Fern Britton’s writing career is a gentler business than television. And it leaves time for exercise. Hannah Stephenson reports.
At the age of 56, Fern Britton is looking fab, fit and famously un-flabby.
In a black mini dress, trendy jean jacket, black tights and black heels, the former This Morning presenter could be an advert for how women of a certain age can appear sexy and attractive, without looking like mutton dressed up as lamb.
She looks a decade younger than she is, yet it’s clear that Britton doesn’t want to join other female broadcasters of a certain age who complain that they are cast aside in favour of younger models.
“TV is an addiction to some people because if they are not seen, then where are they? Well, that doesn’t really bother me,” she says.
“It’s time for other people to have their turn. You can’t clog it all up. It’s like clogging up a hospital bed. Get out! Let someone else in.
“I’m a realist. You know it [old age] is coming but it’s only in your head. When I watched [The Great British] Sewing Bee, there was an older lady on there whose face was full of vivacity and that’s her life force, and it’s what makes her very interesting to watch. Youth is great but it’s not everything.”
She has seen a lot of dumbing down of television since she began in the industry 34 years ago, she agrees.
“It’s annoying when you know the viewer is being treated like an idiot. We’re not idiots. I sometimes do think that programme ideas, actors and presenters become flavour of the month not because the audience necessarily likes them, but because someone in television thinks, ‘Oh, they’re on the front cover of magazines all the time, they must be popular’. That doesn’t always equate.
“The chase for that high profile - how important is that? I don’t know. Judi Dench doesn’t have to put herself on the front cover of every magazine every week, does she? I don’t feel that desire myself.”
In contrast, publishing is a lovely world, she enthuses.
“It’s full of nice people who want to tease out your creativity.”
We meet today to discuss her fourth novel, A Seaside Affair, a gentle read in which a close-knit community in a Cornish seaside town joins forces to save its local theatre, which is to be taken over by a coffee chain.
Being a recognisable face through television, she has endured her fair share of scrutiny and flak, most notably in 2008 when she admitted she’d had a gastric band fitted, after initially attributing her recent five-stone weight loss to healthy eating and exercise. It must surely be a relief at times to escape into the world of writing, out of the limelight.
Britton, who is married to TV chef Phil Vickery, has twin sons Jack and Harry, 20, and daughter Grace, 16, from her previous marriage to TV executive Clive Jones, and a 12-year-old daughter, Winnie, with Vickery.
She loves working from home on her books and says she is better able to manage juggling work and family life than previously.
“I’m getting there. I have more free time, so much so that I’m getting lazy, I waste it. Before, I could pack everything in. I was really productive and now I’m like, ‘What have I managed to do today?’ It’s really nice. The three things I want to do every day are run, write and garden.”
So, is the writing slowly taking over from television? She has just clinched a three-book deal and has started the first one.
“I’m in a betwixt and between situation at the moment. I wouldn’t mind at all if it did because I just want to stay in some way creative. I adore television - I’ve been in it 34 years and I know it pretty much inside out. I’m a safe pair of hands in a live television studio, I’ve done my time as an on-the-road reporter.
“I love it, but to be given the opportunity to go and make something up is really nice. Maybe I’m in a transition.”
She’s still on TV, though, presenting BBC Two’s new six-part series The Big Allotment Challenge, billed as horticulture’s equivalent of The Great British Bake Off, and is also hoping that her interview series Fern Britton Meets... will again be commissioned to be broadcast in the run-up to Christmas. But she doesn’t miss ITV’s This Morning at all, she says.
Since her time fronting the popular breakfast show, she’s done Strictly Come Dancing, nd now this new gardening show; is she veering towards the softer side of presenting?
“Not deliberately,” she reflects. “I love interviewing people, from politicians to gardeners, what excites them and what keep them going through life, but having spent so much time in a studio, to get out into a garden and not have to wear high heels - I’m in plimsolls or Wellies and a stripey T-shirt and jeans - that’s very liberating, although I’ve still got my false eyelashes on.”
Exercise has helped to stem the depression which has struck at different points in her life.
“Thankfully the depression has gone at the moment. It may come back, but it’s been fine for a long time.
“If I get super-tired, plus there may be a couple of life problems, then I start to go downhill and I can recognise it,” she adds. “I used to run away from it mentally, but now I stop and let it happen. I go to the doctor and know that she will believe I’m on the brink of this black hole and will treat me accordingly.
“For a long time I was on anti-depressants, but for about 18 months now, I haven’t had to and I’ve been very well. Exercise gives you a better frame of mind.”
* A Seaside Affair by Fern Britton is published by HarperCollins, priced £12.99.