Wednesday 20 February 2019

'I'm a very resilient person' - Fern Britton on MeToo, the gender pay gap and her role in Calendar Girls

Having come through her father's departure, schoolyard bullies and her mother's illness as a child, Fern Britton was more than equipped to deal with the pressures of life in the spotlight. Here, the TV presenter and author talks candidly to Regina Lavelle about MeToo, gender pay gaps, and how Gary Barlow persuaded her to take a role in Calendar Girls The Musical

Fern Britton plays Marie in the touring production of Calendar Girls, which runs from January 22 to February 2 in Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Photo: Robin Jones, The Digital South
Fern Britton plays Marie in the touring production of Calendar Girls, which runs from January 22 to February 2 in Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Photo: Robin Jones, The Digital South

It takes a considerable degree of chutzpah to walk away from a juggernaut to forge ahead on your own. When that juggernaut is a TV show amongst Britain's most influential, most people would argue such a move defies logic. But then Fern Britton isn't most people. Since leaving This Morning 10 years ago she has been a TV presenter/journalist/writer and now actor, in her role as Marie, the Calendar Girl who keeps her kit on.

When we speak she is in the middle of the Southampton run of the new musical incarnation of the story - which comes to Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre this week - and has delivered her eighth novel for HarperCollins, all in addition to TV commitments. The 61-year-old mother of four - twins Jack and Harry (24), Grace (20), and Winnie (17) - who has been married to This Morning chef Phil Vickery since 2001, says she is finding being away from family difficult. "I get very homesick, so thank God for Facetime, but sometimes too much communication with the family can upset me a bit more."

Honest almost to a fault, unusually, for someone of her profile, she is generous with her time and refreshingly candid. She says she wrote her very well received 2008 autobiography, Fern: My Story, "because if I'm honest, it was a lot of money and I had four children to get through university. Then the novels, similarly really - it's lovely to have a bit of extra income that's for sure - it's for my family, it's for my kids, that's it."

When I ask about Brexit she says, "I'm a Remainer", matter-of-factly.

Hers is an indomitable career - she remarks that next year will be her 40th in television. She was the BBC's youngest ever national news presenter, she's done GMTV, Ready, Steady, Cook, and an interview series, Fern Britton Meets.

With the recent focus on pay inequality and sexism in the industry, her viewpoint is particularly apposite. Perhaps it's her outspoken nature - and the fact she no longer needed the paycheck - but Fern was talking about the inequalities long before MeToo. "I didn't see any sexism early on," she says. "Or if I did I probably ignored it because it was accepted. But then later, when I moved shows I had this welcome lunch and this [more senior man] was sitting next to me. He was having a drag on his fag and said, 'Well I wonder how long it will be before I'm having an affair with you. Because I do have a very big c**k.' I went home and told my mother, and we both said, 'Oh god - men.'"

Not that, she believes, such behaviour died out quickly. "Subsequently I have heard of a boss sitting in a meeting casting a show and he had a man and he needed a woman. He said to the guys around the table, 'Who shall we get for the boys to look at?' What? That was only 10 years ago."

But as she says, those days seem quite innocent compared to today's febrile atmosphere, where women's bodies are the battleground over which the culture wars rage. "I have two very beautiful daughters and they are getting wolf whistled and it scares me. And I don't want to go, 'Oh in my day…' but then you would get a wolf whistle and somehow it wasn't dangerous, but nowadays it is different, because men know that it really isn't acceptable, there feels a bit more of an edge.

"My daughters are very beautiful, I think, and they do wear very skimpy clothes at times going to parties, going out - and why shouldn't they? But there's also a part of me as a mother going, 'But darling there's a point at which you have to take responsibility for yourself.' Then they say, 'But I wouldn't have to if men weren't doing this.'

"You want to be attractive, of course you do. When you're in your teens, your 20s, your 30s, your 40s, of course you want to be attractive, but that doesn't mean you want to have sex with everybody."

It must be difficult when the entertainment industry increasingly seems to require model looks alongside your CV and showreel. "When I started in 1980, I was employed because I could do the job. And because I can build a relationship with the viewers because I am genuinely interested in them. It wasn't because I was beautiful. It wasn't because I had a size 10 waist, it wasn't because I was anything. I just was… me."

Perhaps she would have been different had her life continued in its initial privileged trajectory, but fate intervened. Her mother was not long out of the army, where she had been a sergeant on anti-aircraft artillery duty during World War Two, when, at 24, she married Tony Britton, Fern's father, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "Then he got a five-year film contract and she became a film star's wife. But at the same time, unfortunately, their marriage was collapsing."

Their marriage was over before Fern was born. "He had left before I was even conceived but he came home to visit my sister, [Cherry] whom he adored. And, as actors sometimes do, he jumped into bed with my mother and I was on the way. And they were not together. My father only told me that about five years ago. I don't blame anybody - that happens."

The family had been living in Gerrards Cross, named in 2014 as England's most expensive commuter town, chosen for its proximity to Pinewood and Denham film studios and to the BBC. Theirs was a "rather large white stucco, 1920s, many-bedroomed house and a big garden" and Fern had been enrolled in a school which "had a lot of actors and showbiz children in it and was rather showbizzy and I didn't know it." When her father left, so did the school fees and she moved to the village school where the other children thought her American because of her strange accent. "For a little while I was treated as a little bit of a figure of fun, but I'm a resilient person and I just bumbled along."

She remembers her parents' final break-up in almost technicolour detail, particularly their leaving of Gerrards Cross. "I remember the house being empty one day. I came home from school and there was nothing in it. It had all gone. My grandmother, my mother, my sister and I slept in one room, on two single mattresses on the floor." I ask why the house had been emptied and she says she's not sure but there may have been a debt issue.

"I woke up for school the next morning and my mother said, 'When you come home, we're going to be in a new house,' which sounded quite exciting. She must have been 37. I left school and was driven to a tiny little 1960s, brand new three-bedroom, semi-detached house, this little box."

Shortly after, their mother suffered a stroke. Or so they believed at the time. "We always thought it was a stroke, but as I grew up and asked the doctor he said, no, it was an emotional breakdown. She had sort of lost the use of her body for a while and I would feed her. Gradually, the movement came back into her hands and she would start knitting and she would knit me lots of blankets for my teddies and dollies. My sister, she had to hold my family together, she was running the house."

After school Fern worked as a stage manager for The Cambridge Theatre Company, so she says she relishes her recent return to the boards. It was Gary Barlow (Take That star and Calendar Girls The Musical's creative director) who seems to have pushed for her, and she admits that twice she told her agents she wasn't interested until Barlow summoned her for tea - only the English could make tea intimidating - and when she arrived she was greeted by an ambush of Barlow, writer and lyricist Tim Frith, producer, director and the script. "I'm glad that fate did ambush me, because I'm having a ball. It's been such fun."

I ask if there's a gig that would tempt her back to TV. She thinks for a moment. "I would love to do an interview show but slightly differently, not like Louis Theroux because he's fabulous, but I would like to be on location talking to people. Even if it's on the radio, I'd love to do that."

With this in mind I ask her about gender and pay - she is at pains to emphasise that she did not leave This Morning because of inequality. "The story that I left because I wasn't being paid enough was not true. I had no idea what Philip was being paid but I know I was being paid very well so I was happy. However, the whole gender pay issue is clearly something that needs airing.

"It's very uncomfortable to have your wages published. I think the BBC made a mistake of cutting the men's wages and pushing the girls' up. That was not right. I think they should have just pushed the girls up to where the men's were."

When she finishes her run at Easter, she says she's taking a break, but one hopes she makes a return to primetime. Hers is the kind of pragmatic empowerment we need more of.

'Calendar Girls The Musical' runs from January 22 to February 2. To book, see bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

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