We loved her as the bubbly face of Blue Peter and later, as mum to singer superstar Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Now Janet Ellis is about to launch a brand-new chapter of her life at 60 as her debut novel, The Butcher’s Hook, hits the shelves this spring. A surprisingly dark tale of misguided love that takes place among the sprawling streets of Georgian London, it’s already tipped to be one of the year’s bestsellers. And Janet couldn’t be happier with what she’s achieved.
“I’ve always wanted to write since I was little. But the last book I wrote to the end was when I was nine and I thought finishing a book was easy.
“For a long time I kept putting up a lot of barriers to writing because I was really scared of it and worried I’d have to change so much of my lifestyle to become an author. I think especially as you get older it’s really comforting to gather everything that’s familiar around you and go I’m really happy now. But actually I found that if you do something that makes you afraid, there’s something great and really liberating about that,” she says.
So, just at the age when most of us might be thinking about retiring, Janet, who initially trained as an actress, decided to pursue a writing course with the literary talent agency, Curtis Brown. A few months later, and the first chapter written, Janet got a book deal. Interestingly, she submitted the first draft of her work to publishers under a pseudonym, borrowing her grandmother’s name to temporarily become Jo Winter.
“What I love about writing is that no matter who you are, you can be absolutely anyone on the page. Through writing the book, I also learned that you have to write bravely. You can’t imagine loads of people staring over your shoulder going ‘urgh, what’s that? Don’t write that!’ And that’s hard, especially if you read a lot like I do and have the voices of other writers constantly going round in your head.”
But Janet knows all too well about being brave. After all, this is the Blue Peter presenter who used to throw herself out of RAF planes – despite her fear of heights – and launch into all kinds of bizarre challenges for the sake of our children’s education. It wasn’t all just ‘here’s one I made earlier’ for this lady, who presented the show with Peter Duncan, Simon Groom and Mark Curry – all of whom she still sees regularly today – as well as the late Caron Keating, from 1983-1987. “Gosh it was such fun,” she says of those days. “I’m so proud to have been part of the show.”
However, there’s another reason Janet understands perfectly what bravery means. For in the mid-Nineties, she suffered 10 miscarriages as she and her husband decided to try for a fourth child. Each of her lost babies were never explained and Janet chose to hold her silence about what had happened for more than a decade. “At the time I chose not to talk about my miscarriages, mainly because I didn’t want my three young children to have their childhood lost to the fact I was trying to have a fourth baby. Particularly for my daughters, Sophie and Martha, I didn’t want them to associate prospective motherhood with difficulty in families. And I didn’t want to be defined by it.
It's so important that women can talk about miscarriage if they want to
“You know, if I’d chosen to be a mother of three, I would have had no problem with describing myself as someone who was fertile and carried her babies easily. But I’m aware I kind of inherited somebody else’s notes in a way after that. With miscarriages that are unexplained, like so many are, there’s this overwhelming idea that it was meant to happen. It was Nature’s way. And people think it’s also Nature’s way to try to forget about it and move on. But that can be so hard.
“Knowing I had my other children did help me. And although I’d lost my mum by then, I still knew how she’d be about it – always erring on the side of the practical – and that was comforting.
“Every now and then the memory of it will catch me out unexpectedly when I meet someone who was pregnant at the same time I was having the miscarriages and they’ll now have what I notice is quite a proper adult as their child. And I think oh that would have been different for our family. But we managed and I know I’m lucky for what I have.”
Janet hopes one day to write a book that talks in some way about miscarriage after being touched by the number of women who came to thank her for speaking up about the subject when she finally revealed her experiences publicly. “Although it’s a very personal thing, it’s also shared by a lot of women and it’s important that women can talk about it if they want to,” she says.
But for now, she’s focusing on finding her feet in fiction – she’ll be starting on her second book, set in the Seventies, soon – as well as making the most of her role as grandma to her daughter Sophie’s four boys. “At the moment, all my grandchildren think I’m all right, although the eldest, Sonny, who’s 11, refuses to dance with me any more which is sad. My grandchildren really are the best possible people in the world and they’ve also deepened my relationship with Sophie, who’s a brilliant mum,” she says. And with such a wonderful career both behind and now in front of her, we reckon Janet’s family have plenty to be proud of her for, too.
- The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis is out now.
- For help and support if you’ve been through a miscarriage, or have a loved one who has, call the Miscarriage Association on 01924 200 799 or visit www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk
Did you know...?
- Janet's father was a soldier, stationed during her childhood at various places in Britain and Germany. Consequently, she attended seven different schools in the two countries
- Janet's first television appearance in 1978 was a small role in the BBC's children's programme Jackanory Playhouse, followed by a bit part in The Sweeney. Her big break came in 1979, when she landed the job of regular presenter of the Clive Doig-produced Jigsaw
- When she's not writing and broadcasting Janet is a Board Member of the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, a Patron of Maggie's Centres, and a Council and Honorary Member of the National Youth Theatre
- She is married to John Leach