Friday 22 September 2017

Enjoying the rich harvest

Olive Farm author Carol Drinkwater and her mother Phyllis love to spend time together, says Andrea Smith

Andre Smith

'MUMMY is very glamorous, and she has a better figure than me," says actress and author, Carol Drinkwater, 62. "One of the first memories I have is looking at her walking away from the bed, wearing black stockings with seams up the back, very high heels and a tight skirt with a kick in it."

And Phyllis, 86, who prefers to use her maiden name, McCormack, is indeed very glamorous when we meet at The Clarence Hotel in Dublin, trumping all of the other women present, who range anywhere from three to six decades younger.

"I said to her once that I wished I had her figure, and she said, 'Well stop drinking the wine then,'" laughs Carol. "While Mummy and I are emotionally quite similar, I think I'm less caring about my exterior than she is."

Although born in England to a British father, Carol considers herself to be Irish. Phyllis is from Laois, and now lives in Kent. She went to London at 17 during the war, to train as a nurse at St Bart's, although she would have preferred a career in fashion.

"When I left, Daddy said, 'If you get killed, don't come back,' which I thought was terribly funny," she smiles. "I met Peter Drinkwater and we got married and had two children, Carol and Linda. Carol was very good as a child, but she was a rebel sometimes, wanting to wear very short skirts and way-out clothes. We've always been great friends though."

Phyllis' late husband was a variety entertainer, working alongside people such as Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock and Tommy Cooper. It was probably no surprise that both of his daughters followed him into the business. However, while there is only 18 months between them, the actress sisters are not close.

"It's not that we don't speak, but we are completely different," says Carol. "We've tried being friends, but it always blows up."

Phyllis hoped that Carol wouldn't go into the entertainment business, because it can be very insecure. But then the reverend mother at the convent school told her that she must allow her children to do what they wanted.

"Which is funny because she told me that it would lead to drugs, drink and sex," says Carol. "Mummy wasn't pleased, and I think she underestimates her resistance to my going in that direction, possibly because my father was away from home a lot. She wanted me to be a doctor, but I can't stand the sight of blood."

Carol began acting, and landed an amazing first part playing a nurse in Stanley Kubrick's film, A Clockwork Orange. There was also the small matter of her being topless on screen, her character having been caught in a coital position.

"The rest of the audience started clapping at that part in the cinema, and Mummy turned to me and said, 'This is a disgrace'," she says. "I think she thought, 'First job out and she's already a decadent actress.'"

By the time she was 26, Carol was a household name, playing James Herriot's wife Helen in All Creatures Great and Small. A difficult time ensued after she embarked on a relationship with her screen husband, Christopher Timothy. He had already separated from his wife at that point, but Carol was called a "home-wrecker".

"We dated for two years," she says. "I don't think it would even have lasted that long, if we hadn't come back from the Caribbean to a stack of papers, in which I was accused of breaking up his marriage. This was nonsense, and I think the only place for either one of us to go was to each other."

Despite a clamouring media, the pair decided to keep a dignified silence. They remained great friends, even after they split up, much to the relief of everyone else on set.

Carol is clearly still hurt by this negative public reaction. Particularly wounding, she says, was a letter from a woman claiming to be a witch, who said she had put a curse on her and she would never have children.

"That was really hard for me to deal with, because I was 30 and at the age of wanting children," she says. "I actually didn't have children in the end, and while I don't think that's the reason, it upset me."

Phyllis thinks that it's a shame that her daughter -- who had five miscarriages -- didn't become a mother, as the two of them are so close and enjoy each other's company.

Carol is now married to Michel Noll, her French film-producer husband, whom she met in Australia when she was 34. They live on their olive farm, Appassionata, in the south of France, and Carol now has twin stepdaughters, Vanessa and Clarice.

"They were 12 then, and it was very, very difficult at first," she admits. "I love them to pieces and we're very good friends now."

While they are together 25 years, Carol and Michel separated for a while after he had a very serious accident on the same mountain where Princess Grace of Monaco was killed. It was a dark time, but they got back together, and Carol says they are closer now than they have ever been.

It was when she miscarried again while shooting a film that Carol decided to change her career to writing. Among her other work, she has achieved best-selling status with her hugely popular Olive Farm trilogy.

Her new book, Return To The Olive Farm, documents the 16 months she spent travelling around the Mediterranean researching the ancient secrets of the olive groves. Written with warmth, humour and passion, it tells of Carol and Michel's struggle with the unavoidable disappointments and responsibilities that come with running an organic farm. It also looks at the plight of the honeybee, which has become an international crisis.

One of the things that Carol loves to do these days is spend time with Phyllis, at the cottage the author bought three years ago near Birr in Co Offaly. From here, they catch up with relatives, explore nature, and enjoy each other's company.

"I'm hugely fortunate in my life, and I'm a great believer in celebrating what you've got, rather than mourning what you don't have," says Carol. "I'm enormously happy."

Carol Drinkwater's new book, Return to the Olive Farm, is out now. Weidenfeld & Nicolson (€17.05)

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