By Michelle Newman
Life is what you make it, a motto Fern Britton certainly likes to live by. The presenter turned author has never been afraid to try her hat at new opportunities and is quite accepting of what life brings her way. Her latest venture, taking part in Calendar Girls The Musical, being the perfect example especially as Fern’s initial reservations have now made way for excitement to set in.
“[It’s] so exciting because I didn’t want to do it and then I got flattered into it and it’s terrible, flattery gets you everywhere doesn’t it?” she says. When Fern was first asked to join the project towards the end of 2017 she turned down the offer not once, but three times. Nevertheless, a cup of tea with Gary Barlow who co-wrote the show with Tim Firth, eventually sealed the deal. “That turned into actually meeting with the director and the producer and the casting director, Tim the writer and all of a sudden I got the job and it was a bit of a shock to the system but I’m very glad it happened.”
Calendar Girls The Musical is based on the true story of a group of ladies from Yorkshire who created a tasteful nude calendar to raise money for Leukaemia Research in the late nineties. Fern’s character Marie is the only member of the group who keeps her clothes firmly on throughout the play and while many would shy away from the prospect of baring all on stage, that part of the job hadn’t even ‘crossed her mind.’ Feeling very ‘cared for’ during the rehearsal process, she says Tim really took her opinion into account which helped her to feel more compassion towards Marie.
“She’s a funny old character; she doesn’t take her clothes off for a start, but although she looks as though she’s just a mad control freak she’s actually very lonely and very unhappy in her private life and her husband’s gone and just wants people to like her really. Every character on stage actually is somebody that everyone can identify with.
“Before I knew what Marie did and what she was about, I had no idea whether she was going to take her clothes off or not and but on the other hand I wouldn’t really have minded. I mean it’s a relief not to have to but it wasn’t as if that was the biggest thing,” she explains before praising the way in which her co-stars handle the scene with such elegance.
“The scene where they do the calendar shoot it so beautifully choreographed and directed, you see what you think you’re seeing but you might not be seeing all that really. And it’s very funny, it’s very wittily done and the girls are so good at it. When they first started rehearsing it and it was always a closed rehearsal room and no one could look through the windows and all of those things and the girls went straight for it, they just did it and they are amazing.”
The notion of pushing herself outside of her comfort zone and testing her boundaries, is one
that Fern approaches with optimism, saying ‘Yes,’ more often than not. She admits this can sometimes lead to an act now think later scenario, but she’s realistic about the somewhat fickle nature of the media industry and the importance of keeping oneself relevant.
“Perhaps I get offered a job and I go, ‘Yeah lovely’ and then afterwards I think ‘Can I actually do that? I don’t know whether I can, anyway hey-ho, let’s try it,’ and I think it’s worth it. I like a challenge, I’m not afraid of a challenge and I’m not afraid of change; sometimes that gets me into trouble [laughs] but I like it.
“Once you get to [a certain age] certainly over 60, you do think to yourself, ‘If I don’t do it now I’m just going to whiter up and die so I may as well just do it because there’s nothing to stop me.’ I have a lovely career behind me and I’d like to have something ahead of me and it won’t be there if I don’t challenge myself.”
As she’s gotten older, Fern has learned to be less critical of herself and enjoys the comfort and confidence this brings. She is ‘all for’ people, but particularly women, taking some time for themselves to figure out who they are again once the responsibilities they may have had in the past, are no longer an obstacle. "Learning, this is something of course that all older women over the years have discovered, once you get to 60 you have done the things you needed to do; you have got married perhaps, you’ve had your family perhaps, you’ve had your career perhaps, you’ve looked after your own parents perhaps, you know all those things are done and suddenly you think, ‘Hey I’m back to who I was when I was 18, I’m free again, what shall I do, what can I do?’” she says.
“And there’s so much, there’s so much it’s unbelievable and it doesn’t have to cost money. Build up a little walking group with friends or buy a bike or get a dog or start crafting or do night school, anything it’s all there! Even if you don’t think you’re a creative person, there must be something because being creative is the thing that keeps us alive, you know?”
A big believer in exploring whatever avenues you find yourself going down, in between her TV, stage and radio work, Fern likes to switch off from the world and focus on her writing. To date she has penned eight novels seven of which have been published and her forthcoming book will be released in the spring. “I’ve just finished number eight and that’s published on I think March 8th it’s called the New Comer but I was very, very late with the deadline,” she says, adding that she only finished it two days before we spoke. “Well foolishly, and I realise it was foolish now, I thought I could tour and write a book no problem. Well it was a problem [laughs] so I won’t be doing that again.”
Like many things in her life, Fern’s career as an author was never one she planned yet it came about at the perfect time in her life and her work has become a regular on the best-seller lists.
“I never dreamt that I could write a novel and I did it because somebody asked me and I thought, ‘Okay I’ll take the challenge’ and eight book on it’s going okay. It’s just extraordinary.”
Citing a sense of guidance when it comes to making the right choices where her career and personal life are concerned, Fern prefers to let the right options find her, rather than it being the other way around. “I feel that my life has been very guided somehow, I’ve never really looked for things, I’ve never really built myself a strategy in a career path but I have been guided. Even [with things] like buying a house; when I’ve had to buy another house or if I’ve moved or something, I’ve never had to search hundreds of houses, I might have only seen one or two and gone, ‘Yep that’s it,’ and I’ve been very happy. So it’s an odd thing and the books were the same,” she says.
“There’s that old saying, man plans and God laughs, and I think we all keep going, ‘Yes we’ll do this, we’ll do that,’ well we don’t know actually what others may have in store for us.”
Calendar Girls The Musical plays the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre 22 January – 2 February. For more information see www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie