Tuesday 21 November 2017

Mum's wish list gets a new lease of life

The sad story of a woman leaving 100 things for her family to do after she died, is now a powerful film

Ross McCormack and Sophie Simnett as the teenage Singe and Kate in 'Mum's List'
Ross McCormack and Sophie Simnett as the teenage Singe and Kate in 'Mum's List'
Kate, Finn, Singe and Reef Greene - the family at the centre of the film
William and Matthew Stagg, Emilia Fox and Rafe Spall as the Greene family in the film due for release on Friday

Anne Marie Scanlon

In many ways St John "Singe" Greene has led a charmed life. At 19 he met and fell in love with his future wife Kate, who was then 14. The couple spent 10 years together travelling the globe and having adventures before getting married and settling down with their two sons.

Skip forward another 10 years and Singe "an unknown, from a little tiny town in North Somerset", as he describes himself is the best-selling author of Mum's List, which came out in 2012.

The film adaptation, starring Rafe Spall and Emilia Fox, opens this week in cinemas.

Singe, as he prefers to be called, is still trying to take it all in. "I was rubbish at English in school," the author tells me. "I was told I should stick to maths and now I have a book that's been translated into 22 different languages!" Singe laughs before continuing: "Mum's List is a phenomenon that took everyone by surprise."

Kate, Finn, Singe and Reef Greene - the family at the centre of the film
Kate, Finn, Singe and Reef Greene - the family at the centre of the film

Both the book and the film detail the time in Singe's life when his luck ran out. When his eldest son Reef (so named because he was conceived in Tenerife) was 18 months old he was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer and given only a 6pc chance of surviving. His wife Kate was so shocked when hearing this awful news that she gave birth to their second son Finn seven weeks early. For a few weeks after Finn's birth the couple had two babies in two different hospitals at either ends of Bristol. (There's a scene in the film where Singe talks about his eldest son's cancer and for those of us lucky enough to have no experience of paediatric cancer it's shocking.)

Singe is a lively and funny storyteller but when he recalls watching the New Year fireworks from the stairwell of Reef's hospital, he becomes audibly sad.

Finn had been released from hospital and the four of them were in the stairwell welcoming in the New Year. "Kate and I looked at each other," Singe tells me, "and said if only we could swap places. We didn't realise someone was listening". In less than a year Kate was diagnosed with breast cancer.

While Reef beat the odds and survived, Kate was not so lucky and died in 2010. When she realised she wasn't going to be around for her small sons she compiled a list of 100 things for the family to do so she could continue to be a part of their lives after she had gone. The list was published as part as Kate's obituary in the family's local paper, and from there Singe was contacted to ask if he would think about turning their story into a book.

Initially, Singe was driven by the fact that his boys were so young (five and six) when their mother died. "Kate was an amazing woman, an amazing partner and an amazing mum and they wouldn't remember that," he tells me. "That was really sad and also my history with Kate was a lot older than theirs and if anything happened to me then they'd have lost all of that as well."

Working with writer Rachel Murphy, Mum's List took a year to write. Singe was happy that he had done what he'd set out to achieve. "I thought," he tells me in his distinctive West Country accent, "that's really cool. The boys will have a book to remind them of their mum".

William and Matthew Stagg, Emilia Fox and Rafe Spall as the Greene family in the film due for release on Friday
William and Matthew Stagg, Emilia Fox and Rafe Spall as the Greene family in the film due for release on Friday

What happened next took both Singe and Murphy by surprise. There was so much interest in the book that it was eventually sold to a publisher after a hotly-contested auction.

As Singe tells me how the book rapidly climbed the best-seller list you can hear the incredulity in his voice. "It went to number one," he says, before adding, "when I say that, even now, I have a giggle, I can't believe it."

During our conversation the writer uses the word "surreal" a lot. Seeing his life on screen was "surreal", going to New York to give a talk to a room of 400 people and get a standing ovation "surreal", having Rafe Spall ("I mean he's Rafe Spall!) call him at home on a Sunday afternoon is "surreal". He cannot get over the fact that Jamie Dornan ("the 50 Shades guy!") is tweeting about the film and has said he's going to buy the book.

Both Spall and Fox give extraordinary performances as the couple. This isn't just a weepie it's a full two-packet of tissues tsunami of tears. I blubbed from the start and didn't stop (and, honestly, I don't blub easily) and tell Singe that I can't imagine how he felt watching this very painful part of his life on screen in front of him. He tells me that he did cry seeing the film for the first time but praises both leads for their interpretation of him and his late wife. Then he goes on to tell me about meeting Emilia Fox in his local to give her information about Kate. "It was an emotional chat," he tells me. "One of my mates was at the bar and I'm sitting with Emilia and one minute we're bawling, then we're laughing, we're trying to eat but can't. After a couple of hours, she gives me a big hug and disappears out the door. My mate comes over from the bar and says 'you breaking up with her?'" We both roar laughing.

One of the items on Kate's list was that Singe should find love again, and the final scene in the film shows him setting out on a date. So, has he? "I'm completely in love again," he tells me happily. His girlfriend, Lindsay, actually went to see the film with him. I remark that surely it must be intimidating for her watching what is essentially a love letter to his late wife. "She is so supportive of everything," he replies. "I am very lucky in love. I've always punched way above my weight," he continues laughing. "Lindsay knows how much I love Kate but I've moved on because I had to."

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s will enjoy the flashbacks to Singe and Kate's courtship. They met at a roller-disco where he was the supervisor. He laughingly tells me that at that time in his life he was a "nightmare". "I had a big leather jacket, a big motorbike and a big attitude." I suspect he was also extremely charming because he certainly is now.

"I've always been Mr Positive," he tells me before adding "it got worse before it got better. The book helped."

His two boys have yet to see the film. "They're the most grounded kids ever," Singe says, "but we don't need to rush everything."

As our conversation ends he's still marvelling over how his wife's list became a bestseller and a film. What would she think, I ask? "She might be a bit embarrassed," he confesses, "but she'd be so proud."

Mum's List is in cinemas from Friday.

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