Fern Britton: Every woman on the planet has had a difficult sexual situation
Television presenter, author and fitness enthusiast Fern Britton talks to Hannah Stephenson about her recent brush with death, gender pay gaps and sexual harassment in the showbiz world
SHE turned 60 last year – but there was a point when Fern Britton didn't think she'd live to see that birthday.
The previous summer, following a routine hysterectomy, she developed sepsis – and then pneumonia and a collapsed lung – and says she was on death's door.
"It was horrendous. It was the worst thing physically that's ever assaulted me. I had a hysterectomy and unfortunately within three or four days, I started to feel very ill with tremendous pain in my abdomen, which would then go everywhere.
"I was extremely fit, thankfully. But I was very close to dying," recalls Britton, who was in hospital for weeks afterwards.
The experience has made her approach life differently, she says.
"I'm very grateful. I've always counted my blessings but I got through something that was absolutely horrific. At one point, I knew I was going to die, I just knew it. It was wonderful to wake up after the second operation and find out they'd done what they could."
Today, she is full steam ahead on the work front. Her new novel, Coming Home, about a woman returning from India to Cornwall to face the music after deserting her two children when they were young, has just been published. And she'll be going on tour this August with Calendar Girls: The Musical – but is playing a character who doesn't take her clothes off.
"No one will be exposed to my t**s," she says, laughing. "When the call came, I was prepared to say, 'Yes, I would take my clothes off', but then I was told I wouldn't have to and I was quite relieved.
"But funnily enough, I probably would have, because they do it so well. Nobody sees anything. It's hilarious. Women of a certain age taking their clothes off and going, 'To hell with it!' Why not?
"That's another thing about getting older. You think, 'Oh, sod it! I don't care if people laugh at me or if I fail. I don't care any more'. When you are given an opportunity and you think you can do it, give it a whirl."
Britton, who has been in broadcasting for nearly 40 years, started out in television when the industry was awash with male executives. In the wake of the Time's Up and #MeToo campaigns, she reveals that during her career she too has been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace.
"I never knew what it was at the time. Without naming names, I was being welcomed to a programme and a very famous man was there and after lunch, he said to me, 'Well I wonder how long it will be before I'm having an affair with you because I do have a very big ***k'.
"I was about 24 and I went home to my mum but we didn't even acknowledge what was going on. Of course, I refused to let anyone faze me. "
And while she stresses that most men are not like that, sexual harassment against women in the workplace is nothing new, she says.
"I think every woman on the planet has had a difficult sexual situation, where they thought, 'Oh my God, this is not what I was signalling and now I'm in a mess. What do I do – do I close my eyes and get on with it, or make my excuses and leave?'
"For a lot of people, you can't easily make your excuses and leave. I've had that happen too. It's wonderful that it's coming to light. The vast majority of men are not like that. The new generation of men understand that women aren't just available to look pretty and just have sex with – and we are turning a corner."
She doesn't feel she ever lost work through not pandering to unwelcome advances.
"I just refused to engage with it. I'm a little bit old-school and I thought, 'I'm ploughing my own furrow and if it works, it works, and if it doesn't, then once I stop enjoying this work then I'll walk away'."
She believes long before the Harvey Weinstein furore hit, people were well aware of the sexual harassment issues in the showbiz world.
"I think we always knew, it's just that sometimes you're cornered. When you get cornered, you get bullied, you get blinded by somebody's power, they frighten and intimidate and you have to be strong enough to say, 'Well, stick your job'."
Gender pay issues is a topic on which she's keen to set some records straight. She left ITV's This Morning in 2009, amid reports that her decision was fuelled by the discovery that her co-host Phillip Schofield was earning more than she was.
"When I left This Morning, there was a story saying I left because I wasn't being paid as much as Phillip, which is not the case, as far as I know," she says. "I've grown up in a situation where you don't ask people how much they are being paid, so it definitely wasn't that. It was weird because that was a story that was put out to discredit me, to make it look like I was greedy, wanted more and so walked away. My answer is always, 'Why would I walk away to go to nothing?'
"I also firmly believe that if the person who is doing the same job as you – male or female – is getting more than you, that is wrong," she adds. "On the other hand, we have to be sensible and discover what our 'enough' is. I was very happy with my 'enough' on This Morning. Sometimes I thought I was probably being paid too much.
"But I think the women at the BBC are absolutely right to come out about this. I don't think it's necessarily the right thing to suddenly reduce the men's money – that's crazy. It's all down to agents, who are the ones who negotiate."
She may have suffered divorce, depression and a near-death experience during her lifetime, but she has remained confident in her job.
"I've always had a sense of self-worth. I just wanted to get on with my own stuff," she says frankly.
She's been married to TV chef Phil Vickery for nearly 18 years (they have a daughter, Winnie, together, and three grown-up children from Britton's first marriage).
So, what's the secret of her happy marriage?
"We don't keep each other on a lead. I'm not the sort of wife who is constantly texting him asking him where he is and what's happening. Most of the time, we are very easy with each other. He never made a fuss about me turning 60. He's 56 soon – there's four-and-a-half years between us – and we joke with each other."
She may be 60, but exercise is a firm fixture in Britton's life now – she cycles tremendous distances for charity and keeps herself fit.
"Turning 60 was like waiting for a horrible dentist's appointment. I was very nervous and it took a bit of thinking about, but then the day came and it was fine. Then I started thinking about the positives. I get free prescriptions, 10 per cent off on Tuesdays in the Co-op, my Boots card and my rail card.
"I'm quite proud of those," Britton continues with a grin. "Whenever I go to the station the man behind the booking desk always says, 'Whose card is this? It can't be yours!' And I find myself saying to people, 'I'm 60, you know.'"
:: Coming Home by Fern Britton is published by HarperCollins, priced £12.99. Available now.