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.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Monday, April 6, 2009
[Madonna's application to adopt a second child from Malawi has been turned down]
It was the rocking that disturbed us most. Until she was almost a teenager Anya rocked herself to sleep, just as she had always done in the orphanage. Anya was one of 150,000 victims of the Ceausescu regime. The Romanian dictator tried to spread communism by artificially increasing the population. He banned abortion and the use of contraceptives and gave financial incentives to anyone with more than four children. The compliant but impoverished population could not cope and dispatched their extra offspring to state-built orphanages. There the children received little education and no love; the healthy were prepared for Ceausescu’s special police; the remainder were left to rot.
These weren’t orphanages at all: most of the children had parents or close relatives who simply couldn’t provide for their huge families. When the dictator was overthrown in 1989, it left the country with a huge problem.
In 1990 I took our programme Challenge Anneka to Romania. I will never forget the sights and sounds of the “orphanage” we chose to help. Or the smell. An intense stench of faeces, urine and decay, which overpowered you at the door. Three stories high, with a dank rat-infested basement, this was home to 650 of Ceausescu’s children. About a dozen staff tried to care for them without resources or training. There were no toys, playrooms, lights or heating, no working toilets and just one shower room with cold water. The kitchen reeked of rotting food and damp.
Each room contained twenty tiny rusting cots, and in each cot lay two children. Some were just skeletal babies, lying in urine-soaked filthy grey bedding; others were much older. Most of the children were too weak to cry; the older ones just sat and rocked. Rats ran around freely. In ten days we transformed its facilities, but the children remained.
Anya’s orphanage wasn’t as bad as the one we converted for the programme. It had toilets and heating. There was a swing in the yard outside. But there was no disguising the rocking. All the children did it.
Our motive for adopting wasn’t altruistic. My wife had discovered we couldn’t have more children, but we still wanted a larger family. Too old to adopt in the UK, we tried Columbia, but found we didn’t qualify. Romania matched our desire for a child with a child’s desperate need for love.
Madonna will almost certainly win her appeal to adopt baby “Mercy” later this week. She probably has the necessary resources and influence to sway the appeals procedure. However I admire Malawi’s concern for protocol. For in Romania, as a result of our television programme and others about the situation, the floodgates opened and thousands of British and American families tried to adopt, not because they genuinely wanted more children, but because of sympathy for the children they’d seen on television. As a result greed and corruption created a commercial international adoption industry, and that is one reason why Malawi is keen to set hurdles even for someone as altruistic as Madonna.
Adoption is the last, not best solution; communities should be helped to look after and integrate their own. But in our case, in a country riddled with debt and corruption, it was the only way forward for Anya and for us. It was difficult: four years without education, comfort or hugs took their toll on her, emotionally and intellectually. But eventually she grew into a beautiful and confident young woman. She is now 21, and last week started her first paid job.
“Mercy” is lucky – she is young, and, assuming she finds a home quickly, the effects of the institution will be short-lived. It’s a shame her experience of family life will be through nannies and an itinerant lifestyle. The poor child really needs a family, not a rock entourage. But almost anything is better than life in an orphanage.