a big trunk stashed in the back of the car, I felt very sad. Without him there to thump up the stairs or shout down from the landing, the house fell silent and still. More than ever, I began to rely on my imaginary world, having endless conversations with make-believe friends.
I could have asked friends over, and sometimes I did, but mostly I played on my own. And there were always adults around: my grandparents came over a lot and often looked after me when Mum and Dad were out, but they tended to leave me to get on with my own games.
I adored my grandparents. My maternal Grandma Nancy (whom I called ‘Nanna’) was always very elegant and dressed beautifully. I remember her in a blue dress with a little collar and cuffs, pearls around her neck, her pure-white hair neatly permed. Her skin was baby-soft and remarkably unlined, probably due to the healthy additive-free food they ate plus the fact that she didn’t smoke, drink or sunbathe. She was kind and loving and adored dancing, while Granddad was tall, creative and very emotional.
When I stayed with them for dinner Nanna always gave Granddad his meal first. Like the three bears, he would have the biggest dinner, then Nanna and then me. If it happened to be something I really liked, such as mashed potato, I would look longingly over at Granddad’s huge portion until Nanna went out to the kitchen, whereupon he would quickly spoon some of his mash onto my plate and wink at me as she came back in. I loved their bed: it was a proper sprung one and when you were in it you rolled into the middle. And I also adored their open coal fire – I have lovely memories of nestling in Granddad’s lap in my woolly dressing gown on a winter’s night and listening to the sounds of Nanna knitting, the fire crackling and cheeky schoolboy Jimmy Clitheroe on the radio.
Mum was always close to her parents so they came to us almost every weekend and often I would go to their house in the school holidays when she had to work. Nanna and Granddad also came with us to our caravan, which was on a permanent site on the East Coast, between Skegness and Mablethorpe. I absolutely loved that caravan: to me, it seemed the perfect home with everything we needed packed neatly into tiny spaces and seats that turned into beds at night. For me, it was heaven – a proper grown-up dolls’ house.
Later, we started to go abroad for holidays and Mum once drove the pink-and-white Cresta all the way to Spain – which took a few days and was quite something then. We used to go and stay in Tossa de Mar, north of Barcelona. At that time it was just a small village with one hotel so they certainly hadn’t seen anything like this enormous flashy car with wings on the back driving into the little sandy bay. I think they believed we were aliens because the villagers would simply stand and stare. Our hotel was a gorgeous 1920s building, very glamorous, which was used as a location in an Ava Gardner film. I’m glad I got to see Spain when it was so unspoilt.
When we moved to our house in Burton Joyce, I had to leave Dorothy Grants (which was some distance away) and instead was enrolled in the little village primary school, where I stayed until I was 11. Though saddened to leave the school where I’d been so happy, one consolation was the fact that we now had stables at our house and I soon developed a life-long passion for horses. Indeed, I was crazy about them and lucky enough to have a horse of my own. My first horse was a sturdy mountain pony called Tinto, a bay with a black stripe down his back, and I loved him dearly. Patient and friendly, I felt he was my best friend and, yes, I would talk to him for hours. On very hot days he would sometimes lie down in the paddock behind the house and I would go and lie on his tummy.
I quickly learned to ride, and before I turned 7, I was a competent bareback rider, using only a rope halter and no rein. By then I thought nothing of going off alone on Tinto – in fact, I would often ride him down to the village shop, buy some sweets while he waited patiently outside and then ride back.
When I was 10 my parents took me to visit one of their clothing suppliers, a lady who lived in a village some distance away. She showed me the paddock behind her house and introduced me to her little racing pony, Whiskey. He was very young and hadn’t yet got used to a saddle but she let me ride him and we got along fine. Of course I fell in love and begged my parents to buy him for me. Generously, they agreed, and Mum said we could come back the following day with the horsebox to take him home. Typical me, I was having none of it: I didn’t want to wait, I was eager to take him home right away.
‘I’ll ride him home,’ I announced.
‘But it’s 22 miles,’ countered Mum. ‘That’s too far for you and for the pony.’
I wasn’t giving up, though, and eventually my parents agreed to let me ride him home, with them following behind in the car. We did it, but what a crazy stunt – it took so long that it grew dark. Whiskey and I plodded along in the car’s headlights. Home at last, Whiskey was bedded down in the stable, thankfully none the worse for his adventure because a ride that long might have damaged his legs. As for me, I was jubilant at having made it back with him, but completely exhausted.
The next day I set out to introduce Whiskey to Tinto (who was in the field behind the stables). As we approached, Tinto looked round at Whiskey and then at me. Nostrils flared and eyes blazing, he began galloping towards us. I backed out of the field fast! Tinto was jealous and most definitely not coming over to make friends with Whiskey. In fact, I think he had murder on his mind.
From then on, Tinto was like a spoilt child whose nose has been put out of joint. He was so aggressive towards Whiskey that it was months before we could put them in the field together. When we eventually did so, Whiskey held his own with Tinto (who stopped trying to bully him) and the two became partners in crime. Together, they escaped from their field and destroyed the graveyard next door, something that got them – and us – into all sorts of trouble.
One evening, a couple of years after I got Whiskey, I was mucking out in the stable when I heard a loud thud, followed by a deep shudder and sigh.
‘What was that?’ I asked the friend who was with me, too scared to look.
‘It’s Whiskey,’ she told me, after peering into his stable. ‘He’s lying on the ground and he doesn’t look right.’
I rushed in to find Whiskey lying down, which was unusual as horses seldom do this. Immediately, I convinced myself that he had a twisted gut (which can be fatal) and so I ran back to the house to phone the vet, certain my beloved pony was dying. The vet told me that he wouldn’t be able to come out for some time and so I settled down to wait beside Whiskey, gently placing an arm around him and resting my head on one side of his rib cage. He remained perfectly still, not moving a muscle, and after what seemed hours I fell asleep and was oblivious to Mum, who came in every now and then to check on us.
When the vet eventually arrived, early the next morning, I got up to tell him what had happened, and to my amazement Whiskey suddenly stirred, blew through his nose and got up.
After looking him over, the vet said: ‘There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this horse.’
‘But I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘He was so ill and he didn’t move a muscle all night.’
‘How could he?’ he laughed. ‘You were lying on top of him and he was clearly too much of a gentleman to disturb you.’
I was so happy to learn that Whiskey was fine that I didn’t even mind feeling a complete idiot for calling out the vet to a horse who was apparently just taking a nap.
Not only was Whiskey totally fine, he continued to be in the best of health for the next few years. I rode both him and Tinto almost daily, rushing in after school to see them and take them treats. And I was a totally fearless rider: I loved jumping and would career around the paddock, going over our homemade jumps or take off for long rides in the local lanes.
Sadly, my riding career came to an abrupt end when I was 16 years old and had an accident on Tinto. He had a bad habit of stopping every now and then, lowering his head so that I slid off down his neck. He’d done this a few times, but never when he was moving fast, and so I’d simply scold him and climb back on. This time, though, we were riding by the river when something spooked him. From a gentle trot, he launched into a madcap gallop but suddenly stopped and lowered his head so that I shot straight off him and hit the ground hard. I might have got away with a few nasty bruises, had my foot not been caught up in the stirrup. Meanwhile, Tinto took off again, dragging me along the ground with him. No doubt realising something was wrong, he didn’t go far, and once he’d stopped I was able to disentangle myself.
I was hurting all over but somehow I managed to get hold of the reins. Limping and in pain, I very slowly and carefully led him home. Once he was safely in his stable, I told Mum what had happened and she took me to the doctor. Luckily, no bones were broken: I was just grazed, battered and bruised. Unfortunately the accident made me fearful in a way I’d never been before, and although I did ride again I was never able to recapture the same fearless joy. Now I was cautious and the horses could smell my fear and subsequently played up.
Despite the accident, I never stopped loving horses. I haven’t lost that addiction to the sniff of a saddle, as I call it – horsey readers out there will know exactly what I mean. Horses are still very special to me and I have a close connection with a horse sanctuary in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire: Only Foals and Horses. For many of the horses and ponies there, the sanctuary is the only safe place they have ever known. Many have suffered fear, pain and mistreatment. Some, including newborn foals dumped when their mothers were sold, have been rescued from auctions, where they were being sold for meat. I do what I can to help, and when Carol McGiffin (my fellow presenter on Loose Women) and I won £75,000 on Celebrity Who Wants to be a Millionaire? I was able to donate my half to the sanctuary.
Back in the days when I lived for my horses I couldn’t bear to be separated from them for longer than twenty-four hours and so, when my parents decided that I should join Brett at boarding school (at the age of 11), naturally I was horrified.
Boarding school? Not if I had anything to do with it.
The problem was that I’d failed my 11 Plus. Well, to be fair, I didn’t even know the test we took one day was all that important. I’d sit through most lessons gazing out of the window, not listening. To this day, I still have nightmares of sitting at that desk, not having done my homework, with not a clue as to what anyone is talking about. I always blame the teachers and too many kids to a class. It was a shame, though it meant I couldn’t get into any of the good local schools, so it was the secondary modern or boarding school for me.
My parents took me on another visit to Brett’s school (it was a boys’ school, but they were just starting to allow female siblings in) and it was 300 boys to 20 girls. I was shown the dormitory in the small girls’ wing, which had been placed as far away as possible from the boys’ section of the school.
One look at that dorm settled it: I wasn’t going to share a room with several other girls I didn’t know. I’d always hated school, so how on earth could I go and live in one? My parents agreed that I could attend the school as a day pupil; it involved an hour-long journey each way, but for me this was a much better option. And so it was that in the autumn of 1962, just before I turned 12, I set off for The Rodney School in my smart red and grey uniform. I loved the uniform and the ballet lessons, and once in a while we would have dances in the big hall. The boys would sit on one side of the room, the girls on the other; the boys would have to come over and ask us to dance and it was all very formal but we got to wear pretty party frocks, which was the bit I liked.
The grounds were absolutely beautiful and on hot summer days our school fairs were fantastic. I also remember having choral concerts outside. It’s funny how the summers seemed longer and hotter when we were young. It was an amazing school and I wish I could have appreciated it more and enjoyed my time there, but I didn’t. In fact, I used to do everything I could to get out of school, including perfecting the art of making myself ill. I was so good at it that I could even throw up when occasion demanded it. I’d then be allowed to skip school – or be sent home if I’d actually made it thus far – and would be put to bed, clutching my stomach and gently moaning. Once I was safely installed and the coast was clear, I’d settle down with a comic or the TV and enjoy my day, then make a miraculous recovery in time to go out and see the horses in the afternoon.
Eventually realising that they were wasting their money, my parents took me out of school and placed me in the local secondary modern. The classes were huge, so I could sit at the back and do nothing, and that’s exactly what I did: nothing. My best friend was a girl called Sue Maddern, who was strong and full of self-confidence. I was bullied when I got there because I’d come from a posh school, so I teamed up with her and became a bit of a smart arse. It was self-protection: I’d never forgotten the beating I had as a 6-year-old and I wasn’t about to let it happen again. Having said that, I made a few lifelong friends there and have some good memories of those days.
While school felt like a waste of time, once I joined the local theatre club at the age of 11 I absolutely loved it. The club, which was based in the aptly named Shakespeare Street, was great fun and I couldn’t wait to go there every week. I also joined a drama class at Clarendon College in Nottingham, run by a man named Allen Tipton, who became a mentor and friend to me. He was a brilliant teacher, who got us kids organised into one production after another and managed to bring out the best in all of us. This was, coincidentally, where Robert Lindsay (who was my boyfriend at RADA) started his drama education, although we didn’t know one another there.
By the age of 13 all that mattered to me, apart from my horses, was drama. I was also a member of the Burton Joyce Players in our village and had my first female lead in their production of The Seventh Veil, based on the famous film starring Ann Todd and James Mason. I played a young girl – Francesca – a pianist, with an obsessive Uncle Nicholas (played by the vicar, who was brilliant). When she tries to run away, he smashes his cane down on her hands and virtually cripples her, so she is a broken woman.
At the same time I joined the Midland Academy, a local drama school run by a wonderful woman called Miss Audrey Albrecht. This was the beginning of my formal training, in readiness for an eventual audition for RADA. Miss Albrecht was passionate about poetry and insisted I enter all the Poetry Society as well as the many LAMDA examinations, and while this seemed like hard work at the time it stood me in great stead.
After leaving school I attended the Academy full-time, from 16 to 18, and during that time I passed numerous poetry and drama exams. I adored Miss Albrecht, who became in some ways like a second mother to me. She was firm and extremely demanding, but I never minded because she believed in me, and along with Allen Tipton she played a big part in shaping my future. At the same time, my own mother insisted I attend finishing classes, where I learnt how to sit properly and walk beautifully, how to close a door behind me without turning around, how to get out of a car elegantly with no knickers showing and, of course, how to speak properly.
With all this going on my life was incredibly full – I think maybe it was Mum’s way of delaying my interest in boys. I had the Theatre Club, Allen Tipton’s classes, school, the Burton Joyce Players and the Midland Academy, so I was almost always rehearsing for or appearing in a production. It was a wonderful grounding, and by the age of 15 I was determined to make a career on the stage. Actually, it was seeing Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music that finally nailed my decision.
The school had other ideas, though: when I told my careers teacher that I wanted to be an actress she just laughed and told me to stop living in dreamland. Who did I think I was, Doris Day? Well yes, actually. Careers advisers were like that then: they advised the boys to go into engineering and the girls to train as secretaries. They made me feel so ridiculous that I thought, OK, I will go and train as a secretary just to prove that I can do it.
Mother was ambitious for me and I’m sure she only agreed to the secretarial training as an insurance policy. She found a private course held in a large Edwardian semi. On the first morning I turned up at the address I’d been given and was shown into a room by a small, rotund lady – not very happy, really quite odd. There was a long table in the middle and six big black typewriters on either side. Three girls were already on one side, two on the other, and I was shown to the empty place. A very tall and sinewy-looking man with a face like thunder walked in, obviously in charge. He stood at the end of the table and lifted one hand up while glancing at a watch on his other wrist. As a clock chimed, he brought his hand down hard on the table, which made me jump and giggle. He then came over and without saying a word showed me what I was supposed to do, and left me to it. I remember he smelled of camphor oil, like bandages.
I started, but the big black keys were very temperamental: you’d hit them and they would shoot back or get stuck. The Lurcher look-alike came over and without looking at me uttered his only word that day: ‘Rhythm.’ Furiously pulling out all the keys now jammed in the machine, he repeated himself. I did my best to hold in a giggle but as he was walking away he turned sharply and flashed his eyes at me, which stopped me in my tracks. During the allotted two hours I’d asked to go to the loo (which was apparently not allowed), I’d asked for a drink of water (also not allowed) and now my keys were permanently stuck in a criss-crossed heap inside the machine. By this time I was hysterical with suppressed laughter and the other girls were trying hard not to join in. ‘Lurch’ was red-faced with anger and the small woman who had shown me in (presumably his wife) hustled me out of the room and sent me home, telling me as she did so that I was disturbing the other girls.
Five days later I went back for another try. The small woman opened the door and stared at me with anger in her eyes. She then told me that her husband had died due to stress and the lessons were cancelled, as if it was my fault. After that, I gave up the quest to become a secretary.
It was my one and only attempt to learn a practical skill. Afterwards I told my mother that I wanted to go to drama school and she backed me 100 percent. I’m not sure which of us was more determined that I would make it, but while I gave my all to acting, other distractions threatened to derail my efforts: boys had arrived on the scene.
I always got on well with boys and seemed to attract them, but until I was 15 I had no romantic interest in them at all. I was a bit of a tomboy and as far as I was concerned boys were pals. They could be fun, sometimes they were noisy and smelly, but mostly I just enjoyed having them around.
My closest male friend from school was Gordon Lewingdon. We got on really well and often he came round to my house. I thought of him as a mate, so it only dawned on me much later that Gordon loved me. I was horrible to him, thoughtless and mean, flirting with all the other boys from the village who used to congregate at my house, but I adored him too. Oh, the fickleness of youth! We both fooled around and kissed a bit, but nothing more – I’m not sure I knew what ‘more’ was at that stage.
Years later, when I bumped into Gordon, he agreed that I’d treated him badly. He told me he had a doll that he used to pretend was me and he would stick pins in it! He was, and still is, a lovely man and we will always be friends.
But Gordon wasn’t my only suitor (I had several) and when I was just 13 he and three other boys actually followed me on holiday to Wales. Gordon had told me that he couldn’t bear to be away from me for a whole week and I was happy for them to come along. They wanted to cycle all the way to Wales from Nottingham but their parents insisted they went part of the journey on the train. They arrived soon after my family and me, setting up tents in a nearby field, but a deluge of rain swamped their camp. Late that night they turned up at our hotel looking like drowned rats. Mum couldn’t leave them with nowhere to sleep, so she paid for a room, but put them on the train home the next day.
We were a proper gang in Burton Joyce and went everywhere together but mainly hung out at my house because I had the pool. There was Gordon, Chas, Dave, Steve, Ian and John, plus a few others over the years. Every now and then I was asked out by each of them in turn, but I wanted a gang, not a boyfriend. I’d ride my horse and my little entourage would follow on their bikes. I did go on a couple of dates with a boy from school called Dave (because he looked like Paul McCartney) and then there was Rob, whom I adored. Rob had a guitar and was in a band, which was a definite plus. He was a Mod (you were either with the Mods or Rockers and I was a Mod girl), so he was perfect for me, but sadly, young love faded away.
My first real boyfriend was Robbie Tate. Blond, blue-eyed and gorgeous, we met when we were both 15 and I was immediately smitten. We started seeing each other as much as we could and I would often skip drama or ballet classes to be with him. When my mother found out, she did her best to stop the romance, telling me that I mustn’t see him because classes were more important. Of course that only encouraged me all the more: seeing Robbie in secret was even more fun, although I didn’t dare miss too many classes. He would wait for me outside class and we’d go for a walk, then stop for a kiss and a cuddle.
I worked for several months backstage at the Nottingham Playhouse, helping out with productions and as an usherette. As well as the joy of earning £3 10s a day, I got to see the stars backstage. And there were real stars there because the artistic director was John Neville, a former leading member of London’s Old Vic, who had played many big classical roles before becoming a director. He had immense pulling power and brought a series of established actors to Nottingham, turning it into one of the finest repertory theatres in the country. Among many others, I got to meet Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, John Huston, Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston. Young and hungry for success, for me it was magical. I remember sitting on the floor in a discreet corner of the stage completely spellbound while watching Judi Dench rehearse her part as St Joan in Joan of Arc.
Our junior Theatre Club was also extremely busy, producing a stream of plays and musicals, and I was still involved with Allen Tipton’s drama group. The most successful production of Allen’s that I was in was West Side Story when I was 15. I played Anita, one of the lead roles, when we took it to London in a drama festival, where we beat dozens of other groups to win the Lawrence Olivier Shield.
Soon afterwards we took the play to the open-air Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, West Cornwall. The theatre is constructed above a gully with a rocky outcrop jutting into the sea, and it’s a truly spectacular location. We arrived in Cornwall during a hot summer and I remember getting very burnt and phoning home to tell Mum the sun had wrinkled my face so much that I looked really old, probably at least 25, and I was thrilled. Considering my later fascination with cosmetic surgery, it seems ironic that I was so desperate to look older.
All this was immense fun and the perfect backdrop for my budding romance with Robbie, which culminated when I was 16 in me losing my virginity to him in a passionate clinch on the kitchen floor of our house! You have to be 16 for that to seem romantic, but to us it was. After that we’d sleep together whenever we could, though sadly the opportunities were few and far between.
The only experience of sex that I’d had before was at a late-night party my brother had reluctantly taken me to, where a boy asked me to go upstairs with him. We went into the bathroom and he got out some sort of balloon-type thing, then fumbled around trying to undo my bra while reaching down to release the waiting wriggling worm, at which point I just thought, I don’t want that thing anywhere near me – and made a run for it!
I thought my romance with Robbie was perfect. He even gave me a ring, which I wore on my engagement finger. Then one day I walked into a bar to see him sitting on a stool, kissing a blonde girl. It wasn’t even a peck on the cheek, this was a full-on snog, and at that moment my heart broke. I stood watching them, consumed with the pain of his betrayal.
When Robbie turned and saw me, he had the gall to come over and tell me that I had imagined it. But I hadn’t, and for me the romance was over. Loyalty means a great deal to me: I’m a fiercely loyal person and I expect those I love and care about to offer the same loyalty. If I’m betrayed, that’s it: there’s no second chance, a brick wall goes up and then it’s over – I don’t even want to be friends.
From then on I barely spoke to Robbie. Deep down I still loved him, but I just couldn’t forgive him. One day, a couple of years later when I was at drama school, he turned up. He told me he missed me and asked if we could get back together again, but by that time I had met someone else and I wasn’t interested. He then asked for his ring back, but I told him I’d lost it. I’d actually sold it, for a couple of pounds, when he broke my heart. After that I didn’t see him again.
There was one other boy I went on a couple of dates with when I was 16. He worked in a shop down the road from Mum’s boutique. I used to help out in the boutique on Saturdays and he would walk past the window and stare in. Like Robbie, he was blond, blue-eyed and handsome, but I found his stare slightly unnerving and would look away or busy myself folding clothes. One day he came into the shop, introduced himself and started chatting to Mum. She liked him and invited him to tea at our house.
‘Why did you do that?’ I asked, after he’d left.
Surprised, she looked at me. ‘He seemed like a nice boy,’ she explained. ‘He’s only 19 and he’s all alone here, his family live miles away. I thought he might be missing them.’
When he came round, a few days later, he was polite and charming. So when he asked me out I said yes. However, there was something about him, an intensity with which I felt uneasy. But still bruised and suffering over Robbie, I thought it might make me feel better to go out with someone else and so we went to the theatre. After this he continued to come to our house and ask me out. Mum couldn’t understand why I didn’t take to him.
One evening he arrived and told her that he’d had to leave his lodgings and so she offered to put him up until he could find somewhere else. I was furious, but Mum told me: ‘He’s only here for a few days – you don’t have to go out with him.’
What she didn’t realise was that he would come and meet me after rehearsals and performances, telling me that she had suggested he should walk me home, just to make sure I was safe. He was pleasant enough, but somehow I still didn’t feel at ease with him. I would say, ‘I’m not your girlfriend,’ but he’d completely ignore me. Being a nice girl, I politely put up with his attentions, and this was something I would come to bitterly regret.
Three years after winning the Laurence Olivier Shield, I was offered a scholarship to RADA in London. Words cannot describe how thrilled I was: it was the realisation of all my childhood dreams, but I couldn’t have done it without the support of my mother and Miss Albrecht. Mum always believed I had it in me to become a successful actress, and she kept me focused. Whenever I was reminiscing about Robbie she would say to me: ‘There are thousands of Robbies in the world but you belong on the stage.’ And when I decided that I wanted to go to drama school, she told me: ‘Then you might as well go to the best one in the world.’
As for Miss Albrecht – well, she taught me to believe in myself. She would say: ‘You’re a special girl and you’re going to be a great actress.’ So, although I wasn’t at all academic and had got nowhere at school, I didn’t feel like a failure because acting was something that seemed to come naturally to me and I loved it.
RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) was regarded as the best school in the world. Its very name commands respect and fuels ambition in young would-be actors and actresses (and I was no exception). And so my audition, in which I had to perform three pieces, was nerve-racking to say the least. I had to wait six weeks afterwards to hear whether I’d made it, and when the letter arrived, telling me that I’d got in, there was huge excitement at home. For the next few weeks life was a frenzy of packing, planning and trepidation, bearing in mind I’d never lived away from home.
For me, the only sad part was that fulfilling my dreams meant leaving my boyfriend behind. After parting from Robbie, I had fallen for a lovely boy called Arthur Moseley. He was gorgeous and looked like a cross between a very young Tony Blackburn and a young Paul McCartney so he became responsible for what became a lifelong obsession with Paul.
Arthur was a few years older than me and already ran a very successful textile business with a partner. He also had a bright yellow E-type Jaguar and used to drive me around in it, which I thought was fab, but what really mattered was that we got on so well. We had great fun and he was kind and tender. Later I came to believe he was the true love of my life, the one I should have married but the one I was foolish enough to let go. Arthur made it very clear that he really didn’t want me to leave to go to London, and, although torn, I was far too immature to handle the situation and so I left, dazzled by the bright lights of RADA and the even brighter ones of London. The world was about to become my oyster, or so I believed.
My relationship with Arthur didn’t end there, though. We stayed in touch for many years and although nobody, least of all my first husband, knew about it, we remained deeply fond of each other and continued to speak on the telephone on a regular basis. That said, we were very mindful of not hurting other people, so the telephone was as far as it went.
Our relationship was a strange and enduring one. Sometimes we’d be on the phone for several hours and we’d talk until he eventually fell fast asleep. Much later, after we’d both had beautiful children in our respective marriages, we finally realised what we had lost in each other, but before we could do anything about it Arthur very suddenly died of a heart attack at the age of 42. Afterwards I was bereft, yet somehow I realised he was one of those people, like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, who can never grow any older. I know that sounds strange but I genuinely believe some of us are destined to die while still in our prime, still young and beautiful.
I missed Arthur very much and thought of him often, but many years later the most wonderful thing happened. Having learned we had once been close friends, his daughter got in contact with me and we still write to each other, which is such a comfort after losing the true love of my life.
In January 1969 I started at RADA. The September before I had turned 18, but I was in so many ways far younger. I think my true age at that time was probably closer to 16. As I’d never before been away from home, my mother decided that I should live at the Bourne and Hollingsworth Hostel for Girls in Gower Street, two doors down from RADA. On arrival the day before the course started, suitcase in hand, I was distinctly unim-pressed. The rooms were sparsely furnished like nuns’ cells, with two iron beds in each one (both covered in puce green bedspreads); there were two sinks and two small chests of drawers apiece. Downstairs was an area where you could get a cup of tea and a few communal tables to sit at while drinking it.
There was a hefty matron, who had a moustache and wore a long, ill-fitting dress with a large chain of keys around her waist. Her shoes had rubber soles and as she stomped around they made a kind of farting noise, so that was the warning she was close by. The hostel had a strict 9.30pm curfew and we were warned that if we were not in by that time we’d be locked out. Every night the farting matron would come round, rap on the doors and ask: ‘Are you in bed girls?’ I don’t doubt she made a note in her little black book if there was no answer. Of course I managed to get myself locked out on a number of occasions but as I had friends who lived in nearby Goodge Street I’d go round and sleep on their sofa. This was 1969, for God’s sake. It was meant to be sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Not Matrons, boiled cabbage and big knickers!
I only stayed at the hostel for a few months and even then I spent as little time as possible there, so I never really got to know my roommate. As soon as I got the chance I moved into a flat in a tenement block in Camden with two friends from RADA. Sharon Maughan was from Liverpool and came from a big family. She was beautiful, with dark hair and eyes – she went on to star in the ‘Gold Blend’ coffee ads and married Trevor Eve. Louise Jameson, who starred in the fourth series of Doctor Who as Leela the Doctor’s companion, had red hair and green eyes. She was the most gorgeous one of us – all the boys loved her.
We three had a great time in that flat, which was always covered in knickers and bras hanging up to dry because there wasn’t a laundrette nearby. If boys were ever coming round these offending items were shoved in drawers, cupboards and under cushions. But the place cost a whopping £30 a week, which left us flat-broke and so we relied on friends to bring us food, particularly one boy who was expert at nicking frozen chickens from the local supermarket and somehow managed to smuggle them out to us under his coat. I’d go there sometimes and emerge with a ‘pregnant’ stomach under my coat, having stuffed everything from peanuts to loo paper in there.
This was the era of bell-bottoms and miniskirts, Beatles and Bowie; also pin-ups such as teen idols David Cassidy and Marc Bolan. People often say to me it must have been great living in London in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Free love, all night parties, a mad crazy time. Well, if it was, I must have gone out that day because I don’t remember any of it. The craziest I got was to put cider into a pint of Guiness. I can’t remember anyone around me taking drugs at parties either, though it’s possible that it happened now and then but I just didn’t notice. Certainly a few of my contemporaries have since told me there were drugs about, but no one ever offered me any.
As for sex, the late sixties were supposed to have been a wild time, with everyone at it. Where was I, you ask. Again, I blinked and missed it. But don’t get me wrong: I did like boys, especially if they looked like Robbie or were carrying a guitar, and even further back than that I knew how to get an apple in the playground, or better still, a sherbet dip from a boy. It didn’t seem to take much – a few bats of my eyelashes, an interest in their marbles, even a loan of my bicycle pump or a go on my roller-skates – but when it came to sex I never really understood what all the fuss was about and I’m not at all sure I do yet. All that mess for so little, as I always say on Loose Women.
At school, I remember boys and girls disappearing behind bike sheds but I could never quite fathom what they did back there. When I eventually discovered what it was about, it seemed such a palaver, too – all that fumbling, groping, sighing and squeaking. Maybe, as Michael Bublé might say: ‘I just haven’t met you yet.’ I was much more interested in being Shirley Temple and, later, Debbie Reynolds or Doris Day. All those stars played the perfect girl-next-door – the kind of girl I wanted to be. For them there were no bedroom scenes, and if there happened to be any brief shots in a bedroom they were with Gene Kelly or Rock Hudson – which was fine by me. And so in the era of ‘free love’ when London was known as the ‘Sexiest City in the World’ I appeared to be living on another planet. Now I’m not saying that I was altogether a Miss Goody Two-Shoes – I certainly wasn’t that. Neither was I falling into bed with a different man every week or off my head on drugs, though.
In some ways, life was far simpler then. We had no mobiles so I would phone home every now and then from a payphone, and other than that my mum didn’t have much idea what I was up to. We had no computers, so no social networking websites – we just bumped into people and got together for parties. The telly still had only three channels so it was pretty boring and, being drama students, we spent our time either acting in plays or going to see them.
Anyway, I loved RADA and soaked up the knowledge passed on to us by all the brilliant teachers, actors and directors there. Early on in my first year, however, I got a bit cocky and began to stretch the rules. I was treating it like high school, taking everything for granted, often going into classes late and sometimes skipping them altogether. I wasn’t aware of how lucky I was to be there or how many hundreds of drama students would have loved to swap places with me … at least not until the day when I walked in very late and was told to go and sit outside the Principal’s office.
After leaving me to sweat for an hour and a quarter, Hugh Cruttwell called me in. By that stage I was in an abject state of terror, convinced I was about to be thrown out. With his dry wit, passion for the theatre and an eye for spotting potential, the legendary Principal was held in complete awe by us students, and as I stood in front of his desk he read me the riot act: ‘How dare you come in late! Don’t you know it’s an honour to be here? I believed in you, but you’ve let me down …’ and so on. By the end of his speech I was left in no doubt just how much trouble I was in. He finished up by saying, ‘… and if you get yourself together and work hard, I will consider keeping you next term.’
That was the kick up the bum I needed. Believing I was about to end my short time there and determined to show him how wrong he had been, I worked incredibly hard after that. I was never late, attended all my classes, took my acting very seriously and did so well that by the time I left RADA in the summer of 1971 I had won six awards, including the Ronson Award for Best Actress with a prize of 100 guineas. Of course this was exactly the response that Hugh Cruttwell was counting on. Years later he told me, ‘I would never have thrown you out – I could see how much talent you had, I just thought I’d give you a fright.’ And it worked.
One of the wonderful perks at RADA was that superstars would arrive as visiting lecturers. We met some incredibly famous people, but none more famous – or gorgeous – than heart-throb Steve McQueen, who turned up one day to talk to us about the art of acting. I can see him now. He was standing in front of the desk, and I was at the back. He had a very soft, mumbling American accent and we couldn’t understand a word he said. But no one cared, he was delicious. At that time he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. A former reform-school kid, known as the ‘King of Cool’, he had starred in some hugely successful films including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Bullitt. He was also a dirt-bike rider and racing car driver who did his own stunts. You can’t get much cooler than that. So, imagine how overwhelmed I felt after being chosen to show him around London. Of course I was in complete awe of him and fell totally in love: he was just so beautiful and I was dumbstruck.
Steve wanted to go on a London bus and so that’s exactly what we did. People must have been gob-smacked to see Steve McQueen on a bus, but I never noticed because I was far too busy staring at him and thinking, I’m sitting with Steve McQueen, little me from Nottingham in my flowery dress and homemade love beads.
That evening Steve decided to take me to the Poissonnerie, a restaurant in Chelsea. Despite my French nursery education I didn’t remember that ‘poisson’ meant fish. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover this until it was too late as I’m violently allergic to seafood.
The place was exclusive and classy, all heads turned as Steve walked in and I was so proud to be his dinner companion. Sadly, the evening became memorable for all the wrong reasons. We sat at the bar on high stools, looking at the menus, and, being a gentleman, Steve offered to order for me. I was relieved as the menu was in French and I didn’t know what most of the dishes were.
He ordered a stew and it arrived with all sorts of strange-looking things floating in it. As I stared into my bowl Steve handed me a large wooden instrument shaped like a truncheon. I sat there, holding it, but after a minute Steve (realising I didn’t know what to do) gently relieved me of it with one of those wonderful Steve McQueen smiles. It turned out to be a pepper mill but I’d never seen one before and I was truly mortified when I realised my mistake.
I dutifully tried the stew and after a very short time, having eaten a rather strange rubbery ring, my stomach started to rumble like a boiler and my face began to swell and burn. I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t, and as Steve turned to me, realising something was wrong, the trajectory of vomit hit him square on the chest. I stared at him in horror; knowing I was having an allergic reaction and that there was more to come, all I could do was make a run for the street to throw up in the gutter.
Next thing I knew, I was being bundled into a taxi by the restaurant manager, who gave the driver some money and told him, ‘Take her home.’ As we took off, my final image of Steve McQueen was of several staff fussing over him and wiping his shirt. Alas, I had almost certainly blown my chances of marrying this particular Hollywood superstar, I realised as I flopped in the back of the taxi.
After that encounter with Steve McQueen, I felt mortified. I was still smarting when I received some upsetting news from home: my parents were to separate. This was something that would never have occured to me. There had probably been clues leading up to it, but if so I hadn’t cottoned on. I always believed they were happily married and the occasional rows they’d had in front of me during my childhood hadn’t seemed at all important. I guess I might be forgiven for not noticing that a problem had been brewing. In our house, my father had his bedroom and my mother had hers: having grown up with this, I thought it was the norm.
My mother had the most beautiful bedroom: a proper boudoir, it was full of plumped-up satin pillows, silk cushions and Venetian-style mirrors. There was also a reproduction Louis-Quinze bed and dressing table. Huge walk-in wardrobes had doors decorated with hand-painted French pastoral scenes. Father’s bedroom, on the other hand, was a proper man’s room with a plain wooden bed and dark brown, masculine-looking furniture that seemed perfect for him.
I’d always been aware that my father went missing on occasion but I thought he was just off in his gown van, selling Crombie coats. When I was 10 I learned how to drive that van up and down our very long drive. My mother is fond of telling the story of how one day she saw the van take off through the kitchen window and, thinking my father had left the handbrake off, she dashed outside only to glimpse my head just below the steering wheel. My grandson Oliver is the same – he’s only 4 years old but if there was a van to climb into, away he would go.
Looking back, I’m guessing that Dad (who was always a ladies’ man) had a female in every port of call. He was such a good-looking man that no one could resist him: I bet every woman he met fell in love with him. Whenever he came home from one or other of his trips there would be another row and another boiled egg whizzing across the breakfast table to splat on the radiator, but I just thought it was par for the course and never took much notice. And I wasn’t surprised when Mum went on holiday with her friends – I just thought that was what women did.
Since those days, however, my mother has told me that the only reason why she and Dad stayed together for as long as they did was because she was determined they would not split up until Brett and I had left home. They had agreed that once we were gone they would separate and sell the house – and that’s exactly what they did. Dad got a place on his own in Nottingham and Mum went on to live in a beautiful penthouse at the top of a Nottingham hotel, with a stunning view of the river.
What was lovely about all this was that they remained friends until the day my father died. They didn’t even bother to get a divorce until many years later, when Mum met somebody else. Even then she was reluctant to go through the formalities but I encouraged her to do so because I wanted her to marry again, to be happy. I have always thought it was wonderful that she and Dad stayed friendly because I was never able to remain on good terms with my two former husbands.
Like most men, my father hated being on his own, and so although he never lived with anyone else he was seldom alone. Even when he grew older, women loved him. He was an easy man to adore, but at the same time one who should probably never have married or had children. A dreamer, a fantasist, a romantic, he just wanted to live in his own world.
I always thought he was a good father, but he didn’t agree. Years later he told me: ‘I was never a father to you or to Brett. I was never there, never played with you, hardly ever took you on holiday.’ That might have been true but somehow I always knew he loved us: he was never disappointed in me or my brother, his was an unconditional love. By this time Brett had become a successful DJ with his own, extremely busy life working alongside Jimmy Savile and Peter Stringfellow and so we were in separate places. Inevitable, perhaps, but sometimes I felt very sad about it, too.
By then we were nearing the end of our first year at drama school and were all busy with end-of-year productions. As first years we had to go and watch the year above us in their productions, and so one evening I went along to see the second years in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet starring a young actor called Robert Lindsay. I took one look at his passionate portrayal of Romeo and instantly fell in love. Luckily for me, the passion turned out to be mutual. ‘Bob’, as we knew him then, had dark hair and dark eyes – he was one of the RADA boys that all the girls fancied. We met at a party soon after I’d seen his Romeo, where we talked and laughed all night. I thought he was funny and talented, while he made it clear that he liked me. He asked me on a date the following evening.
We went to see the musical Godspell starring David Essex, who was then (and still is) a major heart-throb. It was at the Roundhouse in Camden. As we sat in the audience, Bob turned to me and said, ‘One day, I’m going to be up there on stage, starring in this musical.’ And he was right: he did star in it, only two years later, in 1972.
Within weeks of that first date we were in love and decided to move in together, so I left the flat that I shared with the girls and moved into another one with Bob, this time just off the Tottenham Court Road. Our flat wasn’t really a flat as such – we couldn’t afford anything as grand as that. It was a very old-fashioned room that housed an embarrassingly creaky bed, a couple of shabby chairs, a sofa that had seen far better days and a gas fire. Looking back, I’m sure it should have been condemned for exuding dangerous fumes.
Two steps down from the main room was another small room housing an old sink and a big old-fashioned bath with a tap that only ever produced a trickle of hot water so it was impossible to have more than a shallow bath. The loo was downstairs (freezing on winter nights) and we had a tiny prehistoric cooker that was barely usable. In fact, the whole building (still standing today) ought to have been condemned, but we were in love and nothing else mattered.
The only puzzling thing about the block was that lots of single girls seemed to live there and people would come knocking on their doors at all hours. I had no idea what this was about until one afternoon when there was a knock at our door. I opened it only to realise that the old man reeking of booze and eyeing me up was probably not there to read the meter.
So that was the day when Bob and I worked out that we were not just living in a seedy old block of flats but some kind of brothel and the slimy old sod who had just knocked on the door was a customer. In fact, Bob was standing behind me when I opened the door and he went berserk when he saw the way the guy was leering at me and chased him down the stairs. Afterwards we thought it was really funny and laughed into the night, eating our kebabs in bed while trying to keep warm.
We actually became a popular squat for other students, who used to come and sleep on our floor. This was largely because they got cheap kebabs from the downstairs shop run by Gig, a lovely Greek man: he made sure we all ate well and we loved him for it.
Student days should be romantic, sex-fuelled and fun-filled: for Bob and me, they were. When the summer holidays came, we stayed in London and got jobs as ushers at the Palace Theatre, where the once-seen, never-to-be-forgotten Danny La Rue was performing in a spectacular revue, Danny at the Palace. In his big white wigs and diamante-studded ball-gowns, he made the most beautiful-looking, elegant woman. When he first appeared, he’d walk towards the middle of the stage in all his glory and say to the audience in a low baritone, ‘Wotcha, mates!’ The audience loved him, as did we – although I had many a row with the manager there because I was paid £3 10s while Bob got £4 10s. Talk about inequality! But they refused to back down and in the end I was sacked for being such a troublemaker.
Bob and I had been together in our little love nest for about a year when we decided to get married. There wasn’t a formal proposal, we just agreed one day that it would be a great idea. Together we went to see my mum and then on to Ilkeston, not far from Nottingham, to see his. Around the same time, we also told my father. Both our mothers were lovely to us, but I’m sure that privately they thought we were too young and hoped it would fizzle out. I was still only 20 and Bob, nine months older than me, was 21, but we thought we had found real love and would be together forever.
We chose a date in the summer holidays, and despite her reservations Mum bought me a beautiful wedding dress embroidered all over with white hearts and a huge skirt and long train. She also purchased lovely outfits for my bridesmaids, who were children of friends, and the pageboy from Bob’s side. Mum and I decided on the venue, while Bob and I chose the guests we wanted to invite and I arranged for our banns to be read.
Everything was in place and I was ecstatic at the prospect of marrying Bob because I thought he was everything I wanted. He seemed just as happy but perhaps he was having private doubts because only a few weeks before our wedding day everything changed. The summer term had ended and Bob, being a year ahead of me, had graduated from RADA and was heading out into the world to begin his acting career. He was in a play in Exeter, at the Northcott Theatre, and I went down to visit, taking with me a little mongrel puppy as a gift for him. While there, I started to feel uneasy. A couple of the girls he was working with were giving him looks that I couldn’t mistake and he was very distant towards me, so much so that I became convinced he was playing around.
After I left and went back home to stay with Mum in Nottingham I didn’t hear from him. As the days passed I began to realise he wasn’t going to get in touch, but then neither did I. I let our romance fizzle out. Thankfully, my mother picked up the signals and quietly cancelled our wedding, having paid for everything.
I thought perhaps his mum had persuaded him not to go ahead because I knew she was unhappy about it, but, looking back, there must have been more to it than that. Bob was fiercely ambitious and perhaps that’s what really lay behind our break-up. He used to say to me, ‘I’ll have my name in lights before you do,’ and although it was a joke between us he really meant it. Perhaps he felt we’d always be competing with one another. Of course I felt sad about the end of our romance, but deep down I knew everyone had just got carried away with the idea of the wedding, including Bob and I. He went on to enjoy a career that would see him become a household name, starring in such TV favourites as Citizen Smith and My Family, as well as appearing on stage in dozens of successful plays and musicals.
At the end of that summer I headed back to RADA for my final year and, incredibly, I didn’t see or speak to Bob again until twelve years later when I walked into the BBC to do a radio play. It was the first time that I’d set eyes on him since the day he walked out of our flat, and by then he had married and divorced Cheryl Hall while I was married to my second husband, Ken Boyd. We both said a polite, if slightly awkward, hello, although I couldn’t resist a little dig.
‘By the way,’ I called out over my shoulder as I entered the studio to start the recording, ‘I sold the dress!’
Quite rightly, he lowered his head.
In truth, I had given the dress to my cousin Gary Birtles, a brilliant footballer who was a striker for Nottingham Forest in the amazing Brian Clough era. Sandra, his fiancée, looked absolutely lovely in it on their wedding day. Sadly, the dress didn’t bode well for them either.
So, am I left with any regrets? Well, no. Regrets are futile and a waste of energy. We were young and silly, it was a student crush and like all holiday romances it should have stayed where it belonged, in the confines of RADA, and not taken out of context. We both made mistakes. I have bumped into Bob in recent times, but it was obvious he had no wish to acknowledge the past. So Romeo really did die in the end.
In my last year at RADA, perhaps on the rebound from my relationship with Bob Lindsay, I became involved with a director whom I met through one of our productions. He was quite a lot older than me and I thought he was glamorous and experienced. We went on several dates and then he invited me to move in with him. He lived in a beautiful flat in a large Victorian converted house. It was far more comfortable and spacious than my student digs so I didn’t hesitate for long.
Everything seemed to be going fine until one morning when he came upstairs and waved a sheet of paper at me.
‘Hey, look what I’ve just found downstairs in the letter-box!’ he said.
It was a handwritten note addressed to me. In capital letters, someone had scrawled, ‘I know where you live and I don’t like the man you are living with.’ There was no signature and no postmark, so it had obviously been hand-delivered. It was weird and a bit creepy but, hoping this was some kind of a joke, I shrugged, screwed it up and swiftly binned it. However, the next day there was another, similar note written in the same hand on exactly the same kind of paper. We were both puzzled and slightly alarmed but we didn’t know what to do and so once again we decided to ignore the message.
After that the notes began to arrive almost every day: they were all in black ink and capital letters. Gradually they became more aggressive and ominous. The sixth note said: ‘I’m warning you. I will kill you if you don’t leave this man.’
By this time we were becoming increasingly rattled. Who on earth would want me to leave him? Was there some secret admirer? None I knew about, certainly. Worried the situation was turning really nasty, my boyfriend suggested that I should leave the flat for a time and go and stay with a friend of mine who lived in Islington. I agreed, and the moment I left the flat the poison-pen notes stopped. Clearly whoever it was knew I’d moved out. After a few days I decided to move back, hoping they had given up.
When I was back in the flat, however, my boyfriend looked out of the window and said that he thought he had seen a man coming up the path to our front door. He rushed downstairs only to return with another note. This time it said: ‘I know you’re back and you are now in danger because I meant what I said.’
Similar messages continued for another week. Seriously concerned now, my boyfriend suggested we should call the police. We did so, and a policeman came to the flat and questioned us both. He took it very seriously and told us, ‘You’re right to report these incidents. People who behave in this way – write threatening letters – are often very disturbed, unpredictable individuals.’ Of course, this only made us feel worse. What on earth was going on and what should we do?
The next day, we were out in the car with a friend who lived in another flat in the house.
‘Isn’t this poison-pen business awful? It’s really getting us down,’ said my boyfriend.
‘So, what are you going to do about it?’ asked the friend.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied, ‘but I don’t think it’s a good idea for Sherrie to continue staying with me.’
‘Right, but how are you going to protect her if she moves out?’ said the friend.
‘I don’t know,’ he repeated. ‘I’ll start by going to the police again and see what they suggest.’
That night at my boyfriend’s suggestion I went back to Islington.
A few days later my friend said: ‘Oh, Sherrie, the police think they’ve got the man.’
‘Oh, thank God!’ I said, genuinely relieved after ringing my boyfriend back. ‘Who is it?’
‘Just some nutter,’ he told me, before adding, ‘As the police know you’re not living with me now, it’s not necessary for you to do anything.’
Perhaps partly due to the pressure of the letters and the accompanying drama of it all, he seemed rather distant afterwards and I was utterly confused as to why it had happened – it felt as if we’d been in an episode of a police drama. And so we both kept our distance and let our romance slowly fizzle out, never knowing the identity of the letter writer.
That particular relationship might not have been a great love story but he did take me to one of the famous May Balls at Cambridge. He bought me the most beautiful gown to wear and took me punting. Perhaps more importantly, he did me a huge favour in introducing me to Peter Eade, the renowned theatrical agent. One of the best in the business, Peter represented – among others – Kenneth Williams, Ronnie Barker and Joan Sims. Actors everywhere held him in awe because, if he took you on, this was guaranteed success.
In those days any agent of Peter’s calibre had what was known as ‘stables’, and his was reputed to be one of the finest. The agents took on few clients, only the ones they believed in, whose careers they could then nurture and steer in the right direction. When Peter invited me to come and see him at his London office in Cork Street, I really should have been a bag of nerves but, completely unaware of just what an honour this was, I was quite relaxed. Instead it was Mum who came with me, who was the one on edge.
The building where Peter had his office was elegant and luxurious: the staircase was of polished wood, heavy doors with large brass handles swung silently open and there were thick carpets throughout. Lawrena, his assistant, met us at the door and brought us tea in china cups while we waited in an anteroom. When we were shown into his stunning office, Peter stood up and shook hands, then invited us to sit down. He was a true gentleman in every sense of the word: his lineage, upbringing and demeanour. What’s more, he lived on a country estate with his elderly father and had the kind of cut-glass accent that we were all trying to cultivate at RADA, as was expected in those days. His manners were impeccable and he expected the same from his clients: he was an amazing man and a truly exceptional agent.
The first thing Peter told us was, ‘I do not take on new clients any more. I only ever have fifteen on my books at any one time and at the moment I have my full quota. Having said that, I am interested in you, Sherrie: you have a raw talent and that is very rare. If I take you on, you will be guided by me and understand that I have your best interests at heart – you will never let me or the reputation of this agency down – I will mould your career and teach you all about the business.’
The next thing he said was: ‘We must do something about your name. Sherrie Hutchinson is too long – we need something shorter, snappier and easier to recall.’
Before I knew what was happening, I had been re-christened Sherrie Hewson. At the time a change of name seemed a small price to pay for getting onto Peter’s list, but in truth I always wished I had kept my own name (Sherrie Hutchinson has a far better ring to it than Sherrie Hewson, I think).
But it didn’t take long for me to realise just how lucky I had been to be taken under Peter’s wing. Not only was he extremely prestigious and highly respected but he also seemed to know absolutely everybody in the business. And everyone I knew was equally impressed that he had become my agent.
‘Peter Eade!’ they kept on exclaiming. ‘You lucky little devil – you don’t know how fortunate you are.’
But I did: right from the start I realised that Peter was a very special man with a true vocation. His family was wealthy and so he was certainly not in the job for the money – he found it creative, completely absorbing and thoroughly exciting. He loved the world of theatre and genuinely cared about the actors he looked after.
As far as any of his clients knew, Peter had never married. It seemed the only thing he really cared about was his work. While I was with him – and I can’t emphasise enough just how unusual this was – I only rarely had to audition for jobs. Everybody in the business of films, stage and TV seemed to know and respect Peter, and if he suggested one of his actors for a part the producers and directors trusted his judgement. And when I did audition I was treated with respect because Peter had sent me.
As part of my ‘grooming’, Peter used to pick me up in his limousine and take me to the first nights of West End shows. He instilled in me that the way you learn your trade is by watching other actors, and you can never know enough. I still do that today: whether the actors are young or older, you can always learn from watching them. Peter also took me to showbiz parties, where he would present me to famous actors, and to the best restaurants and clubs; also garden parties and Glynde-bourne, where he would introduce me to influential entrepreneurs. For all these magical occasions he would buy me beautiful ball gowns and evening dresses to wear.
I know it all sounds too good to be true but that’s just the way it was: we lived in a different time with different values. Peter always used to say, ‘This is a vocation, Sherrie – it’s for the rest of your life, not five minutes of fame.’ Sadly, a lot has changed now and many youngsters are indeed seeking instant fame, often through making a splash with a bit of topless modelling or reality TV rather than developing their talent. I’m thankful that I arrived in a different time and had such a good teacher.
I have so many warm memories of those special occasions with Peter. In particular, some of our most wonderful evenings were spent at Rules, the oldest eating-house in London, which is in Covent Garden. Often there would be superb private functions and parties upstairs, with everyone who was anyone in attendance. I remember one particular party there, when Peter and I walked into one of the upstairs dining rooms as a young Wayne Sleep proceeded to jump on the long dining table, kick everything off and do a dance routine, much to the delight of everyone present. The party became very giddy as lots of people clambered onto the table, trying to join in. As it groaned with the weight of them, we feared the worst, but the maître d’ burst into the room and somehow managed to throw everyone out. Frequently, the parties would become quite wild, but Peter was always very protective of me.
Like most students, I was hoping to go into repertory theatre as soon as I left RADA. ‘Rep’, as it was (and still is) known, meant joining the company of a local theatre for at least a season and performing in lots of different plays, from classics to new productions. The idea was to play a whole range of roles. One week you might be a 20-year-old ingénue in a Bernard Shaw play, then the following week you’d play a 50-year-old mother in a heavy-duty Chekhov production. Drama graduates would hope to work in a number of rep theatres in towns and cities around the country, thereby honing their art and gaining invaluable experience.
But for me, as for every other drama student, the only problem was securing an Equity card. Equity was the actors’ union. To work as an actor you had to have a card – producers and directors simply wouldn’t consider you without one because it was a closed union. But to get one you must have worked as an actor, hence the conundrum facing every young would-be performer. It was a dotty system, but in those days Equity called the shots.
The solution that Peter came up with was to secure me a part in a commercial. At that time nobody who aspired to being a serious actor or actress would be seen dead in a TV commercial – they were regarded as ‘the pits’, downmarket jobs signalling the end of your career. How times have changed. Nowadays everybody, from the fresh-faced graduates to headline stars, competes to get into advertisements, which can be extremely lucrative. Back then it was all so different, so when Peter announced that I was to be in a commercial I was slightly concerned.
‘The joy of the commercial I have got for you,’ he explained, ‘is that while it will result in you getting an Equity card, your face will not be seen in it.’
‘It’s a chocolate-bar commercial,’ Peter went on. ‘The action is set in the Jacobean period during a jousting tournament and as you have been cast as a young lady in period dress and a wimple who is watching the joust from a box and delicately waving your ’kerchief up and down, with some careful angling your face will not be shown. Then, when the knight comes over, all you have to do is lean over and give him the ’kerchief.’
‘It sounds quite a prominent part to me, Peter,’ I said. ‘How am I going to avoid being on camera?’
‘Don’t worry, we’ll make sure of that at the time,’ he insisted.
But he hadn’t convinced me. When we arrived at the location in the middle of nowhere, it was a proper jousting scene set in the middle of a very muddy field. Two large horses were dressed in their colours and two knights in corresponding shades. Masses of peasant types were milling about and smoke billowed out of enormous machines all over the field. I was taken into a large caravan stacked with period costumes of various sizes and dutifully dressed as a lady-in-waiting, wimple and all. The dress was fine but the wimple, which consisted of a long, cone-shaped hat with lots of fabric flowing over my head and fastening under my chin, was far too big and had to be fixed on with pins and sticking tape. Even then it didn’t stay put and I had to hold it on as I was taken through the mud to the stand that was supposed to be the viewing box for the young ladies while the knights fought.
The director – a thin, weedy-looking man – was having a bit of a hissy fit because the horses couldn’t hit their marks. Highly flustered, he came into the box. ‘You,’ he said, pointing at me. ‘You can be number one and you,’ pointing to the girl standing next to me, ‘you’re number two.’ Altogether, there were ten of us girls and we were all given our numbers.
‘Number one, come here,’ he called, and he instructed me to sit on the middle of the front bench. I could see Peter looking on at the side of the box and gestured that this was disastrous, but there was nothing I could do. We all sat there as the director, now looking extremely silly, ran up and down the field pretending to be the horses, trying to show everyone what he wanted. He galloped towards me and reached up. ‘Number one,’ he kept shouting, but with the wind and the wimple I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to do.
He jumped up and grabbed my hand, at which point I lost my footing and catapulted over the top of the box, only to be saved by a burly security guard who happened to be standing by. It was not a pretty sight – me with my dress over my head, the guard holding my legs, and meanwhile the prissy director was down below the box with a face full of bosoms, trying to get out from below me. Somehow the guard managed to yank me back up onto the box, but by that time I was definitely not the director’s favourite. Shooting me a filthy look, he gave each of us a chocolate bar.
‘This is why we are all here,’ he said, gazing at the bar as if it was the Crown Jewels.
By that time we’d been there for ages and I was starving. Without thinking, I unwrapped the chocolate bar and devoured the whole thing. As I popped the last piece into my mouth, the director – now almost frothing at the mouth – screamed, ‘Number one, STOP!’
He flew at me, grabbed the empty chocolate paper and shouted, ‘What did I say? I said not to eat the chocolate bar! What did I say?’
‘Not to eat the bar,’ I replied, bursting into tears. As I did so, the tape at the back of my head pinged. The wimple and the rest of the headdress fell forward across my face and then slid to the floor. At this, he could hardly contain himself. He leaned towards me and hissed: ‘You are no longer number one, you have been nothing but trouble: you are now number ten!’
I was led to a seat at the back as those around me glanced sympathetically in my direction. Poor girl, they probably thought, she’s lost her chance to star in this commercial. Little did they know I was thrilled and equally relieved; Peter smiled.
My final humiliation that day was when I was given a block of wood, which had been coated with brown paint as a replacement for the chocolate bar. Unbelievably, they didn’t have any spares. Throughout the shoot I had to pretend to nibble on it joyously. At least my face didn’t show in the final commercial and I got my Equity card – but I’ve never liked chocolate since.
After that, I headed off into rep, which meant staying in lodgings in whatever town I happened to be working in. One of the first places I went was Cheltenham, and Peter, who was looking after me like a mother hen, told me that he had found me some very nice digs there.
Off I went to the address he gave me, where I met the owner, his wife and two children. I was shown to an extremely pleasant if somewhat spartan bedroom with only two blankets on the bed (which was a bit of a worry for me because I always feel the cold).
I was told to come down to breakfast the next morning at eight o’clock, sharp.
‘We are quite informal so there’s no need to dress, added the man of the house.’
That was kind of him I thought, but I didn’t think it polite to go down in my dressing-gown. Before leaving me in my room, he showed me the bathroom.
‘Now, let me explain the system,’ he said. ‘You can have six inches of hot water, no more …’
‘Right!’ I gulped, trying hard to disguise my astonishment. ‘… and your days for a bath will be Tuesday and Friday,’ he continued.
As it was a Monday, I was thinking, oh God! I’ll have to wash today and look forward to a bath in six inches of water tomorrow. All this seemed very strange to me, though not so odd as what was to come.
The next morning I went down to breakfast just before eight o’clock to a cheery ‘good morning’ from my host. As I walked into the breakfast room I had the odd feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It was then I noticed that the host, his wife and two children were all sitting at the table completely naked. Except when I walked in, the host stood up and moved towards me, to direct me to the chair. Now the naked body isn’t a particularly pretty sight at the best of times, but with Coco Pops and Sugar Puffs it just isn’t right.
‘What would you like for breakfast?’ he asked. ‘Egg, bacon … and a sausage, perhaps?’
This was too much for me. I struggled to control a burst of nervous giggles as he brought over the serving dish and with his tongs picked up the most enormous sausage. I was about to say, ‘That’s too big for me,’ when I glanced down and thought better of it. It was a chilly day and my host’s manhood had shrunk to the size of a mini-chipolata. The sausage was deposited on my plate along with two fried eggs. His wife was sitting right opposite me and I couldn’t help but think her breasts and my eggs made a perfect matching foursome.
Staring at my plate, I kept my head down and tried to tuck in. I have to say I did not eat the sausage. Soon I had to give up the struggle to eat anything and, claiming I was late for work, I bowed my way out of the room, my eyes fixed on the floor as if I was a royal lackey. In a complete daze I went off to rehearsals thinking bloody hell, but when I came back they were all in the sitting room, still without any clothes.
‘Do come and join us,’ the host convivially told me. ‘We’re toasting crumpets.’
With a muffled, ‘I don’t think so,’ I disappeared into my room, leaving a very strange image in my head.
The next day I made up some tale about a long-lost relative who I’d suddenly discovered lived in Cheltenham. It wasn’t a highly plausible excuse but I had to leave – one can only take so much naked flesh with every meal, especially when it’s freezing cold!
As I made my way down the path, the parents stood at the window, waving a cheery goodbye. I often wonder if their children carried on with the same tradition after they left home. Goodness knows, but one thing’s for sure: I’ve never been able to look at a sausage in quite the same way.
Having been issued with my prized Equity card and after starting the rounds of repertory theatres, I was thrilled to land not one part but three different roles in three different episodes of the biggest series then on television: BBC1’s Z Cars.
Set in a fictional town on the outskirts of Liverpool, Z Cars was based on the police teams who patrol in cars and it went on to become a top-rated weekly programme for sixteen years. The series broke new ground and showed the police in a far more realistic light than the previous, rather gentle police drama, Dixon of Dock Green. Dozens of highly successful actors had made appearances in Z Cars, so I was extremely lucky to land these roles fresh out of drama school.
‘This job,’ Peter explained, ‘is a terrific opportunity for you.’
I was nervous, appearing alongside established stars such as the Irish actor James Ellis. He had a reputation for being a bit of a hell-raiser but I loved him: his talent was immense. Douglas Fielding was another regular, who was also very talented. I had a real crush on Doug – it was the blond hair and blue eyes that did it for me every time.
But if I thought the acting was to be my biggest challenge, I was wrong. That was fine, but what actually drove me loopy was another member of the cast. Between takes he was always chasing me around the studio, trying to pinch my bottom. There I was, just 21, fresh out of drama school and being forced to run away from this man, who clearly saw me as fair game. Sadly, the situation was often par for the course in those days. Only the other day an aged actor said to me: ‘Don’t understand young actresses these days – they get so het up if you as much as touch their bottoms. In my day the young chorus girls never batted an eyelid if I gave their titties a good old feel. Gave me a boost and they didn’t care!’
I bet they damn well did, but were much too scared to tell on the old lech. That reminds me of a voice doctor, whom we all visited when we were students. A small man, he had a unique way of healing your voice so quickly you didn’t have to miss a show. He was a miracle worker – and he knew it. The first time I went to see him was on my own. I was waiting to go into his office when the lady behind the desk asked, ‘Haven’t you got anyone with you?’ ‘No,’ I said. At this, her brow wrinkled and she mouthed, ‘Oh, dear!’ But before I could question her, out he popped.
‘Hello, my dear, come in,’ he told me, extremely dapper in his grey suit, black tie and highly polished shoes. I told him my throat was sore and that my glands felt swollen. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘let’s have a look.’ He pulled up a stool and sat directly in front of me. ‘Open wide,’ he instructed. He shone a light into my mouth. ‘OK, you need a mouthwash and I’m going to spray your throat with this.’ He reached over for a small aerosol can. ‘Close your eyes, we don’t want it getting anywhere else, do we?’ he continued. The next moment his hands were all over me, up my sweater, nearly down my trousers. I opened my eyes and leapt up.
‘Pay on your way out,’ he told me. Stunned and completely shocked, I wasn’t sure if it had happened or not. As I passed the receptionist, she could see my face. ‘Bring someone with you next time,’ she said, smiling sympathetically. From then on I took Mum with me: she thought he was a sweetheart but I knew what he really was.
Back on the Z Cars set, I was becoming completely fed up with my fellow cast member’s obsession with pinching my behind. Fortunately I was a lot younger and faster than he was, so he never did catch me. If I’d complained, it would have been me who wasn’t hired again, not him. But it seemed no one had any sympathy for my plight, even though they could all see what was happening – they all thought it was funny.
In those days not only would some of the chaps pursue us girls onset but the ‘casting couch’, as it was called, was also commonplace. It meant that sexual favours would be expected in return for a job. One of the times when I found myself subject to the unwelcome attentions of a potential employer was when a highly successful director came to talk to us at RADA. Afterwards I was delighted when he invited me to go for a meal with him.
Anyway, there we were, this mega-famous director and little me, driving towards the King’s Road, Chelsea, which was considered to be the place to go. This was at the tail end of the Swinging Sixties, the anything-goes time, when the miniskirt and thigh-length boots were all the rage and the King’s Road was the parading ground for the coolest people ever. It was such an exciting place to be, with the music of the day playing everywhere: Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’, Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tears of a Clown’ and Freda Payne’s ‘Band of Gold’.
The director steered me into a restaurant, which was all scrubbed tables and candles in Mateus Rosé bottles. He made it clear this was his treat and he did all the ordering, which was fine by me: one, I had no money, and two, this was a proper big-time director and I didn’t want to look foolish. When our food arrived, it looked like a pile of shrivelled bones covered in brown sauce. Not far off the truth, it was spare ribs, but I’d never seen them before. Also, I had no idea that the little white bowl placed next to me and containing water and lemon was for rinsing my hands in after I’d eaten them.
Anyway, I thought I’d better have a go and stuck my fork in. Rather too enthusiastically, it turned out, as it became jammed in one of the bones and slid along the plate, knocking against the others. It was like a game of skittles except all the ribs shot up into the air before landing in my lap and sliding over my knees onto the floor. Said director looked slightly miffed and muttered something uncomplimentary as he shuffled me in my sauce-stained clothes out of the restaurant.
I hadn’t planned on ending the meal by leaving prematurely, with my skirt and knees covered in sticky brown sauce and my face the colour of a tomato, but there was worse to come. He had offered to drive me home but as we walked down the street, he pointed up towards a window. ‘That’s my flat,’ he told me. ‘I can’t take you home in that state. Come in and clean yourself up.’
This seemed like a good idea – I was just so innocent. Inside, he sat me down in his very smart lounge and asked if I would like a drink. I didn’t drink alcohol in those days, so I told him that I would love a glass of lemonade or Coke.
‘Really?’ he said. ‘I’ve got something you’ll like better than that. The bathroom, by the way, is upstairs and you’ll find a dressing-gown in there if you want to take off those stained clothes.’
I should have made an excuse and left at that moment. Instead I meekly accepted a glass of lemonade. When I asked why it tasted so funny, he told me that it contained ‘a bit of Pernod’. I didn’t know what that was, but it tasted quite nice and so I had a second glass, after which I started to feel a bit strange.
‘I’d better go home,’ I hiccupped.
‘I can’t take you home in this state,’ he said, ‘but don’t worry – you can spend the night here on my very comfy sofa.’
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