This week Judy Finnigan joins husband Richard Madeley at the Harrogate Literature Festival. She talks to Stephanie Smith about writing, Cornwall and the strength of family bonds.
It’s a comforting little scene to imagine, Judy sitting at a large pine table in the kitchen of her beautiful holiday home in Cornwall, quietly pondering the plot of her next novel as husband Richard pads about in the background, taking a break from his own opus to make a cuppa for them both.
It’s an easy little scene to imagine too. Judy Finnigan and Richard Madeley are probably still the most familiar married couple from television, even though their appearances are more occasional now, rarely together, and it’s 14 years since they gave up presenting the show that launched their celebrity, ITV’s This Morning.
If these days Judy prefers the relatively peaceful and idyllic life of a lady novelist, who can blame her, after surviving so many years of live television on a daily basis? Together, she and Richard revolutionised the whole look, feel and content of daytime TV, hosting This Morning from 1988 to 2001, then moving to Channel 4, where they created a brand new teatime TV talk show slot with Richard and Judy, which ran until 2009.
Now there’s the odd bit of presenting here and there (Richard does more, both on TV and radio), a newspaper column, and their Richard & Judy Book Club, but it’s as a novelist that Judy is increasingly being identified. This coming Friday, they are both coming to Yorkshire as part of the Harrogate Literature Festival for a “Judy Finnigan in conversation with Richard Madeley” evening (not sure if there’s a sofa involved).
Judy’s first novel, Eloise, published three years ago, was inspired by the death from cancer of her colleague and close friend Caron Keating, aged just 41. This week sees the paperback publication of her second novel, I Do Not Sleep (the line is from a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye), the story of a grieving mother whose student son has been missing, presumed dead, for five years, following a sailing trip. Death, Cornwall and the supernatural, it seems, are recurring Finnigan themes.
A writer always worries about a second novel, she says. “Your first novel, I think, is an idea you’ve had for quite a long time, and you write that, and you suddenly find that you’ve got to do another one.”
Writing is hard work, too, she adds. “A friend of mine said – she’s a writer too – that writing is a bit like engineering, really. You’ve got one exciting bit and then you’ve got another exciting bit coming up, and you’ve got to engineer a bridge over that bit – and that’s the hard work, I think. Putting the plot together and timing and pacing, and all that kind of thing.”
Is she drawn to the dark side, I wonder? She pauses. “What I’m drawn towards really is emotions,” she says, “and particularly the power of maternal love. I’m interested in exploring how people deal with grief, and particularly how mothers come to terms with losing their children.
“I think it’s just me. I’ve always liked Gothic novels – one of my favourite novels is Jane Eyre – and the way the Brontës wrote, and I love Daphne du Maurier. And for that, you need the power of landscape, whether it’s Yorkshire or whether it’s Cornwall, which means a great deal to me and where I find it relatively easier to write than anywhere else.
“I love the power of the landscape. It seems to me the landscape in Cornwall is very elemental and very, very ancient – and quite a suitable place to write very emotional novels.”
She first went to Cornwall as a child, on family holidays. Raised in Newton Heath, Manchester, Judy enjoyed the excitement of the two-day journeys it took to get there in the days before the motorway. “I kind of grew up thinking of Cornwall as being very distant and rather glamorous, rather like a foreign country,” she says. When she and Richard got together in 1984, they chose Cornwall for their first family holiday with Tom and Dan, Judy’s boys from her first marriage, and rented a cottage.
“We had the most beautiful week of weather,” she remembers. “It was stunning, the sun shone every day and we felt incredibly happy there. It felt like we’d been blessed, really, and we just fell in love with the place.”
They returned each year and finally bought their own family holiday home near Polperro 18 years ago. They go now as often as they can, and Judy uses the house and its surroundings as novel settings, preferring to describe places that she knows well, a tip she picked up while holidaying in Florida Keys, reading Florida-based crime novels that described and named real stores and cafes. “I actually found that very exciting to read and I thought for people in Cornwall, it would be nice to write about real places, rather than make them up,” she says. A fair bit of I Do Not Sleep takes place in Polperro in the Blue Peter pub, “which is where everyone goes and where everybody does drink,” Judy says.
The novel is dedicated to Judy’s four children, Tom, Dan, Jack and Chloe, and to the latest addition to her clan “Darling little Ivy”, Tom’s two-and-a half year-old, who was the inspiration for a similarly adorable little character in the novel. “I wanted to put that experience of being a grandmother into this novel because it seemed to me that the birth of a grandchild is so incredibly powerful and uplifting,” she says. “It’s very different, but the love that you feel, the instant connection, is just as powerful as it is with your own … the first sight of her, honestly, it’s like a kick in the stomach.”
Now 67, Judy celebrates 30 years of marriage to Richard next year. It’s a gentler life, with fewer worries. “You’ve got over a lot of life’s humps,” she says. “Worrying about your children, about the mortgage - that’s all kind of in the past.”
Perhaps not entirely stress-free yet. Last year, Judy apologised after she joined in the debate about the future of convicted rapist Ched Evans, and daughter Chloe has been targeted by Twitter trolls, but this is a family used to public and media scrutiny and attention.
The “extreme television” of hosting daily live shows for more than 20 years was undoubtedly stressful to perform and observe, but possibly strengthening – just as well now social media allows endless pops at anyone and everyone in the public eye.
Judy says: “When we started This Morning, Chloe was only one and Jack was two, and so they’ve grown up with it, and we often took them into the studio. They take it all very much in their stride. They’re fine.
“I don’t do Twitter and I have no interest in it, but obviously our kids do it and so does Richard, and he thoroughly enjoys it … but you don’t have to do all this stuff on social media.”
A former drama student (after Manchester High School for Girls, Judy went to Bristol University for a degree in English and Drama, joining Granada TV as a researcher in 1971), she loves watching TV dramas, especially, as we speak, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
The actor Marc Warren is a friend and it was Judy who told him he would be perfect for the role of the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, if they ever made a screen version of the novel. As a result, he auditioned for the part and got it.
Reading is of course another great passion, one which underpins the Richard & Judy Book Club run with WH Smith, which currently has eight good reads in its summer list, all holiday-ready. The club has been a huge success. Judy says: “I think everyone just assumed that people don’t read much these days, and actually what’s we’ve found is that they do and they love to be recommended books.
“We’ve been in people’s living rooms for so long now, I think they kind of trust us, you know, and trust what we recommend.”
The immediate future holds book talks, holidays and more novels. “Richard will be starting work on his next novel and I will have to start on mine. I don’t even know what it’s going to be about yet, so I’m going to spend the summer working out ideas,” Judy says.
Back to their beloved Cornwall, sitting at their kitchen table, bickering comfortably as they plot and ponder. Richard and Judy in paradise.
Judy Finnigan in conversation with Richard Madeley is at The Crown Hotel in Harrogate on Friday, July 3, at 6.30pm, as part of Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival. Tickets £15, call 01423 562303 or visit www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com