Lynda Bellingham told me Michael wasn’t the slightest concerned about seeing his Mum naked on stage, but having to touch Gemma Atkinson’s buns sent him into a right tizz. “You should have seen his eyes light up at the dress rehearsal”, she laughed.
We were chatting over a pre-theatre supper before The Calendar Girls, the play of the film of the true story of the WI ladies who posed in various stages of undress for a fund-raising calendar and subsequently became an international sensation.
Lynda, who starred in the original West End adaptation, is in Newcastle for a two-week sellout run and Michael, one of two sons from her second marriage, plays the nervous young photographer.
What I didn’t tell Lynda over supper was that generally I detest stage adaptations. They can’t hope to match the pace or sharpness of the original, and the film, starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, is a favourite of mine. But I wanted to show willing, particularly as Lynda was treating me and my Mum, who had been a close friend of her own Mum and Dad.
In fact we absolutely loved it. If you're in the North East, do bribe someone for a ticket before it closes this Saturday. It’s moving and real and very funny, with pace and pathos and terrific performances from a great cast. Sure, I couldn’t quite see Ms Atkinson fitting the traditional WI image, but that was probably the point: this was a cast of rebels who broke the mold and Tim Firth’s tightly woven script guarantees an uplifting evening in which Lynda Bellingham is a real comedy star.
Over supper Lynda, Mum and I chatted about old times and family matters. Well, in fact we mostly talked about illegitimacy, adoption, drinking and divorce – four of the topics that comprise a large part of Lynda’s life story. She’s just gone public about it in an honest, and, apart from the statutory mention of Christopher Biggins, relatively unshowbizzy autobiography.
I doubt the lovely Lynda has any warts – try as I might I couldn’t spot any from my seat in the Theatre Royal – but if she had, they’d certainly be in this book. Her adoption at four months, the drinking and toxic marriages, the quest for her birth mother: the book lays bare her rollercoaster life. Now, sipping mineral water with the new Michael in her life, her third and final husband, she looks radiant, happy and fulfilled. She’s at the top of her game, professionally and personally, and loving her new career as a best-selling author. She’s even writing a novel. I told her she should call it ‘Illegitimacy’, as it’s a theme that has preoccupied much of her adult life.
As the father of an adopted daughter, who’s now 21, I’m interested in how Lynda’s life has been influenced by the knowledge of her adopted status. I’ve always believed in openness and honesty with my children, as had Lynda’s adoptive parents, but, despite our reassurances of “we chose you, you’re special”, I wondered if her awareness of this mysterious other mother had created a neediness in her, a craving for acceptance engendered by an understandable fear of rejection?
I suspect the answer is yes, both in Lynda’s case and my own daughter’s; but the alternative, a childhood of deception, of hiding the skeleton in the cupboard till it emerges accidentally in adulthood, would have been far more traumatic. “When I eventually met Marjorie (her real mother, a committed Baptist) in my forties, she asked me to call her Mother,” Lynda told me. “I simply couldn’t - Ruth and Don Bellingham will always be Mum and Dad”. A delightful, generous warm couple, they gave Lynda the best childhood anyone could hope for. And finally, as Lynda says in her book, nurture ultimately wins over nature.