Exclusive: In a poignant interview, actress Lynda Bellingham shows astonishing fortitude as she talks to Elizabeth Grice about her terminal cancer
‘Do you know, there are moments this year when I have been more happy and content than I have ever been in my life,’ says Lynda Bellingham, pictured here in 2008 Photo: Andrew Crowley
Consummate actress that she is, Lynda Bellingham is chatting energetically about death. Her own. Everything is in place, down to the last detail. Letters and instructions to loved ones, her will, a funny, heart-wrenching memoir finished in the nick of time. Even her second novel has been delivered to the publishers. The rustle of loose ends being tied up is deafening.
Knowing she has about eight weeks to live if chemotherapy is withdrawn, she has told her oncologist that she would like to have one more Christmas and then let nature take its course. “It was such a relief to say those words,” she says. “The glorious 12th [of August] will be remembered as the day I decided when I will die. I am very dramatic, aren’t I? I know it’s not ultimately my decision, but it is my last vestige of control over myself. I might not die, anyway. How embarrassing would that be? That Lynda Bellingham conned us into thinking she was dying so we would buy her book!”
Holding court in a treatment room at the London Oncology Clinic, she sounds very much alive and in control. Beautifully made up, fingers and toes painted cerise, she is enthroned on a large, high padded chair while chemo is being fed in through a port in her chest. The husky Bellingham voice soars and dips, carried along on a thermal of laughter.
“Do you know,” she says in genuine surprise, “there are moments this year when I have been more happy and content than I have ever been in my life, just by accepting what you can’t do anything about. You can’t have your old life but you can spend the last years or months creating another one. It keeps your mind off the negative side. It’s much tougher for the people left behind. I’ve tried to cover everything, but you can’t unfortunately hug them through the last bit.”
Out of the blue, she was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer in July last year. There were secondaries in her lungs and her liver. Chemotherapy began immediately and in the strongest possible form. When the cancer specialist told her that the cocktail would include a drug called fluorouracil, also known as FU2, she immediately christened her cancer FU2 – a piece of comic defiance that has characterised her whole approach to the disease. Or was it a way of kidding herself and others that she could handle what had befallen her?
“I had this huge lump in my throat and a desire to burst into tears,” she admits, “but somehow did not want to be embarrassing. I was not going to succumb to actressy wobbles and tantrums. I was a proper person who could cope with anything. I thought being there in that room, taking in this news, was like getting the acting job of the century. How deluded can a girl be?”
Her brilliantly titled book, There’s Something I’ve Been Dying to Tell You, charts the unravelling of that delusion, and her determination to wrest a meaningful life out of sudden chaos. By turns, it is riotous, deeply serious, practical and sad. Reading it is like being at her kitchen table with a glass of wine to hand. Not just listening to the expletives of pain or the dawning of reality, but rooting for her when the treatment appears to be working, sharing her fears as her life expectation dwindles, and rocking with laughter at the absurdities that go with having the “least sexy” cancer of them all. Her description of the mechanics of dealing with a stoma bag in the ladies’ at Buckingham Palace, when she accepted her OBE in March, reads like a comedy script.
Right from the beginning, she was a terminal case. But her prognosis changed dramatically just before Christmas last year, when she underwent emergency surgery to remove a tumour that had started to perforate her colon. Instead of having an estimated two to five years to live, she now had only months. The extent to which Bellingham remains every bit her feisty, fighting self is astonishing. She makes light of her scar (“a very long zip going from my chest to my pubes”) and her new unwanted attachments, including “a very pink strawberry poking out of my stomach” – the stoma, which she nicknamed Furby because its subtle chirrupings and wimperings reminded her of the Japanese toy.
It’s the small things that upset her, she explains: how cold and numb her feet are, how her hands are turning a bruised colour and her peeling fingers have lost their whorls. “The fingertip recognition feature on my laptop no longer recognises me. I could rob a bank.”
Bursts of black humour are a thin disguise for her distress at having to leave the stage early. She is 66. After two unsuccessful marriages, she had found the love of her life. She and Michael Pattemore, a property developer, have been married for only six years, and together for 10.
When she was touring in Calendar Girls, they were on the road together for four years without a cross word. “I’ve never had a man in my life before who looked after me. I knew that whatever happened to me I would never be homeless. And there was such a passion. How lucky I was to get another crack at a relationship aged 60, which is when Michael married me.”
They had planned to work their socks off for the next few years and then travel. “I just feel I’ve really let the side down by f—— off,” she says.
The only time she falters, in an hour of mostly upbeat talk and moving acceptance, is when she considers his loss. “I can’t believe, from his point of view, that it can be so tragic. Just when you think you have time together, it’s taken away. Yes, he will suffer…” Tears are there, but she doesn’t allow them to fall. “I can’t help him with this.”
She’s encouraging him to go to Italy with friends in the next two weeks, while she is having her last course of chemotherapy. “He doesn’t want to cry in front of me. He wants to keep strong. But he needs to grieve, to go out, get absolutely plastered, be self-indulgent, weep and wail. We do have our moments of ‘It’s not f—— fair’, but again, how lucky am I not to die bitter and twisted?”
A poignant aspect of her illness is that it brought the curtain down on her 45-year stage and screen career at the very point when she was about to star in a play she believes would have established her as a serious actress. David Pugh’s planned revival of A Passionate Woman by Kay Mellor would have set her back on course – away from Calendar Girls, away from Loose Women and sundry television roles.
“It was the absolute culmination for me of a part that was funny, dramatic, dark. I’d be able to show people in the business that I am a better actress than they ever gave me credit for. To be told I couldn’t ever work again was absolutely devastating. In fact, I haven’t really allowed myself to open that box. What’s the point of going there?”
When she left drama school, aged 19, she was told she wouldn’t work until she was 40. “I wasn’t pretty enough to be a film star. I wasn’t ugly enough to be the complete Ugly Betty. In those days, they had pretty actresses, or they had ‘dramatic’ ones – that went with being rather unattractive and flat-chested. I wasn’t either, so I got led down the comedy route. It showed I was quite versatile, but unfortunately, because it was the Seventies and all tits and arse, you were only a butt for the jokes.”
Throughout her illness, Bellingham has worked like a dervish. Her book looks far beyond her own predicament, urging people to take responsibility for their own health. She wrote the memoir in a month, finished her second novel, and carried on being an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society and other charities. “The minute you get out and stop thinking about yourself, it’s amazing the energy you get back and how much you can give people.” Other than when she was in hospital, she is proud of never having failed to cook supper for her family, however much she wanted to hide under the duvet.
She has used her time, or lack of it, to prepare an emotional parachute for her husband and sons, Michael, 31, Robbie, 26, and stepson Bradley, 21. “The dynamics of death”, she calls it. How much nicer for them to know she’s dying content, not unhappy or fighting.
“How dreadful it must be when people drop down dead. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to them and say things. That is fantastic. Most parents long just once to hear their children say: ‘God, sorry I was such a pain.’ I’ve had all that now. Marvellous.
“I have passed on to them that the most important thing in a relationship is goodness and contentment, that if you give out you’ll get back. I think my going will help them to go forward, in ways they don’t understand now.”
Sometimes, she says, she has to remind them, in a light-hearted way, that her time is limited, so that it is not a dreadful shock when the day comes. But is that the right way? “I don’t know and that is the honest truth. All our hearts will be broken, whatever is said or not said.”
She hopes all this preparation has spared her from a theatrical death-bed scene and that they will all just quietly hold hands. “I don’t know what words you say to somebody when you feel you’re dying. I love you? I’ve told Michael I’m not going to say anything. I’m just going to trip quietly away.”
Remembering the shock on her younger son’s face as he caught sight of her, bent and walking with an aid, when she was recovering in hospital has influenced her decision not to linger, but to leave in the most dignified way possible.
“I look at myself now on a bad day, haggard and drawn, with my white hair flat against my head and a stoop of tiredness and pain. I do not want Michael and the family to say goodbye to me looking like that.
“The one thing I pray for is that, as I’ve had all this to deal with, maybe at least my family could have something nice – a job for my son, a house in Somerset that my husband can do up. ‘Can you just give us a little bit of sugar here, because we’re not doing terribly well?’”
For a person as open as she is, it has been hard to keep the true nature of her illness secret for so long. To well-wishers who assumed her chemo was coming to a successful end, she would chirp, “Yes, well, still in there fighting, ha, ha”, and scurry away. The book is her coming out. “It will be such a relief.”
As for the inevitable next step, “half of me is absolutely terrified, and the other half is…” She gives a little shrug of mock excitement as if dying is an awfully big adventure. “The other half wonders what He’s got up his sleeve for me.”
Meantime, she will not be sitting around feeling sorry for herself. “You must carry on, you must go forward, you must have something to do tomorrow. I may start my next novel. Why not?”