Full Floella

Liz Nicholls


Liz Nicholls chats to Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE

Q. Hello Floella! I know you love to write – do you have any tips for our readers who might like to write a short story and don’t know where to start?
“Yes, firstly, don’t get it right, get it written! You can always go back and change or chuck it later, after all. You might not know where to start, but once you start to inhabit that world you’ve created, the imagination will help you find a way. Also: use your experiences. Children are wonderful natural writers because they’re seeing things for the first time. So, remember the innocence of when you saw the moon for the first time, a river, a butterfly, rabbit! I always like writing with pen and paper – you feel your hand move across the page which is wonderful. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do it! You can!”

Q. You love to sing, don’t you?
“I love singing! When I’m singing I go into orbit – I just float. My father was a jazz musician and I used to sing with his band. He used to say ‘feel the song, feel the words’. You don’t even have to have a great voice; Frank Sinatra didn’t, but he lived every word. As children, we used to sing the blues while we did the chores [bursts into song]! You feel lighter, and don’t notice you’re working! My mum used to sing Jim Reeves but she had a terrible voice. Every birthday she’d call up and sing Happy Birthday really badly, and now that she’s gone my brothers and sisters all take turns to sing it in her voice. And I used to love singing on Playschool!”

Q. You’ll be 68 this month; how do you stay so full of beans?
“I did my stretching this morning before I spoke to you; I like to stay supple. I ran ten consecutive marathons but one day my body gave up and said no more of that! I used to be president of the Ramblers’ Association and still walk a lot; for Easter I went to Cumbria and walked for nine hours a day – it’s my spiritual home. I’m not a gym-goer, but am always running up and down stairs, hoovering the stairs, carrying bags. I’m conscious I’m getting older and have to stay mentally and physically fit. I try to remember phone numbers and, when I’m giving a speech, I never have a script. We live in an age where you press button and it’s done, it’s instant. But the brain is like a muscle – you have to keep it fit. I might have a glass of champagne on special occasions but I’m not a big drinker. Apart from that, I keep smiling! It makes you resilient and strong.”

Q. What’s your secret to a long, happy marriage?
“I’m such a lucky girl, to be honest; I was born into a family full of love and left the bosom of my family to fall in love with a man who loved me so passionately. Keith and I were born a day apart and we’re made for each other. When I was ten I came to London from Trinidad and he came to London from Manchester. We lived in Chiswick, a few streets from each other and, for the next nine years we probably criss-crossed paths across London. Then we met in a theatre, 47 years ago, and have been together ever since. We have such a pure partnership; it makes us confident in ourselves.”

Q. How does it feel to be a baroness?
“I tell you something: life has a mysterious way of working out and I’m so grateful to be treated with such affection. We used to live in Anerley [in south London] and my mum really wanted to move to Beckenham – a very white, middle-class area with the best healthcare and best jumble sales! We went to go and view a house there and someone called the police to say black people were there, and they might steal the fixtures and fittings. Anyway, my mum bought that house and we lived there for 40 years. They’re both buried now, my parents, in Beckenham and, once I became a baroness, I visited them in the cemetery there. I told them my news and said ‘I’m now Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham – how about that for a turn-up?’ Everything that happens, you can use. Grab the positives and focus on what you can offer the world; it will reward you.”

Please visit www.floellabenjamin.com

Lost & Found

Liz Nicholls


Liz Nicholls chats to actor and musician Martine McCutcheon

Q. I know you’ve had a hard time with your health [Martine was diagnosed with ME and Lyme disease]. How are you feeling now?
“Really good, thank you. It’s been a lot of work, slowly but surely I’ve built myself up. At one point it was an achievement to get myself to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and go back to bed without feeling like I was going to collapse. It was literally that difficult. I was very depressed. Now I have a whole new appreciation of life – so much so that I can be a bit annoying! I’m always saying ‘look at those trees! Look at that lovely old couple holding hands!’ My friends are like ‘Calm. The hell. Down, woman!’ But it’s great to feel alive.”

Q. How does it feel to know your album is coming out after a long break from music?
“I was nervous at first because these song were never meant to be on an album! It’s really personal stuff, some of it written when I was having a hard time, just so I could try to work through some of my feelings. It’s nice that something good has come out of something so difficult. I’m also pleasantly surprised that anyone is interested. You don’t take it for granted in this game – being away for so long and focusing on other things. It’s amazing and I’m so grateful.”

Q. Is your two-year-old son Rafferty musical, like his parents?
“Well, he has music in his genes; he’s got a little Spider-Man guitar he likes to play and he is on the drums in (Jack McManus) Daddy’s studio all the time. I always wanted to be a mum, but it eluded me for a long time. He’s been the beacon of light in all our lives.”

Q. Are you sick of the press focusing on your weight?
“Yes! Rightly or wrongly, my weight has usually been the last thing on my mind. In this industry when being a size six is the norm, it’s a lot of pressure. Luckily – at my age – there’s no pressure to be supermodel-perfect. I think it’s demeaning to grade women by their weight. I can’t believe that in this day and age we’re so demeaning – you wouldn’t judge someone for the colour of their skin or their accent. I find body shaming really weird and creepy.”

Q. How do you unwind?
“I love Thai massage bubble baths and scented candles. I’m a typical Taurean – I love luxury; it makes me feel safe. I love to do really gentle yoga and watch something really light and fluffy on telly. I’m a big Murder She Wrote fan – I’ve always loved it, like a little old lady, Rosemary & Thyme and Midsomer Murders!”

Q. Do you watch EastEnders?
“I don’t! It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday because you know how it works, you know the mechanics, and it’s a different time. I feel blessed that I was in EastEnders when I was. In those days you had no reality TV, only four channels. So when you made a name for yourself in one of the big soaps, people at home were really intetested in you. At that time we had Top of the Pops filming in the nearby studio, and pop stars like Bono and Kylie would come and hang out. I remember me and Patsy [Palmer] pinching ourselves because Noel Gallagher came along and was pleased to meet little old us! It was a hedonistic but innocent time and I loved it.”

Q. Do you get nervous before performing live?
“I get horrifically nervous! I turn into a very irritable nervous wreck before I go on stage! I try to deep breathe and calm down. But the minute you stop getting nervous, you stop that energy. So long as you treat nerves as your friend and not your foe, it will give you that oomph you need on stage.”

Q. Is there one stand-out live music performance you’ve seen? “Fleetwood Mac in Madison Square Gardens. Jack took me to see them and Lindsay Buckingham just stole the show, so did Stevie Nicks. I adore the chemistry of them together. They had the whole audience on their feet; everybody was smiling and singing. It was the most spine-tingling experience and I was walking on air for three days after. Seeing them, showed me why I want to do what I do.”

Jackson Live!

Liz Nicholls


Liz Nicholls chats to singer, songwriter, guitarist and dad Tito Jackson

Q. Hello Tito and thanks for coming to play in this country for your 50th anniversary. 50 years – how does that feel?
“It’s been a great trip! In the early days, as brothers we couldn’t have dreamed we’d be what we are today. To have such a longevity is a blessing – we can put ourselves in the same category as the Stones. Every turn of the way there’s something new to be excited about which keeps our motivation going. We’re very proud of the 50 years we’ve done. We keep making the music and telling our story and being The Jacksons – that is who we are.”

Q. Do you feel Michael is present with you on stage?
“Yes, Michael is constantly in our minds while we’re on stage. We’re performing songs of the Jackson Five and we feel him with us. We do some of Michael’s music on stage and he’s certainly remembered.”

Q. I hear you love playing in England?
“Yes; England has always been a love, not just for me but the whole group – it was the first country we ever visited outside of America. When we got there in the early 1970s we got such a reception – they chased us through the airport, gathered outside our hotel singing Jackson Five songs, the streets blocked off and everything! England’s history, beauty and the people mean we love performing for English people!”

Q. What was it like meeting The Queen?
“I played at the Jubilee show in the ’70s and met The Queen and Charles – Elton John played, too. We had all the instruction on how to greet The Queen – there’s certain protocol, you see, you mustn’t touch her hand and all that… and we were nervous! But when we met her she was very nice to us, made us feel so comfortable around her. It’s a memory you’ll never forget, meeting The Queen of England; I have that picture of us all on my mantelpiece. For us, it’s right up there with being inducted into the Hall of Fame.”

Q. Do you listen to new music?
“Yup, I try to put my ear on everything I can. Even if you don’t care for a song when you first hear it, you can get something from it. I listen to as much as possible; it keeps me musically trained so that’s where I’m at with that. I like Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, Beyoncé, The Weeknd… and all music by The Jacksons, 3T stuff [Tito’s sons’ band], and Janet’s too, of course!”

Q. Did you encourage your sons [TJ, Taryll and Taj] into the industry or was it a natural career choice for them?
“It was natural because when they were little boys they always went to their uncles’ shows. They’d lip synch along to I Want You Back and ABC and I’d say ‘what are you guys doing?’ And they’d say ‘we love the music and want to be like our uncles’. And I said ‘there’s more to it than lip synching – if you’re gonna be like us you’ve got to learn some instruments!’ The next four years we’d mess around, having so much fun with drums and keyboards and, the next thing you know, they were playing a Yamaha convention and have been going ever since. I’m proud of my sons – you’ll be hearing more from them!”

Q. Would Janet or Latoya ever be part of the group?
“As far as sharing a stage, it’s a possibility. It’s just scheduling – a task that can be tackled! We’re all excited for Janet, the baby of our family who now has a baby of her own; she’s doing great. She’s very happy about her new son and can’t wait to get herself back on the road someday.”

Q. What advice would you give to any budding musician? “Remember showbusiness is fun but has lots of setbacks. There are good avenues you can take, but bad ones, too, which lots of artists have taken. If you can keep your head level, make the best music you can, love your fans and never rely on one hit, you’re good. Without fans you don’t have a leg to stand on – they support you and keep you standing. I’ve never refused a picture or autograph. You owe them… Yep – remember your fans!”

Flower Power

Liz Nicholls


Liz Nicholls catches up with the nation’s favourite gardener Alan Titchmarsh who turns 67 this month and has written more than 50 books.

Q. What’s your favourite plant and why?
“I’m a huge fan of Cedrus libani – the cedar of Lebanon. I planted three in the land at the back of our house ten years ago and they are beginning to look lovely… though I’ll never see them at their glorious best. It gives me tremendous pleasure to think those who come after me will enjoy them.”

Q. Where did you love of gardening spring from?
“I was eight or nine and loved being outdoors. I found I could sow seeds and they would come up and it spurred me on. I built my own greenhouse when I was 10 or 11 from old bits of wood and polythene. It was my sanctuary, even then.”

Q. How well do you know Blenheim?
“I’ve always loved the grandeur and proportions of Blenheim and the way it sits so beautifully in the landscape. I’m a great fan of
Capability Brown and his work here is spectacular.”

Q. Do you get ‘mobbed’ by fans while you’re out?
“Not exactly mobbed – except at flower shows! People come up all the time – not always to ask advice. Sometimes just to say ‘hello’, which is really rather nice.”

Q. What do you love about where you live?
“I split my time between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight where we have a house by the sea. To be allowed to make two gardens – one coastal – has been a joy. I love the food at the Little Gloster restaurant in Gurnard, just outside Cowes. They do the best roast pork on a Sunday! I’m a Yorkshireman living away from home but have lots of friends in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight and my grandchildren live ten minutes away from us in Hampshire. Closeness to my family is the most important thing of all.”

Q. What is your favourite piece of music?
The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams always moves me.”

Q. Do you enjoy writing? Any more books in the pipeline?
“I’ve written for a living since 1974 – first about gardening and subsequently about natural history and royalty. I wrote my first novel in 1998 and recently completed my tenth – Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour. I’ve loved writing since I left school, whether stories, newspaper columns or non-fiction. It’s just what I do. I have been commissioned for another two novels so I’ll have to get thinking. Heaven knows where the inspiration comes from, but I hope they are entertaining and thought-provoking.”

Q. What’s your favourite book?
“I would choose The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – it’s a lovely story and the perfect evocation of the English countryside.”

Q. If you could grant one wish for Britain, what would it be?
“I hope we can keep our children and grandchildren connected with the natural world – screens seem to keep them away from it. I feel passionate about communicating the thrill of nature and growing things to the next generation. Without that understanding both they and the planet will suffer. Get them out there!”

Q. Is there any bit of gardening kit you treasure?
“I treasure my grandfather’s spade and I bless the day I bought pair of long-reach De Wiltfang secateurs that mean I can prune high branches without a ladder!”

Q. What advice would you give your younger self?
“Trust your instinct and remember you have as much right to be here as anybody else. Be open to opportunities that come from unexpected directions and prize generosity of spirit above all else.”

Q. Is there anything on your bucket list?
“I’d love to conduct an orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall!”

You bet

Liz Nicholls


We catch up with singer-songwriter Olly Murs, about life and music after The X Factor

Q: Your new album – 24 Hrs – is your fourth consecutive number 1. How does that feel?!
“Amazing! I’m very proud – I never expected in my wildest dreams I would’ve got this far… so, absolutely delighted.”

Q. Who were your early musical influences?
“I grew up listening to soul and ska as well as Brit Pop. So Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown, Bowie, The Specials, Madness… I also looked up to people like [Michael] Bublé, Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake for their musical careers and their longevity.

Q. Is there a song that never fails to cheer you up?
“Go-to cheerful tunes… too many to mention! But Chic’s Good Times never fails to cheer me up.”

Q. What about your favourite film? And book?
The Goonies – classic! But I’m a massive Star Wars fan so I’d say any Star Wars film. I don’t have a favourite book – but I love a good biography. Sir Alex Ferguson’s was brilliant.”

Q: You’re the most successful male artist ever to come from the X Factor – what do you reckon has been the secret of your success?
“I dunno, I’d like to think I’ve done some great songs. My previous albums are happy and people enjoy listening to them. This album is still happy, still got lots of that vibe on it, but it’s probably the most heartbreaking, most honest I’ve done. It’s just luck, you know, that people like me and people have bought my albums and I’m very lucky they do!”

Q: You’re undertaking a massive UK headline arena tour this month and a huge run of outdoor shows – how do they vary?
“It’s fun being outside; I’ve done racecourse gigs but not this sort of size. It gives me the chance to go to different places in the UK I haven’t been to before, do something slightly different. I can’t wait – I mean, I can go to the racecourse during the day, have a little flutter on a couple of the races and then do a gig in the evening. Perfect. You’ve got out there and put a few bets on – the only problem for me at the races is not drinking too much! A couple of sly beers, maybe…”

Q: Have you got a pre-stage ritual?
“Me and the band have a little huddle before the show and we sing a song we’ve got as a team and we’ve been doing for the last six or seven years. I’m sure we’ll be sinking a few shots before the show as well just to get into the racecourse spirit!”

Q: How do you choose your set list?
“It’s going to be difficult, you know, five albums. But you’ve just got to play the hits and the songs people know. That’s what I’ll do with the set – make it as entertaining as possible. I’ll throw in a few covers as well, have a bit of a laugh with the fans and it’ll be a really fun day out. I promise any fan that comes along, it’ll be a right laugh from the start of the day to the end of it and I promise to make sure everyone goes home happy having had a good time!”

Happy as Larry

Liz Nicholls


Liz Nicholls chats to actor, radio presenter, dad and star of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! Larry Lamb

Q. How do your children feel about you being an older sex symbol?
“A what? [Laughs] Oh – a half-dead sex symbol? Yeah they find that idea of their old Dad amusing. It also verges on ‘too much information’, when it comes to parents and ‘sex’, if you know what I mean. So there’s a bit of embarrassment, too. But they’re very supportive – they’re good kids.”

Q. What’s the weirdest fanmail you’ve received?
“Funny you should ask that. Fanmail only tends to arrive in large amounts when you’re somewhere fixed. When I was on EastEnders I got loads. But – must be a mark of getting older – it was generally very tame, respectful stuff, asking how to get into acting and so on. Other actors have told me about all sorts of out-there ‘requests’ and whatever… but I never got that. Disappointing, really!”

Q. You’re descended from a lion tamer aren’t you?
“Yes I am but I wouldn’t fancy that job much! The BBC took me to Woburn to get up close to a lion there. And, I tell you what, those huge creatures are beautiful… on the other side of the wire mesh. I wouldn’t want to get in a cage with one, that’s for sure. I have a lot of respect for animals – I just can’t imagine doing that.”

Q. But you didn’t seem scared of anything in the jungle! Does anything frighten you?
“Once you face mortality, not so much. When I was young I was convinced I was going to live forever, which is how all young people are. It’s only maybe over the last ten years I’ve started to grow up. I think once you hit 60 you’re not immortal any more and that helps you look at things with a more sensible eye. I stopped drinking, partying, calmed it down and that is very levelling. I want to be around as long as I can for my kids and not much else matters.”

Q. Was it a laugh, working on Gavin and Stacey?
“Comedy is unbelievably exacting. You’ll have a bit of a laugh now and again but laughter is what you’re trying to produce, not do, if that makes sense. When you’re working on a scene that’s got to be funny and you have ten people in a room and have to get that perfect take, it’s pressure I can tell you. You love your team but at the end of that day most people in that room want to run out tearing their hair out. Sorry to sound so serious about it but if you’re doing it right, the finished article crafted for the public should be much funnier than the making of it.”

Q. Is there anything on your ‘bucket list’?
“There are places I’d still like to go and see, places I will be happy to go back to. I’d like to spend a bit of time in India as well as China. So much more of the world to discover.”

Q. You’re returning to EastEnders aren’t you?
“Yes – I’ll grab it by the reins and go for it. EastEnders is a big machine, a massive show. The production, the cameras, the viewers… it’s big machine, EastEnders, and a huge responsibility. I imagine it could be daunting to go into for the first time but I’ve been there before and worked in so many media that I treat it as a job – an important one at that. Exciting, though!”

Q. Any advice you’d give to your younger self?
“Be nice to people. There’s a good chance people will be nice back.”

Mummy’s Boy, Larry Lamb’s autobiography, is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

Formula 1

Liz Nicholls


We chat to former motorsport engineer and Formula One team principal Ross Brawn OBE

Q. What advice would you give engineers looking to get into F1?
“A very small percentage of engineers who wish to follow a career in F1 succeed, unfortunately. There are probably a thousand engineers employed directly by the teams and a high demand for places within those. My advice is to look at the various disciplines; aerodynamics, metallurgy, software engineering, composite structures, engineering design, etc. Try to specialise. And get your hands dirty!”

Q. In 2009, preparing to race as Brawn GP, did you ever have doubts?
“Many. We had major set-backs from November 2008, when Honda announced they were withdrawing, until February 2009, when we did the deal to buy the team ourselves. Strangely, because there was no choice than to carry on, there was a simple commitment to be at the first race. However, there were many false dawns. We got there, but with no spare parts. Luckily the drivers, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello were experienced, made no mistakes, didn’t damage anything and we finished first and second. It was a reward to the team after hard work in the face of adversity.”

Q. Is it still a good idea to have a race in Monaco?
“Yes, the combination of a street race, Formula One, speed, glamour, history, is intoxicating! It is the toughest challenge on the Grand Prix calendar. You’re racing at speeds up to 280kph on the streets of Monte Carlo and one mistake, you hit the wall, but the drivers love the circuit. It is a unique event and long may it continue.”

Q. Is it inevitable F1 will go electric?
“No, far from it! Formula One is primarily sport and entertainment, and the pursuit of technology is secondary. I do think the sport is at a crossroads. Formula One has been aligned with road cars. But, on the road, the role of the internal combustion engine is now being challenged by new technologies such as hybrid, electric or fuel cells. Formula One provides an accelerated learning and development for manufacturers. The noise is one of the major emotions, especially when you attend a live event. Electric motors are virtually silent. The sport has to take all of this into consideration and decide what it wants to be. The fans will vote with their feet.”

Q. Is there one defining F1 moment you’d change?
“The loss of a driver is the most traumatic event one can experience. Fortunately, I never experienced that in a team I was with, but in the F1 community we lost eight drivers during my 37-year career. Ayrton Senna died in 1994 which changed the sport in many ways, but the positive outcome was the loss intensified the approach towards the safety standards of the cars and the circuits.”

Q. Can you tell us about your new book?
“I was approached by a previous colleague, Adam Parr, ex CEO of Williams Grand Prix, who thought it might be interesting to compare Formula One with military strategy. We have tried to give a unique insight into the business and sport of Formula One and the strategies that were successful, along with stories and anecdotes. There were many interesting comparisons, particularly with some of the old Chinese writings and philosophies.”

Q. You’re a keen fisherman – game or coarse?
“Both. I was taught to fish by my dad when I was a nipper. We fished the polluted canals and rivers around Manchester in the late ’50s and early ’60s. I travel the world for different species; trout, salmon, bonefish, tarpon, permit, trevally, milkfish… anything that is strong, aggressive, tough to catch and that will take a fly. About five years ago I realised my dream and took on a small stretch of the River Itchen. I spend my time there watching nature and working with the river keeper. I’ve probably fished it only a dozen times. It’s become a special place for me.”

Total Competition: Lessons in Strategy from Formula One by Ross Brawn and Adam Parr is out now.

Vine and dandy

Liz Nicholls


Liz Nicholls talks to comedian Tim Vine

Q. Are you getting into character as Idle Jack for the pantomime?
“Yes! I always play the idiot friend of the female lead in panto and, being a bit of a moron, I just turn up in character. I’m not a Dame so it doesn’t take me long to get dolled up – I just put on some colourful corduroy and I’m good to go. I’ve never seen Matthew [Kelly, who plays Sarah the Cook] when he isn’t dressed up. It was the same when I did panto with him a couple of years ago. I think it’s such a palaver to put all that make-up on he’s decided to whack it all on once and leave it on until January 16th.”

Q. Are you all having fun?
“We’re getting on… but it’s very early days. Pretty soon they’ll be asking ‘who’s the idiot with all the jokes?’ But, Arlene [Phillips], Matthew, they’re all great and everyone loves everyone… they haven’t told me they don’t like me, anyway. Panto is a happy, silly show for families – we’re not doing King Lear. Although it can be hard work, no one takes it seriously.”

Q. Did you love pantomimes as a child?
“I went to a couple as a kid but I think my parents took us to those very highbrow ones where there wasn’t much audience participation. I do remember seeing Treasure Island with Bernard Miles but I think it was quite serious. My parents are much more into yelling at the stage now that they have grandchildren to take to pantos.”

Q. What are your New Year resolutions?
“I’m planning on marching on parliament… Oh no, sorry I thought you said New Year’s Revolution! I keep thinking maybe I should do more exercise but the sweet trolley always looks too tempting [bites into a cake].”

Q. You’re renowned for your quick wit – were you always into one-liners?
“Thanks and I’m flattered, but I don’t think I am mentally agile! I can’t even say it easily. I’ve always liked short jokes; as a child I loved The Muppets, Morecambe & Wise, Tommy Cooper, people being silly.”

Q. Were you the class joker at school?
“No, I was the class trapeze artist. I was always messing about quite a lot. But I think you should be more worried if you have a child who works incredibly hard and the teachers never have a bad word to say about them. I was always the one looking out of the classroom window dreaming, being silly or showing off. My mum used to say ‘Stop showing off, Timmy…’ I didn’t listen did I?!”

Q. What was your favourite aspect of school?
“I used to write little plays based on Greek mythology – Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts – and had an amazing English teacher called Mr Moss who used to let me stage them with my mates. The whole school gathered in the gym to watch my Minotaur and I thought I’d written some kind of sweeping epic… and it was all over in seven minutes. But to be encouraged by an adult in something you enjoy is something you’ll always remember.”

Q. You’re turning 50 in March, aren’t you?
“Yes, I suppose I should have a party shouldn’t I? A huge one with 1,000 people I don’t know? I feel very lucky to have got to 50 relatively unscathed. I’ve been very fortunate to have the friends I’ve got, and family – sorry, I went off on one there – I was mentally practising my party speech!”

Q. Do you still love playing darts?
“Yes, I’m part of a pub team in Epsom. They’re all much better than me and it’s quite nerve-wracking stepping up to the oche. My hand shakes and I’m telling myself ‘please don’t all land in the number 1’! It’s a drinking game – well, more drinking goes on in darts than, say, badminton… Or Formula One.”