Fern Britton determined to embrace life after brush with death

Fern Britton. Picture: Jonathan Swannell/PA
Fern Britton. Picture: Jonathan Swannell/PA
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She turned 60 last year – but there was a point when Fern Britton didn’t think she’d live to see that birthday.

The previous summer, following a routine hysterectomy, she developed sepsis – and then pneumonia and a collapsed lung – and says she was on death’s door.

“It was horrendous. It was the worst thing physically that’s ever assaulted me. I had a hysterectomy and unfortunately within three or four days, I started to feel very ill with tremendous pain in my abdomen, which would then go everywhere.

“I was extremely fit, thankfully. But I was very close to dying,” recalls Britton, who was in hospital for weeks afterwards.

The experience has made her approach life differently, she says.

“I’m very grateful. I’ve always counted my blessings but I got through something that was absolutely horrific.”

Today, she is full steam ahead on the work front. Her new novel, Coming Home, about a woman returning from India to Cornwall to face the music after deserting her two children when they were young, has just been published. And she’ll be going on tour this August with Calendar Girls: The Musical – but is playing a character who doesn’t take her clothes off.

“When the call came, I was prepared to say, ‘Yes, I would take my clothes off’, but then I was told I wouldn’t have to and I was quite relieved.”

Britton, who has been in broadcasting for nearly 40 years, started out in TV when the industry was awash with male executives. In the wake of the Time’s Up and #MeToo campaigns, she reveals that during her career she too has been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace.

“I never knew what it was at the time. Without naming names, I was being welcomed to a programme and a very famous man was there and after lunch, he said to me, ‘Well I wonder how long it will be before I’m having an affair with you because I do have a very big c**k.’”

“I was about 24 and I went home to my mum but we didn’t even acknowledge what was going on. Of course, I refused to let anyone faze me.”

Gender pay issues is a topic on which she’s keen to set some records straight.

“When I left This Morning, there was a story saying I left because I wasn’t being paid as much as Phillip, which is not the case, as far as I know,” she says. “I’ve grown up in a situation where you don’t ask people how much they are being paid, so it definitely wasn’t that.”

She may have suffered divorce, depression and a near-death experience during her lifetime, but she has remained confident in her job.

“I’ve always had a sense of self-worth. I just wanted to get on with my own stuff,” she says.

She’s been married to TV chef Phil Vickery for nearly 18 years (they have a daughter, Winnie, together, and three grown-up children from Britton’s first marriage).

So, what’s the secret of her happy marriage?

“We don’t keep each other on a lead. I’m not the sort of wife who is constantly texting him asking him where he is and what’s happening. Most of the time, we are very easy with each other. He never made a fuss about me turning 60. He’s 56 soon – there’s four-and-a-half years between us – and we joke with each other.”

Exercise is a firm fixture in Britton’s life, and she cycles tremendous distances for charity and to keep herself fit.

“Turning 60 was like waiting for a horrible dentist’s appointment. I was very nervous and it took a bit of thinking about, but then the day came and it was fine. Then I started thinking about the positives. I get free prescriptions, 10 per cent off on Tuesdays in the Co-op, my Boots card and my rail card.

“I’m quite proud of those,” Britton continues with a grin. “Whenever I go to the station the man behind the booking desk always says, ‘Whose card is this? It can’t be yours!’ And I find myself saying to people, ‘I’m 60, you know!’”

Coming Home by Fern Britton, published by Harper Collins, £12.99, is out now