Fiona Phillips: ‘Part of me longs to be floating about cooking, part of me can’t sit still’ – Fiona Phillips: ‘For the sake of my sanity, I had to go. Immediately’
Breakfast television is a curious phenomenon. Perhaps it’s the dressing-gown intimacy of the early hour that inspires such fierce loyalty, but those who tune in invariably care passionately about it; the personalities, the frocks, the chemistry, even the fake views from the fake windows, for heaven’s sake.
Yet those who don’t have little idea it exists at all, pace my husband, who met Kate Garraway at a party once. He asked her what she did and, assuming he must be joking, she larkily quipped that she was a presenter on a little show called GMTV that he might just have heard of.
“No,” he responded, politely. “But it sounds like a very good start and I’m sure you’ll move on to greater things eventually.”
She hasn’t, but that’s the risk you run with the banal chumminess of much pre-dawn programming. Fiona Phillips, however, is a rather different entity altogether. Phillips, 51, sharp as a tack – if a tack can be both sharp and blunt simultaneously – has risen above her former day(break) job to be regarded as a presenter, and more crucially, a three-dimensional human being, too.
So much so, that even the notoriously un-savvy Gordon Brown had not merely heard of her but, memorably, offered her a peerage and a voice-of-the-people role in his government, which she astutely turned down, sensing, perspicaciously, that he might not win the election.
The rest of us know her as a passionate Alzheimer’s campaigner, a daughter who struggled to care first for her dementia-sufferer mother and now her seriously ill father, a wife battling to keep her marriage together and a mother to Nathaniel, 12 and Mackenzie, nine.
“I’m completely torn. Part of me longs to spend my days floating about cooking and grooming donkeys and growing organic vegetables,” she sighs, shaking her head at her own inconsistency. “The other part can’t sit still and strains to get up and out and earn a living, which I’ve done since I had two paper rounds and a Pools round when I was 11.”
It has been three years since the queen bee of breakfast abruptly took flight from the sofa. Strung out and exhausted after 12 years by the conflicting demands of antisocial work hours, children and shuttling up and down the motorway to see her ailing mother in Wales, she had become a reluctant poster girl for the sandwich generation. And then something snapped.
In 2008, she upped and left midway into her £300,000 contract, controversially announcing that women “can’t have it all”. I interviewed her back then, and was struck by her air of angsty euphoria, reminiscent of someone who had just survived a near death experience or escaped from a cult.
“I hurled myself off a cliff, not knowing whether someone would be there to catch me at the bottom or I would end up splattered on the rocks,” she says. “All I knew was that for my sanity, I had to go. Immediately.”
One remark in particular stuck in my mind; her sotto voce fear that her mania wasn’t down to the job and the 4am starts; that maybe it was down to her.
Today we meet in the glamorous setting of the Waldorf hotel in London’s West End, where later this month she is due to present Tesco’s Mum of the Year awards, as she has done for several years.
“I was once made the Celebrity Mum of the Year, which was very flattering, but really, I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. So when all the recipients got up on stage – women who had overcome terrible hardships and tragedies and built wells in African villages – I stayed in my seat in embarrassment.”
Phillips looks stunning in a slim-fitting black Whistles dress, Wolford tights – “they cost £40 but they will outlive me” – and heeled ankle boots. Very rock chick. Very chilled, I tell her.
“Chilled? Hardly, I’m just hungover because I got drunk on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wine at Lambeth Palace last night, and ended up going for a curry and rolling in at 2am.”
Really? A late night rogan josh with Rowan Williams? It sounds like a surreal dream sequence from an episode of Rev.
“Oh no, we left him tucked up in bed at the palace. I went on somewhere else with a crowd of religious journalists, who were an unexpectedly wild bunch,” says Phillips.
“I’d been invited along after writing about his support for the anti-capitalist protesters, saying something like ‘The bloke in the frock rocks’ and ‘Meddle! We need your voice!’ But I was talking [to him] about the fact that I feel it’s important that my sons are educated in the state system, when the archbishop said, ‘You know, my son goes to a private school.’ I was very disappointed about that; I mean, you’d think he could pull a few strings and get him into a good C of E secondary.”
This is vintage Phillips; unvarnished, Left-leaning opinion but delivered with such a lack of malice that it would seem churlish to take offence; although it remains to be seen whether she gets invited back to party at the palace.
The burning question now is: the frazzled guilt, the incessant need to achieve. Was it down to GMTV or is it written into Phillips’s DNA? Has she calmed down enough to be the laid-back, “proper” mother/wife/daughter that she so desperately wanted to be? There is a long pause while she soul-searches.
“I’m no less busy,” she eventually replies, carefully. “But as it’s at a more manageable hour and I’m not dog-tired any more, I can cope with it in a better frame of mind.
“I’ve done all sorts of things since I’ve left: Dispatches, Panorama, Watchdog. I’ve also become the media equivalent of a supply teacher, sitting in when presenters are on holiday.”
Rumours that she might return to save the ill-starred GMTV replacement, Daybreak, are well short of the mark. But she has much sympathy for Christine Bleakley, describing her as a “a friend, we’re on texting terms”. “Christine and Adrian [Chiles] had a tough time, because they were introducing a brand new programme, and nobody likes change. But I think they – she – did really well.
“She’s latterly realised how grumpy she used to be with Frank [Lampard, her fiancé] when she was permanently exhausted. I know that feeling – for six months after I left, I used to set my alarm deliberately for 3.30am just for that sweet moment when I could bang it off, roll over and go back to sleep.”
A year after Phillips left her job, her husband, Martin Frizell, who was editor of GMTV, was unexpectedly sacked after an ITV takeover, a blow that led to speculation that their marriage was teetering on the edge.
“It was hard,’’ she says. “But we were never in more of a crisis than anyone else’s marriage goes through periodically. I do think that men still believe they’re hunter-gatherers, and being made redundant is a huge dent to their pride.”
Since then, he has become the London correspondent for Australian broadcasters Channel 7, and the pair have invested £900,000 in the Greyhound Inn, a gastropub with rooms, in a pretty Dorset village not far from a weekend cottage they own.
“I came from a family of publicans,” she says. “We also felt that having been at the mercy of the broadcasting industry, where your face can fit one day and not the next, we wanted to have something that was completely ours – although we never intended to become Bet Lynch and Alec Gilroy, so we employ managers to run it.”
The pub was recently broken into, which made headlines, but Phillips is sanguine about press coverage.
“I accept there will be stories, but I have no desire to maintain a high profile, to network or, God forbid, to tweet,” she says.
Charity work takes up much of her time. “I went against my gut instinct and did Strictly, but I’ve turned down I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, MasterChef and Celebrity Big Brother because it just doesn’t interest me. At the risk of sounding pompous, I want to cover issues that matter.”
At present, her energies are being channelled into trying to find satisfactory care for her 76-year-old father, Neville, who has Alzheimer’s and all the indignities the disease visits on its victims; confusion, incontinence, violent episodes.
In November last year he went missing and was found, eight hours later, barefoot and distressed in a casino. He was taken to a specialist dementia care home, but then transferred to a psychiatric hospital after he grew aggressive. It is, asserts Phillips, a wholly unsuitable environment, where he has been “koshed” with drugs.
“My book on Alzheimer’s reached number six in the bestseller list and I’m about to film another Dispatches on the subject,” she says. “Sufferers are still not being treated properly and we are sitting on a care time bomb that’s about to explode. I’m not ashamed of constantly banging on about it because so many people come up to me and talk about their own experiences.”
Her passion is palpable, her manner urgent but – crucially – not alienating. Phillips is a born communicator blessed with both immense likeability and the common touch.
As I believe a well-known presenter once said to an archbishop: “Meddle! We need your voice.”
[[[ *** RESPONSE *** ]]]
No single person can have it all. Men, women, lgbt-community. The specialists in one area of life rather than all areas spread out at once, tend to excel better as well, rather and also helps to make them known for their speciality and reputation in that area, which will be blunted by taking up incongruous causes to one’s specialty unless one is into alter-egos and such . . . that is another thing entirely. But officially personaes differ from that in private life or hobbies. Back to the subject of specialisation in motherhood. Hence a professional MOTHER fosters the best children, though she may not be seen in public or well known, has more influence than the ‘want it all’ types.
Then consider a harem of a few wives focusing on being mothers and the positive effects ‘collective mothering’ can have on a single child (which they could have in turn etc.. – the child has the best aspects of each wife of his/her father to be nourished by . . . ) in a traditional ‘yin-yang distinct’ household. Without distinction, one’s worldview becomes amorphous and blurry, not clear cut by which life paths can be mapped.
This is how the traditional family produces champions of any country, this is why women should understand that a polygamous marriage with several stay at home wives (a luxury if anything in this day and age of dual income families or single parents) and preferably when different women in the harem get along, one will find cliques forming on various issues – do differentiate if the help is not the wife though before committing), harem style, provides strength and backbone that is far stronger than a single mother (birth mothers of course holding sway in final decisions) who wants to be everything to her child – children are different from their own birth mothers so doubtless a mother cannot nurture all aspects of a child, hence the value and even need of polygamy, with polyandry avoided to provide a sense of purity (only 1 man to prevent confusion with animals that do engage in orgies or group insemination – again less distinction) and harmony (yang being the combative aspect thus many yangs lead to disharmony weakening the family unit etc..)