Zoe Fairbairns catches up with the popular TV presenter to discuss her debut novel.
If a friend who has died starts to haunt you, who are you going to call – a doctor or an exorcist?
If the ghostly friend begs you to protect her surviving children from an unspecified danger, is it a matter for the emergency services, or should you just keep taking the tablets?
These are the dilemmas faced by Cathy, first-person narrator of Eloise, debut novel of Judy Finnigan. (That’s Judy as in Richard and Judy, the TV programme, the book club, the website.)
The author and her book proved hard to track down. Our interview was scheduled for June, but then it turned out that the finished typescript wouldn’t be available until the end of July, by which time she would be on holiday in France. Call me old-fashioned but I do like to read a book before talking about it to its author, and although Finnigan indicated that she would be happy to do a telephone interview from her holiday destination, I prefer face-to-face, and I don‘t mean Skype.
So we pencilled in a new date for late August when she would be back in London. Meanwhile I read Finnigan’s other book, Richard and Judy, an autobiography co-authored with husband and TV co-presenter Richard Madeley. I learned about her Manchester childhood, with a lapsed-Catholic father, and a decidedly un-lapsed grandmother whose house was full of images of Jesus either nailed to crosses or with blood dripping from his heart. Judy Finnigan‘s mother, a Protestant, had been required by the Catholic parish priest to promise to bring up her children as Catholics, but she had ‘absolutely no intention’ of doing so.
Finnigan’s mother was more interested in raising her only daughter to be ambitious. At times this had
a devastating effect: when young Judy’s eleven-plus results arrived, and unfortunate phrasing in the letter gave the wrong impression that she had failed, ‘my mother‘s first reaction left me feeling ever after that my life would not be worth living unless I succeeded.’
Another motherly utterance was ‘there’s nothing clever about spending the day reading books’. I was still catching my breath from this spectacularly untrue statement, when the proof copy of Eloise arrived, accompanied by a box of Cornish Sea Salt and Pecan Fudge, courtesy of the publishers. So I spent the day reading books, eating fudge, and wondering what Ms Finnigan senior would have had to say about that.
In Eloise, the eponymous dead character leaves behind not just a conventional family (husband, twin daughters and a mother), but a hitherto-hidden one, far more complex than her grieving friends had ever been aware of. New relatives appear, throwing the status of existing family members into doubt, and leaving Cathy, the novel‘s narrator, to wonder if she ever knew her friend at all.
Furious rows erupt over paternity, custody, sexual infidelity, inheritance, and the exact cause of Eloise‘s death. Diaries reveal life-changing secrets.
Cathy in the meantime is plagued by guilt that she allowed her mortally ill friend to turn her back on conventional medicine and, instead, fill her house with dodgy alternative practitioners and create ‘her own sanctuary of denial, believing she could cure herself with coffee enemas and green tea’. Already prone to clinical depression, Cathy seems to be on a downward spiral into serious mental illness, and her psychiatrist husband Chris obviously thinks the same. His therapeutic approach is to bully her, patronise her, trick her into swallowing sleeping pills, and to order their concerned teenage children to ‘leave us alone to deal with this crisis in (your mother’s) deluded mind’. Cathy, he warns sternly, ‘belongs increasingly in the asylum’. A bit sinister, isn’t he?
Finnigan defends him: ‘My editor said that about him as well, but I still can’t quite see it. I know that he does some very unpleasant things. Very unkind. Horribly critical of Cathy. But on the other hand, she has driven him mad. She has been ill. And he has spent a lot of time looking after her and caring for her. And just when he thought she was back on an even keel, and they could get back to a normal life, she’s going loopy again. And he’s having to worry about her again. And his own work and his own thoughts are being pushed out. That’s how I saw him really. I love Cathy. I love the character of Cathy. But I also saw her as being really quite emotionally demanding. So yeah, I accept that I made him a bit distant. But to be absolutely honest, I didn’t intend to.’
One subject she did look into was exorcism: she read newspaper reports about an Anglican archbishop performing one quite recently. ‘I was really surprised by that because I didn’t think the Church of England did them. I thought it was just a Catholic thing. But he said he had indeed performed an exorcism on a young girl who seemed to be very troubled by...’ she pauses ‘... who couldn’t speak, and stuff. And he explained what he did, which was very simple. He simply said a prayer. He lit a candle and he anointed the child’s head with oil and blessed her. And she apparently to all intents and purposes recovered only days later. So I really just thought, oh, right, I can use that. That was just a kind of general thing. Then I did a bit of internet research on exorcism. I did what I could.’
In Eloise as in life, the lines between conventional religion and its wackier outposts are sometimes blurred. Given Finnigan‘s religiously-complicated childhood, what are her beliefs now? ‘I’m one of these people,’ she says, ‘who would love to believe in an afterlife. And sometimes I do. And a lot of the time I simply don’t, because it doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t stand up to any analysis... I’m like a sort of humming bird or something, hovering at a window, through which I can’t quite see. But I sometimes think there is something. There must be something, please God let there be something outside, something rich and colourful and magical and all the rest of it. But I can never get through. I enjoy speculating about this. But I can’t say I believe in ghosts. I’ve never seen one. I’ve got absolutely no proof of anything. But it’s certainly a realm which I enjoy exploring.’
She worked on programmes including This Is Your Right and Granada Reports. In 1973, she married TV journalist David Henshaw. They lived in Norwich where both worked for Anglia TV, Finnigan as its first woman presenter. The job was an important learning experience for her – ‘I still think,’ she wrote in her autobiography, ‘a television news reporter’s job on a local station is one of the hardest and most intense learning curves in existence... Anglia covered a huge area, and it was not unusual to go from Norwich to Southend and back in a day. I’d dash down, do the interview, write the script in the car and do my pieces to camera.’
In 1977 she gave birth to twins and took time off from paid work to raise them. The family returned to Manchester, where, in 1980, Finnigan returned to TV work, as a reporter and later presenter with Granada. While working on Granada Reports, she met and worked with Richard Madeley. They became a couple and married in 1986, following divorces from their existing partners.
In 1988 they began co-presenting This Morning, a networked TV news programme based first in
Liverpool and later in London. In 2001, they moved to Channel 4 to present Richard and Judy, a magazine programme which went out on weekdays at 5pm. It featured celebrity interviews and phone-ins, and explored issues including scientology, women in prison, and how to calm a crying baby.
When Richard and Judy came to an end in 2008, Finnigan and Madeley moved to the new digital channel Watch, where the plan was to continue the book club as part of a general entertainment programme Richard and Judy’s New Position. ‘The show was not a success,’ Finnigan acknowledges. ‘Apart from anything else, it was pay-per-view, and nobody could find it.’ But Richard and Judy promotional stickers continued to appear on books in bookshops, and, even after Richard and Judy’s New Position came to an end, seemed to have a positive effect on sales. ‘We deduced from that that the book club had become an entity that wasn’t necessarily dependent on being part of a television show. It was just a book club with our names on it. People had become so used to it that they would go into a bookshop, see a sticker on a book and buy it, which was a great gesture of trust.’
The current incarnation of the book club is at www. richardandjudy.co.uk which offers author interviews, featured books and podcasts in which you can hear Finnigan and Madeley discussing the books. ‘And we’ve just introduced this new thing which is a book club app,’ says Finnigan. ‘You can get this app on your phone. If you go to your smart phone or your mobile phone and go into WH Smith, and you point your phone at the cover of the book, any of the books in our book club collection, we pop up on your screen, telling you about that book.’
Would they ever give a negative review to a book? ‘No. we select. What happens is that publishers who think their books might be right for the book club submit the titles to WH Smith. WH Smith has an initial panel which consists of book editors, some agents and just some ordinary people who work in their offices, who read through. We probably get about 300, which is too much for us to get through. And they will select a shortlist of 20 or 30 books which they like. And then they send those books to us. We read them and we choose ten. So no, you wouldn’t choose a book that you didn’t like. There’s no point. You can’t recommend a book you don’t like.’ This year’s autumn selections include novels by Helen Dunmore, Robert Goddard, Maria Dueñas, and non- fiction by Ben Macintyre.
The book club provides bonus material for book groups, as well as discounts for multiple orders. Does Finnigan herself belong to a bookgroup?
‘No,because the book club is stamped on our forehead, so I don’t think we would ever do that.’ If she could be a fly on the wall of a book group discussing her novel Eloise, what would she like to hear them say?
‘Well, I’d like to hear them say that they thought it was a kind of interesting story, that they went along with Cathy’s anxieties about Eloise. I’d like them to like Cathy. I like Cathy very much. She
is my kind of favourite heroine. I’d like them to feel they were interested in what happened to Eloise, and indeed what happens to Cathy and her life with her psychiatrist husband. I just hope they think it’s a good read. That’s all I want. An interesting read.’
In one of his chapters in the autobiography, Richard Madeley recounts plans the couple had in 1996 to move to Cornwall, and says, ‘Had we gone ahead with this plan, Judy would have written her novel.’ Was he referring to Eloise?, I wondered. Before I could find out, I had to fix up the interview. By now August had come and gone, as had the fudge, and the newbooks deadline seemed in danger of doing the same. Emails flew, and I finally caught up with Judy Finnigan in a hotel in London’s Fitzrovia. The publicist who ushered me into her presence informed me that I had 45 minutes.
Finnigan is sixty-something, blonde-haired, and, on the day we met, elegantly dressed in a grey silk jacket, white camisole and black trousers. She’s surprised by my quotation from Madeley about the novel she might have written in 1996: ‘Does he say that? In 1996? It would have been a novel, but not that one, because the events that made me write Eloise hadn’t happened then. But I would have written. I had always wanted to write.’
Eloise had two main inspirations: one was Finnigan’s love for Cornwall, where she and Madeley have a holiday home, and one was the death of a close friend, the TV presenter Caron Keating, from cancer in 2004.
It was a long illness. ‘She kept quiet about it,’ Finnigan recalls now, ‘but her closest friends knew. And yet she was always so full of energy and vibrant. She didn’t look ill or seem ill or anything. A lot of us began to think, although we knew that the prognosis was, in the end, terminal, we did begin to think
that somehow she had beaten it. Which obviously she didn’t. And when she did die, it was just so heartbreaking, because she was only 41. And she left behind her husband and their two little boys who were 9 and 11 at that point.’
Judy Finnigan: the CV
1948 Born in Manchester. Two brothers, one older, one younger. Mother a secretary turned full-time mother, father an office worker turned businessman.
Manchester High School and Bristol University
1971 Worked at the BBC as production secretary
1972 Joined Granada television training scheme. Researcher on This Is Your Right and Granada Reports
1988 Started co-presenting This Morning with second husband Richard Madeley
2001 Moved to Channel 4 to co-present Richard and Judy
2004 Launch of the Richard and Judy Book Club
2008 Finnigan and Madeley move from Channel 4 to digital channel Watch,
to present Richard and Judy’s New Position
2010 Richard and Judy Book Club relaunched online, in collaboration with WH Smith
2002 Richard and Judy: The Autobiography (co-authored with Richard Madeley)
As well as psychiatry and cancer, the novel covers other specialist topics such as alternative medicine, inheritance law and lifeboat rescue at sea. What research did Finnigan do to make these episodes convincing? ‘Not a lot, to be honest,’ she admits cheerfully. ‘Myself, I don’t enjoy reading books that have been very heavily researched. I like stories. I knew the cancer stuff because I have a reasonable knowledge of it anyway. I knew what had happened to Caron. I knew how she had gone from conventional to alternative stuff. Psychiatry – well we have a very good friend who is a psychiatrist. But you know, to be honest, I’ve always thought that this was a book about people. It wasn’t a book about expertise or anything like that.’
Finnigan on Cornwall
‘I’ve always found Cornwall oddly mystical as well as beautiful. Secretive, very ancient. Very other. You kind of feel, once you’ve crossed
the Tamar from Devon into Cornwall, you feel almost like you’ve gone into another country, which is, I think, partly because the Romans never went to Cornwall because they couldn’t get across the Tamar. So Cornwall is very much its own place. It’s Celtic and it’s full of legend, and it’s full of ancient churches, ancient stone memorials, holy wells, sacred wells, that stuff. And that aspect of Cornwall has always really appealed to me. It’s not just a lovely place to have a beach holiday. There is this huge hinterland behind it.’
We return to more worldly matters: her lifelong career in television. After graduating in English and drama from Bristol University, she got a job at the BBC in London as a ‘graduate secretary’. She laughs now at that job title. ‘Basically there were so many of us at the BBC, all graduates and all very much wanting to work in television as researchers or producers. It was ridiculous, because every time a new job became vacant, a researcher’s or a producer’s job, it was always put on the notice board, but everybody knew that the only person who was going to get that job was a bloke. An Oxbridge graduate... And I thought, this is ridiculous. If I stay here I am going to be a secretary for the rest of my life. I wasn’t a good secretary
– not organised enough. So I very fortunately heard that there was a job on a trainee scheme at Granada television. And of course I am from Manchester, so it was easy for me to go up to Manchester. And I got the job, and that was how I got out of my secretarial phase.’
Eloise by Judy Finnigan
is published by Sphere
They also launched the Richard and Judy Book Club. ‘It came up because we found that when
we interviewed authors about books they had written, we were told by publishers the sales went up. So we thought, maybe some of our audience have got an interest in that kind of thing.’ They started featuring more authors and book reviewers. ‘We thought, well maybe a lot of people will be bored and they won’t listen. But to our astonishment, we found, analysing the ratings, they quite often spiked at that place. So obviously our viewers were interested in books, and wanted to know more about them, and be recommended books. And it went on from there.
‘We were pleased because most people think that people who watch TV at that time of day, or that kind of television, are basically thick. And that’s the kind of insult that has been thrown at the daytime television audience since daytime was born. To us it proved something very different. It proved that our audience, a lot of our audience, were eager to read.’
Finnigan on Writing
‘One of the interesting things about writing I find is – you don’t realize this until after you’ve done it – it’s so familiar to you, you know the story inside out, obviously, it’s all in your head. You sometimes find that you’ve maybe forgotten that the reader doesn’t know it. It’s not on their head. And you have to explain far more than you think.’