Fern Britton: I haven't really allowed grief in after losing my parents

Author and TV presenter Fern Britton talks to Hannah Stephenson about moving on after the break-up of her marriage and staying positive despite difficult days.

Fern Britton has a new book out. Photo: Lucy Stewart/PA.
Fern Britton has a new book out. Photo: Lucy Stewart/PA.

Fern Britton has had one hell of a year. There was the death of her father, actor Tony Britton, in December, and then the break-up of her marriage to TV chef Phil Vickery.

But Britton is feeling ‘confident, strong and indestructible’ – as she recently described herself in Woman & Home magazine. Today, the 62-year-old former This Morning presenter and bestselling author chuckles at the reference.

“It’s only when you are having to armour yourself that you realise you are quite strong and indestructible. I’m only human, so there have been days that have been very difficult. There have been a lot of tears,” she shares.

Fern Britton with Phil Vickery. Photo: Ian West/PA.

Her marriage to Vickery seems to have ended on very civilised terms. Both of them made the same announcement on Twitter and neither has made acerbic comments publicly about the other since.

“You have to make the best of things and you have to look on the positive, or else navel-gazing and sitting in a huddle crying is boring for everybody. The decision’s been taken and now’s our opportunity to make things good.”

London-born Britton moved to Cornwall last June, where she is updating her one-time holiday home which has now become her permanent residence, working on her garden, and creating a new study where she can write her novels in peace.

The emotional setbacks of the death of both her parents – her father, aged 95, in December and her mother two years previously – delayed the publication of her latest novel, Daughters Of Cornwall.

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“My mother died two years ago. It has been difficult. There have been a lot of endings. It was hard to concentrate, so the book became very late. I missed two or three deadlines.

“I don’t think I’ve properly grieved for either of my parents yet,” she continues. “They still feel so very present to me. I dream about them and talk to them and run things past them. Perhaps I haven’t really allowed grief in. They seem to be with me all the time.”

Britton has three grown-up children – twins Jack and Harry and daughter Grace – from her first marriage to TV executive Clive Jones, and daughter Winnie with Vickery, to whom she was married for 20 years.

She says: “I’m a tough cookie. This is life and I have had two very good marriages. It’s just unfortunate that they came to an end.

“Phil and I knew we were coming to the end – we’d had a very good time but it was the end. It will all be OK. We all share the children, as much as anything else. Phil’s been an amazing stepfather to them and they are very close to him.

“So, he’s obviously staying in London because that’s where he’s working, and I can come down here. I believe the right phrase is that it [the marriage] ran its natural course.”

She’s been in lockdown with her daughters and says she doesn’t feel lonely, hinting that she’s enjoying being single. “In my life, I’ve been married for just over 30 years – that’s quite a lot of married time.

"I never quite managed to make it without a break, but I can look back on all of that. It’s very easy for people to look at things and enhance the negatives and forget about the good stuff, but I really worked on remembering all the good stuff, and the negatives are much smaller and do start to vanish.

“My marriage ended on as good terms as you can in that situation,” she adds. “Phil and I are in contact, in that I know what he’s up to. I see what he’s doing, I watch him on television, I know he’s got his book coming out.

"We have to have contact over certain agreements and at the moment it’s better to keep it like that, until everything is sorted. The girls miss him and I’ve told them that when lockdown’s over, I’m expecting them to get on with life and see both dads.”

Daughters Of Cornwall has a personal connection for Britton. It covers three generations of women from the First World War to the present day, as the living daughter is sent a trunk full of letters uncovering the secrets of her grandmother and mother, the illegitimate children, the love stories and the working lives of the women of each generation.

It’s based on a true story, although highly fictionalised, from when Britton was working on television in Plymouth around 1980 and received a letter from a man purporting to be her great-uncle, her mother’s brother, her grandmother’s secret illegitimate child.

“He said, ‘This might come as a shock but your grandmother was my mother’. He sent me proof, copies of lovely letters she had sent to the foster family she had to give him to when he was very little, and photographs of him on the beach with her when he was a toddler.

"I recognised her and I recognised her writing in the letters. Then I told my mother what had happened and she wasn’t surprised at all. When her mother was dying, she had told her that she’d been a wicked woman and had done some wicked things.”

Britton’s mother and great-uncle were reunited in their 50s, spending much time together. He never found out who his father was.

Britton is planning more novels but broadcasting remains close to her heart. Best known for her stints on ITV’s This Morning and Ready Steady Cook, Britton, who is a member of Mensa, also gained scoops in her BBC interview series Fern Britton Meets… coaxing Tony Blair into admitting that he would have invaded Iraq even without evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

Last year she toured in Calendar Girls The Musical, based on oft-told tale of the women of Rylstone and District Women’s Institute (WI) who, back in 1999, bared all for a charity calendar in order to raise money after one of their husbands died of leukaemia – and she hasn’t ruled out more challenges.

“I’m always open to everything. My career so far has been very multi-faceted. I can look back on the 40 years of television I did and now that I have some distance from it, I can wrap it up in a nice body of work and think, do you know what – I did some very good stuff that I can be proud of. But I never say never to other things.”

Turning 60 two years ago changed the way she wanted to live her life, she agrees. “I want to live a less frantic life, which is happening now. I’m going to make time to do things that I always wanted to do, just for me, whether it’s travelling, or the book I want to read, or the television programme I want to watch, or the play I want to see.

“I don’t have to worry about anybody saying, ‘What do you want to do that for?’ Not that Phil ever did, but I can just go and close the door and no one’s going to ask me where I’m going. I’m really looking forward to that.”

She’s not worried about being an empty nester when lockdown ends and her daughters move out. “I think I’m going to quite enjoy having my own space. I don’t worry about getting lonely. I like my own company. I’ve never really been a lonely person.”

She does long for grandchildren, though. “Really, I wish they’d get cracking. Reasonably, in the next 10 years, surely somebody must have a baby. That would be fantastic.”

Daughters Of Cornwall by Fern Britton is published by HarperCollins today, priced £12.99.

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