Fern Britton: a new book and a new chapter in her life
PUBLISHED: 09:39 18 June 2020 | UPDATED: 10:27 18 June 2020
Fern Britton has finally fulfilled her dream of living back in Cornwall, alongside her new book Daughters of Cornwall she is enjoying a new chapter in her life
A read of TV presenter and best-selling author Fern Britton’s CV will leave you breathless. There’s a stint in theatre management, more than a decade in a newsroom, followed by many, many programmes encompassing a 30-year TV career that includes a stint on Strictly and the hit stage production of Calendar Girls.
Her latest novel Daughters of Cornwall traverses more than a century of Cornish history – revolving around her own family’s history, discovered by chance and still remaining partly shrouded in mystery. “It’s about 70 per cent truth and the rest of it is fiction,” she says of the book first inspired by a letter written to her 40 years ago.
“When I first came down to work for Westward Television in 1980 I had a letter from a man who had been on holiday down her and he wrote to me saying I wonder if you are related to Ruth Britton (my mother) and Tony Britton (my father) because I think I know her.”
An exchange of letters followed and it soon became evident that he was her mother’s brother. “He sent me photographs of him and my grandmother on a beach when he was a toddler and he had letters in her handwriting to his new foster mother because she had to arrange a private fostering.
“She obviously never wanted to give him away and never wanted to let him go. But it was just about the end of the First World War, so it was difficult to be a single pregnant woman. She covered her tracks very, very well. We have no idea who his father is. But she went on to marry a man who had just come out of the army whose brother had died in the First World War. It’s possible that the brother who died was her lover and the father of her little boy, but we don’t know. So I have entirely fictionalised that - but the rest of it is quite similar to my family story.
“My grandmother died without ever reconciling with him. There was one moment when they met just after the Second World War when he found her and went to see her at her house and as soon as she saw him she slammed the door and told him to go away. She never told anybody and he never told anybody.”
He died 20 years ago. And she has now lost that generation of her family which has left many questions unanswered, but it also has allowed her to write the story without fear or upsetting anyone - particularly her grandmother. “I want her to know that she hasn’t been wicked, she hasn’t been evil and that she was a goddess to cope with it all.”
Her research into her own family story, has left her much to reflect on her own life story. “I’ve got to an age where I’ve got a lot to look back on,” says the 62-year-old. “If you think of it as a map and a timeline there are certainly red flags moments: when I got my place at drama school [the Central School of Speech and Drama in London] coming out of the tube and looking down Eton Avenue where the school was and thinking ‘oh my god, I am at drama school!’ That was just wonderful.
“I’d just come from school and A levels and had great fun with funny, hilarious talented people, Carrie Fisher was in my acting course, but she left before she finished because she got a job on a little film called Star Wars.”
Fern went on to work for the Cambridge Theatre Company and toured the country before settling in Cambridge as the company’s marketing director. “I went to live in Cambridge which meant I was there, the same age as the students and I met up with all the people in the Footlights. Huge Laurie played the piano for me while I sang in something and, bless his heart, he never forgets. I was there when all sorts of brilliant people where there, so I was very lucky.
“Then I got into television and thought ‘Oh my God I got the job!’. When you are in your twenties everything is like who-ho!”
Fern did a 14-year apprenticeship in the TV newsroom before moving on to front an array of hit television shows, starting with Ready Steady Cook in 1994, and including anchoring This Morning alongside Phillip Schofield for a decade. “All of it has been exciting and all of it has had moments of utter pain and horror because that’s the way it goes.”
Fern’s books regularly make it on to The Sunday Times bestseller list; so after eight books in as many years does she have a favourite? “I like this one a lot and I hope other people do,” she says. “I never have time to go back and read any of them again, which would be an interesting thing for me to do a project for me to do in my dotage. I’m recording the audiobook for Daughters of Cornwall and thought I could listen to one of the past books. And so very egotistically I ordered one of my own books (The Holiday Home) and have been listening to that. It’s quite good and I’d forgotten.”
While not finding time to peruse her own back catalogue, she is a ferocious reader, who has piles of books waiting to be read. “At the moment I am reading Come Again by Robert Webb and its very funny and very good. Another good one is Tracy Chevalier’s A Single Thread and I’ve got The Other Bennet Sister.”
She moved to Cornwall full time in June. Since her move there has been the highly publicised split from husband of 20 years, chef Phil Vickery, and the death of her father, the actor Tony Britton, at Christmas. But the future is looking bright for Fern. “l’ve been dreaming about being here,” she says of Cornwall. “To be finally living here again. I sold my very first house that I bought in Cornwall in 1985 and here I am at last again full time. I’ve made some really nice friends.”
She has spent lockdown with her daughters. “They came down with me last summer and now they are stuck. We are all alpha women, but we are doing very well together.”
There’s a saying that the harder you work the luckier you get. And Fern is living proof - although she does put some of her success down to luck. “I’ve been very lucky; that’s something to be grateful for.”
“Sennen Cove – I even called one of my characters Sennen after it.”
Favourite places to eat
“Obviously I do like occasionally to go out to the really swish ones and I do love No 6 in Padstow and I do love Rick Stein.
“I really like beachy places. Anywhere by the beach will suit me. I love fish and chips and I actively love eating outside. So I would do fish and chips almost anywhere, and also Barnecutt’s pasties are the best– their Christmas pasty in particular is great: they put cranberry jelly and stuffing in and all sorts of things. It’s yummy.”
“I like Looe to Polperro or back again. That’s glorious. I grew up on that part of the coast in terms of holidays. And we always used to stay in Looe and go to Polperro. They used to run speed boats some evenings when the tide was right. On summer’s evenings you get in the back of a speedboat and it would take you to Polperro and then pick you up at the right moment of the tide and take you back again. I thought I was in heaven. That was magical. In fact I’ve said to my children when I die, I want to be taken for my last trip on the back of a speedboat and either my ashes or my coffin, covered in fairy lights at night, tossed over the side.”
Daughters of Cornwall, is out now in hardback, £12.99