The first question Barry Norman asked his daughters, Samantha and Emma, after they’d read his memoir, See You in the Morning, the story of their parents’ 53-year marriage and the aftermath of their mother’s death in 2011, was whether they thought their mother had “come out of it well?”
They told him that she did and they reassured him that they thought she’d have liked his book very much. As he repeats their words, the relief in his voice is palpable. And yet, there’s a hesitation.
“I hope so anyway because I’d hate it if she hadn’t come out of it well,” he says, “that’d be a total disaster as far as I’m concerned.” There is a pause. “Does she, as far as you’re concerned?”
That Norman asks me is poignant, but it isn’t surprising. See You in the Morning is his tribute to the woman with whom he shared his life. What leaps from every page, as he traces their life together, the ups and downs of their marriage and their careers, is his concern to do right by the woman he describes as “the best friend a man could ever hope for”.
Mary Diana Narracott was born on 25 August 1933. She grew up first in London and then in Devon. She left school when she was 15 and by the age of 17 she was back in London working on a local newspaper in the city’s East End. By the time she was 20, with a job at the Daily Herald, Narracott was the youngest reporter on Fleet Street. Norman met the striking and confident young reporter in 1956 when they were each sent to cover the arrival of the Moscow State Circus in London. He was 23 and a gossip writer on the Daily Sketch. By October 1957, the young couple were married. They remained so until Diana’s death two-and-a-half years ago.
“When people have been married for a long time, as Diana and I were, you kind of blend into two halves of one person,” he says. “So when one of the couple dies, it’s like half of the remaining person is gone. There was very much that feeling.” Looking back over all of their years in order to write the book was, in some ways, cathartic, he says, but remembering the last couple of years of Diana’s life when she was very ill and then when she died, “that was not easy to do.”
Of course, it’s one thing to write about grief and quite another thing to talk about it. Now 80, although it’s clear he relishes speaking about his late wife (now and then he still slips into speaking about her in the present tense) it does, he realises, take a toll.
“I find I get a bit more worked up emotionally talking about it than I did writing it,” he says. “It’s very strange. I hadn’t expected that so I have to watch it. I’m certainly not about to break down in tears but I do find myself welling up a little bit inside when I talk about her.”
Diana Narracott was, and really remains, the love of Barry Norman’s life. The memoir is, at least in part, his effort to come to terms with his loss. Initially he had no intention of writing a book, rather he decided to write as a way of dealing with his grief. Ever the journalist – Norman has been making his living working as a journalist since he left school and decided to eschew university, writing instead for Kensington News before working his way to the Daily Mail and from there to the Guardian, the Radio Times and a celebrated career as a television presenter and film critic – having committed his thoughts to paper, Norman approached the Daily Mail to see if they’d publish what he’d written. They agreed. It was as a result of that first article, that the idea for the book emerged – part memoir, part celebration of a woman he adored.
“The book was for me and my daughters and my grandsons [Bertie, 19, Harry, 18, Charlie, 16 – “great kids”] because there were parts of Diana’s and my life that they didn’t know very much about,” he says. “I wasn’t so much interested in anyone else outside of the family reading it.” His daughters were, he says, very much in favour of the book and it’s clear that their support has extended far beyond that. “If it hadn’t been for them and the grandsons,” he says, “the last two-and-a-half years would’ve been pretty intolerable actually.”
Norman’s trademark understatement runs through not only his writing but the way he speaks. He describes the success of his relationship with Diana as being based on the fact that they “got on very well indeed”. He’s honest too, though, that this did not mean that their relationship was always harmonious.
“There were times when we argued fiercely,” he says, “but that was good because we were both very opinionated people.” He tells me a story about meeting Barry Cryer recently, an old friend who has been married almost as long as the Normans were together. “He agreed with me that he couldn’t tolerate the idea of being married to someone you couldn’t argue with.” He chuckles.
“There isn’t any formula for a happy marriage, people find their own way to it. But for us it was the fact that we were prepared to disagree, sometimes to the point of anger. But I think also the fact that we gave each other space was very important. We shared an enormous number of interests but we didn’t share every interest.”
Diana loved sailing and with a few friends bought a yacht. Norman’s idea of fun on the high seas was sitting on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth with a gin and tonic in his hand.
When he tells me the story of how she got her skipper’s badge, staying at the helm for hours when everyone else on board was sick as a result of the dreadful weather conditions, he sounds genuinely proud of her, still keen that I should understand what an achievement that was.
Diana was a respected journalist, but when the couple’s daughters were born, she made the decision to give up her career. Norman writes that at the time, despite his wife being the more senior and experienced journalist, there simply wasn’t any choice but that she would stop work and look after their children while he would continue with his career; that was simply the way things worked. In writing the book though, he admits realising just how difficult a decision that must have been for his wife.
“What a huge step it was for her to do that because she was much the more respected journalist at that time,” he says. “I was a meagre gossip writer and she had been the youngest reporter in Fleet Street. I suppose if we were having to make that decision today and we were both in the same position as we were back then, I guess I might’ve been the one to give up the day job. But in those days it was unthinkable.”
As it was, things worked out pretty well. The freelance work that Diana undertook led to her writing a couple of books, kicking off her career as an author – she went on to write 11 well received historical novels and a clutch of acclaimed crime novels under the pseudonym Ariana Franklin – while her husband found his way into a long and successful television career.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about Norman’s book is that there is so little mention of cinema. After all, Norman is a man whose name is synonymous with film criticism since he presented the BBC’s Film programme for more than 25 years. I suppose I expected that many of his memories of his wife would be intertwined with the films that they loved or loathed.
“She enjoyed films but she wasn’t really a movie fan,” he says. “She only liked films which had a happy ending. Her favourite all time film was the Powell/Pressburger film I Know Where I’m Going, which is a wonderful, magical film. And she loved Pretty Woman because of the happy ending.” Neither he, nor Diana ever enjoyed going to premieres or showbiz parties. There is the odd anecdote in the memoir about dinner parties with Hollywood stars (Mel Gibson, petulant and with a chip on his shoulder about his height, Jodie Foster, smart and not in the least bit starry, Kenneth Branagh, charming) but essentially, the Normans weren’t really interested in Hollywood hoopla, the most important thing in their lives was their family and each other.
Diana became gravely ill in 2010. At the time, the doctors who were caring for her didn’t spare Norman with the fact that his wife may not recover and if she did, she was unlikely to be the same woman as before. In fact, true to her indomitable nature, Diana did recover and although she was physically weakened she remained irrepressible.
“In those last six months that she had after she got out of hospital she often said that this was the happiest time of her life and I think that was at least in part because she’d been so close to death,” Norman says. For his part, he remains immensely grateful for that time. “We became even closer. We’d been close for many years by that time but we got even closer because we were both so grateful that she had this time. Towards the end, although I didn’t admit it to myself, I knew it wasn’t going to last much longer because she had a heart condition and the illness had weakened her heart.
“She died a very peaceful death, one I would happily choose for myself – go to bed with my favourite book in my hand, nod off and that’s it. Perfect way to go.”
There aren’t very many people who have been married for more than half a century, but surely even fewer have lived in the same place for almost that length of time. The Normans moved into a house in the Hertfordshire village of Datchford in 1959. It’s where they raised their children and enjoyed time with their grandchildren, it’s where they both wrote novels and did the crossword of an evening. Norman still lives in the same house, one of his daughters, Emma, lives just a hundred yards away with her son Bertie. A college student, Bertie comes to his grandfather’s on a Friday afternoon for lunch. “I make him spaghetti bolognese because it’s his favourite,” says Norman, “and he says it’s even better than the spaghetti bolognese he’s eaten in Italy. It’s a huge compliment.”
As to the difficulty of living in the home he shared with his wife for so long, he’s movingly open.
“My spirits sink still when I go home to an empty house, particularly if it’s dark,” he says. “There is undoubted loneliness – it’s not that I’m lonely for company because I’ve always been happy with my own company, but I desperately miss her company, especially in the evening. During the day it’s not so bad because I’m pottering about and doing things. But in the evening we’d sit together, not always talking, we might both be reading or doing the crossword. It was a lovely warm companionable silence and I miss that.” He pauses. “I’ve got photographs of her in the sitting room and I often curse her for dying before me. But I get no come back which is annoying because in the old days I most definitely would have. She was never lost for an answer, I can tell you that.”
• See You in the Morning: The life, love and loss of my wife, Diana by Barry Norman is published by Doubleday, £18.99.