Thursday 25 December 2014

A tear in Provence

Peter Stanford

Published 15/11/2008 | 00:00

As winter sets in, with the added chill of an economic recession to weather this year, a place in the sun has never sounded more attractive. Somewhere like Appassionata, the abandoned Provençal olive farm that bestselling author and actress, Carol Drinkwater, rescued from ruin 20 years ago with her French film producer husband, Michel Noll, and has nurtured lovingly back into health as their home.

All three -- Carol, Michel and the house -- have become famous thanks to her hugely successful Olive Farm trilogy of books, describing the ups and downs of life under blue skies with a terrace that looks directly over the Med.

Why would anyone ever want to come back? But that is precisely what Drinkwater -- known to a whole generation of early 1980s TV viewers as the sexy but down-to-earth Helen Herriot in the long-running BBC vets' series, All Creatures Great and Small -- seems to have done. For she has become an Irish passport holder and set up home in a gatekeeper's cottage on a Georgian estate, on the border of Offaly, Laois and Tipperary.

"Three years ago, I decided that I wanted to get back in touch with my Irish roots," Carol explains. "I think living a life in another language for so long had made the desire to really discover the poetry and beauty of the Irish word extremely important to me.

"And so I was travelling around Ireland with my mother, who is now 84, when we took the wrong motorway. I thought we were heading for Clare, but we weren't. We ended up staying the night in a small town, where I happened to look in an estate agents' window, and..." she raises her hands to signify that fate took a part, "...my house turns out to be just 20 minutes from where my mother was born and the farm where I grew up when I wasn't at school."

Drinkwater turned 60 earlier this year, but you would never guess. She retains a natural glamour and the curvy figure that once managed to make even Helen Herriot's tweed skirts and muddy wellies look racy. Heads turn as she walks into the fashionable bar where we meet. And then there is her Côte d'Azur tan, so out of place on a crisp and cold morning. Surely the Atlantic rain and wind should have dulled the glow of the Mediterranean by now? She laughs. "The olive farm remains a constant in my life," she explains. "I could never leave it, but now I spend about three months each year in Ireland."

It is about more than a holiday home, though, or simply getting back to her roots and meeting long-lost cousins in the next village. There is a practical reason for Drinkwater coming back to Ireland: she is researching what she enigmatically describes as "a big Irish project" -- a novel for young adults, which is to be set here. As well as her best-known writings about the olive farm, she has also successfully made a name for herself with books for teenagers, including a first novel, The Haunted School, made into a television mini-series in Australia, and The Hunger in 2001, the fictional diary of 14-year-old Phyllis McCormack about living through the Irish potato famine.

But why the Irish passport when she is only here for a quarter of each year? Though her mother was Irish, Drinkwater was born in Britain. "It started with the Iraq War," she recalls, "which I oppose, and with feeling, as a consequence, uneasy when travelling with my British passport. So I had been thinking about applying to be an Irish citizen. And then, for this latest book, I was going to countries such as Algeria for research, where a British passport was simply not advisable."

Drinkwater has followed up her Olive Farm trilogy by making a journey around the shores of the Mediterranean to trace the history of the olive tree. The second instalment of her travels, The Olive Tree, is published this month, and takes her through Spain and into Algeria, where her arrival coincided with an al-Qaeda suicide bomber who killed 17 bystanders. Again, I marvel at her willingness to leave her 10 acres of Provençal heaven.

"Well, I do like a sense of danger," she concedes. "I'm not the same as sensible, stay-at-home Helen Herriot. And you see such fascinating things. There are two olive groves in Lebanon that I write about that are more than 6,000 years old, and are still producing fruit. That means they are 4,000 years older than Christianity itself. If they could speak, what would they tell us?"

But does her sense of danger stretch to risking her life? "I was frightened," she admits. "When I arrived, the bomb meant there was no mobile phone signal and Michel, who had heard the news about the explosion, was desperately trying to get through to me. The last thing he'd said was 'don't take any unnecessary risks'. For a while, I think he considered flying out to rescue me."

However, she survived the experience, looked after by a group of Algerian beekeepers who had got into contact with her because of the hives she keeps on her farm. "And," she adds, "a lovely large, black cashmere scarf, which I wrapped round my head in all sorts of variations -- though by the time I got to Algeria, I had given up going to mosques. The force of religion, the struggle it has caused and the misery all began to weigh too heavily on me when I went inside one."

It is Drinkwater's ability to engage and empathise with those she encounters -- whether on her farm or on her travels -- that makes her such a popular writer. And her willingness, in return for them opening up to her, to expose herself. Her Olive Farm books give a warts-and-all account of life at Appassionata that reveals the financial struggle it is to keep the place going (at one stage they had a stg£2 million debt), her heartbreaking struggle to have a child after five miscarriages, and the road accident -- on the same south of France hillside that killed Grace Kelly -- which left Michel all but dead and led, for a period while he recuperated, to the couple separating.

Does she ever regret her candour in print? Drinkwater pauses elegantly to think. "Everything I write is still filtered. It's not raw, so I am always making choices about what I tell, but I'd rather be the one writing about it than have others do it for me. I know that feeling all too well."

At the height of the popularity of All Creatures Great and Small -- which brought Drinkwater the Variety Club Television Personality of the Year award in 1985 -- her real-life relationship with her on-screen husband, actor Christopher Timothy, was big news. The headline writers revelled in the contrast between her girl-next-door image on-screen and the accusations that were being made against her conduct in private. "I was painted as the scarlet woman, the marriage breaker -- even though his marriage had ended before anything happened between us. People would spit at me in the street and I got hate mail."

The trauma of going from national treasure to pariah in an instant is still there in her voice as she speaks. It was part of the reason why she escaped from Britain to France in the first place, a move that was to cost her what had, until then, been a glittering career as an actress. Her first professional role, fresh out of drama school, was two lines, topless, in Stanley Kubrick's controversial 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange. Then she played alongside Lawrence Olivier at the National Theatre, before television took her up.

For a while, Drinkwater managed to balance life on the olive farm with acting. In 1990 she won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her role as Max Von Sydow's daughter in Father, but gradually, as her fame as a writer grew, the offers stopped coming in. "Yes, I miss it, and I can't imagine not doing it again. I'm hoping for a late career renaissance, like Judi Dench," she jokes. "Michel tells me I should think of doing a one-woman show, based on the books. Perhaps one day I will."

There are so many positives in her life now that she does not come across as a woman with regrets. "You make choices. You act on impulse. That closes down some avenues, but then others open up," she says. After the Irish book, she is signed up to write a trilogy of novels set on the Côte d'Azur. And after its stresses and strains, her marriage to Michel remains strong. He met and proposed to her within 24 hours on the set of a film in Australia 20 years ago, just as she was emerging from the whole Christopher Timothy saga.

The couple had, as Drinkwater recounts in unflinching detail in her trilogy, hoped to start a family to add to Michel's twin daughters by an earlier marriage. Her final pregnancy went to 17 weeks before she miscarried. The pain remains with her always, even though the farm, she says, has in some ways become the baby she never had. "You are constantly coming up against it at different stages in your life," she confides. "We are part of a scheme where young people from around the world come to work on organic farms like ours. Recently, we had a young American staying with us for four months. He was 25 and we all got on very well. I couldn't help but think that he was of an age where he could have been my son. When it came time for him to leave, I found it very hard. But I'm lucky; I can talk to my husband about it and share those feelings. He's a fantastic listener ... "

Her voice trails off. There are tears in her green eyes. I once shared a platform with Drinkwater at a literary festival and will never forget the honest but never self-indulgent way she spoke to the audience that night about not being able to have children, a subject that remains taboo in our society. And the comfort that her words gave to some in the crowd who came to have a quiet word with her later.

"I suppose it brings us back to my Catholicism," she remarks when I remind her of that evening. "It has taught me to celebrate what I have got, not to moan about what I haven't. I have been enormously privileged in so many ways, and my Catholicism has taught me to embrace that with optimism."

She subtly wipes away the tears and starts again on a positive note. "It must indicate I've reached a stage in life," she says at her own expense, "when instead of wanting to have an affair with young men, I want to mother them!"

The Olive Tree, by Carol Drinkwater, was published on October 16 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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