Gyles Brandreth: related to notorious Jeremiah?

THE ONE SHOWHe’s the amiable reporter on The One Show, the erudite contributor in Dictionary Corner on Countdown, one of Britain’s busiest after-dinner speakers, a successful writer and a former MP. But could president of the Oscar Wilde Society, founder of the Teddy Bear Museum and knitwear style icon Gyles Brandreth also be related to Jeremiah Brandreth, one of Britain’s most notorious criminals who was beheaded for treason?

Gyles thinks it is a possibility: “Some people say Jeremiah was born at Wilford in Nottingham but I believe he was born in London. A Jeremiah Brandreth was baptised at St Andrews Holborn at the right time.

“One of our forebears is also a Brandreth and was married at the same church. So it seems a bit unlikely that they’re not kinsmen.”

This connection with London might go some way towards explaining why Jeremiah and other defendants who led the Pentrich Rising 200 years ago were able to secure a prominent lawyer to defend them: Thomas Denman who later became Lord Chief Justice.

“Jeremiah was known in his day as the Hopeless Radical,” says Gyles. “It seems to me that he was taken advantage of and set up. He jointly led this rebellion which resulted in his capture and execution.

“I get the impression that he was a person of good heart, great spirit and with worthy intentions. But he was naïve as a revolutionary.

“I’m interested in him because he’s become this folkloric figure – the last person to be beheaded for treason. The fact that he was only beheaded was a concession – he was due to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

“His heart was in the right place: he was concerned with the loss of work because of the industrial revolution. He didn’t kill anyone, so I feel he was hard done by. I’ve always felt sympathy for him.”

Three years ago Gyles was in Derby and was told it is likely that Jeremiah was buried next to the redundant Anglican church St Werburgh’s on Friargate.

“Jeremiah fought for the workers for what he believed in and paid a very heavy price.”

“There’s scrubland round the side of the church. It wouldn’t be difficult to get some volunteers to restore this bit of land and erect a memorial of some kind – not taking sides but just telling his story.”

According to the Nottingham Hidden History website, “the whole labour movement owes much to a man like Brandreth yet today he is virtually unknown.” Gyles is saddened by this.

“It’s an important part of our history. Jeremiah fought for the workers for what he believed in and paid a very heavy price. There’s no question that he and his fellow conspirators were over-ambitious.

“For The One Show I made a film and went to Pentrich, walking from the White Horse pub (where the uprising started). I could see just from being there what a hopeless cause it was – a group of men getting together without proper weapons, marching on to Nottingham with the hope of getting to London. It was a hopeless cause but it’s a fascinating story.

“He was in the spinning business – he worked hand looms. At his trial the jurors included Richard Arkwright, the spinning industrialist (the son of the inventor of the spinning frame) who was one of the key people who made life so tough for hand loom stockingers who traditionally worked from home.

Gyles brandreth car“I don’t know how fair the trial was if there were people like Arkwright on the jury.

“I’ve touched the board on which Jeremiah was executed that’s kept in Derby museum. He was one of those who did indeed try to lead the last revolution and should have a more permanent place in the consciousness of those interested in our history. I’d love to see his story told properly.”

Jeremiah is not Gyles’s only famous relative although he was the most notorious.

“I have other interesting forebears. One was Dr Benjamin Brandreth, a Victorian who left England in the 1830s for America and ended up making a fortune with Brandreth pills. He’s my great-great-great grandfather so he’s a direct relation.

“I’m also related to George R Sims who wrote It Is Christmas Day In The Workhouse, a famous ballad in Victorian times, and who was claimed to be the first journalist to identify Jack the Ripper.”

Gyles Daubeney Brandreth was born on 8 March 1948 in Wuppertal, Germany where his father Charles was serving as a legal officer. He moved with his parents to London when he was aged three.

He studied at New College, Oxford and was president of the Oxford Union in 1970. While there he began to write, having his first column published in Honey, a monthly magazine for young women.

Since then he has been a columnist for Woman, Woman’s Own and TV Times. He has contributed to magazines as varied as the New Statesman, the Spectator and Dogs Today. He has written for every national newspaper in Britain and for five years he was editor-at-large of the Sunday Telegraph Review.

He is perhaps best known as an MP. He was elected as Conservative MP for the City of Chester in 1992 but lost his seat five years later “on the day that the Tories were unceremoniously swept out of office and we saw the arrival of Tony Blair’s new dawn”.

“I felt satisfied and fulfilled and I still take pride in my small parliamentary achievements.”

Whereas Jeremiah was known as the Hopeless Radical, Gyles referred to himself while he was an MP as the Hopeful Radical.

Gyles felt “wholly at home” in the Palace of Westminster but he expected not to be re-elected. His wife, writer and publisher Michele Brown, was so certain of the result that she put their house in the constituency up for sale during the election campaign!

He loved being an MP: “I felt satisfied and fulfilled and I still take pride in my small parliamentary achievements. My 1994 Marriage Act is the legislation that enables civil weddings to take place in venues other than register offices. I’m the chap who spotted the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square and initiated the project that brings interesting art to our capital’s most noted public space.

“To be candid, my defeat came as something of a release. I was 49 and suddenly I had a life before me. ‘Cry freedom!’ is what I wrote in my diary at the beginning of May 1997.”

On leaving Westminster Gyles says he was blessed to be able to return to his old life as a freelance journalist and broadcaster. Apart from that, he had always wanted to appear in a musical and Michele encouraged him to go for it.

Gyles with Sir Roger Moore

Gyles with Sir Roger Moore

The result was Zipp!, a musical review. “We rattled through 100 musicals in 100 minutes. We gave the audience the complete works of Andrew Lloyd Webber in 90 seconds – and amazingly won awards and five-star reviews for our efforts. We toured the UK with the show and did a season at the Duchess Theatre in London.”

When he was a teenager Gyles started collecting teddy bears. Later he and Michele founded the Teddy Bear Museum which since last year has been located at Newby Hall, Yorkshire. It contains more than 1,000 teddies including Fozzie from The Muppet Show, Children in Need’s Pudsey and Winnie the Pooh.

Just after The One Show started, a crew was filming an auction at which Gyles was selling some of his teddy bears. He talked about his passion which led to the programme asking him to make a film on another subject. Ten years later he is still reporting for the show.

One of his reports was about the James Bond films and their stunts. This led to his appearing in a spoof which is featured on his website.

“The best part of making the film was meeting Sir Roger Moore.  He taught me how to raise my eyebrow.”

Gyles and Michele who live in Barnes, south west London, have three grown-up children: Benet, a barrister and authority on Shakespeare; Saethryd, an author and journalist; and Aphra, a government economist.

Gyles, Benet and Benet’s wife, American actress Kosha Engler, will be getting together shortly to act in a slimmed down version of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy Hamlet which features just the three of them.

Gyles, his son Benet and Benet's wife Kosha Engler who will be appearing together in Shakespeare's Hamlet

Gyles, his son Benet and Benet’s wife Kosha Engler who will be appearing together in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

“I thought Benet who’s the rhetoric coach for the Royal Shakespeare Company should play Hamlet. My daughter-in-law is playing Gertrude and Ophelia. I’m playing old Hamlet the ghost, Claudius and Polonius. I think my spell in politics will prove useful in trying to understand what those characters are all about.

“It’s a family drama and what makes our production different is that we are one family appearing in it.”

Hamlet will be staged at London’s Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, from 22 August until 16 September.

Gyles has done so many things in his career but what does he enjoy doing best?

“Whatever I’m doing at the time. I like variety. One day I’m sitting quietly at my desk working on a novel – Jack the Ripper Case Closed is my latest – the next I’m on a plane to Belfast to film a report for The One Show. Doing different things is what makes me happiest.”

So what does the future hold for Gyles: more acting? “If the right part comes along, oh yes!” Any ambition he’d like to achieve? “There are too many to mention.”

Gyles will undoubtedly continue to be a regular on television and radio. And the man who wrote the book The 7 Secrets of Happiness surely knows how to make millions of people happy through his work.

* This article appeared in the June 2017 issue of Country Images magazine

Steve Hackett: from Genesis to guitar legend

The multi-talented Steve Hackett (picture Tina Kohonen)

The multi-talented Steve Hackett (picture: Tina Kohonen)

The phone rings just before 9am. Former Genesis guitarist and rock legend Steve Hackett is on the line to talk about his new album and his gig at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. He sounds lively and alert despite the relatively early hour; it’s not exactly what you expect from a rock ‘n’ roller.

Steve agrees that he is the antithesis of what most people think of when you mention the phrase “rock star”.

“I’ve been up since half six,” he points out. “I’ve completely reversed my hours from those I kept in my early 20s, that’s for sure.

“I don’t think I’ve embraced the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for quite some time. It’s a young man’s game, partying all night. It’s all gone now – I like early nights if I can. I like to go to bed with a book.”

One of the reasons for that could be that Steve and his wife Jo look after his business affairs; he does not have a manager, preferring to keep it all in-house. It means he is incredibly busy.

“The days are filled with all sorts of things that have to be addressed – not just music but business things. People assume you have all that taken care of but in fact the only way to make sure that everything stays solvent is to be hands-on. Jo works very hard at doing that. We’re a kind of mutual support team for each other.

“Of course I spend a lot of time writing, recording and touring which takes up a lot of our lives, particularly this year, travelling to more places further afield than usual. There’s a lot going on.”

It’s 40 years since Steve left Genesis, just after the band released their Wind And Wuthering album. He is playing some of the tracks from that LP on his current tour.

“It was an album I felt very comfortable with and I liked very much. It had probably more social comment on it than Genesis normally addressed. But I knew that I had to work on my own so I left the band.

“I’m very proud of the material that we did together. But having a parallel solo career wasn’t on offer at that time. And rather than constantly fall foul of band politics I decided it would be more constructive to go and work with some other extraordinarily talented people, which I did.”

Steve's latest album The Night Siren

              Steve’s latest album The Night Siren

That has led to Steve releasing 25 solo studio albums including his latest, The Night Siren.

“I’m a bit of a musical migrant travelling the world and working with pals from everywhere, which is what we’ve got on the new album.”

There are 20 musicians from all over the globe – Israel, Palestine, Iceland, Hungary, Sweden, America and Azerbaijan playing together on The Night Siren.

He also has a core of musicians who go with him on tour. Their popularity seems to be spreading.

“Since I started doing Genesis stuff again,” says Steve, “I’ve found that it’s taken us to all sorts of places we wouldn’t have done before, for instance Australia, New Zealand, Jakarta, Hong Kong and Singapore.

“My wife also likes to travel. She’s very much a world traveller. We tend to look at places on the map and think ‘which places can we visit?’ and ‘which places are we likely to get our heads cut off?’ and take it from there,” he jokes.

Stephen Richard Hackett was born on 12 February 1950 in Pimlico, central London. He developed an interest in the guitar when he was 12.

His musical influences include Johann Sebastian Bach, opera singer Mario Lanza, former Fleetwood Mac blues guitarist Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and King Crimson.

Steve Hackett 2He played with four bands before putting an advert in Melody Maker looking for musicians “determined to strive beyond existing stagnant music forms”.

Genesis were looking for a replacement for guitarist Anthony Phillips and replied to the advert. They auditioned Steve and he was accepted into the band which also contained vocalist Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks on keyboards, bass player Mike Rutherford and drummer Phil Collins.

Steve had little on-stage experience but he soon settled into the role. Wearing thick glasses and sitting in a hunched position over his guitar, he was a real contrast to Gabriel with his extravagant costumes and dramatic storytelling.

Steve’s first recording with the band was the album Nursery Cryme which was released in 1971. Genesis went on tour to promote the record, stopping off at the King’s Hall in Derby.

I saw that gig, with Genesis the support act. They blew Van der Graaf Generator, who had a dodgy PA, off the stage – but Steve sympathises and modestly thinks he has the answer for that.

“Equipment in those days wasn’t that reliable. It was an exciting but nerve-racking time.”

Steve was determined to get on in the business and spent many evenings in the Speakeasy Club on London’s Margaret Street. It was a late-night meeting place for anyone in the music industry.

“There was no such thing as a school of rock at that time – you had to make your own mistakes.

Guitar hero (picture Armando Gallo)

Guitar hero (picture :Armando Gallo)

“I met lots of people, some of whom I’m still friends with today and many who’ve passed on like the great John Whetton who became a big pal of mine.”

Whetton, who was born in Willington, died in January. He played with some huge bands including Family, King Crimson and Roxy Music.

In those days Genesis were playing in front of 20,000 people a night – but earned only £100 a week. However, that was because the band reinvested in the show.

“We had the biggest light show on the road at that time. It meant there was lots of money coming in – but lots of money going out. We had truck loads of stuff, armies of people on the road. I certainly don’t feel stitched up or naïve (about earning so little).”

Steve admits he used to smoke far too much but stopped many years ago. He was never a heavy drinker. He is fit enough to go on a gruelling tour that some younger musicians might find difficult to pull off.

His show Genesis Revisited With Classic Hackett is due at the Royal Concert Hall on Thursday 11 May. Anyone who buys a ticket will hear three songs from the Night Siren album which Steve feels has a different emphasis from his previous work.

“There are two songs that have a peace theme to them. The first track, Behind The Smoke, addresses the subject of refugees and the penultimate track West To East addresses the subject of potential world peace – the distant dream that it is.

“I’m more interested that the message comes across than I am in yet another album’s performance in the market place.

“If I was honest I’d say it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever done, if not THE best. I always say that because I put absolutely everything into every album I do.”

Steve with his band (picture: Rick Pauline)

Steve with his band (picture: Rick Pauline)

Steve will also play some of his older material including tracks from the Darktown, Defector and To Watch The Storms albums as well as a Genesis set.

“One of the songs that I find hard to leave out is Firth of Fifth from Selling England By The Pound. It’s a cracking song and I still love playing it live. Whenever we start it I always think ‘this is the one that people remember most of all from my time with Genesis’.”

Steve will also have a week’s tour in Hungary, Austria and Slovakia with “the number one jazz/world fusion band in Hungary” Djabe who have undertaken concerts with him for the past ten years.

“We’ve just recorded some live stuff together in Sardinia and I think it’s really quite lovely. It’s jazz; I hate to use the word chilled but it’s very ambient and very relaxing to listen to. I’m proud to have taken part in that.”

It appears that globe-trotting Steve who has made friends all over the world through his musicianship will not be hanging up his guitar soon. “The idea is to keep on until I completely fall apart.

“Playing live is the oxygen that I breathe”

“(Blues singer) B B King was still doing it when he was in a wheelchair. (Godfather of British blues) John Mayall said to me once ‘next week I’m going to be 80 and I’ll be doing a gig on my birthday’. So I’m a mere stripling compared with these guys – a young whippersnapper.

“It’s a great privilege still to be doing it, frankly, and I hope there’ll be many more years of it. I’m looking forward to it tremendously.

“Playing live is the oxygen that I breathe – but I also breathe a sigh of relief afterwards when it’s gone well.”

* This article appeared in the May 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

Actor David Sterne: retaining an aura of anonymity

David Sterne 1The face is instantly memorable although you might not know the name. David Sterne has appeared in more than 90 films including a Harry Potter and a Pirates of the Caribbean as well as taking roles in numerous television shows.

Despite that the former Derbyshire actor retains an aura of anonymity – a situation he loves.

At the age of 71 David shows no signs of slowing up. When we began our chat he yawned a few times, hardly surprising as he had just finished six months’ work with the BBC’s radio rep company and also squeezed in a couple of film roles.

He is one of those actors who holds nothing back. Married four times, he talks freely about becoming an alcoholic, how he has hardly stopped working since he gave up drink 30 years ago and how he has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company despite hating the Bard.

He gets back to Derbyshire three or four times a year and makes time to visit old friends. Although he has left the county, he has never forgotten it.

“Once Derbyshire’s in you, it’s part of you. The older I got, driving from Derby down to London and back all the time was quite a big event whereas where I live now, in Hampshire, it’s only an hour and ten minutes on the train and it’s only 50 minutes to drive to Teddington (television studios).

“Now I live in a little village and it’s great. And I’ve got a girlfriend who’s years younger than me. She’s a friend of my daughter’s, she’s lovely. She doesn’t drink either so that’s wonderful. Everything’s good in my life at the moment. I have to say it’s better now than it’s been for a long time.”

He puts his success partly down to the fact that he simply loves the acting business.

David as Blind Pew in Treasure Island at the National Theatre in 2014 (picture: Alastair Muir)

David as Blind Pew in Treasure Island at the National Theatre in 2014 (picture: Alastair Muir)

“I’ve been in kids’ TV, I’ve done some good series – I’ve been very lucky being able to do what I like doing best which is going on set, doing some scenes and having a laugh rather than having to bury my head in something terribly serious.

“You can be locked in doing those things and there’s no light outside. That takes your life away. You go home, learn your lines, go to bed, get up, do the lines and then you go home and learn more lines. It’s not fun and I’ve always tried to avoid that.

“My daughter is a production executive with Hartswood Films who make Sherlock (the TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman). When she was 18 she said ‘what’s it like being out of work, dad, because it goes with the business?’ Luckily she’s never been out of work more than me.

“You can’t just give up and go into depression until the phone rings – it’s just ridiculous. It’s a hard game, a survivor’s game, it really is. But I’ve been blessed.”

He was born David Stone but when his career started to take off his agents at the time changed his surname to Sterne – without even asking him. That was to avoid confusion with an American actor of the same name.

After coming out of the army David trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.

“It was all meant to be very polite but I was feral. I was having a laugh and getting drunk down the local pub. After three months I went to America thinking I was going to be John Wayne and ended up in Topeka, Kansas.

David as Canon Dobbs in the TV series Midwinter of the Spirit in 2015

David as Canon Dobbs in the TV series Midwinter of the Spirit in 2015

“I didn’t know I was going to the middle of nowhere. I could have stayed there but I came back to England and for my third job back I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

His career blossomed after that and he has worked with some of the greatest actors this country has ever produced.

He reveals he was always an anxious person with a lot of energy and his mother might have put pressure on him by urging him to be the best at everything he did.

That might have been one of the reasons he turned to drink. He was also brought up in a culture in which everyone used to go to the pub all the time. Actors he worked with did the same.

“It doesn’t really matter what turned me into an alcoholic. The fact is I was one and I dealt with it.

“I thought to myself: I’ve got a problem here – I don’t want to be doing this. You under-achieve in everything you do and you become a liability to those you wish to be an asset to. So it’s a terrible kind of spiral down really. But if you spiral up by not drinking, then the reverse is true. It sounds very simple. But when you’re in the middle of that complex world it’s a long time to recognise it.”

When David was married to his third wife – they were wed at Derby Register Office – she kept going on at him to stop. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous and says at the time he was “good and ready and willing” to stop drinking.

But there were distractions: David turned down the chance to perform in a play with legendary actor Sir Robert Stephens and his wife Patricia Quinn at the Old Vic because he wanted to quit drinking. Instead he accepted a part in a play in Leicester, to which Sir Robert replied: “You’re so boring!” He too was an alcoholic and died after liver and kidney transplants.

“You always like to play second banana, don’t you?” – Matthew Kelly

David’s first job when sober was at Sheffield Crucible in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, performing alongside Matthew Kelly. The pair are still mates.

Matthew recognises that David prefers anonymity to stardom. “You always like to play second banana, don’t you?” and David agrees.

So what does he regard as the highlights of his career? He cites Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest as a favourite as it was filmed on the ship that was originally used in the film Mutiny on the Bounty.

He also recalls with fondness his role in a television mini-series, The Choir, with James Fox in 1995 because it was filmed on the roof of Gloucester Cathedral. “No member of the public is allowed on the roof but we were up there filming – it’s just a blessing.”

David as Larry Bishop in the TV series Detectorists in 2014

David as Larry Bishop in the TV series Detectorists in 2014

In more recent times he played Larry Bishop in Detectorists, a series featuring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones – “it was beautifully written and conceived,” says David. “It was properly cast – I don’t say that with any kind of boasting. The way it happens sometimes is just perfect.”

He also played a ministry wizard in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But he is most proud of a play he did with a friend, Steve Bennett from Exeter. At the time David was playing Detective Chief Inspector Frank Uttley in the ITV series Thief Takers.

“I said to Steve we’ll have to do a play together. I’ll buy a van and we’ll go round Devon together. We did (Rudyard Kipling’s) The Man Who Would Be King. It’s the best thing we ever did.”

David says it is a “miracle” that he returned to every theatre where he originally performed when he was drinking, the second time “doing it the right way”. That includes the RSC where five years ago he played Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor despite hating Shakespeare.

That led to his appearing as a rat in the RSC’s 2012 Christmas show The Mouse and His Child. “The irony of me playing a rat and running around all over the place was quite amazing. It was just brilliant. It was wonderful to be able to go and do that.”

David’s busy schedule has continued with working in radio as well as accepting film roles.

“My ambition is to be happy, to keep going, to do a good job, to be honest and to have integrity”

“To think it’s the first time in my life I’ve done radio is extraordinary. It’s fascinating – you never know from one week to the next what you’re going to do. At least you don’t have to learn the scripts, which is a great joy.”

During breaks in the radio sessions David was back in Derbyshire to record scenes for a film, Madness in the Method, which is due to be released in September. David plays a judge. He also had a small part in another film, ironically playing a father whose son is dying from alcoholism.

He says he still has the energy for all the projects he works on although he feels more tired at the end of them. And retirement is not an issue.

“My ambition is to be happy, to keep going, to do a good job, to be honest and to have integrity.

David Sterne black and white“So many people say ‘you should do a show about your life.’ I say one day if the feeling’s right I might do it in a village hall here in Hampshire to raise money for the church. Not a show, just a talk.

“It might be nice to write a book – not that anybody would read it. You’ve always got to be wanting to do something new.

“It would be nice for my granddaughter to remember granddad in a panto before I die. If there’s any kids’ TV going I’d like to do that for the same reason.

“I’ve always said the thing that people don’t understand unless they’re actors is that when you’ve finished a job you almost believe it’s your last. And everyone laughs. You just have to take one day at a time.”

As for the future, he says he has all sorts of possible jobs bubbling away that he cannot talk about until they actually happen. It appears as though it may be a long time before in-demand actor David Sterne completes his last job.

* This article appeared in the April 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

Author Wendy Holden: how writing is “fun”

IMG_0004AIn a wooden summer house above a north Derbyshire village Wendy Holden taps out her latest work on an ageing computer. There is no internet connection and the only heat comes from an old, plug-in radiator. Not the ideal setting, you might think, for a top-selling author to write – but this is where Wendy has penned many of her best sellers.

It’s an incredibly busy time for the comic novelist who has had ten consecutive books in the Sunday Times Top Ten. This month her 15th book, Laura Lake and the Hipster Weddings, is published in hardback while she is also promoting the paperback version of her last novel Honeymoon Suite which hit the bookshops in January.

The former national newspaper journalist interrupted her hectic schedule to chat about how the Derbyshire countryside inspires her, where she gets her work ethic from and how people would not believe her when she said she used to write a weekly column for socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.

Over tea and cake the bubbly, amiable Wendy expresses several times how fortunate she is to be writing for a living. She uses the word “fun” on no fewer than 11 occasions: writing is fun, promoting her books is fun and she wants to introduce a bit of fun into people’s lives through her work.

Laura Lake and the Hipster Weddings marks the start of a new chapter in Wendy’s career. After nearly 20 years she has left her publishers Headline to go with a relatively new company, Head of Zeus.

“I felt it was time for a change. The person I first went to work for at Headline is the boss at the new publisher and she was such a great inspiration to work with. So when she said ‘would you like to come and work with us?’ I said ‘absolutely’.

“She wants me to write comedies, which was the original brief I had at Headline, so that’s great. It was perfect timing.”

“It’s a crazy, funny romp through the different ways you can get married these days”

Wendy is expecting to write seven books, one a year, in the Laura Lake series. Obviously her new publishers have exceptional faith in her. So too has her heroine Jilly Cooper who has read an advanced copy of Laura Lake and the Hipster Weddings which she describes as “marvellous”.

The book enables Wendy to return to her earliest stamping ground as a writer – the world of glossy magazines.

“As the novel begins Laura desperately wants to be a glossy magazine journalist and she ends up getting a job as an intern, one of those jobs where you’re not paid. She lives in a cupboard at the office and she survives on canapés.

“Then she gets her big break, a brief to cover three society weddings. It’s a crazy, funny romp through the different ways you can get married these days.

Laura Lake cover“I suppose the idea for that began partly because my new publishers wanted me to write a comedy about glossy magazines but I wanted to write about weddings. When I was doing my research for Honeymoon Suite I realised that the world of weddings had really moved on. There’s an awful lot of comic potential there because guests are roped into these massive productions and I just thought it was a great subject.”

Wendy Holden was born on 12 June 1965 in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire. She always wanted to be a writer but never thought it would happen.

She was the first in her family to go to university, studying English at Cambridge. She thought she might be an academic but then she landed her first job – in journalism, on a monthly magazine for foreign diplomats.

“I used to go and interview every single foreign diplomat who came to London. It was the most amazing job because I knew nothing about anything really. And so I’d find myself going off to interview the Israeli ambassador and I’d be sitting in a room with these Mossad agents and saying to the Israeli ambassador ‘what’s your favourite colour?’

“I’m sure people thought I was a spy and it was all fantastically interesting. There were parties every single night and the gin and tonics were of an unbelievable stiffness. How anyone keeps state secrets I just don’t know.

“That was the beginning of a career in which I’ve been able to see behind the scenes of very glamorous lives, write about them and inject a comic element.”

Wendy then went to work for Harpers & Queen (later to become Harper’s Bazaar), the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Times, Tatler and the Mail on Sunday.

“I’ve been very lucky and the timing’s always been fantastically fortunate. But I think I’ve also been able to spot when I can make something work.”

“I had an epiphany and realised that it was the novel plot that I’d always been looking for and off I went.”

It was while Wendy was deputy editor of the Style section of the Sunday Times that she edited a column for Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. “I used to write this column for her every week, which was great training because I had to make it all up.

“That was the inspiration for my first book, Simply Divine. It was about a glossy magazine journalist who has to write a column for a celebrity socialite who gets all the credit.”

When Wendy was at a party and was asked what she did, she said she wrote Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s column. “People said ‘no you don’t, she does that’. In those days it was thought that famous people actually wrote their own columns.

“That turned out to be a great opportunity for me. I had an epiphany and realised that it was the novel plot that I’d always been looking for and off I went.”

IMG_0012AWendy thought that Simply Divine might be turned into a Hollywood film when Warner Brothers took an option on it. But it never materialised.

“It was incredibly exciting. They used to renew the option annually. It was loads of money and it was great. We used to live in a village and I got the whole cottage roof replaced by Warner Brothers!”

Wendy’s first book deal was for two novels. It was when she landed a second contract that she decided to become a full-time writer.

She was living in a flat in King’s Cross and visiting Derbyshire at weekends. After her son Andrew, now 14, was born, she and husband Jon, a political consultant, moved up here permanently. They also have a 12-year-old daughter, Isabella.

“Living in Derbyshire has been a great inspiration. I realised there was a lot to write about, there was a lot of material in swopping the city for the country, particularly as suddenly as I did.

“I actually found that living in the country was a lot more interesting because when you live in the city you go to work, you come back, you’re in your flat, you do the hamster-wheel thing, whereas here there’s so much going on all the time and there are lots of great characters.

“Honeymoon Suite is partly inspired by the country, by living here, and Laura Lake’s next adventure will take place in a village, so I get endless inspiration from living here.”

IMG_0009AWendy writes every day, either working on her next novel or writing articles. She reviews popular fiction for the Daily Mail, giving her views on three new novels each month, and she has been a judge for the Costa Book Awards. But she doesn’t intend to return to journalism.

“It’s really interesting to review for the Mail because you see what kind of books are being published and what people are writing. I think it’s important as a writer of contemporary fiction to keep your eye on what’s coming out, to see if anyone else is doing the same thing – which thankfully they’re not.

“I don’t think I’d really want to go back to journalism but I keep writing features to keep my hand in because I see it as my trade. That was one of the things the late, great Adrian Gill (food and travel writer A A Gill) said to me as I was leaving the Sunday Times: he said don’t forget that journalism is your trade.”

Many writers say they have a lonely existence because they are on their own when they write. Wendy agrees and shares her way of working.

“I’m lucky because I enjoy writing my books and they’re fun to write. Some people can write with radios on and people in the background. There are people who write in coffee shops. But I don’t do that. I’ve got to be on my own, sometimes even with earplugs in.”

Wendy stresses that she likes to have lots of things going on and puts her “massive” work ethic down to her Yorkshire roots. “I think if you’re a writer it’s such a fantastic privilege – I still can’t get over the fact that people pay me to write for a living. It’s just amazing – not something I ever thought would happen realistically. I think I’m really fortunate so I do as much as I can. I very rarely turn a commission down, whatever it is.”

Wendy, described in some publications as one of the founders of the chick lit movement, sees herself more as a satirist writing glamorous comedies.

IMG_0006AHer next book will be called Laura Lake and the Celebrity Meltdown. Wendy is hoping readers will take to Laura.

“That’s my ambition – to make her somebody that people want to read about who will cheer people up.”

So who is Laura Lake? “She’s not a drip – she’s quite feisty, she’s not put off by adversity. She’s a woman of today but she’s a little bit different.

“She’s half-French and she’s got this granny who gives her lots of life advice, like always have a glass of champagne before you read the papers because the news is a lot better that way – useful advice that we could all do with.”

Laura Lake may mean that Wendy Holden returns to the top of the Sunday Times best sellers – her book Fame Fatale was the number one in 2002. Whatever happens, she is contracted to produce another six Laura Lakes and you can be sure that comedy will be a crucial element.

“I think, particularly now, people need something uplifting and fun to read. I hope that I’m going to be able to give them that because there’s not really much else out there. I want to give people a reason to smile in 2017.”

* This article appeared in the March 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

Sam Bailey: “this time around I’m in control”

Sam Bailey 4Almost three years since becoming one of the oldest contestants to win The X Factor, former prison officer Sam Bailey is going back on the road – and she promises it will be completely different from her last tour.

That’s because she has left X Factor boss Simon Cowell’s record company after feeling “like a puppet” and is now taking control not only of her career but also her life.

“At the end of the day I’ve got three children and record labels work to a time frame. I wanted to be able to say when I wanted to work, when I wanted to take my kids to a park or take them out for dinner. I love the fact that I’ve now got that freedom.”

On her Sing My Heart Out tour she will be accompanied by three backing vocalists who she has known for several years. She will also be spending as much time as possible with her family. And she is running a competition to give artists the chance to support her at one of the venues.

In a frank interview she said she was not concerned about anyone upstaging her – she simply wanted to give something back after being given a “wonderful opportunity” to pursue her own career. Can you imagine Simon Cowell agreeing to that?

Winning the television talent show and a £1million recording contract led to her single Skyscraper hitting the top of the Christmas charts while her debut album The Power of Love – named after the Jennifer Rush song which Sam covered – went to number one in the album charts. It sold more than 72,000 copies in its first week.

But despite her first tour being a sell-out, Sam had no say in the direction her career was going.

“I was like a deer in headlights. All these people came along with clipboards and said ‘right, we’re gonna get these guys to do this and this is what we think you should wear’. I was pretty much like a puppet.

“I’m really looking forward to having that freedom on stage and letting go a little bit”

“It was fantastic working with those people but this time it’s going to be a little bit more comfortable. I’m going to be doing stuff that I want to do rather than stuff that people suggest. I’d just go ‘yeah, okay, we’ll do that because you know better than I do’.

“This time around I’m in a bit more control so I’m really looking forward to having that freedom on stage and letting go a little bit. And because I’ve had a bit more experience in the last couple of years it’s a lot easier for me now whereas before I was a little bit nervous. Now I’m itching to get on stage.”

Sam will be choosing the songs that she’ll sing on her new tour as well as having her own backing singers and musicians. She’ll be promoting her album Sing My Heart Out – she co-wrote most of the songs and it was released on her own label towards the end of last year.

Despite a stratospheric rise through winning The X Factor, Sam maintains the down-to-earth persona that endears her to millions of people. She says she doesn’t have the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – “I like to be in bed by half ten with a cup of Horlicks”, although being with the backing singers who she’s known for years might change that.

Sam Bailey 1“We might go for a meal at one o’clock in the morning,” she jests. “I wanted them with me to showcase them because they’re amazing performers. It’s important to have people around me that I trust.”

Samantha Florence Bailey was born on 29 June 1977 in Bexley, south east London. Her grandfather was a singer in a group called The Four Vinos and her father was also in a band.

Although she won a Search For A Star talent contest in Crayford when she was 16, her first love was football. She played professionally for a number of clubs including Millwall, West Ham and Crystal Palace.

After that she became a prison officer, working at Gartree in Market Harborough, Leicestershire. But she was also singing, performing on cruise ships, in clubs and at music festivals.

She first auditioned for The X Factor in 2007 but didn’t get past the first round. However, in 2013 she raced to victory, with Gary Barlow describing her voice as “incredible”.

So what happened in the intervening six years? Sam who still speaks with a southern accent says her win was probably because she had more experience.

“I’ve learned so much in the last year, especially vocally. Six years is a long time to better yourself. I might not have been ready (in 2007) – they might have seen that in me.

“My dad was really poorly at the time – he was terminally ill. I never mentioned that to anyone because I didn’t want it to be a factor. Maybe they saw something in me that was just not ready. They saw the desperation the second time that I did it.”

“The show has the ability to make controversial decisions but that’s what people watch it for.”

The show has been criticised over the past few years for a drop in quality and a staid format. Simon Cowell’s flagship programme has been regularly trounced by the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in the ratings battle. But despite that Sam is a great believer in the saying “never bite the hand that feeds you”.

“I’ll never slate the show,” she says. “But I always say to people who watch the show or if they audition for it, just remember this: it’s a TV show before a talent competition.

“The show has the ability to make controversial decisions but that’s what people watch it for. No one watches EastEnders to see people doing normal things – they watch it to see people getting battered black and blue, for the adultery, all sorts of things. Then they talk about it.

“It’s exactly the same with The X Factor. It’s there for controversy. It’s happened before and it will always happen in that show. But people can’t stop watching it. I’m really proud to say that I was a part of it.”

Sam Bailey 2Last year her career moved in a different direction when she was cast as Mamma Morton in the UK tour of the musical Chicago alongside ex-EastEnders actor John Partridge and former soap actress Hayley Tamaddon.

“Playing a prison officer – where did they get that from?” she jokes.  “I loved doing musical theatre. It’s something I would definitely consider in the future. There are loads of shows that I would love to get my teeth into. The other cast members in Chicago taught me a lot and I’m very grateful.”

Back to the tour which will be more than 30 dates over three months. Sam who lives in Leicester is hoping she will be able to spend time with husband Craig and their children Tommy, Brooke and Miley. She has decided to take Easter off so that she can spend a couple of weeks with her family.

“I’m doing Sheffield and Nottingham which are not far from me – Sheffield is just over an hour and Nottingham is just over half an hour, so I’ll be going home on those dates.

“Being away on tour is tough but there’ll be dates when the kids can come along and watch the show or sit and ransack my dressing room and eat all my sweets and chocolates.

“The last time I toured Miley was only a baby. This time it’ll be a little bit easier, so we’re going to arrange to visit theme parks or farms that are close by. It’s going to be a real family kind of thing.”

Sam Bailey 7Sam says she will never forget her roots and empathises with many struggling artists who are looking for their big break. That’s why she’s giving performers a chance to share the stage with her.

“I’ve had that step up the ladder so I want to find people who are just like I was who don’t deserve to be singing in a corner of a pub where no one’s listening or in a social club where everyone’s waiting for the bingo.

“It doesn’t bother me if someone upstages me. It’s about giving someone an opportunity they deserve and that’s what I want to do. I would have loved someone to have done that to me 20-odd years ago.”

Artists who believe they are good enough for a support spot should upload a YouTube clip of themselves to Twitter and use the tag @SamBaileyREAL.

“It’s going to be hard but I’m going to enjoy it,” she says of the tour. “I’m going to soak it up and have a wonderful time.”

After the tour Sam, who doesn’t drink, will have a big bash to celebrate her 40th birthday before going on holiday to Florida.

Sam Bailey is proof that if you possess talent, work hard and have an engaging personality you can achieve great success with or without Simon Cowell.

* This article appeared in the February 2017 edition of Country Images magazine