Star Q&A: David Walliams

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Author & dad David Walliams, 49, talks about life & the arts ahead of the adaptation of his novel Billionaire Boy as a Covid-safe Car Park Party

Q. We’re excited about this show – are you on a mission to save Easter for families? “It’s the most brilliant thing, seeing a book you’ve written come to life. You feel like a magician because what was in your head is somehow now all real. I think people are craving entertainment, especially live, because although the TV has still been on, you haven’t been able to be part of an audience, so this is a great and safe way to enjoy a show.”

Q. Are you passionate about the arts during these difficult times? “Well, it is important. I have friends who are actors, directors, designers and so on who have been all out of work. They are all raring to go. I feel like the audience wants it too. It’s hard to put a value on the arts… they enhance your life, but you can’t put a figure on it. When you read something or see something though, it moves you. It changes the way you think, how you feel about the world and about life. We have always had a very very vibrant arts culture here and it’s something we really need to protect.”

Q. Billionaire Boy tells the story of Joe & his friendship with Bob. Do you think connection is especially important for children now? “It’s very important they can keep in touch with their friends at the moment. Luckily, technology exists, though not everyone has access to it, but at least with phones and computers you can see people and speak to them. Just checking in with people making sure they are okay is crucial at the moment, because a lot of people are struggling.”

Q. How would Joe’s toilet paper baron dad have reacted to last year’s stockpiling? “He would’ve been one of the few that benefited… him and Jeff Bezos! That whole thing was extraordinary wasn’t it? I almost forgot about it. Jack would’ve liked it. His BumFresh toilet paper was actually a good invention, dry on one side and wet on the other.”

Q. In 2016, you played Mrs Trafe the dinner lady in the TV version…. can audiences look forward to seeing you on stage? “I haven’t been asked to perform, but I want to come and see it and if I do, I’ll come on the stage and say hello.”

Q. Have you been busy over the last year? “Fortunately writing is something you can do in your own at home. Last year I brought out four books, two or three of which were written during lockdown and I’m writing my new one. So in that department I feel very lucky indeed.”

Q. If we gave you £1billion to spend today, what would you buy? “There’s one thing that Joe Spud has in the book which is a water slide going down from his bedroom to a swimming pool. He just gets out of bed and goes straight down a water slide. That is something I don’t have and it really pains me. So I’d get that water slide because water slides are so much fun. I love them!”

Billionaire Boy tours the UK, including Windsor Racecourse on 11th April & Newbury on 12th April. Book at carparkparty.com

Star Q&A: Raymond Blanc

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Liz Nicholls asks star chef Raymond Blanc about feeding the soul in isolation, finding your calling & his surprising favourite foodstuff…

Q. Many of us parents have been home schooling, or stressing about home schooling over the last few months… Being self-taught, do you have any encouraging words about how youngsters can find their calling, school or no school? “The key is to find your passion and follow it. I am self-taught in the sense that I didn’t ‘study’ my craft but I did ‘learn’ my craft from the best. This includes my maman who taught me so much as a child about taking the best local, seasonal ingredients and turning them into wonderful, hearty, family dishes. I learnt from great chefs who I worked under – I paid attention, I practised, I pushed forward and made my own way into a world that inspired me so much.”

Q. Your childhood sounds idyllic. What’s one thing parents can do to nurture their children’s love of food? “There is nothing that will inspire children more or make them want to try new tastes and textures than to have been part of the creative process of preparing and cooking the dishes. To this day certain dishes like a simple and delicious apple tart evoke such strong and joyous childhood memories of being in the French country kitchen, cooking with my mother.”

Q. Is there anything you don’t eat or drink? “I do all I can to avoid processed food. I once bought a processed loaf and could not believe that after two weeks there was no mould on it! In France, every little village has a boulangerie and the French buy fresh bread sometimes three times a day. Today there are a wealth of wonderful artisan food producers in the UK and they must be supported.”

Q. What’s the one food or drink that you just couldn’t do without? “Not a food I can’t do without but one I have only recently discovered – brown sauce! Yes, who would imagine a Frenchman loving the humble brown sauce. I had been Living in England for almost 40 years when one day a friend offered me a bacon butty with brown sauce. I can tell you now, it was a revelation. I cannot believe I waited so long!

Q. What’s the most useful kitchen gadget or kit no kitchen should be without? “I think most chefs would agree when I say a great set of kitchen knives. Having the correct sharp knife for each and every task in the kitchen will make everything so much easier and so much more enjoyable. Good knives are easy to handle, they are well balanced and, looked after properly, can last you a lifetime.. Another piece of kit I love is my Kenwood Chef kitchen mixer. I’ve used these machines for over 30 years, in my kitchens and cookery school, and the precision and durability is fantastic.”

Q. We’re supporting our hospitality heroes – how important it is this industry? And do you have any words of solidarity for your fellow hospitality heroes? “The UK hospitality industry employs over 3 million people, many of them just starting out on the career ladder – young, eager and full of high hopes and expectation. For them, and for the whole of the hospitality sector I say try and stay strong. It has been such a hard year but we are all in this together and we know that once this if over our restaurants, pubs, hotels will be the first places people will want to visit to reclaim some normality and joy. We live to deliver those special moments of magic and will be back to doing what we do best very soon.”

Q. What one piece of advice would you give to anyone wanting to start out as a chef? “One route is via apprenticeships. There are very many excellent apprenticeships that will give you a superb introduction to commercial kitchens. We run them at both Le Manoir and at Brasserie Blanc and can take someone with basic skills, give them the best training they could hope for and set them up for a successful career with no limits. Some of the best known chefs in the UK started this way, including Michael Caines and Ollie Dabbous who were both apprentices at my Le Manor!”

Q. How have you coped throughout the last year & what have been your go-to sanity savers? “I was at home, and isolated from most of my family – as well as my team of chefs at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Brasserie Blanc. My way of keeping sane was to cook and cook! I chose simple dishes that evoked happy memories and provided the connection to those who I missed so much. I used ingredients that were easily-available and needed only basic kitchen equipment and out of this came the inspiration for my new television series and book Simply Raymond.”

Q. Who would be your five dream dinner party guests, living or dead, real or fictional? “Other than friends or family, of course, what could be better, I think it would be amazing to have one big table with all the great chefs I have been lucky enough to train over the years. What great things they could teach me now.”

Q. Like me, you eat regularly at Brasserie Blanc… What are your favourite dishes on the menu? “Yes, I live very close to our Brasserie Blanc in Oxford so I am in there at least once a week. I help to create the seasonally changing menu with our Executive Chef Clive Fretwell who learned his craft under me at Le Manoir – we have worked together for over 30 years now – amazing! I know all of the dishes very well, every season I have a new favourite but some dishes are classics and stay on the menu throughout, including our very special cheese soufflé. I enjoy this as a starter but also on its own for a light lunch – it is so incredibly light in texture that you can almost imagine it is calorie-free!”

Q. What other exciting plans do you have on the horizon? “I currently have the new television series Simply Raymond Blanc running on ITV on Saturdays mornings. This will be repeated over the summer on weekday evenings so if you have missed any of them don’t worry! My new recipe book is also coming out any day now – Simply Raymond. Like the television series the book is a collection of my favourite, simple home-cooked recipes – nothing fussy or over-complicated. These dishes are the ones that mean the most to me; the ones that connect me to my dearest family and friends.”

Star Q&A: Andy Triggs Hodge

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Three times Olympic rowing gold medallist Andy Triggs Hodge started rowing because he thought it would be fun, now he is sharing that sense of fun through Race The Thames 2021, we chatted to him about his career, the importance of sport and the event taking place in March

How did you get involved in rowing in the first place and why, what was it that attracted you to it?

I started rowing at Staffordshire Uni – not a typical rowing uni – because a friend suggested it would be fun. I had no idea what that innocent moment would lead to. From there I found something that sparked my imagination, passion and vitality in life as a whole, and I found myself getting better grades, improving my outlook in life, everything seemed to get better when I took up the oar. It really does conform to the saying, ‘the more you put in the more you’ll get out’.

Were you sporty generally?

I was always last to be picked for school sports, football, running, etc. I used to play a bit of rugby in the second row, but I never scored a try or flourished. I challenge everyone who thinks themselves as unathletic, I believe they just haven’t found ‘their’ sport. It’s why giving young people a chance to try all forms of sport through school is key to their development as well-rounded individuals. Sport plays such a big part in life, everyone will be good at one sport, they just have to find it. This also applies to adults.

Lewis Hamilton said winning the seventh F1 world title was beyond his wildest dreams, but that he had ‘secretly dreamt as high as this’, when you got into rowing was that your ‘secret dream’ to get to the top, winning Olympic and World titles?

I started rowing because I enjoyed it, and I’m lucky enough to say that I finished rowing enjoying it. Winning was always and only a by product of the elements I held dearest – self-improvement; enjoyment and being with friends in a common goal, the sacrifice; achieving one’s potential in anything is directly proportional to the sacrifices made.

Do you miss that competitiveness now you’ve retired or are you someone who has to win at everything you do?

Winning has never been a driver for me, since I retired, I replaced my passion to achieve something (which only started when I found rowing) with two things: First, trying to be a good husband, to make up for the time my wife had to put me first despite the hardships in her life, and to my sons who saw a dad who was reduced to the knackered shell of a man each day as I returned from a training programme designed to keep the human body on the red line seven days a week. Secondly, to find a way to create something for the sport I love. Rowing needs new avenues and opportunities as the sport risks becoming obsolete. Now my focus is on Race the Thames – an event for London Youth Rowing. I’m very excited and can’t wait to see how it lands in March!

Tell us about Race the Thames 2021, how can people get involved?

The event is trying to be as open and inclusive as possible, primarily an indoor rowing event, but you can also contribute to the challenge on any indoor machine. There are two challenges for the teams of eight (male, female or mixed) to choose from; the Race the Tidal Thames, 72km completed in a week or a day, and the Race the River Thames, 342km completed in a week. The ‘field of play’ is an amazing online map that we’re going to bring to life in an exciting way. We’re looking for teams of rowers and non rowers alike: friends, families and colleagues, schools and places of work, across gyms, home machines, anywhere people can access a machine, and any time in the week of 19th to 26th March.

And it’s in aid of London Youth Rowing, what’s that all about and who does it help?

Teams choose their own charity to support, as well as LYR with proceeds split 50:50 – I’m really proud to be able to support many charities through this event. LYR supports young people from backgrounds and communities that would make it very difficult for them to find rowing. I had a comfortable up bringing and I discovered rowing through luck and my ‘privilege’, and it still had such an impact on me it’s hard to comprehend. So many young people who are trapped in the hardest walks of life won’t have that chance without LYR, and knowing the benefits it could have on those individuals, not necessarily to achieve Olympic success, but simply to improvements to life by just participating like I had at uni, is motivation enough for me to live through LYR.

The LYR website says one of the aims is to ‘help young people recover their physical and mental health in 2021’ – with the events of 2020 just how important is this for everyone and how can exercise play its part in this?

Sport is so important at many levels, lockdown has decreased sport across the board. Rebuilding that is essential to getting back on track to increase activity in young people and adults alike, but also to recover our sense of wellness and vitality in our communities. I hope Race the Thames is the motivation to our participants to keep our spirits up and the inspiration to those who LYR help to keep striving and pushing forward.

To find out more and get involved visit www.londonyouthrowing.com/event/racethethames2021

Star Q&A: Andrea Bocelli

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Liz Nicholls asks Italian opera singer, tenor & record producer, 62, some questions for our bumper Christmas edition.

Q. What was it like to sing in the empty Duomo di Milano on Easter Sunday? “Each church is the house of God and inside it you can feel the comfort of His supernatural presence, which fills the place with beneficial energy where you are never alone. The fact that the Duomo was empty didn’t cause me any apprehension. From the beginning, I intended the event to be an opportunity to be joined in prayer by an unseen audience. I pictured a vast, interconnected crowd, united by that thin thread which is faith, and which is stronger than any physical distance. I was happy to be able to experience Easter in Milan, which was at the time one of the cities most affected by the COVID-19 virus, precisely on the day of a celebration which symbolises the celebration of life and the strength of the Christian message.”

Q. How important is your faith to you in your work, and this year especially? “It is the centre of gravity of my life, a gift that I cherish and that keeps me going me day after day. I think it is a crucial topic for everyone and I am happy to testify to its importance whenever the opportunity arises. Faith is not something to hold on to in difficult times. Nonetheless, it puts earthly events into perspective, even the most dramatic ones, and helps us overcome them. This year, the health emergency has led us to reflect on the fragility of our environment and on the arrogance with which we too often comprehend nature. However, I believe that, in the face of every unforeseen event, the challenge is always to keep calm and engage a heightened sense of responsibility and carefulness, without giving way to anxiety and losing our positivity and optimism.”

Q. How do you take care of your voice? Is there anything you do or don’t eat or drink (for this reason or otherwise)? “Studying is a fundamental factor and training must be undertaken daily. I remember that my great teacher, Franco Corelli, used to say: ‘Even the precious Stradivarius violin, if you break it, you can always hope to buy a new one. But you only have one voice and once damaged, you will never be able to buy another one.’ I have always tried to respect my voice, by studying constantly without overworking it. As for my diet, I think that eating healthy and moderately is a useful rule for everyone! A singer – just like an athlete – should follow a more rigorous training when a musical event approaches: in the days before a concert or a recording, I lead an almost monastic life, forgetting about wine, coffee, pasta and other important joys.”

Q. Have you always loved Christmas? What’s your favourite way to spend it and your favourite indulgences? “I have always loved it. After all, our childhood Christmas is a great treasure of emotions that we carry around with us for life. We all waited for its arrival, experiencing that magical scent of mystery that spreads throughout the house, waiting for the gifts that will materialise under the tree while we sleep. This sweet promise is kept and renewed every year, for those like me who are believers in the festivities: even into adulthood, albeit with different nuances. I love spending Christmas at home, with my family. The Christmas tree and Nativity scene are both heartwarming traditions that and which cannot be missing in the Bocelli household! We inaugurate the holidays by celebrating with our extended family and going to the Holy Mass together. Once back home, we take turns opening our presents and wait eagerly for lunchtime.”

Q. If you could make one wish for the world, what would it be? “I hope for a world without any wars, where people can live peacefully and are able to defeat pain through medical advances. We all try to do our part, within our means. I’m aware that even if good news stories rarely make headlines, those that do represent for humanity the only path that can really be followed.”

Andrea Bocelli’s new album Believe is out now. For details & the trailer visit andreabocelli.com/believe

Star Q&A: Chris Difford

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Liz Nicholls squeezes Chris Difford, musician & founding member of Squeeze who turns 66 this month, for his thoughts on music, heroes, and reaching out on Zoom…

Q. You live in West Sussex now but do you ever miss your native London? “I love the countryside; it’s been my home for many years. I have no relationship with London. South London has been squashed and I can’t see my home there any more. I have happy memories for sure.”

Q. What were your favourite aspects of those days of grimy, vibrant London in the 1960s & ’70s? “Live gigs in pubs and clubs were everywhere in those days, less so these. There are so many venues that have closed and that’s so sad. I loved playing the Marquee Club, sweaty and fast, everything you need as a young lad.”

Q. You’ve earned so much love thanks to genius of your lyrics. I know you’ve said you were a fan of Dylan but are there any other formative influences?
“I feel attached to Joni Mitchell’s lyrics; they guide me to places I have never been before. Chris Wood is another master wordsmith, you must look him up.”

Q. What’s your first ever memory of music? “Hearing The Batchelors on the gramophone… now that ages me! My Mum loved them.”

Q. How did you feel about the warm reaction to Cradle To The Grave? And what’s the weirdest & most poignant fan mail you’ve received over the years?
“It’s great people loved that album and the TV show, it did many things for the band and for our songwriting. As for fans, fan letters are so great I love reading them, these days they are mostly about signing things.”

Q. You seem very zen – often the case when people have “lived” & come out the other side. But do you have any pet peeves – anything get your goat?! “No not really, I hate goats.”

Q. I was really moved by your words about Elton John & how he helped you when you were battling your addiction demons. Do you still chat to him now?
“Elton and I are on email from time to time he still reaches out, how wonderful is that?”

Q. Your writing workshops sound fantastic. Has there been a favourite moment?
“Each retreat is a treat, online it’s been a great way to keep a focus and try to mentor people in lockdown, I love my work on Zoom.”

Q. You’re passionate about saving our treasured local music venues, aren’t you? Do you have a favourite?
“There are many, I ask people to reach out to them and see what they need as they have to be there when the lights go back on, I support them all large or small.”

Q. What, in your mind, is the perfect pop song? “A perfect song is found in any Beatles composition.”

Q. Who would be your five dream dinner party guests? “Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Peter Andrea, Peter Owen Jones and Beyonce.”

Q. It’s tough for youngsters these days. What one piece of advice would you give your younger self on the cusp of adulthood? “Don’t look back, don’t look forward, stay in the moment.”

Chris Difford is bringing his new album on tour this month – visit chrisdofford.com for this & his writing retreats.

Star Q&A: Katie Melua

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Liz Nicholls asks singer Katie Melua a few questions about her musical icons & more ahead of her new album No. 8 being released and a UK tour this month.

Q. Congratulations on your new album! How do you feel about it now it’s about to be released? “I feel like it’s been a long time coming. We’ve been working on it for so long and can’t wait to share it with everyone. When you’re working on it it’s always tricky to sort of be able to tell completely objectively how you feel about it or what you think about it. Now the dust has settled you start to feel like you begin to see it properly, and begin to hear it properly. There’s always like the excitement of a new record and that’s kind of bubbling in the team, so I just can’t wait for it to be out there.”

Q. What lessons did you ponder about love, and what do you feel is the most powerful lesson to convey? “I looked at it from the perspective of a record maker and a singer/songwriter who has sung great love songs. And so from that perspective I felt like I had to say and have lines like ‘I think we’ve given love too much airtime”’ which is about acknowledging these love songs, but as I’ve got older the reality of life has shown me that when records just celebrate the early love and the passion of love and the sort of that angle of love like it’s not enough. I think it’s important to honestly observe your life and to put that into your music and your words. Another song on the record – How’d you make a love like that last – is about being just honest and asking ‘what have I actually seen?’. What is the reality in all the relationships that I’ve observed – both mine and those around me? There is a real gap between what I’ve seen in culture to do with love and what I’ve seen in reality and I’m interested in seeing how much we can bridge that gap.”

Q. What activities have helped keep you sane during lockdown, are there any habits you will now keep up? “Well I think I’m going to keep up the habit of taking photos. But really meaningfully. I learned to use a film camera to take photos for the album and the promo photos, I never worked with one before, I’ve grown up with a telephone / iPhone camera. The photographer Rosie Matheson taught me to use a camera and I got to shoot the album cover. It genuinely changed my perception of how I view my visual world around me because I realised there’s so many possibilities of which angles you use and what you put inside a picture. It’s like my visual senses have been heightened through learning to take photos, and I’ve actually just bought myself a camera. So I think I will keep up the habit of taking photos and just being a bit more perceptive of my visual surroundings.”

Q. You’ve spoken poignantly about your mental health before, how are you now and how do you maintain good mental hygiene? “Thank you for asking, I’m feeling really good. You know I was sick in 2010, and I’ve had a really healthy recovering and I’m grateful for it, and I’m also grateful that it happened. And how do I keep my mental hygiene – well in a way the fact that I got sick is what keeps my mental hygiene because I’ve realised how the brain can break, basically, and I place a great deal of importance on my health, on not overworking, on just respecting my mind and my body, and my energy and really paying attention to it, and doing good things, things that I love and being kind to people.”

Q. I know you lived in Surrey for some time. What did you enjoy most about living in Surrey? “I used to live on Nutfield Road, up on top of that hill. I didn’t really used to hang out there much because we moved there when I was just starting Brit School, and so I tended to get the train from Redhill to Selhurst, change in East Croydon. I was always at the train station in Redhill! Because we were on top of the hill the view of the Surrey downs was incredible. Very close to our house there was a lake with water sports, and we’d go out on canoes and windsurfing.”

Q. And obviously you’ve played in Guildford quite a few times haven’t you? “Yes I have. And actually the shows we did there with the Gori Women’s Choir were brilliant. Mind you, my first show was there as well, supporting The Planets I think. Good memories, yeah, really good memories.”

Q. You’ve been compared to your namesake Kate Bush; would you like to work with her and are there any other dream collaborations or icons you’d like to meet? “Kate Bush is the ultimate icon. I would blow my head off if the possibility of working with Kate Bush came around. Are there any others? Yes, of course – I love Bob Dylan, I love Joni Mitchell. I think Laura Marling is brilliant, but you know what’s interesting is there isn’t a great deal of communication between artists, like we tend to keep to our own spaces, which is a shame really. But everyone works in their own cycles and I think that’s what makes it difficult. An artist can spend – years making an album and the work is very engulfing. It’s tough to form friendships because you could become friends one season, and then you could go off on tour for 6 months? And then you come back and then they’re on tour. And even at festivals the schedules are usually too relentless so you aren’t hanging out backstage.”

Q. What’s your first ever memory of music? “It is of my mum playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the family piano in Georgia when I was four or five years old. I can still picture it. There was a power cut so there were a couple of candles and I remember hearing that thing of beauty, you know in something that was so emotional and something that I couldn’t touch and I couldn’t see, and the melody just piercing me in the darkness, it was majestic.”

Q. What are your three favourite pieces of music? “Just My Imagination by The Temptations, because I think it is the most exquisite pop record. It’s like a sweet, divine movie that you see, and the vocals and the lyrics are done perfectly; they’re super subtle, they’re completely clear, they’re really bitter sweet, they’re about imagining a lover that the protagonist can’t have. And then the music just is draped around that in the most extraordinary way, and it’s got a great groove but it’s not too loud – it’s just perfect. My next piece would be Mourned By The Wind by Giya Kancheli, which is a classical piece of work, and I actually heard it live performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Southbank Centre. When I first heard it, it was an out of body experience, because it’s incredibly delicate in parts and then there are certain sections that are mind-blowingly – they hit you like the whole orchestra strikes. And finally I Remember by Molly Drake, Nick Drake’s mum. I just adored the philosophy in this song – it had the most beautiful lyric ‘I remember fire light, and you remember smoke’. You can tell her music and her songwriting influenced her son, it’s just perfect. I feel like her work and Nick’s work defines that sort of indescribable English quality, which is sort of subtle and delicate.”

Q. Your tour is due to visit Berkshire and Oxfordshire, do you know this part of the world well and if so any places you would like to visit? “I played at Blenheim Palace a lifetime ago, but I didn’t get a chance to explore much which is a shame. I just love the English countryside, and I actually worked for three weeks completely alone in a cottage in the Cotswolds. That’s where I completed a lot of the lyrics for the new record, and I think it’ll always be in my heart actually. I had an amazing time just being on my own for three weeks. I didn’t have a car, the nearest pub was a half an hour walk away, and I had a cottage that was generously lent to me by an old friend… for three weeks obviously, not forever [laughs].”

Q. Who would be your six dream dinner party guests, living or dead, real or fictional, and why? “I would say Virginia Woolf; her writing is a big inspiration to me. To The Lighthouse is my favourite book – how she describes life is I think one of the greatest things in western art. There’s a dinner scene in To The Lighthouse where she describes the fruit and the food on the table, and the light in the room and it’s just majestic. So, having someone like that who was such a keen observer of life is a must. I would also have Pina Bausch, a German choreographer who revolutionised modern dance. I love her way of working, how she explored male and female relationships and how she made commentary on it through her dance pieces. Her parents were restaurant owners, so she spent her childhood kind of hiding under tables observing life under the table at a restaurant, and then I think that’s where she developed her kind of – that’s what inspired her. She trained as a ballet dancer and then she was given the job of being the head choreographer at the Wuppertal dance theatre company. I saw her dance once. Maybe I Dreamt It on the new album is inspired by her. The third would be Bob Dylan. I love Bob as an artist – I love the idea of Bob, the character that we have of him on records. I especially love his love songs about women like Time After Time and Lay Lady Lay. I think it would be lovely if my guests are all at the same age that Bob might fall in love with one of my guests and might write a song about her. So we’ve had a writer, a choreographer, we’ve had a musician – let’s go for a painter. Levan Lagidze who is a legendary Georgian painter, a living legend. I know him, and I have a relationship with him where we converse about his work and the process of creating, and I find talking to him really fascinating – we talk about art, we talk about life, and I know the conversation with him will always be fascinating and funny. Next one, okay we should have a scientist! Let’s have… let’s have Newton. Why Newton? Because I loved physics at school, it was my second favourite subject at school after chemistry. His university life was interrupted due to the plague, and it was when he was at home he saw the apple fall and had a major discovery from that – I’m sure obviously that’s not what actually happened, I’m sure it was a build-up over years and years, so it would be nice to sort of hear the full story about his discoveries. And my final guest would be my grandma, Tamara (called her Babula; a Russian term for it) who passed away a few years ago. But she had a heavy influence on how I sing. From a very young age, she would always get me to sing for her in the kitchen – she was always the only audience. And at the age of six or seven, she’d give me proper critique that I could take like an adult, she never kind of molly coddled me – and she always told me to sing from the heart, and I think she really enjoyed doing that.”

Q. Do you celebrate Halloween at all? Is it a time of the year you enjoy? “I love Halloween! As a teenager I just adored Halloween, and I loved doing Halloween parties. I once did a Halloween party where I invited a ghost story teller, and around 15 friends and we listened to ghost stories – but we were about 23.”

Q. If you could make one wish for the world, what would it be? “I think for all of us to pay attention to our moods a little bit more, and go easy on ourselves… yeah, go easy on ourselves as humans because I think we’re alright.”

Star Q&A: Wine wizard Oz

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Jonathan Lovett catches up with wine expert and TV celebrity Oz Clarke ahead of the publication of his latest book, Oz Clarke English Wine in which he waxes lyrical about the newest new world wine country

What floated your cork to write this book?

I think the time had come. I’ve been writing about English wine and supporting it ever since I was an actor and singer years ago. Year by year I’ve noted what was going on and, to be honest, there wasn’t much in this country until Nyetimber came on the scene in the late 1990s. This wonderful English sparkling wine was a complete revelation which tasted better than most Champagnes! Every year since then I’ve seen new players arrive and the 2018 was our biggest ever vintage, which was talked about all over the media, so I realised then I had to write this. There was no high street book for anyone interested in English wine so it just had to happen.

And the book is also about the English countryside?

Absolutely. I’m a country boy from Kent and when I was growing up I was also in Cambridgeshire for a couple of years so my memories of early life are all about the countryside. When people ask me, “Where would you like to be right now?” they expect me to say, “San Francisco or Johannesburg etc” but instead I say, “Oh, take me to the white cliffs of Dover with the wind blowing in my hair and the sun in my face and I know in half-an-hour’s walking I’ll come to a beautiful pub where I can enjoy a pint of their local beer!”

What English wine would you recommend that won’t break the bank?

Firstly, if we’re looking at English wine, the best English sparkling wines are quite expensive, and deservedly so. But if you want to drink English wine for less money then try the still wines as we make a delicious range. There are vineyards such as Denbies in Surrey, Chapel Down in Kent or Three Choirs in Gloucestershire and you can get these simply outstanding white blends with names like Flint Dry for just a tenner. It’s the same price you’ll be paying for a supermarket New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and just as good.

Do you miss the acting at all? I hear you were quite successful…

I miss theatres and whenever I go round the country I often go to the local theatre and ask stage door, “Would you mind if I just go and stand on the stage for a few minutes?” as there’s something magical about an empty theatre. And sometimes I stand on the stage and sing, perhaps a bit of Sweeney Todd. I played that wonderful role opposite Sheila Hancock at Drury Lane and my first night was just about my best ever night on stage.

What made you switch from the stage to Sancerre?

Well, I did 10 years pretty much solid without a holiday and I was playing Juan Peron in Evita opposite Stephanie Lawrence. It was a big, successful show then Stephanie left and I should have also gone at the same time but they asked me to do another six months. During those six months I just lost the joy for what I was doing and I started losing my confidence. I started coming into the theatre, fearsome, and I thought, “This is absolute nonsense” and, “I’ve got to leave.” So I went away and sat in my little garret in Islington and wrote a book called Sniff, Gurgle and Spit and realised I could make a job as a wine writer!

BBC’S Food and Drink followed which propelled you into the stratosphere. Why was it so successful?

It was the first food programme to take a magazine approach to what was happening that week. We went out on a Tuesday evening and up to Tuesday morning we could still change what was going on so it was very up-to-date. Then there was the relationship between myself and Jilly (Goolden). Our fantastic producer, Peter Bazalgette, teamed us together and we got on so well. We both set out to democratise wine and wanted to share a happy world of eating and drinking that class-ridden England just wasn’t getting.

Finally, your real name is Robert…where did the Oz nickname come from?

Well, when I was a lad I played lots of cricket for the Cathedral Choir School in Kent. One day we played one of the local schools and they thought, “Ha! These fellows wandering around in their cassocks – what a load of weeds!” So these boys were bowling at our heads but my dad always taught me to watch the ball and whack it to the boundary and I kept doing that and scored 32 runs off eight balls! They compared my pugnacious approach to an Aussie cricketer so I became…Oz!

• Oz Clarke English Wine: From Still to Sparkling. The Newest New World Wine Country is out from September 3rd published by Pavilion Books.

• We have five copies of Oz’s book to give away

Star Q&A: Christine Walkden

Round & About

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Jonathan Lovett chats to one of the nation’s favourite gardeners, The One Show’s Christine Walkden, who is also a proud life member of The National Allotment Society

Q. This year’s National Allotments Week runs from August 10th to 16th – what’s wonderful about allotments?

A. There’s the fact you can grow your own fruit and veg, but an allotment doesn’t just help with cultivating plants, it helps with cultivating people. On an allotment you are constantly cultivating friends and relationships and there’s a great sense of camaraderie. So much of modern society, particularly lately, is about isolation but on an allotment you get together as a community and it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, or whether you have three heads or four…you’re just a gardener.

Q. When did you have your first allotment?

A. I was just 10 and by the time I was 14 I had five of them! I didn’t have any family interested in gardening, but I always felt very much at home on one. I started growing mustard cress which I forced my dad to eat and I gardened a little strip outside our terrace house, then I took over next door’s…and next door’s…before a Mrs Hargreaves suggested I take on her late husband’s allotment. I guess it was a bit strange for a young girl to be doing this, but it didn’t seem strange to me.

Q. A lot of people have taken to gardening during the lockdown. What essential tip do you have for the novice?

A. If you don’t succeed first time then try again. It amazes me that we have to learn to ride a bike or pass our driving test but, for some reason, with gardening people think it’s just going to happen. People don’t persevere and I don’t know why but if something in the garden doesn’t happen the first time then some folk just think, “Stuff it!” I had to persevere. When I started out in this business it was very male-dominated. As a teenage girl in the early ‘70s it wasn’t that easy – but I got there.

Q. How have you coped during lockdown?

A. I haven’t enjoyed it and it I can’t say it’s been a good experience. My work is about people and sharing but I haven’t been able to see anybody so I have found it very difficult. It’s also been quite scary that your life can come to an absolute standstill by external forces. My garden has been gardened to death over the past few months!

Q. You’ve appeared on many TV shows, including your own, and are the resident expert on The One Show. What’s it like meeting the A-listers?

A. I frequently have to pinch myself and find myself saying, “How the hell did a gardener end up working with people like Julie Andrews, Ian McKellen, Vera Lynn and David Frost?” One of my favourite celebs is Helen Mirren who is very keen on gardening and always very willing to open-up about what she does and is happy talking to you. It’s an odd couple – myself and Dame Helen Mirren!

Q. And am I right in saying you once appeared on Shooting Stars opposite Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer?!

A. Yes! I was on the 2008 Christmas special. I didn’t really know anything about the programme before I went on and I found it a very surreal experience. But a producer I know told me beforehand “Just give as good as they’re giving you” so I played them at their own game. Afterwards Bob said it took them a minute or two to realise what I was doing! It was as weird as one would expect but I survived!

Q. And was there a moment when you thought – I really would love to be a gardener?

A. I remember our headmistress coming into our class one day. She asked if any kids wanted to take plants home and I put my hand up and took three. When I got home my dad said, “What the hell are you doing with them?!” I replied, “I want to look after them during the holiday,” but he said, “You can’t because we’re going away on holiday!” So I put the plants in a bath full of water in the shed and went away for a fortnight. When I came back I expected them to be dead but I opened the door and they were full in flower! To this day I’ve never been able to repeat that…but it has led to a career!

To get involved with National Allotments Week visit The National Allotment Society

Star Q&A: Julia’s outdoor jewels

Round & About

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To say TV presenter Julia Bradbury loves the outdoors would be an understatement, so much so that she set up The Outdoor Guide website packed with wonderful walks, picturesque pubs to stay in and everything you need to get out and enjoy yourself

Q. Let’s start with exactly what it does mean to you to be outdoors and its particular importance while we’ve been in lockdown?

A. I think a lot of people have reconnected with nature and with green spaces during lockdown. People talk about being able to hear the birds sing and they are noticing things like flowers in bloom, more bees in the gardens, along hedgerows and in their parks, cleaner air and lack of noise pollution. There is no doubt that the plus against all the negativity of the Coronavirus is that it has made people more aware of nature. I hope the message is coming across loud and clear that we need nature to protect us from viruses like COVID-19; it’s because of the manmade breakdown of nature that this disease has crossed over. The more forests, oceans and wildlife habitats we destroy the more endangered humans become.

Q. Did you always have a love of the outdoors as a child, any special memories?

A. I was incredibly lucky. I had a dad who adored the great outdoors. I went to school in Sheffield, I grew up in Rutland and Sheffield and after school and at weekends my dad Michael, a Derbyshire man, would take me walking around Buxton and the Peak District, which is where he used to go exploring with his brother when he was a little lad. They were fantastic bonding experiences for him and I, but also, I think it planted this seed deep in my psyche, deep in my heart and deep in my brain, to appreciate and love the outdoors.

Q. Do your children share your love for the great outdoors?

A. Yes, and in fact, their favourite day from last year was a cold, wet October windy day when they got dressed up from head to toe in their outdoor guide waterproofs. We all zipped up so the only thing that was exposed was our faces and we went out into the sheet rain. We had a full-on wet leaf fight and rolled down the hill, jumped in puddles, and we got soaked. They often talk about that day and they just want to go out and roll in the leaves again.

Q. You’ve recently done a Q&A on The Outdoor Guide with psychologist Jonathan Hoban about mental health, what did you take from that?

A. We started doing our lockdown sessions which are up on TOG for people to access who have been struggling with mental health issues throughout this period. We touched on topics like keeping routine and how important that is for lockdown, how it’s okay to feel angry and how it’s alright to feel emotional. I actually had a day a few weeks ago, in the midst of the lockdown period when I just lost it. I couldn’t stop crying; all because I couldn’t get an iron to work. It wasn’t about that of course – it was the whole situation, all the questions and uncertainties that we are all facing. It’s OK not to be OK all the time! It’s very beneficial to have these weekly discussions with Jonathan, hopefully for lots of people.

To find out more visit The Outdoor Guide website at https://theoutdoorguide.co.uk/

David Gray matters

Liz Nicholls

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Twenty years on since his masterpiece White Ladder, Liz Nicholls chats to musician David Gray

Q. Hello! Does it feel like 20 years since White Ladder was released? “It does feel like 20 years – it’s not gone by in the blink of an eye. There’s been a lot going on, a lot to negotiate in these intervening years. It feels good to be at this moment now. I was a bit ambivalent about the idea of a tour when it was first hoisted up the flagpole. But I think years went by and then I thought maybe this is the time to do it because people get sick, things change and then suddenly things aren’t possible in the way they used to be. None of us are getting any younger, so this is the time to give it the full celebration. Then I’ll move on to creative pastures new.”

Q. I’ve been reading that White Ladder came from a dark place… “I think the press use the word ‘dark’ a little too liberally… I mean, let’s face it, I was living in north London. I wasn’t in Bosnia. Or Syria. I was eating croissants from the local patisserie… such was the darkness that was engulfing me! I think things hadn’t worked out [with sales] and that was a hard pill to swallow. I was in a place that, after three albums, I thought ‘is this it?’ When that happens to a musician over a course of many years, it gets worse & harder. A real sense of futility permeates everything you’re doing. Apart from in Ireland, importantly [where David’s music started selling first]. That kept me going; the fact that I had a real connection over there and a fan base kept me believing something could still happen. But I did think, ‘I can’t go on like this, I think I have to change paths’. Then I thought, ‘well, maybe I can make a better record’. You can blame the world, you can blame the journalists, you can blame the record company but I thought: ‘can I make a better record?’ And the answer was yes.”

Q. Did going lo-fi help? “We took the record production in-house with what money was left. We bought a few bits of gear. We got back to making music in my spare room. And that was the best sense of freedom and intimacy. The freedom to explore and discover and get more hands-on with the recording process was the beginning of making this album. A very limited palette of options ended up  one of the strengthening factors in the sonic world we created. We pooled all our creativity. There’s a brightness to the record, even though a sort of melancholy creeps in here and there. It’s the negative charge flipping into positive. It was a ‘do or die’ moment – how do you face the world after it’s shunned you or been indifferent? You open your heart even wider and you go again. That’s the answer. Openness hurts, as Rumi once said. That’s the approach and it’s just incredibly open, melodically unfearful. [White Ladder] is a record that’s happy being exactly what it is. We made the record and we were proud of it when we finished. We’d taken such pains over every tiny bit. It would have been preposterous to imagine the success that was going to come.”

Q. What’s your first memory of music? “Two things. It would be my dad playing records when I went to bed. The smell of fag smoke, cigar smoke, wine, beer and then The Beatles or Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road. Particularly Cat Stevens’ Hard Headed Woman, Wild World. Those songs really take me back. Rod Stewart, Atlantic Crossing. That was the early ’70s soundscape I remember and also all the beautiful TV music. Bagpuss. Hector’s Garden. All those sounds were very entrancing.”

Q. What format do you listen to music on? “Well I’ve succumbed to the algorithmic world of Spotify, and for some things YouTube. I might occasionally play a record… three months later you come back and the turntable’s still going round and round. Sometimes a CD. Some songs don’t exist as streaming music. I’ve got some records you can’t listen to any other way. It’s a bit like DVDs. I’m still watching a lot of films on DVD…”

Q. Any talented up-and-coming singer-songwriters worth your time and a leg-up? “I don’t think they need a leg-up from me but I will mention a couple of people I’m enjoying. One would be Big Thief; a group of musicians from America . And a Bristol collective called This Is The Kit [alias of Kate Stables]. They’ve grabbed my ears in recent years. I could go on but I’ll just meander out into obscurity. Word of mouth is still the most potent means of discovery. If Spotify or Apple recommend I listen to something, 99 times out of 100 I will refuse. That’s the kind of stick-in-the-mud that I am. I’d rather sit on my own at the bus stop with the rain lashing down on my face listening to nothing than listen to their recommendations based on everything I’ve already listened to. One problem with the predictive thing is that if your kids are listening through the same service, it suggests you listen to all the stuff that they listen to, which at the moment is a heavily urban kind of vibe. Not my chosen mood of reflection.”

Q. Mind you, I sometimes discover rare delights from my daughter’s choices before they go mainstream, such as Billie Eilish… “Billie Eilish is one of those rare successes; there’s real talent there. The record production as well. She gets all the plaudits but really her brother [Finneas] is a big talent sculpting the whole thing. It’s really nicely done so hats off to them.”

Q. Do you have a favourite book? “Well, I’ve got lots. Moby Dick by Herman Melville would have to be one of my favourites, an enduring favourite which I’ve read several times. You could do a lot worse.”

Q. What about your favourite film? “You’ve switched tack… you’re not going to ask my favourite colour next, are you?! Well, as it happens I was rather disappointed by Parasite, which got a huge amount of publicity with its bizarre Oscar-winning run. But that’s because I’d enjoyed their previous film Burning more – it’s a really good watch. It’s a dreamlike, based on a Haruki Murakami short story. You never know what’s real or what’s imagined; it’s set on the border with North Korea. I loved that film and it should be the one everyone’s watching. It’s more fully realised and poetic than Parasite managed to be.”

Q. White Ladder means a lot to me and was the soundtrack to a poignant breakup in my life 20 years ago! Have you had any weird fan mail or comments from your fans? “Course I have… but whether I’d want to draw attention to how weird, or how… suggestive, would not be healthy for people to hear! I’ve had some very odd things. Generally the things I get to read or that are sent are very touching, moving. People’s lives, deaths, disaster, triumph, childbirth, illness, madness. It’s all bound into the album & what it meant to people at that certain time in their lives. I came out of a pub earlier this year and this guy was hanging on to a Rottweiler which was dragging him down the street, with his dodgy mate, in the rain. One eye slightly off to one side. The kind of person you step out of the way of. And as I was stepping out of his way he grabbed me and [adopts husky, menacing shout] ‘David Gray mate! Yeah your record saved me; I got off heroin.’ Suddenly I was having this very intense conversation with him about how his friends were dying and as he got into his recovery process he discovered the record. Something about it helped him strengthen his resolve. Well, as he puts it, it made him feel ‘there was something bright out there he could grab hold of’. You hear mad stuff like this and it’s quite hard to process.”

• David Gray’s White Ladder has just been re-released in a deluxe edition as well as on CD, digitally and on vinyl. For this and updates on the tour, which was set to include Blenheim Palace, visit www.davidgray.co.uk