When Timothy Spall was diagnosed with leukaemia, his life was thrown off course. Sarah Freeman talks to his wife Shane about their voyage back.
When Timothy Spall and his wife Shane announced they were going to circumnavigate the British Isles in a Dutch barge, it seemed to many to be madness.
Their previous sailing experience was negligible, their navigational expertise minimal and neither had previously expressed any desire for a life on the ocean wave. However, close friends and family knew this was a decision borne out of a stark realisation that life is too short for regrets.
Shane, who has been married to the acclaimed actor for 30 years, charts their hazardous journey in her book The Voyages Of The Princess Matilda, a tie-in to the recent BBC Four documentary Timothy Spall: Back At Sea. But the book is interspersed with another great battle the couple experienced a decade before, when Timothy was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukaemia and given only days to live.
He spent more than three months in protective isolation and, while undergoing two courses of aggressive chemotherapy, many of his arteries collapsed. Medical staff thought it was unlikely he would pull through and so did Shane.
“Even now, it’s quite raw,” she says quietly. “Before leukaemia, we took everything for granted. We had a lovely house, a lovely car, great kids, then all that was thrown into turmoil. I was faced with the prospect that I might be a widow. We take nothing for granted any more.”
Their perspective on life changed after the couple and three children had stared death in the face and when Timothy was finally allowed home to begin the long battle back to full health in the summer of 1996, both knew that their lives would never be the same again.
“The thing about illness is that one day you’re about to go to the Cannes Film Festival [Timothy was diagnosed just as he was about to attend a glitzy junket for Mike Leigh’s acclaimed film Secrets And Lies] and then you have the rug pulled from underneath you. We were left feeling completely and utterly battered.”
After his treatment, it was a further five years before Timothy was given the all-clear, she recalls. Today, he no longer has to return to hospital for tests and regular check-ups and if he’s feeling under the weather, his wife has finally stopped fearing the worst.
“I’m married to a hypochondriac,” she laughs. “Tim doesn’t have a headache, he has a brain tumour. So we do laugh about it.”
Laughs were in short supply during those dark months of 1996. The weeks spent in hospital, unable to shake the thought that her husband, who she had married within three months of first meeting, would never be discharged were desperate for Shane. Initially, she kept the seriousness of Timothy’s condition a secret from the children – as she admits in the diary, she wasn’t “prepared to end their childhood just yet” and the whole experience was shot through by feelings of helplessness, and lack of control.
However, Timothy did slowly recover and, sat at home, he had many hours to think about what more he wanted in life. Since starring in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, his career had always taken care of itself and there was little he wanted to change about his family life. Ultimately, he said, it came down to two things – a Rolls Royce and a boat.
Eight months after leaving hospital, the Spalls bought their first narrowboat, initially using just an AA road atlas to navigate their way around the country’s canals and waterways, but it failed to satisfy their appetite for adventure. Progressing to a Dutch barge, which they named The Princess Matilda after their granddaughter, after spending a summer on the relatively calm waters of the Thames, the Spalls decided to head out to sea.
Timothy himself has said he wouldn’t have done the circumnavigation of the UK had he not had cancer. It made him realise more than ever that life is for living. However, both admit that raw enthusiasm didn’t quite prepare them for the mammoth voyage which lay ahead. In fact, they were dangerously underprepared.
“We underestimated the danger involved in going out to sea. We had no radio, compass, life raft or flares. In other words, we were a couple of idiots,” says Shane, recalling the various hazards they had to deal with during the course of their journey. When not negotiating busy ferry lanes or running aground at the most inopportune times, they were forced to anchor in the middle of nowhere and deal with broken steering.
“Tim has always said the more he has found out, the more anxious he has become. Sometimes the sea has been nasty and we’ve been miles away from land. At times like that we just have to make the most of the situation and bear with it.”
The book is testament to the couple’s celebration of life, how much they value family and friends, and the Spalls’ strong 30-year marriage, which has weathered all storms.
“The secret is that we’re best friends. We enjoy each other’s company and we love each other,” she says simply.
While they were raising their family, Timothy established himself as one of Britain’s most popular actors, first with television mini series Nicholas Nickleby, later starring in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and the Harry Potter films. So how does it feel to be married to a “national treasure”?
“He was an actor when I married him and I always thought he was a national treasure, even when he was in his early twenties. It’s something I’ve grown up with.”
These days Shane is Timothy’s PA and always accompanies him on location. But being the wife of a famous actor isn’t always rosy, she admits. Quite often when they attend events, people ignore Shane in their efforts to grab the attention of her husband.
“I’m completely used to being the invisible woman,” she shrugs. “My best friend Cheryl was married to Jimmy Nail for a number of years so we would often laugh and tell stories about being pushed out of the way. But Tim always makes a point of introducing me to everybody.”
Born into a working-class family in the Midlands, Shane hitch-hiked to London in her early twenties, not knowing where she was going to stay and ended up living in a squat.
Her hippy lifestyle, she readily admits, could have descended into drug-taking had she not become pregnant with her daughter, Pascale, whose father left Shane nine days before she was born.
“In the Seventies, London was a very druggy place. I became a home help in Kensington and Chelsea. I would go and clean for these old widows and then I’d go back to the squat, where people would be smoking dope.”
She met her future husband in 1981, when Pascale was four, through a mutual friend, when he was performing in a play.
“He lit up the theatre with his energy and anarchy. He made us laugh, then made us cry. He was completely charismatic. I was introduced to him later on and didn’t think he’d be interested in me, a single mother from the Midlands. So I was quite chuffed when he phoned me.”
Three months later they were married. Timothy adopted Pascale and they had two children, Mercedes and Rafe, who is now also an actor. It’s clear from the book that friends and family are all-important in their lives. Their family live close by and they now have two grandchildren, Matilda and Lena.
Their epic voyage is over for now as they enjoy dry land for a while at their home in south-east London, says Shane, but having discovered their sea legs, there are more water-bound journeys in the pipeline.
These, however, will have to wait until Timothy has finished filming his latest project, a new television series called Blandings (based on a fictional location in the stories of PG Wodehouse) in which he’ll be starring alongside Jennifer Saunders.
But whether they’re on dry land or sea, the Spalls will be cracking open a bottle or two in May to remind them that life is for living, Shane says.
“Every year on May 8, which is the day the cancer was diagnosed, we always raise a glass.”
The Voyages Of The Princess Matilda by Shane Spall is published by Ebury today, priced £11.99. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk.
Shane’s diary entry from May 8, 1996
“On the phone, your doctor said to get you to the hospital immediately, in case you had a brain haemorrhage. Apparently, he said, you could drop down dead at any moment. You’re, facing a life-threatening illness, but you’re filming a TV advertisement and you want to finish the job first.
“I want to hide. I want it to be yesterday again. How will I tell the children? I wander around the house and see my dress for the Cannes premiere, still wrapped in white tissue paper.”
Shane is at the Lake District’s Words by the Water Festival on March 4. See www.spallsatsea.co.uk for events in Yorkshire.