Actress and patron of Alzheimerís Society, Lynda Bellingham tells Hannah Gannagé-Stewart about her personal life and her work with charities.
This interview first appeared in Charity Choice magazine, Issue 4, 2010.
In your autobiography, Lost and Found, you talk about finding your birth mother again, how did that decision affect your adoptive family?
It was a massive thing. I think my parents and my sisters, Jean and Barbara, felt very threatened. Itís not that I was insensitive, but I did search for my mother out of a kind of animal instinct, without investigating too closely what my family was going through. But actually as much as it was great to meet my birth mother, Marjorie, and find out what I was made up of, I went back to mum and dad and said, ďI love you so much, you are my life and Iím just so grateful you adopted me.Ē
I remember when I did ĎThis Is Your Lifeí my birth mother, Ruth Bellingham, had pneumonia. I was sat in a room at Thames Studios thinking, Ďoh god, who are they going to wheel out?í They said they were going to let me take a call from mum because she couldnít be there. I just remember her tearfully saying to me, ďwell, I suppose the good news is that youíll be able to send a video of this to Marjorie in Canada so she wonít feel left outĒ.
The search for your birth mother was after you had your own children, was that what prompted it?
Definitely. Unlike my friends, I had never been broody. My husband was Italian so of course he expected to have babies. Then, having given birth, I was amazed by the floodgates of emotion and love for this little child and started to think, Ďgod, how could anyone give a baby away?í It became not just about tracing my roots but attempting to understand the mental state of someone who would do that, all of which was answered.
Did your personal journey have any effect on your relationship with your own children?
Michael was about seven and Robbie was only about two or three so when I took them to Canada to see Marjorie they thought Ďthis is cool, we have two grannies!í But actually, my ex-husbandís parents were dead and unfortunately, because it was an abusive relationship, he would isolate me from my own parents, so my sons didnít have grandparents which is very sad.
You lost your mother, Ruth, to Alzheimerís and your birth mother, Marjorie, now also has the illness, what have you learnt from your experience?
Sadly,I canít put what I learnt from Ruthís illness into practice with Marjorie because she lives in Canada. The one thing I was able to do was recognise that she had early on-set and quickly make my way out to Canada to say goodbye. That was Christmas 2008 and Iíve been on tour virtually the whole time since then, she is much further down the line now and in residential care, she probably wouldnít remember who I am, so at least I was able to remember her in the best possible way.
How has it made you better equipped to empathise with the carers and suffers that you come across through Alzheimerís Society?
A lot of people caring for people with Alzheimerís feel an awful lot of guilt. I do a little bit with Marjorie, which is ridiculous because it not my fault. I think with couples, they feel guilt that they canít make it better, guilt that it hasnít happened to them, guilt that you are helpless.
How do you think awareness of the issues surrounding dementia can be improved?
The problem with communicating about Alzheimerís is that dementia is associated with that Victorian concept of being Ďdementedí and madness. It conjures up notions of aggression and people behaving strangely. So the more you can talk about the issue as an illness that can manifest itself in anyone, rather than just dismissing it as something that happens to old people, the better.
Do you think there is enough support for carers?
Iíve just been doing some work with the Care Professionals Benevolent Fund, which is a relatively new charity, because I think this is a very important issue.
Any carer does an amazing job. It is 24-hour, non-stop and if you are caring for somebody you love deeply, it is heartbreaking. The emotional attachment is the most tiring thing.
As an Alzheimerís carer you have to be incredibly patient. People with Alzheimerís repeat themselves over and over again. They are like children in a sense, but you allow a baby to be demanding and fractious because it doesnít know any different. When a relative or friend isnít behaving the way you think they should do, or how you knew them or loved them, you lose patience and get irritable.
As the baby boomers grow older do you think caring for people will become a problem?
We will have 1.7 million people with dementia by 2050. There are 750,000 people living in the UK with it now, and you can double that if you think there is a carer attached to each one.
I think local authorities have really got to add care of dementia sufferers and therefore, carers for dementia, to their list. Gordon Brown was beginning to address how we are going to care for our elderly society, which has never really been dealt with before, but we are now living so much longer.
Do you find it strange that in a world where we try so hard to prolong life, we also have such little regard for the old?
Itís a huge problem. Youíve got one side of society saying a women is invisible after 50 and yet the government is saying you have to work until youíre 70.
Itís interesting going round the country doing ĎCalendar Girlsí because we play to eight to ten thousand people per week, Ninety per cent are women over a certain age and they will come to the stage door and say, ĎMy husband is retired, Iíve retired and Iím just sitting around waiting to dieí. Thatís the attitude, itís frightening. We need to be saying to people who are approaching retirement age, Ďnow what are you going to do next?í Volunteering for charity is a huge area that could be made more attractive. If youíre out there one or two times a week you meet new people and take care of yourself, theyíre small things but hugely important.
Do you think dementia patients could be better integrated into society?
Itís another way forward. An awful lot of people with dementia would much rather be at home, and if you raise the profile of the elderly, it will feed into the area of Alzheimerís as an illness that is part of our society. Itís easy to say but we know from experience that if you constantly drip feed into the psyche, people get the message eventually.
Going back to youíre life Ė do you ever worry that there is a genetic element to the development of Alzheimerís?
I donít think itís the case that because my mother had it, Iím going to get it. I bear it in mind in the same way that I worry about my potential to develop cancer. I think one has to prepare for old age and make sure there is money set aside for care.
Youíre autobiography reached number two in the bestsellers list. Why do you think it was so popular?
I think Loose Women had a lot to do with it. Itís been a wonderful profile raiser for me and to do the programme well you mustnít self edit, you need to be open and be able to draw on your life experiences.
I have a complete phobia of people that write ghosted autobiographies where they never get to the dirty bits. I originally wanted to write it when I came out of my second marriage all battered and bruised but I didnít have much hope on the horizon then. It would have been a very bleak book. When I met my third husband, Michael Pattimore, it was a natural happy ending.
Writing it was very cathartic and when it was finished I looked back on it, in particular my drinking, and it scared me how much it had all crept up on me.
When you look back now, what do you think you might have done differently?
Itís hard because you never know that doing things differently would have worked.
I sometimes wish I had gone to America when I was younger, but I was so daunted by the idea because it was so much about how you looked.
Now I think if Iíd had a bit of confidence in myself, I might have realised that they will cast somebody thatís a bit off the wall. Weíre all very self-effacing in this country, but in America if youíre positive enough theyíll find something for you.
Sometimes I regret doing everything offered to me, especially comedy, because I was never taken seriously. People donít win Oscars for being funny. I suppose I could have stuck to my guns and hidden in my bedsit waiting to play Ophelia but back then I didnít realise you had to play games in real life to play games on stage.
What do you mean by Ďgamesí?
The media profile and the brand. How is an actor supposed to be a brand? But thatís what you have to be in order to be offered work.
Do you think it has devalued acting as an art form?
Absolutely. Itís got so bad that Nigel Havers thinks he needs to go into ĎIím A Celebrityí!
Did you feel pressure to do Strictly Come Dancing then?
I had always said I would never do reality television but I was convinced by my agent, my family and even my husband that it was a lovely show and I would enjoy it.
Then of course the reality was, we were filmed relentlessly and they edited it the way they wanted to present us. I honestly think I was supposed to be the John Sergeant of that year but I didnít quite fit into that. They couldnít make me the glamorous granny because Jo Woods got that and Ricky Groves got to be the humorous person.
Darren Bennett is a fantastic dancer but he took it very seriously and was probably not the best person to be teaching me.
You have just performed Calendar Girls in your hometown of Aylesbury, how was that?
It brought back so many memories. It was so weird not to turn towards my parentís village. My oldest school friend still lives in Aylesbury, in fact she was Mayor last year, and she arranged for a group of about 40 ladies from my old school to come to the show on Saturday night, which was fantastic.
It is rumoured that you are writing a novel, have you always been a keen writer?
Iíve always done columns and I do love writing, and reading. The challenge with my autobiography was to tell the story and write it myself, but Iím under no illusions that it wouldnít have been published without me being on the telly.
In a way itís a case of watch this space because Iím in the middle of doing a deal with Edbury, the publisherís of my autobiography. I want it to write about elements of adoption, of knowing who you are but across the generations and why emotionally, women do or do not have children.
And finally, do you still use Oxo?
You asked me earlier if there is anything I regret and at one stage I could have said I regretted doing the Oxo campaign because I became the woman that made gravy. Having said that, last year I met up with Oxo to discuss doing more work with them, Iím grateful now that I did the Oxo ads. I was told afterwards that quite a lot of men of a certain age watching those ads had fantasies about me!
Lynda Bellingham was a patron of Alzheimerís Society - to find out more about their work go to the Alzheimer's Society page on Charity Choice.
This interview first appeared in Charity Choice magazine, Issue 4, 2010.