Presenter and author Fern Britton talks candidly about her separation from husband Phil Vickery, and why she’s looking forward to exploring the next chapter of her life, on her own!
Fern on her separation from Phil
If you want to make God laugh, says Fern Britton (64), tell him your plans. With two failed marriages under her belt, she now finds herself (happily) alone in Cornwall, writing best- selling novels.
“No one goes into a marriage thinking it might last five or ten years. But there you are. And who could have predicted I’d have a successful career as an author? Life is full of surprises.”
After 20 years and a daughter together, Fern and Phil decided to go their separate ways in January 2020. Their joint statement at the time said they’d decided to “follow different paths,” ripping the fairytale romance apart at the seams. So, what happened?
“There comes a point when the children are substantially off your hands and you look at each other and wonder where you’re going to go from here.” Fern has remained in Cornwall since the split while Phil has decamped to the house they shared in Buckinghamshire. “But he’ll never stop being Winnie’s father. The dynamics are still working equally and warmly. Ten years ago, I’d never have predicted it would end like this, but gradually we realised we were running out of road.
“We didn’t hit a brick wall. It’s just that we both said out loud what we were feeling – and that was it.
“My parents’ marriage didn’t last but my mother would never say a bad word about my father [actor Tony Britton]. Same with me and Phil. If there had been somebody else for either of us, we’d have sorted ourselves out before ending the marriage. But that wasn’t the case.
“He lives 300 miles away and, as far as I know, he hasn’t met anyone new. As for me, I’m not even looking. Nor is there a queue of suitors at the door, which I find liberating.”
Instead Fern’s been keeping herself busy writing nine novels set in Cornwall, all of them top 10 best- sellers. There’s also been a clutch of Cornish-based short stories. But now she’s popping out of a completely new semi-fictional hole with her latest historical offering, The Good Servant. The protagonist is Marion Crawford, the adored governess of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. “I’ve been obsessed with her for years now,” says Fern. “But I didn’t feel I had the experience to write a fictionalised account of her story. Until now.”
The pandemic helped. “It gave me the chance to read a huge pile of 20th century royal history, and I think Crawfie - as she was quickly nicknamed – got a raw deal.” Marion’s husband, George Buthlay, signed a contract on her behalf with the American magazine publishers Bruce and Beatrice Gould, owners of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Crawfie, perhaps naively, agreed to write her book, The Little Princesses, believing that the Queen Mother had given her blessing to the project. In the event, the Palace reacted with horror. Crawfie was quite literally removed from the royal Christmas card list. “And I think she deserved better. Nothing she did was done with malice aforethought.”
Has anyone close to her yet read Fern’s book? “Yes, both my girls.” Grace (25), is her daughter by her first husband, TV executive Clive Jones. She’s just bought a house near her mother in Cornwall and has recently been promoted to supervisor in a restaurant just outside Padstow.
Winnie, 21 in August, is very handy. “I’ve got builders in at the moment and she’s been up on the roof with them helping with the tiling. She’s my man-about-the- house although I can sense that she’ll soon be ready to fly the nest.”
Grace’s elder twin brothers, Jack and Harry, are 28 now and working away from home. “But they don’t like me talking about them in print and I must respect that.” Publicising the book apart, there’s no television work lined up. “But I’m waiting to hear from Channel 5 whether they’d like another series of Watercolour Challenge. I love working on TV, but I did have 30 years of live telly so perhaps I’ve used up the fuel.” In the meantime, she has a contract to write three more books.
She smiles contentedly. So, she’s happy? “I am. I feel like I’m in a fallow field. I’ve been harvested. I’ve got the sun on my face. Now I’m just waiting.” For what? “The next chapter.” She’s made clear her professional plans. As for personal ambitions? “I want to find joy in living the life I want to lead. ”
The world, she says, has opened up again. “I long to do a bit more travelling. I’m a free agent, which is lovely, although it can be a bit of a double-edged sword. I miss the opportunity of talking through a problem, whatever it is, with another adult, just to get their take on it. So I talk to the cats, who usually have the answer. But I’m very lucky in that I have a group of close girlfriends I can open up to.
“You’re looking at a contented woman. In truth, it’s a different contentment from what I imagined. In that sense, I’m on a journey of discovery, but I’m enjoying being me. Simple as that.”
Fern on the loss of her mum
A life ending can often trigger a new beginning – as Fern Britton knows only too well, both professionally and personally. It wasn’t until her adored mother, Ruth, died aged 94 in April 2018, that Fern felt free to write her novel.
Daughters of Cornwall is the heavily fictionalised account of this branch of her family.
Based on her grandmother, it tells the tale of the illegitimate baby boy she gave birth to during the Great War whose father might very well have been Ruth’s uncle, Bertie. “Wherever they are now,” says Fern, “I hope they approve of the book I’ve spun out of their story.”
Then, three days before Christmas last year, she took a phone call to be told that her father, actor Tony Britton, had died, at 95. “I went to tell my girls, Grace and Winnie, and found myself saying: ‘I’m an orphan’. It’s the sudden realisation that the buck now stops here.”
To this day, she talks to both her mother and father in her head, asking them for a bit of help now and again. “I recently hurt my shoulder – I don’t know how – but it’s blooming sore. I’ve torn something and it wakes me up at night. So I’ve asked both of them to have a word with one of the doctoring angels to work their magic. I want to wake up tomorrow morning with the pain gone.”