James Runcie interview: Canterbury tales

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Tall, bouncy, posh, affable, self- deprecating – there are many ways to describe novelist and film-maker James Runcie. You'd never say uptight or driven by deep-seated shame. Yet throughout our interview, the word embarrassment kept cropping up.

Who is James Runcie and what provoked his blushes? He is the eldest child of the late Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Lindy, a pianist. Professionally, James, who is 50 soon, has made films about everything from Barbara Pym and heaven, to JK Rowling. He's in the middle of one about French food, with Bill Buford, author of Heat. The day after we met, he nipped over to France for a pig slaughter – throat cutting at 7:30am, Boudin by noon.

An altogether less messy event is the publication of his fourth novel, East Fortune. Set in Scotland, it's a portrait of three middle-aged brothers, each on the cusp of great change, who are uneasily reunited at the family's East Lothian home in the last days of their father's life.

Runcie grew up in England and came north in the 1980s, spending four years in Edinburgh working for the BBC, were he met his wife, drama producer Marilyn Imrie. But he's quick to insist that, despite the "poncy English voice", he could play for Scotland in any sport I care to name (though he'd plump for football, since Match of the Day is the highlight of his life).

"We are an Ayrshire family. My grandfather went from Greenock to Liverpool to be an electrical engineer at Tate & Lyle. But throughout the 19th century, in Kilmarnock High Street, was a draper's shop called James Runcie. Those were my great-grandparents."

After years down south, James and Marilyn have returned to Scotland to put down roots. "We didn't move around a lot when I was little, but I didn't have that strong sense of home. Maybe that was because we never owned a house," he speculates.

This is indeed a beautiful space, flooded with light, filled with art and books, and with plenty of room for their grown children, Marilyn's daughter Rosie, 30, a film-maker, and Charlotte, 19, an up-and-coming poet in her first year at Cambridge.

Growing up in a vicarage sounds more like squatting – albeit posh squatting. "You got a free house – and we had a chauffeur and a gardener – but you had no cash. So you had to take in lodgers. Once a year the church commissioners came to ascertain what we needed. It was always helpful if there was any chance of the Queen coming, because then you could get a full redecoration."

His earliest memory, age three, is the birth of his sister, Rebecca. Would he say he's a good brother? "We are definitely close and get on well. She lives in London and works for the Financial Services Authority and I think she's sometimes a bit amazed by my luvvie friends, and thinks I'm not good enough with money. It's weird; if you go to separate boarding schools, as we did, you only have half the year in the same house. (The relationship] can be a bit stop-start."

Runcie was sent away aged 11 to Marlborough College and thus deliberately chose not to send his daughters to boarding school. "I know Charlotte feels that I have a yearning to make the perfect family, and it's a ludicrous false hope. It's not that mine was an unhappy childhood, but it was a different and a refracted childhood. I am aware that it was also incredibly privileged."

Pictures reveal a shy, "speccy" boy with hair so red it earned him the despised nickname Belisha Beacon. He may have stood out, but that didn't mean he had his parents' attention when he was home on visits. He acknowledges that Rebecca argues otherwise, saying she felt he received "rather too much attention both inside the family and outside of it. She feels that I was more indulged, and I think she is right."

Rebecca was the first person Runcie consulted about whether or not to make the documentary My Father, which has as its centrepiece his intimate interview with the Archbishop.

"I was fed up with the aggressive tone of questioning (he] received. He was always having to talk about the ordination of women or the Falklands or Mrs Thatcher on telly. His humour, warmth and integrity were never really shown (after he became Archbishop]. I wanted to make that right. One of the most interesting things about people in the public eye is that they have to put their sense of humour on hold.

"Yet I was also reluctant to make it because I was fed up with being the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But I got so many letters afterwards. We've lost the ability to mark rites of passage. One of the things that religion does is give us a language and a framework to mark birth, marriage and death. Now we're expected to recover from death very quickly and not talk about it much. We're supposed to move on."

Despite being a week away from death, his father's charisma shines through on the film, as does a surprising competitive streak. He tussles with James over which of them has had more girlfriends, and tartly says that by dint of serving in the Second World War he buried more friends – an odd triumph, to be sure.

Might Runcie turn the lens on his mum? Lindy (Rosalind) sounds a remarkable character who, as her son rightly assesses, sharply divides opinion.

They are close now, and his admiration is enthusiastically expressed, perhaps because it was so hard won. "My mother was the fourth child of six, and never had enough attention. It was a big family of Cambridge atheist academics, and she is not an academic so she decided to play the piano and marry a clergyman. A double rebellion! One of my friends said that about the most (socially embarrassing] thing you can be in contemporary British society is a born-again Christian.

"She gets a lot of attention in her early marriage, and then my dad becomes more successful, so there's quite a lot of competing with that – or refusing to compete. She would be extremely rude. She would leave dinner parties, literally get up at nine o'clock from a party that started at eight, and say 'I'm going home to watch Monty Python or Not the Nine O'Clock News. She did behave pretty badly in certain areas, and would always shoot her mouth off – as I am doing now."

Endlessly speculated upon in the press, the Runcie marriage was regularly called "difficult". Would he care to elaborate?

"It's hard to explain how radically society has changed. When I was growing up the vicar, or bishop, was a figure of respect. They weren't as potentially comic as they are now. They attracted lots of fawning women, what Barbara Pym would call 'excellent women', widows and spinsters, who would help out. They would dress sensibly and bake and help. A lot of them thought that my mother's feminism and, shall we call it, eccentric behaviour, was disloyal. My father never wanted that kind of wife, I don't think. I think he wanted someone with a bit of fire. But occasionally that eccentricity got out of control. I was deeply embarrassed, as was my sister. We were very proud of our dad and thought she was letting the side down."

The problem Lindy faced plagued her children, too: Runcie didn't really belong to them. It was hammered home to James that as the son of a public figure he had a duty to behave well. All that walking on eggshells created anxiety. Runcie has written: "Even in my childhood I knew … that as a family we were different in some way… Behaving well, being courteous and polite; these were the values that were instilled in us. We had to be seen as setting an example. Vicarage children. Don't let the side down. Keep the show on the road."

Now imagine that you're dutifully toeing the line while your mum's regularly – spectacularly – crossing it! Having surpassed the age his mum was at the height of the controversy, Runcie has a fresh perspective and renewed empathy.

"It is bloody annoying to go into a room where your husband is pounced on and no-one speaks to you. You were, at the very best, a consolation prize. So she would walk out. Or say, 'I'm not going. There's no point, they don't want to see me.'

"I remember being a bit drunk and kicking over a table at someone's 21st and hearing a very snooty voice say, "Is that not the Archbishop of Canterbury's son?' and I said, 'Yes I am, I f***ing am!' You felt that your role was assistant stage manager to your father's life."

Matters came to a head with the Daily Star's anti-Lindy campaign. She sued and won, but negative attention must have lingering repercussions. "Well, she did lie on a piano," James drawls, "that was a big mistake. It's not such a bad thing, but when it's your mum, and when the cover of Private Eye says, 'Gorgeous panting Lindy Runcie,' that's not very nice."

He fantasised about kicking the s*** out of the offending journalist and the "disgruntled former employee" who was his source. "You want to kill them. I had dreams of developing Kung Fu powers and being able to kick him in the face. But along with that was a visceral, Freudian hatred of my mother for embarrassing us all. And, I suppose, the embarrassment of your mother looking like a sexual object. No son really likes that. You are full of rage and shame. It was a tense time."

His mother mellowed considerably after her own mother died, and more once Charlotte was born. "She was very nice to Rosie, but with Charlotte it was an instant bond. I phoned her and said, 'It's a girl,' and she said, 'I'm on my way.' She said to my dad, 'We're going.' He said, 'I can't, because there are clergymen coming who've come all the way from Uganda.' My mother said, 'This baby's come from heaven, get in the car.' Which I thought was great. And he did."

Before settling into middle-aged maturity, Runcie had his share of romantic tangles. "I had a few not very successful girlfriends and one near-miss, a woman called Diana. She was a clergy daughter. We knew each other as children and re-met at Old Vic Bristol Theatre School. Her parents thought our meeting was God moving in a mysterious way. Mine were horrified. They thought I was too young – I was 22, 23 – and Diana too nice and I needed something a bit more eventful. I thought, 'I'll bloody show you eventful!'"

He's clearly referring to marriage to a divorcee with a six-year-old daughter. When he told his folks, his father said, "Are you asking my advice or are you telling me, because my response will be different." James replied, "'I'm telling you I'm going to marry her.' And he said, 'Congratulations.' My mother said, 'She's very nice but it'll never last.'"

He and Marilyn have been together for 25 years, married since 1985. "There was quite a sticky patch where the press officer at Lambeth was a bit worried. I suppose it didn't help that Marilyn decided to get married in scarlet. I think (my parents] were worried about how it might play out, in terms of publicity."

Worried for you or worried for themselves? He rears back, convulsed with laughter. "For them! Oh, they don't worry about me!"

Since, for better or worse, we learn about relationships by observing our parents in action, what filtered down to James? "I made a direct switch to basing my marriage more on Marilyn's parents. They were a lovely couple and what I wanted was a marriage not like my parents'. I wanted to do as many things together as possible, not to lead separate social lives. I thought there was a lot wrong with my parents' marriage, though they were 100 per cent happier when my father stopped being Archbishop of Canterbury."

These days, when not overseeing pig butchery, Runcie is looking ahead to his new role as artistic director of the Bath Literature Festival, and attempting to write about "the most complicated relationship in my life, which is with my 19-year-old daughter. This business of loving someone enough to let them go and yet welcoming them back. Love and rejection, possession, freedom, responsibility …

"What will be terribly ironic and interesting, and I think this is going to happen, is that Charlotte will become a quite famous poet and I'll move from being Robert Runcie's son to being Charlotte Runcie's father, and never having an identity of my own."

Having read his marvellous new novel, I suspect that's highly unlikely.

• East Fortune is published by Bloomsbury on Thursday, priced 14.99. James Runcie will be in conversation with The Scotsman's David Robinson at the Main Street Trading Company, St Boswells, on Thursday 30 April at 7pm.