What do you say to someone who is dying? What about if you don’t know that person, if you’ve never met them previously? If it’s embarrassing that this is what I was grappling with – my own discomfort – as I climbed the stairs to meet Lynda Bellingham, then my only defence is that it’s not often you meet someone in the position in which she finds herself.
Bellingham has terminal cancer and after a year of chemotherapy has decided that next month she will cease that treatment with the expectation that she will die early next year. It’s not usual, either, for someone who knows the end of their life is fast approaching to spend weeks writing a book about their experience, never mind to then sit with someone like me to talk about it.
So this is new, unfamiliar territory and the apprehension I feel about meeting Bellingham is new, too. It’s not the nerves I always feel before the odd, rushed intimacy of an interview. Bellingham has weeks to live and so I feel nervous about how she will be, how she’ll look, how she’ll cope as we talk about the disease which is is killing her – bowel cancer – and her death.
As she crosses the room to greet me, that odd thing happens when suddenly you’re in close proximity with someone whom you’ve seen for years, decades, but never met. You notice that they’re different to how you thought they would be. Usually, it’s that they’re shorter, or older, or their eyes seem more wary than you’d expected. With Bellingham, illness is part of what forms the surprise – she is slight, frail even. Her hair is white and beneath her tan is the unmistakable hue of jaundice – she has a tumour in her liver. But the real shock is her warmth and humour, the sparkle in her eyes. It feels perverse to notice it, but she is full of life.
“We should be talking about the referendum,” she says, referring to the vote which as we meet is a few days off and fills all the newspapers in the hotel lobby. “It’s a moment in history, isn’t it? I mean, how many people live through something like this?” We look at each other; everything unavoidably connected to the fact that Bellingham’s life is nearing its end. She smiles. “I tell you what,” she says, “it’s a good time to die. Leave them all to it. I’ve tried to sort them all out, god knows I’ve tried, but I haven’t quite managed it.” She laughs. It feels like the joke is mainly for my benefit, a way of making it easier for me to broach the subject we’re here to talk about. And maybe it makes it a little easier for her too.
Bellingham, 66, has been a household name for decades. She’ll hate me writing it (“The last thing that I want to be on people’s lips is that she was the loving mother from the Oxo adverts. Forty-five years of graft and trauma and I’m the f***ing woman that makes gravy.”) but despite the appearances in All Creatures Great and Small and Faith in the Future and years in Calendar Girls on stage, and being part of the Loose Women panel; despite having written a novel and carried out decades of charity work, she is still best known as the harried mum serving a roast to her squabbling family. Those ads ran for 16 years, they were massively successful and they cemented a certain image of Bellingham which she knows she’s never managed to entirely shake off.
“I always thought if I can make it to my sixties, by the time I’ve got there everyone else will have fallen by the wayside so it’ll only be me and then Miss Marple’s got my name on it. It’s just my bloody luck that the timing is so off.” Her tone, as ever, is jokey, but there’s a seriousness too. “I wanted more from my career. I did. But it’s not a regret, it’s a way of seeing things that I should’ve done. I don’t want to end up looking like a miserable old boot lying on the sofa saying, I could’ve played that part. Well, I do a bit of that.” She smiles. The subject might be the hardest to take, the saddest to grapple with, but Bellingham is a performer, she knows how to tell a story. She’s entertaining, funny, totally engaging. And then it hits you – this woman is dying. It’s the oddest sensation, like laughing at a funeral. But this is the point that Bellingham wants to make. Even when the illness is terminal, when death is close, there’s still life, the chance to do things, go places, tell people things, take control of the time that’s left.
“I understand that for some it’s too much to bear,” she says. “Perhaps they don’t have a loving family around them, I understand. But if one person reads what I’ve written and thinks, I hadn’t thought about it that way, maybe I can have a nice life for the next two years or the next five years, well it’s worth a try, then I will have achieved something.”
Bellingham’s career has been one of reinvention, she says. After the ads and TV series, there was Loose Women, after daytime telly there was a four-year stint on the road with Calendar Girls. When that ended she had to decide what was next and the ambition to show everyone (and maybe herself too) what kind of actor she is was first and foremost. It didn’t take long for her to find the right project. A producer friend owned the rights to the play A Passionate Woman, by Kay Mellor, which he’d produced in the West End 20 years ago. A black comedy, it focuses on a woman in her late fifties on the day of her son’s wedding. She is in a loveless marriage and sees her future stretching out ahead of her, not entirely pleasurably. The play was important to Bellingham because it would allow her to show her skill as an actor, but the cruel irony of its themes are what stick in your throat.
“Amidst all the crappy stuff,” she says, “my greatest stroke of luck has been to meet someone who married me when I was 60 and he was 54. That’s been the greatest thing for me, but the worst thing for Michael. We’ve set up a new life – the plan was to work really hard for five years, get some money in the kitty, then we’d have what 15, 20 years and we’d have done all these things.” These things include buying a big house in the Somerset countryside where family and friends could come and stay. Then, when the guests left, they’d pack up and fly off, travelling and having fun. “We always have such a laugh,” she says.
Bellingham’s husband, Michael Pattemore, sits on an armchair nearby, sipping a glass of wine. A quiet man who speaks in a soft Somerset accent, he watches his wife as she speaks and now and then they talk directly to each other, as though they’re still coming to terms with what they’re going through. Bellingham describes Michael as her “soulmate” and it’s clear that while she talks about her luck at having met him, she is speaking as much about their bad luck at being forced apart by something beyond their control. I wonder how it felt for him to read what she’d written?
“I cried my eyes out,” he says, and then he seems to run out of words.
“The thing about the crying and all that,” she says. “Everyday life intrudes. Robbie [her younger son, there’s also Michael and stepson Bradley] would say, ‘oh I’ve got a parking ticket’ and I’d say ‘oh for f***’s sake shut up. I’ve got cancer’. That’s become a thing. That’s life. It’s the f***ing minutiae of life that gets you down – when the boiler goes or a fuse blows – the big stuff…” she shrugs and sips her glass of rosé.
And who am I to argue? I know what she means, but, of course, I also know that the way Bellingham is responding to the big stuff is not the way many people do. It’s not her openness that is new. Over the years she has spoken about her drinking and about her painful marriages, the first which ended in a suicide attempt, the second in which she was the victim of domestic violence. But speaking about terminal cancer and death demands a different kind of openness. She is unflinching in her description of the physical toll of her illness, the changes in her body, the task of coping with having a stoma. She tells a funny story about trying to empty it in a toilet at Buckingham Palace when she was receiving her OBE, awarded for her charity work. “Bowel cancer kills many more people than breast cancer but who is going to talk about poo? With breast cancer you can have reconstructive surgery, you can look ok again, you can’t with this.” She pats her tummy self-consciously but tenderly, as though she’s talking about cellulite
“On a day to day basis, watching your body become no longer your own, that’s probably more upsetting than the cancer. Once you get over the fact that you’re dying, the cancer is ok. It’s the side effects, the effects on other people and having to change your life. It’s bizarre.”
When Bellingham was diagnosed, her oncologist believed that she’d had the tumour in her colon for around 18 months but she had had no idea. “Ignorance is certainly not bliss and I want to weep as I write this now,” she says in her book. It’s one of the few mentions of her grief as to what’s happened to her. But that’s not to say there isn’t a real honesty about the way in which Bellingham’s life has been turned upside down since her diagnosis. It’s been the way in which cancer has robbed her of control of her own life that has been among the hardest aspects of the illness to cope with. “Every time I’d get it stable and think I’ve cracked it, another thing would happen,” she says. “But the relief in that is that life is random. You read surveys about how we all have the right to live to 80. No, nobody has a right to live. In the great cosmic scheme of things, whether you’re religious or not, at the end of the day it’s in someone else’s hands. Accept it.
“The basis of the book is about life, not death,” she says. “If you’re given a curve ball, be it a spinal injury, a tragedy in your life, of course it’s terrible, but it’s about not having the life that you expected, but a different one. I have kept myself alive by focusing my energy on life.”
Bellingham’s hope is that she can raise awareness of bowel cancer, but more than that, that she can reveal how it impacts on life. The treatment she received was never a cure, it was a way of shrinking the tumours in her colon and the secondaries in her lungs and liver. But it hasn’t worked and so now she’s made the decision to stop. “I want one more Christmas at home because that’s my favourite time and then, although I can’t control it, early new year I will die.”
Bellingham’s matter of factness, her honesty, fills me with admiration but a bit of concern too. I don’t feel judgmental about the fact that she might be keeping the full impact of her illness at bay, just interested in how she is managing to do that. “I still can’t explain it,” she says. “I’m not in denial, but on the other hand I refuse to acknowledge it.”
What hasn’t she acknowledged?
“It’s 14 months since my diagnosis. It’s not that I think there’s going to be an amazing cure discovered or anything but it’s still in the ether. This week my legs have gone a bit funny. I had an awful moment in the airport, I couldn’t understand what was happening with my legs, I couldn’t move them. And then I did suddenly think in the night, ‘oh, there’s going to be a moment when I know I’m going. Oh dear, how will I do that?’”
Bellingham has planned her funeral. She knows who will get favourite items of her jewellery. She likes the thought of people who are special to her carrying around a piece of her. She wants to make sure, too, that her family, especially her sons, have “a box of memories”, happy thoughts about her and their lives together. But her uncertainty about the moment of death is why she doesn’t want people crowding around her bed. It’s an unbearable thought. What she hopes is that now that people understand that her cancer is terminal, they will speak to her spontaneously, they will, if they want to, tell her how they feel and she will be able to respond. Her son Michael has already told her he is sorry for the way he behaved towards her when he was younger. “It was very nice,” she says, “because most mothers never hear that.”
Pattemore was with Bellingham when she was given her diagnosis. After they got home, she told her two sons and her stepson. A few other people knew. But many of her friends will have found out like the rest of us, with the publicity surrounding the publication of the book she’s written.
“People text me to ask me how I’m doing. They all say I expect the chemo is nearly over, that’ll be the end of it. It’ll be a relief to just say, actually it’s not worked so let’s get on with it, have lunch and talk about something else.” She pauses. “I do think it will be a bit of a shock to people.”
“Huge,” Michael says quietly. She looks at him and then at me. “It’ll be a relief to some,” she says, smiling.
• There’s Something I’ve Been Dying To Tell You is published by Coronet on Thursday, priced £16.99