No need to ask glamorous singer Patti Boulaye to nominate the greatest influence in her life. ‘My mother, Aret, instilled such faith in me and my eight brothers and sisters. Every day, I thank her. She died in 1999 but I still talk to her in my head every day.
“She and my dad had a very acrimonious divorce and then she raised all her children single-handedly. She always called Jesus her friend. If ever I told her I loved her, she’d say, ‘And I love you, too. But Jesus loves you more’ ”
Like mother, like daughter. ‘When my daughter, Aret, was growing up, I banned television so she could concentrate on her studies. I’m a typical African mother: strict but loving. She learnt to speed-read. When she read law at Westminster University, she got the top marks in the whole of the UK in her second year. She’s also a singer – she appeared on The Voice in 2013 – and the mother of Dante, my beloved three-year-old grandson.’
When Aret was 11, a teacher asked her to draw an animal that best represented her mother. So she drew a panther. When the teacher asked her why, Aret said: “Well, my mother is black and she’s beautiful but if you were to touch her young, she’d kill.”’
Now, Patti has written her autobiography, The Faith of a Child, and is about to embark on a tour of her one-woman show exploring the songbook of the late Billie Holiday. Patti’s has certainly been quite a life. In the Seventies, she joined the cast of the musical, Hair: ‘I thought I’d died and gone to hell!’, she says.
‘I hadn’t ever been exposed to the lifestyle of most of the cast. It was all sex and drugs. Most of them were like rampant rabbits, to be quite honest. Am I old-fashioned? I do hope so. My nickname was Miss Green because they said I was so naïve. What nonsense! I knew a lot more than all of them.’
In 1978, she took part in TV talent show, New Faces, and was the first person to score maximum points from all the judges. ‘I’d just lost my brother Tony, a pilot, in a plane crash aged 33. It was the first time I was really angry with God.
‘My agent said I should enter the competition to take my mind off my grief. And it changed my career completely. When I came back from the funeral in Nigeria, there were photographers waiting for me at Heathrow. Suddenly, I was public property.’
She was back in the public eye last year in a BBC documentary series, The Real Marigold Hotel, in which eight senior celebrities travelled to India to see how they’d fare. ‘I said yes because I was interested in their spirituality and the respect they have for their elderly. If I could wave a magic wand that’s something I’d have brought back from there to the UK. In India – and Africa – people realise the elderly have seen and done so much, that they’re full of wisdom. In Britain, it feels almost as though the elderly are discarded.’
But the Indian experience was enough. ‘I turned down the offer to repeat the exercise in Florida and Japan.’ Why? ‘I thought the way the producers treated us made it more like a reality show and I didn’t sign up for that.’ It was more than that. I refuse to be undignified. I don’t want to sit around swearing and making vulgar noises.’
That wasn’t true, it seems, for some of her fellow travellers. ‘I liked all of them as people but there were three – Miriam Margolyes, Wayne Sleep and darts player Bobby George – who couldn’t utter a sentence without using the F-word.
‘I’d wince each time but only Wayne would apologise. It had become such a habit, he said, that he didn’t know he was doing it. With Miriam, I couldn’t help feeling she wanted to shock just for the sake of it. And I hated that.
‘I’ll never forget when we all turned up in Jaipur. It had been a long journey. The host family had laid out a magnificent meal and welcomed us with such warmth. My instinctive reaction was that we should give thanks so I said I was going to say grace.
‘Miriam suddenly piped up: “I object to that.” No one intimidates me so I asked if anyone else objected and, when no one spoke up, I said a short grace, no more than saying thank you for a safe journey, for this family’s lovely welcome and for the food we were about to eat. When I’d finished, Miriam piped up again: “That was totally uncalled for.” I was so grateful when Sylvester McCoy broke in and said: “Oh, for goodness sake, Miriam, what’s wrong with being gracious?”
‘I got on particularly well with Jan Leeming who I quickly discovered had values very like mine. I know how to make good television and that doesn’t involve demeaning myself. I believe entertainment is a public service,’ says the formidable Patti Boulaye, ‘and we should respect that.’