There’s no denying Fern Britton is a formidable woman, having been a big TV star since 1994, when she first presented Ready Steady Cook, and going through a public split from TV chef Phil Vickery this year.
The 63-year-old tells us her grandmother was just the same: ‘She was strong and independent – which she needed to be to have had a baby out of wedlock back then, and then hide him away in Cornwall. She then moved to a rubber plantation in Penang with Ernest and produced three more children. As I say – formidable.’
Fern’s mother Ruth brought up Fern and elder sister Cherry single-handedly, as their father, actor Tony Britton, walked out when Ruth was pregnant with Fern. It’s unsurprising, then, that Fern’s new novel Daughters of Cornwall is a sweeping saga following the stories, spanning a century, of three generations of women, many of them from her own family.
The effect of her father’s absence in Fern’s childhood rippled down through the years. ‘Any insecurities I have can be traced back to losing my dad when I was a baby. There was no father on whose lap I could climb, no male role model who could give me a cuddle and make everything right with the world.’
She’s been married twice – first to TV executive Clive Jones, with whom she has twin sons Harry and Jack, now 26, and 23-year-old Grace. When the marriage ended, she reconciled herself to life as a single mum, albeit shored up at that time by a healthy salary as co-presenter of ITV’s This Morning alongside Phillip Schofield.
But then she fell in love with show regular Phil Vickery. They married in 2000, and their daughter Winnie was born a year later when Fern was 44. ‘Phil and I like to say we went late-night shopping and got in just before the doors closed,’ Fern laughs.
The future looked set fair – but in January this year came the surprise announcement that the couple were to go their separate ways.
So what happened? There’s a long pause. ‘There comes a point when the children are substantially off your hands and you look at your partner and wonder where you’re going to go from here. I just knew it was important not to live unhappily,’ she says.
Fern has just turned 63 and yet being a ‘silver splitter’, as she calls it, doesn’t alarm her – and for now, at least, she’s concentrating on her own future. ‘This may sound like I’m trying to convince myself that everything will be all right, and I’m sure there’s an element of truth in that,’ she admits. ‘But I’m genuinely very hopeful.’
She’s currently researching a new book. ‘Like the current novel, it will be historic, although nothing to do with my own family. I’m taking next year off to write it.’
Fern now has a slew of bestselling novels under her belt. Perhaps one of them could be adapted for the screen? ‘Well, that’s the dream, baby! But options have never been taken out on any of my books to turn them into a film or TV series. Appalling!’ she jokes.
In the meantime, she feels liberated. ‘I know lockdown liberation sounds like a contradiction in terms, but the fact is that I’m happy in my own skin,’ she explains. ‘I took a long time to make my decision but, once made, I have faith in the fact that it’s going to be all right.’
Daughters of Cornwall is published by HarperCollins