Interview: Angela Lansbury

(Marilyn Kingwall)

(Marilyn Kingwall)

‘Don’t kid yourself, my dear,” Angela Lansbury scolds down the phone at me from her suite at the Rosewood hotel. (This is a beautiful Edwardian building in central London, only 11 years older than the dame herself, gutted to a bland internationalism by its Texan owners. She has aged better.) “Let me tell you something. Everybody has plastic surgery. I haven’t done it for a number of years, but in the early days — good heavens, yes.”

I mention another famous British actress of Lansbury’s generation, who has always rejected the allegation that she has any familiarity with scalpel or needle.

“Ha! Her? Please! I know her and she’s no fool.” She denies it, I say.

“Well, if she denies it and looks as good as she does, then God bless her.”

I loved Dame Angela instantly, not least from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the video of which was worn to tissue when we were children; then I remembered she was astonishing in The Manchurian Candidate too. And, of course, she seems to be perpetually on television as Jessica Fletcher in repeats of Murder, She Wrote. Lansbury made millions from that programme which ran for 12 long and exhausting series. By the end she owned the company that produced it.

Best of Angela Lansbury
Last week she became one of the oldest recipients of an Olivier, the most prestigious award in British theatre, when she won best supporting actress for her performance as Madame Arcati, the loopy, heavily laced “clairvoyant” in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

That had been her first appearance on a London stage in about 40 years and she almost broke down when she accepted what she tells me is a “jewel”: the statuette of “Sir Laurence, whom I had known and worked with”.

Of course she did. She is 89 and says that she has never considered retiring: “As a character actor you need energy. To take on another person’s physical attributes and play them fully needs huge amounts of energy. And I thank God I have that: if I’m not acting, I’m washing the dishes or polishing the floor.”

Where does this longevity come from, I ask.

“I take excruciatingly good care of my body,” she says. “And I don’t burn the candle at both ends” — briefest pause — “except for fun.”

She really is a character actor, too. With most of her older female acting contemporaries, people pay to see the woman: a popular celebrity who plays more or less the same part every time. A scan through Lansbury clips on YouTube shows how different dramatically — which is to say in the application of talent — she is in every role. (The clever, diligent, mischievous Jessica Fletcher, she tells me, was “the only part I ever played myself in”.)

One paradox of this talent is that Lansbury is probably less recognisable than, say, Judi Dench or Maggie Smith. Plus, as someone who knows her says: “She is modest. She said to me once: ‘I don’t think I really mean anything in London any more.’ Well, she came over to do a benefit concert for Aids, walked onstage at the Palladium and 2,200 people leapt to their feet. It showed her that she really did matter.”

In a long and conscientious career, Lansbury doesn’t seem to have taken anything for granted. Her first husband, a thespy Lord Alfred Douglas lookalike named Richard Cromwell, married her when she was 19 and he was 35. He had hoped to distract or convert himself from his homosexuality, but one morning less than a year into their marriage, she came downstairs to find a note: “I’m sorry darling, I can’t go on.” She filed for divorce, but they remained good friends until he died in 1960.

The great union of her life, of course, was with Peter Shaw. Their marriage lasted 53 years. He had been a vastly successful Hollywood agent and producer who abandoned everything to support her. When he died in 2003, Lansbury said it was like a “rift in time” — depression seemed to implode her. Then Emma Thompson rang and offered her a part as the villain Aunt Adelaide in Nanny McPhee and that, she later said, “pulled me out of the abyss”.

“Unquestionably, the hardest time in my life was the early 1970s,” she tells me. “So many disastrous things occurred. Two of our children were heavily involved with drugs.”

Anthony and Deirdre, who were in their teens, were using heroin with a prototypical Rich Kids of Instagram set gadding about the Malibu hills. Deirdre even became involved with the Manson family, the hypnotised harem led by the serial killer, racist and psychopath Charles Manson (now 80 years old and still in jail).

“We just had nothing to keep us in America,” Lansbury says. “So we upped sticks, as they say.”

They moved the family to a house near Cork in southern Ireland, where she and Peter rescued the children from their chaotic lives.

“They learnt things that they never would have had the opportunity to get into back in California,” she says.

“[They learnt] how to cook and garden. They got jobs as waiters and learnt what it’s like to earn a bit of a living — not that they had to.”

It worked: the children, now in their sixties, work respectively in the cinema and as a restaurateur. Lansbury, who says that her “homestead” is Los Angeles, seems genuinely thrilled to tell me the precise date of her granddaughter’s wedding in New York later this year.

Our time is up. “Sorry we had to do this under such hurried circumstances but you’ve dealt with it all terribly well,” she says.

“I’ll try and do my part now too for the rest of the day. That’s all I can hope to do, really — just keep up my end.”

Feature: The sharing economy

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This feature originally appeared in the Sunday Times

Squid, who has a queer name for a dog, arrives at my flat with his South African owner and a strained expression, then urinates with visible relief on the photographer’s bag.

I’ve booked him through a website with the twee name BorrowMyDoggy, whose staff, as pressingly enthusiastic as the noisiest handbag chihuahuas, sign off their emails: “Best woofs.”

You may know about the service: thousands of people have joined it. If you like dogs but circumstances make it difficult for you to own one, this can assuage you. And if you have a dog but are going on holiday or need a regular babysitter for it, the system makes it easier.

In west London, where I live, “doggy daycare” is a tenner a day or more. Dog owners pay £45 a year to sign up to lend out Squids: even the borrowers are billed £10 annually. Businesses such as this are surfacing constantly; so many that it hardly seems surprising you can use the internet to get a dog delivered to play with.

This strange new experiment, glibly named the “sharing economy” (it has a younger and flashier sibling, the “concierge economy”), is exploding the ways in which people formerly interacted with each other. We are beyond supermarket wall-cards and newspaper small ads; Gumtree and Craigslist appear ancient.

The editor asked me to spend a week living through my phone, using it to organise as much of my life as possible. It turned to be an effortless delight, of course: ease is the triumph of this new world. But doing it in a relatively focused way also highlighted a couple of intriguing things about our society.

Greg the Dubliner arrives a few minutes after Squid. He’s a sculptor, really, he tells me, working in “digital 3D media”, but like many artists before him he gets by as an artisan. He is here to put up some shelves: I booked him on TaskRabbit, a website that claims to make people “live smarter” by “outsourcing household errands and skilled tasks to trusted people in your community”. Greg charges £20 an hour plus expenses. When he arrives I congratulate him on his 97% approval rating.

“You start with 100%,” he mopes. “I kick myself for one bad job.”

I offer coffee, lemonade — or there’s beer? His Irish eyes flash, then narrow: “Is this going in your piece?”


“Er, lemonade is fine.”

People use TaskRabbit for almost anything; to find someone to wash their dishes, dispatch people to queue for an iPhone for them and (on one occasion) to scuba dive for lost keys in a lake.

The company whacks 20% onto whatever the customer is paying — a typically ferocious mark-up. But this is where all serious money seems to go nowadays: to a tiny number of men running websites in California. Buy something from one of Amazon’s UK “fulfilment centres” (aka warehouses)? Travel via taxi on British roads in an Uber car? Your transactions are with companies in the tax-friendly regimes of Luxembourg and Holland. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s widely disliked and “bro-tastic” boss, built that company to a $40bn (£27bn) valuation in six aggressive years. As someone recently wrote in a much-shared piece on a technology website: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”

It is a phenomenon; in American cities and, if the rumours are correct, in British ones soon, people are turning themselves into part-time taxi drivers by joining, via an app, a company called Lyft. You can rent out your parking space on JustPark and your home itself on Airbnb, find a cleaner on Homejoy and hire a drill or carpet-cleaning machine using Zilok. Personal shopper apps are huge in the States; if you’re too lazy to buy your own soya milk, someone will bring it to your apartment for a couple of dollars without you even getting off the couch.

My godmother has broken her arm and is finding it hard to do things around the house. I download an app called Laundrapp, thumb in my card details and someone pulls up at her address that evening and collects a load of laundry. This is returned, beautifully pressed and folded, before 6pm the next day. (Cost: a punchy £25.50 for some sheets and a towel, plus £2.50 for one pillow case.)

The doorbell goes. Yesterday I gave a company called Enclothed my measurements online, clicked on photographs of men in various states of dress that I liked the look of and sat back plutocratically. The delivery box contains a linen jacket, jeans, some chinos, shoes, shirts and a jumper, all from good-quality labels. They fit well, on the whole, and I would wear most of them. You don’t have to keep any of the items; the company charges the shop price for what you want to hold on to and comes to collect the rejects. Many men don’t enjoy shopping for clothes; if I were richer I would use Enclothed a lot.

An enclosed letter from “your personal stylist” (no name) reads: “The longer we work together . . . the better each box will get.” This is true of almost everything in this new society, where algorithms know us best.

The sharing and concierge economies appear different but are essentially the same. The internet — and smartphones in particular — has made it cheaper and more efficient to connect customers with goods and services. Although one thing, technology, has made this possible, another has made it inevitable. Many people in western societies are no better off than they were before the 2008 crash. Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, said last week the average Briton is earning £1,600 less than they were five years ago. An army of debt-laden graduates is struggling to find work. This new economy is probably keeping many of them off the dole.

I spoke to an Uber driver about the company. “At first it was great,” he said. “Good customers, lots of jobs. But last summer Uber suddenly dropped our prices by 15%.” He has no sickness pay, he added, and little stability.

Clutching his brackets, Greg says: “This is perfect for me. I can work when I want, turn it off when I want. I don’t have a boss; I can say no to anything. But it’s all a sideline for me — I’d feel differently if it was my career.”

What did I learn from this experiment? That technology has made it easier for any two humans to establish that they can trust each other and that this has made us more efficient. Also, that the internet will continue to satisfy our yearning for instant gratification in almost every area. (Amazon does one-hour delivery on some goods in New York; and for those who want them there are probably apps for prostitutes and drugs.) Most of all, though, I learnt that any worries about the position of workers within this matrix can be temporarily forgotten as you load your sturdy new shelves and stroke your borrowed dachshund.

Click here to read at the Sunday Times

Interview: Johanna Basford

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The first question is — why? Why have colouring books for grown-ups suddenly become a thing? On Amazon’s page of the bestselling books in this country, five of the top 11 are for overgrown toddlers with mortgages trying not to go over the lines. A single author holds the top two spots on the equivalent American list.

She turns out to be a fittingly bewildered Aberdonian named Johanna Basford. I meet her over dry club sandwiches in a windowless room at a hotel “business centre” next to Heathrow airport. Branding agents, publishers and others are forming a procession to see her: she has flown down for the day, she tells me: “And asked everyone to come to me. And when you sell a million books, you can demand cheeky things like that.”

The 31-year-old, who was a freelance illustrator on roughly the minimum wage a few years ago, has sold about 1.4m books since 2012, single-handedly inventing the most lucrative new genre in publishing.

Her pictures are whimsical, tricksy and trippy: swirling, 2D scapes of animals, trees, flowers, insects, houses and impossible gardens, with a rural aesthetic born of the environment in which she draws them. Basford works in an attic studio in the house she shares with her nine-month-old daughter and her husband James Watt, the co-founder of the fantastically successful and brash modern brewery BrewDog, which he launched with a £20,000 loan in 2008 and whipped to a turnover of £30m last year.

I was expecting to meet some lucky and clueless creative, but instead I get Karren Brady crossed with Emma Bridgwater. Basford, like her husband — they met at a fair for young entrepreneurs — is a canny self-promoter and shrewd businesswoman.

Her parents were marine biologists who ran a salmon and trout farm. After graduating from art school in 2005, she moved to London, interning in fashion studios and hating it. “It was all trend-led, I couldn’t put my own stamp on things,” she says. Then the 7/7 bombers struck on a Thursday morning and she “was on the Megabus home that night”.

“Besides,” she adds, “I can’t draw flowers when I’m surrounded by concrete.”

She started a business selling hand-painted wallpaper to “super-high-end hotels, private homes and clients like that”. But the margins were tight and she was reduced to “borrowing Pot Noodles off my mates”.

When the credit crunch hit she realised she was going to go bust, so wound everything down and started hawking herself as a freelance illustrator. She would take the bus to Edinburgh, Glasgow or, for 12 hours overnight, to London, attending meetings, building up her clients, and gradually proving herself to companies that included Nike, Starbucks and Sony.

The drawing that I coloured in

The drawing that I coloured in

“People are so precious about their artwork,” she says. “It was always part of my marketing strategy to give stuff away.” She uploaded some desktop wallpapers to her website that people could download for free. A publisher liked them and called to ask if she would like to do a children’s colouring-in book. Basford said she would prefer to draw one for adults.

“There was a silence on the other end,” she says. “And then they let me go for it.” The print run of 16,000 sold out quickly: it appealed to a far wider range of people than anyone had predicted.

“I have Wall Street bankers, people in hospital recovering from strokes and other illnesses doing the books,” she says. “Psychologists and therapists tell me they give them to their patients. Teenagers do them to beat exam stress. Lots of people email me to say they’re using the books to get through a tough time.”

I sat down with one of her illustrations: a long, delicately wriggling branch creeping with flowers and ferns. Within minutes I was absorbed. There is a deep, meditative, industrious calm, only faintly childlike, to the act of colouring: a gentle pleasure in an engrossing but unintellectual task, where the only thing you have to think about is whether or not a petal should be blue. When I finished I felt a giddy, embarrassing and fleeting pride. I wanted to turn round and show my page to Mummy.

Today, across the planet, fully grown men and women are forming clubs where they meet to colour-in. Basford is huge in South Korea and in France, where roughly one in three people is on antidepressants.

Our society in many ways is increasingly and weirdly infantilised, from the phoney baby language of the internet (tweet, Google, selfie, cloud) to onesies and the unironic enjoyment of video games and children’s movies. I ask Basford whether adult colouring-in is just another gaga fad.

“Of course it’s only a trend,” says Basford. “The time will come when this doesn’t sell so well, when it’s tomorrow’s bespoke, handpainted wallpaper.”

Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest by Johanna Basford are published by Laurence King in paperback at £9.95

Interview: Peter Ackroyd

(Francesco Guidicini)

(Francesco Guidicini)

This interview originally appeared in the Sunday Times

There is a mystery to Peter Ackroyd that baffles his observers. How does the author — a plump and wheezing 65-year-old with a gammy leg, who continually forgets himself mid-sentence (“What was the question again?”) and attempts to say “indefatigability” four times during our meeting without success — manage and maintain a workload of such Alexandrian prolixity and scale?

He has burped out more than 30 books since the millennium, writing two or three at a time, and his commissions with publishers run until at least 2021.

“Thrrrrrrring,” he says, rolling the “r”, as he lets me into his well-proportioned office in Bloomsbury: a bare-walled, one-bed flat with towering windows overlooking one of the capital’s better-known Georgian squares. It’s a warm day, but three Dyson heaters blast over the carpet; students from a nearby college gambol outside.

“Where’s that name from — Hertfordshire? It sounds like something from Edith Wharton: ‘Meet my friend Thring.’ Actually,” he muses, settling his bottom a little more comfortably, “Mr Thring sounds better, more sedate.” I tell him that my surname has been an affliction at least since I was in primary school.

“Bwu-huh-huh-huh,” he gurgles. His face is pale and walrus-like (I expect he knows the word for that, odobenine), an effect increased by the clipped and yellowing moustache clinging to his wet lips. The jutting lower jaw reminds me vaguely of Churchill, as does the minor speech impediment — Rs have become Ws — and the impressive alcohol intake.

Ackroyd says he has cut the boozing down to “a bottle of wine a night, not much more . . . but it used to be about a bottle of whisky a night, as well as wine”.

The drinking has furnished many anecdotes: as the youngest literary editor of The Spectator magazine and a celebrated book luvvie, Ackroyd was reported to have challenged Martin Amis to arm-wrestling competitions, fallen asleep in Salman Rushdie’s lap, razed Christmas trees at publishers’ parties and been regularly carried, feet-first, from horrified salons (he tells me he does not remember much of this, which is unsurprising). A former schoolfriend, now a QC, said Ackroyd has always been “cripplingly shy”: alcohol seemingly helps to counter that.

The carousing never interfered with his monumental output. This includes at least 57 books, including a 1,200-page biography of Dickens for which he received an unprecedented £650,000 advance in 1990 (about £1.5m today), as well as his masterpiece: a similarly mega-selling “biography” of London, published in 2000. The completion of this resulted in a heart attack that left Ackroyd in a coma for a week.

These days he takes a taxi from his Knightsbridge flat, works on a novel in the morning and on his six-volume The History of England around lunchtime (he’s on the fifth instalment and a carefully annotated page headed “1833” lies on his desk ). In the afternoon he continues a biography or some other non-fiction. He eats only in restaurants: “Minor little places. Not the Ivy any more.”

Ackroyd’s mother and grandmother, resolute Catholics, raised him on a council estate in west London and he said he made “great efforts” to lose his Cockney accent once he went to Cambridge. He never met his father: when Graham Ackroyd, an artist, wrote to his flourishing son asking for help with his own writing efforts, the younger man did not reply. After a double first, a fellowship at Yale and a nine-year stint at The Spectator, Ackroyd began writing full time.

He was inspired to begin his newest book, a well- received biography of Alfred Hitchcock published last week, after discovering the director was “camp” and “really rather a screamer” with a “funny mincing step”, which Ackroyd demonstrates by walking his index and middle fingers along his desk in a prissy sort of fashion and doing a little pout. Might Hitchcock have been bisexual, I ask.

“Well, he said he had ‘poofy’ moments when he was reading Vogue. But if that qualified you as a homosexual, half the population would be condemned.”

Ackroyd himself seems to have had a difficult relationship with his sexuality. When he published his first book of love poems at the age of 22, he switched all the pronouns from “he” to “she” because, he says, he didn’t want to upset his family.

His partner of a quarter-century, an American dancer and model named Brian Kuhn, died of an Aids-related illness in 1994. Ackroyd had bought a “middle-ranking stately home” in Devon so Kuhn “had somewhere to die”, but he was able to spend hardly any time in it.

The author says he was “away — no, in London” when his lover died. “I knew it was going to happen, but not that night.” So Kuhn died alone, I say. Ackroyd pauses: “He had a dog.”

I tell him I had been doing some online research earlier that morning in the Yale archives, to which Ackroyd is donating all his papers. I found a photograph of him and Kuhn, taken in what looks like the English countryside during the summertime. Kuhn: tall, denim-jacketed, wavy-haired and grinning; Ackroyd, clambering over a fence behind him: awkward, rodentine, unimpeachably Old World.

He listens, open-mouthed, and then says slowly: “I don’t remember that little vignette.” When I tell him it’s freely available on the internet, he yelps as if he has been stabbed with a needle: “Ow! I hate the thought of it.”

Ackroyd has said that today he doesn’t have “any sex life . . . I’m sort of neutral . . . chaste”, and insists he has not had a physical or emotional relationship since Kuhn’s death. But someone who knows him tells me that the experience “poleaxed” the author.

“Absolutely not true,” says Ackroyd when I put this to him. But, I say, you do seem quite a solitary figure. “Do I?” he asks, wide-eyed.

Is that unfair? “I don’t think of myself as solitary. I mean, I talk to my waiter when I have dinner. I say ‘how do you do’ and ask what’s on the menu.”

Last month he took a holiday in Eastbourne, East Sussex. “That was very pleasant. I stayed in a hotel, the Grand, and then I sat on a bench on the promenade for five days.”

Not literally, I ask.

“Well, with breaks for meals and sleep. But otherwise I just sat and looked at the sea.”

With a glass of wine?

“What? Good lord no. If you wanted a treat you could go to the seaside chalet restaurant and order yourself a ham sandwich, but that was the limit of the luxury I allowed myself.”

He is half-joking and half-serious, I think. This kind of aloof eccentricity is always a performance, a dodge of some kind. To me, and probably to most, it sounds lonely and sad. But Ackroyd seems more than content: alone in Bloomsbury and Knightsbridge with his books and his view, emails to the two researchers he has employed for years, the odd call to his agent and a warm, toasted feeling every evening over a bottle or two.

For an introverted genius who is probably more comfortable in the past than the present, it may be perfect.

Our time is up and Ackroyd says with suspicion: “You didn’t take many notes.”

It’s all on tape, I say, adding: at least, I hope it is. He laughs.

“It doesn’t matter anyway. Write what you like. Make it all up — I don’t care.”

Travel feature: Athens restaurants

The dish 'Orange Explosion' at Funky Gourmet

The dish ‘Orange Explosion’ at Funky Gourmet

This feature originally appeared in the Sunday Times

The feta cheese that wished to be a beetroot”. As names of dishes go, it was among the silliest I’d encountered outside Bray. Personifying the things you put in your mouth is rarely a good idea. The hopeful cheese turned out to be a fluffy purée sealed in purple beetroot jelly — a clever, grown-up Haribo. I was at Funky Gourmet, the daftest, most oddly brilliant restaurant in Athens. It also serves a sheep’s brain. The name? “The silence of the lamb”.

In straitened times, Greek restaurateurs have been updating the stodgy stalwarts of the national cuisine to establish something thrilling and new. Picture yourself as one of the two chef-owners of Funky Gourmet— Georgianna Hiliadaki and Nikos Roussos, who both spent time at El Bulli in Spain. You want to open a proper high-end restaurant, with a wine tome, a multi-course gastro-event menu and a staff-to-customer ratio akin to those Swiss schools that educate the children of plutocrats. How, with national unemployment at 26% and a national debt approaching double the GDP, can you make a restaurant like this survive? Answer: by keeping prices competitive by international standards (the 11-course tasting menu costs £75;, elbowing your way into the Michelin guide (the restaurant has two stars, one of only two in Greece to have achieved this) and, most important, offering something genuinely and distinctively different.

This is happening all over Athens. Graffiti daubs and streaks the buildings; architecture crumbles; taxi drivers gripe and gibber with a depressed, desperate monotony; and many of the people sleeping on the streets had jobs and businesses a couple of years ago. When I went, the election, in this uterus of democracy, was a few days away. Posters of grinning and tieless men flapped in the squares, megaphones blared and everyone I spoke to said Syriza was either going to solve the crisis or drive the country further to disaster.

Yet against this uncertain backdrop, dozens of clever food and drink businesses have been launched. Walking through the grotty Psyrri district, a scuffed but slowly gentrifying warren, I passed a hipster bike cafe called Handlebar, replete with bemetalled, bearded staff and plates of ironic kedgeree — and I thought, bloody hell, I came here to get away from Shoreditch.

Heteroclito is a gorgeous little wine bar, not far from the parliament. Abandon fears of acrid pine-needle retsina and factory-red mavrodaphne: many Greek wines, especially whites, are full of spunky character. Malagousia, a grape that almost became extinct 30 years ago, is now making some fantastic bottles, especially from central Greece. Here, it’s less than £4 a glass (

I liked By the Glasseven more, a high-ceilinged Mediterranean wine bar that also serves food (dishes from £4.50; Its gurgling Enolmatic vacuum machines keep bottles open and drinkable for weeks. In a chilly courtyard at 3pm, a female lounge singer rasped Tina Turner’s Private Dancer to tables of swaying and smoking customers.

The best new restaurant in town is Cookoovaya, an extraordinary canteenish collaboration between five of Athens’s leading chefs: one is an expert on the grill, another does puddings, and so on. The word means “owl”, and the joke is that a group of cooks working together in the same kitchen will foster wisdom — not lead to egos boiling over and seething tantrums. A plate of beef carpaccio with smoked eel, spinach roots and a hot, creamy horseradish dressing was one of the most dexterous and considered dishes I’ve had in ages (mains from £7.20;

The bars are clubbable and loud, full of young Europeans swilling vast Spanishy goblets of gin and tonic. At 42 — the number Douglas Adams said was the answer to everything — they infuse syrups and liqueurs with herbs such as rosemary and slug them into the cocktails (from £6; Thank God I’d asked the hotel front desk to scribble my address on a Post-it note.

The overall paradox — good Greek word, that — is that grim and punishing austerity has brought the best out of some Athenians, helping them to twist their city into new directions and attract fresh tourists. No doubt, as a Greek person, you would have put up with fewer new bars and restaurants in exchange for less debt and catastrophe. But for us visitors, glugging and munching under the Acropolis at sunset, the crisis has a delicious upside.

Interview: Ben Lecomte

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This interview originally appeared in the Sunday Times

In July, Ben Lecomte will squeeze into a wetsuit, walk into the sea near Tokyo and begin a steady front crawl. Six months later, he hopes that one million people will be standing by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to see him reach the shore. If he manages to swim 5,500 miles across the Pacific — having avoided sharks, jellyfish, 30ft waves, pollution, plastics, losing his support boat or simply giving up from exhaustion — he will surely have set one of the great endurance records of our species.

As far as I can work out, Lecomte is the only person ever to have planned swimming across the largest stretch of water on the planet.

Few people would even take the bid seriously were it not for the fact that Lecomte, a heavily accented Frenchman who has lived in Texas for decades, was the first person to swim across the Atlantic, in 1998. Now 47, with two children aged 14 and 8, he tells me that the long gap between swims was because “I had other priorities — to get married and be a dad. Now I’ve gone back to my passion.”

We meet in a gloomy box room, promisingly named Ocean, at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington, west London. Lecomte is surprisingly small, with a pinched, fatless face, the kind one associates with the masochistically athletic. He speaks in a lugubrious murmur, with the measured formality of the mildly unhinged.

“Why?” is the monosyllable typically put to the zanies who want to rollerskate across Greenland or climb Everest without oxygen. Their answers tend to be platitudes: because it’s there; because I had to. Lecomte is marginally more considered.

“I want to change people’s mindsets,” he says. “These days, everyone uses petrol and plastic. It took a long time for us to make all the bad decisions that built that world. With the swim, I want to help people realise that we can go back to the state we had before.”

Thus, part of his route will take him through the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast gyre covering millions of square miles, where plastics, sludgy chemicals and other manmade grimnesses eddy, swirl and testify to the ugly impact of human beings on the planet.

In 1998 Lecomte decided to swim the Atlantic after his father died from colon cancer at 49. That gave the swimmer “ze keek in ze butt”, he says, “to jump in the water. If you don’t take the chance, you won’t have it again.” He spent 73 days at sea, swimming for about eight hours at a time, resting on his support boat, and beginning every morning where he left off. Near the Azores, with Lecomte increasingly suffering from exhaustion, his boat’s water system failed and he was forced to stop for a week before swimming to France. That led some people to conclude he hadn’t truly swum the Atlantic.

“My goal was never to set a record,” he says. “We could not proceed without a working water system, and if that hadn’t broken down I would have continued. When I was finished, I didn’t write a book, go on speaking tours or do any other engagements. It was a personal journey for me.”

After a couple of brief TV appearances, including on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Lecomte returned to a seemingly humdrum existence in the indoor-spa business. He quit that job two years ago to focus full-time on his Pacific attempt, and tells me he now lives “on a shoestring”.

“The roles have been reversed,” he says. “I swam the Atlantic to deal with the death of my father, but today I want to use my passion for the next generation. You and I are going to die, but the people who live after us will face the consequences of our decisions.”

The Pacific is laughably misnamed. Sharks will be a continuous and stalking presence on Lecomte’s journey, especially for the final 1,000 miles, in which he will traverse the migration area of the great white. His support boat is fitted with a rod that sends an electrical signal to which sharks are sensitive. Yet when Lecomte swam the Atlantic, a large great white circled him for five days.

“We have a net I can swim over if necessary,” he says, “so the sharks can’t swim up and attack me from beneath.” Jellyfish stung his face almost daily during the earlier crossing. Salt water chafes in a wetsuit; your armpits and neck grow especially raw and sore. The diet is miserable: about 8,000 calories a day from Spam, tinned vegetables, rice, pasta, soup and dehydrated ready-meals. No sugar, and nothing fresh, for six months.

The swells will be so high that Lecomte will often lose sight of his boat; he cannot swim too close in case he is bashed against it. What is it like, I ask, to be unable to see your boat and feel alone in the open ocean?

He pinches his thumb and forefinger together. “You feel zees beeg — which of course we are. But it is psychological. I know my boat is there. You might think you could not run a marathon now, but if somebody held a gun to your head and said, ‘Keep running, keep running’, you would finish. It is the same for me in the water.”

Anyone will be able to follow his journey thanks to GPS and live-streaming cameras. The support crew will consist of a captain and first mate, a medic, a marine biologist and a couple of people working on social media and filming a documentary. Unlike the basic snorkel Lecomte used 17 years ago, he will be wearing a full-face mask that will allow him to speak as well as breathe. He hopes to talk to supporters, schools, universities and the media while swimming.

The enterprise is obviously hootingly mad, but there is such an ardent intensity to Lecomte, I reckon he might achieve his goal. I ask him the question that first hit me when I heard about this bid — is he crazy?

“Of course,” he replies. “I don’t want to be like everybody else. I want to be on the margin. If you don’t live on the edge, you take up too much space.”

Book review: Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey

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This originally appeared in the Sunday Times

In the summer of 2005, Anna Lyndsey was a thriving young civil servant in the Department for Work and Pensions. She had just bought her first flat, and thought a comfortable future lay ahead of her. But something horrible lay in store.

She began to notice that whenever she sat in front of a computer screen, a searing pain affected the skin on her face. It burnt, she says, “like the worst kind of sunburn. Burns like someone is holding a flame-thrower to my head.” Within a few months, the sun was beginning to have the same effect, and by the summer of 2006 she had reached what she calls, with a bitter pun, “my vanishing point”. Her entire body had developed an agonising sensitivity to light, and she was forced to retreat into the dark.

Ever since, Lyndsey has lived in a blacked-out room at her husband’s house in a village in Hampshire. Months or seasons often pass before she can venture outside, and then only at night, wearing thick clothes and a large hat, shunning street lamps and passing cars.

The practicalities of this benighted life, and the grim details of the disease, are bizarre and gripping. The book begins by describing the long and dispiriting process of banishing light from a room: lining curtains with blackout material, installing a heavy roller-blind, taping sheets of cooking foil to the panes themselves like “wild installation art”, and finally stuffing a rolled-up towel at the bottom of the door.

One disheartening quality of light for Lyndsey is that it passes through materials: its waves, she writes, “suffer degrees of diminution in strength, and yet, in their essential nature, persist”. As a result, she quickly finds that heavy clothes are not enough to protect her: even in the darkness of what she calls her “lair”, she has to wear a long-sleeved top and velvet jacket, pantaloons beneath silk skirts, and slip-on socks. Without this garb, even in the blacked-out room, her skin will immolate itself. “Through horrible experiment,” she writes, “I learnt that walls were what I had to wear.” During a summer heat wave, she sweats alone in this “oven… and I know what it is like to be in hell”.

How many of us, presented with this life, could stand it? Lyndsey cannot look at the sky from her window, cannot walk in the street, watch television or use the internet. If she did, she would spend months in agony and risk worsening her condition.

So she listens to audio books (“Nothing by James Patterson or Miss Read”) and invents word games (rules are supplied) of a difficulty fostered through hours of solitary tedium. She tries and fails to knit and, occasionally, receives visitors who are not distressed by her situation or by spending time in the fetid air of her room.

Three thoughts persist. One is “envying the dead…[whom] the future can no longer terrify”. At times, alone in the darkness, she also begins to doubt her own humanity, and imagines herself to be a ghost, “a thing that lurks, that creeps, that mopes, that wanders now and then from room to room, that flees in terror from the wide-flung welcoming front door, the joyful flicking-on of lights”. The third thought, lurking in the back of her mind, is suicide.

The book is structured in vignettes of varying length, with long, elaborate sentences that emphasise the feeling of an existence dragging on through months and years. The present tense and the lack of chronology, with events shuffling around in an almost dreamlike way, redouble this effect. A vague hope that her condition might improve sustains her: the alternatives — that she will deteriorate or remain the same — are unbearable. “To permit contemplation of the future is the fastest way to dissolution and despair,” she writes.

The disorder is doubly isolating: not only does it force Lyndsey to shut herself away from people but almost nobody else has the same problem — there are, apparently, just four sufferers in Britain. Diseases such as lupus can trigger forms of light sensitivity, but few are as absolute as this. There is no cure: there is not even a diagnosis. The doctors have seemingly stopped replying to her letters.

In the absence of proper medical treatment, she has tried, over the years, almost everything. She lists a full alphabet: from acupuncture through chelation, diet and kinesiology, to meditation, “spiritual healing” and “zzzz” — this last referring to the sheer boredom of focusing on her health all the time.

Her devoted and impressive husband, Pete, is a photographer, and there is an irony, infusing all their encounters, that his job relies on the very thing that causes her pain. He shows her pictures on his camera for a few seconds at a time, and these provide a glimpse of the world outside. When her skin is at its worst, he pushes trays of food to her under the door.

The saddest aspect of the book is the sheer banality of the suffering: from the EU directive that compels homes to switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs, to the council’s plans to “upgrade” streetlamps from yellowish sodium lights. Lyndsey can scuttle carefully around these, but a switch to brighter ones would render her housebound.

Not everything in the book works. I would have liked to know more about the circumstances behind its creation: what prompted Lyndsey, who is using a pseudonym, to write it, and some of the logistics. Milton, when blind, dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters, and the paralysed Jean-Dominique Bauby blinked the letters of The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly to a hospital nurse: did Lyndsey use a voice recorder, a typewriter, or scratch blindly with a pen and hand the notes to an assistant? Some passages are overwritten, and some metaphors, such as the body as a citadel, are hackneyed.

But this harrowing story recounts a life endured with faltering human stoicism. Its honesty, bravery and touches of black comedy will be a help to anyone suffering from a chronic illness, as well as to those who — at least for now — are spared. This book about darkness shines with lucid writing and flashes of bold imagination.

Feature: Butter is good for you after all

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This feature originally appeared in the Sunday Times

Last week a major study found that the longstanding official advice in this country, which said animal fats were bad for us, was wrong. Since 1983 national recommendations have urged Britons to cap their overall fat intake at 30% of their daily calories and their saturated fat at one tenth. We were told to replace these calories with carbohydrates (and greedily did so), especially starchy foods such as bread, rice and pasta.

You will have noticed that we have not been getting slimmer. Rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes have soared among the past generation. The authors of the recent study said it was “incomprehensible” that these guidelines had been handed to the public, “given the contrary results from a small number of unhealthy men”. But as a result of this advice, sales of butter, cream and cheese plummeted, the dairy industry suffered and the manufacturers of low-fat, butter-effect spreads made enormous profits.

Several other specific government food targets — however well intentioned — contain a modicum of guesswork. “Five-a-day, 14-21 alcohol units a week, 20-30g of saturated fat, 18g of fibre: none of these targets has any precise evidence for them,” Zoë Harcombe, who co-authored last week’s study, has written.

The less salt that we eat in our diet, the harder our kidneys have to work to reabsorb it The less salt that we eat in our diet, the harder our kidneys have to work to reabsorb it

One of the most staunchly held truisms of modern nutrition is that salt is bad for you. “Salt: the facts”, begins a taxpayer-funded website. “Many of us in the UK eat too much salt,” it affirms. “Too much salt can raise your blood pressure, which puts you at increased risk of health problems such as heart disease and stroke . . . Cutting down on salt lowers blood pressure.” It adds that we should eat “no more than 6g of salt per day”.

“Why six?” asks Harcombe. “I have no idea and nor does the NHS. Why not seven? Why not five? Why have a target at all?”

The evidence that salt causes high blood pressure is decidedly shaky and has been repeatedly called into doubt. It rests for the most part on a couple of not especially recent or thorough trials. In the 1970s a Long Island scientist induced high blood pressure in rats by feeding them sodium that equated to a human eating 2,500g of salt a day. (Most of us eat around 8.5g of salt a day, or about 1½ teaspoons.)

In 1997 another study was held, ostensibly looking into whether a low-salt diet could control high blood pressure. Its participants followed a diet that not only featured minimal salt, but also contained fresh vegetables and fruits, lean protein and whole grains; it was low in saturated fat and, perhaps most crucially, contained little sugar.

Unsurprisingly, rates of high blood pressure in the group were lower than in the general population. But a lack of salt could not be isolated as the reason behind this. More than that, the low-salt group had higher rates of bad cholesterol, leading some researchers to call the results “one-sided”.

Avocados contain about 25g of fat, which led people to shun them in the 1980s. Now they are thought to raise good cholesterol. And have you ever met someone who got fat from avocado?

In contrast, the evidence that salt has a negligible effect on blood pressure — at least in most people — is now considerable. In January an international study, which followed more than 150,000 people across five continents, found that consuming less than 3g of sodium a day — or about 7.5g of salt — was associated with a 27% increase in cardiovascular disease and death. Eating between 3g and 6g of sodium, which is roughly the amount we normally eat, was associated with a lower rate of heart disease, while consuming more than 7g (about 18g of salt, or almost three times the UK average) was associated with a higher risk of heart disease and death.

This study has been buttressed by at least 10 others during the past 30 years, collectively following hundreds of thousands of people. One from 2011, which followed almost 4,000 Europeans for eight years, found that the risk for heart disease was 56% higher in a low-salt group than among those who ate the most salt.

These studies have repeatedly found that low-sodium diets — the same that you are exhorted to follow when you read websites such as “Salt: the facts” — could be more likely to kill you than simply eating the amount of salt that tastes right. We seek out foods that contain salt because without it we die.

“Restricting sodium in the diet to prevent hypertension and cardiovascular disease is the greatest con in preventative nutrition and medicine,” says James DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist and an associate editor of the British Medical Journal’s online publication Open Heart. “Among people who lower their salt intake, the same percentage who get a reduction in blood pressure also get an increase in it.”

The rise of low-carb diets, including Atkins, led to people rejecting the first food of civilisation. But sourdough bread in particular is full of iron, zinc and magnesium, antioxidants, folic acid and other B vitamins. One study found it was safe for gluten-intolerant people.

He adds: “Low sodium stresses the heart. This increases the risk of atherosclerosis, heart failure and hypertension: the exact conditions that most governments and health institutes are trying to prevent by promoting low-salt intake for everyone.”

DiNicolantonio points out that our brains drive sodium intake: “That is one reason [why], over the past 50 years across diverse populations, consumption has been in a such a narrow range.

“In Britain, sodium intake has only fallen about 10-15% during the past decade. The authorities are shooting for 50% — a figure that would likely induce harm. Restricting sodium is also associated with increased mortality, worsened cognition and gait, increased risk of falling and subsequent fractures and worsened thyroid function — just to name a few.”

Despite decades of instructions exhorting people to cut down on the amount of salt they eat, the actual rates of salt consumption in developed countries are thought to have been relatively stable since the Industrial Revolution. Put simply: people are ignoring the advice not to eat more salt.

In part, this is because about 80% of the salt we eat in Britain comes from processed foods: cereals, frozen ready meals, pies, supermarket pizzas and so on. Barely a fifth is added in cooking or at the table. If salt caused high blood pressure, the past 30 years would have seen a spike in salt consumption. They have not. What we have seen instead is a surge in the consumption of refined carbohydrates and, especially, sugar.

DiNicolantonio points out that telling the food industry to lower the salt in processed foods may mean that people eat more of those foods to get the salt their physiology demands.

“So low-salt policies may lead to increased consumption of processed foods and the added sugars they bring with them,” he says, “which might in turn lead to increased type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular events and chronic metabolic disease.”

Sonia Pombo is a campaign co-ordinator and a graduate in nutrition who works at the Consensus Action on Salt and Health pressure group. She says those studies that fail to show a link between blood pressure and sodium are “limited and methodologically flawed”.

She adds: “It is evident that salt, in the amounts we eat, is a direct toxin that puts up our blood pressure, which is the biggest cause of strokes, heart attacks and heart failure and is the commonest cause of death and disability in the UK.”

Olive oil contains six times the saturated fat of pork, and is less chemically stable than butter and lard, which are therefore better for cooking.

“A ‘direct toxin’?” says DiNicolantonio. “Salt is an essential micronutrient that our body can retain or excrete to maintain the perfect amount. The less sodium we eat, the harder our kidneys have to work to reabsorb it.”

I ask Harcombe whether, after butter and possibly salt, any other foods might be ready for rehabilitation.

“Eggs, certainly,” she says. “The evidence shows that eating cholesterol has no effect on the cholesterol in our own bodies — the American guidelines were just updated to reflect that. And eggs are high in cholesterol because a healthy chicken — or, indeed, a human — needs it to survive. Egg farmers went out of business because of that flawed advice, while cereal manufacturers made huge profits.”

Harcombe also believes that milk, lard and red meat are due to come back into favour. “The media often lump red meat with processed meat as equally likely to cause bowel cancer. The former is one of the most nutritious things on the planet: the latter is probably toxic,” she says.

The message to take from this dispiriting tale will be familiar. It is to eat fresh and wholesome food: vegetables, fruit, whole grains and nuts. Enjoy meat, fish and animal fats as accompaniments rather than as the basis of a dish. Don’t overdo sugar, but remember that food is as much about pleasure and the communion of the species as it is about fuel. Above all else, take the fluctuating diktats of nutritionists and killjoys with the best seasoning of all — a good pinch of salt.

Interview: Anne Glover

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This interview with the EU’s former chief scientific advisor originally appeared in the Sunday Times

Anne Glover wrote her PhD thesis on “the biochemistry and biosynthesis of halobacterial membrane proteins” and has spent eight years in grey rooms discussing scientific matters with policymakers — first in the weird, self-important world of the Scottish parliament and then in the even more peculiar universe of the European Union.

So I’m expecting to meet a desiccated, fully institutionalised technocrat. She turns out to be extremely likeable, with a curious manner best described as patronisingly maternal. I keep saying to her, yes, I do understand the basics, while distractedly thinking about settling in her lap for some gentle pampering.

Her overheated office in the concrete horror of Aberdeen University’s medical school contains a cafetiere for one, folders with “Microbes” scrawled on the spines, reflex-purchase Matisse prints unhung on the wiry carpet and a sad, sour smell.

She looks a bit like a headmistress: Jean Brodie with a junior beehive, expansively rouged cheeks and thinly seductive lipstick, and she speaks with a QC’s fluency in Morningside-ish Scots.

We are here to talk about her leaving her post as the EU’s chief scientific adviser. “I wasn’t sacked,” she insists. “I’ve never been sacked. It makes me angry when people say I was sacked.” While that is technically true, it is also true that a) she left the job before her contract was up for renegotiation and b) her position on genetically modified (GM) crops — which, naturally, follows the scientific consensus — had put her at odds with the new European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and a battalion of sprawling non-governmental organisations, especially Greenpeace.

Until November the 58-year-old Glover was the EU’s most important scientist, advising the former president, Jose Manuel Barroso — “he gave me his personal email address,” she trills — on dengue fever in Madeira, fusion power, ebola, the Large Hadron Collider and “our spaceport in French Guiana”.

Ten days into Juncker’s presidency, after she had repeatedly tried to meet members of his staff, she received an email ordering, as she puts it: “No more travel, no speeches, no commitment, you’re not a scientific adviser any more — do not tweet as such.”

That still smarts, not least because the timing looked suspicious. Some months earlier several influential NGOs had written to Barroso and urged him to scrap her job. Her crime had been to state that all the science shows GM crops are safe for people to eat.

The evidence for this is at least as strong as the evidence for human- influenced climate change. “They can find people who will sign letters saying that GM technology is not safe in the same way there are letters signed by people saying climate change isn’t happening,” says Glover.

“This all rests on a misunderstanding of consensus.”

She clearly despises Greenpeace, which said she was one-sided and partial over GM. When the name of one senior Greenpeace figure comes up, her top lip wrinkles in disgust. “Oh, him,” she grunts.

“They nicknamed me ‘chief lobbyist’ — I don’t know why. I’m a scientist. I don’t offer opinions – but they actually do lobby, and they have a scientific adviser. What goes through his mind? Why is it OK for Greenpeace to have an adviser but not the president of the European Commission?”

I mention Prince Charles, a man untroubled by a scientific education, who has nonetheless claimed that GM represents the biggest environmental disaster “of all time”.

“That’s his philosophy,” says Glover. “It’s not science and his sister has a much more open mind. My real problem is when people want an excuse to oppose something and so claim there is a problem with the evidence. With GM it’s more honest to say: we know the technology is safe but some people simply don’t like it. A closed mind is difficult for scientists to understand.”

What about the argument that the technology enriches huge corporations, which can copyright DNA? “So-called golden rice is biofortified to include vitamin A,” she says “It can save millions of people from deafness and blindness. And it’s in the public domain.”

Years ago, on a midnight swim in the Mediterranean, Glover noticed that the swimming costume of one of her companions was sparkling with bioluminescent bacteria. She mastered the science behind the phenomenon and, in 1999, used it to found a biotechnology company with her husband, Ian George. Remedios used GM bacteria to identify polluted sites. I had been told that she owned a yacht and drove a sports car, but she pooh-poohs the idea that she is rich.

“My shares have been so diluted I don’t think they’re worth anything now,” she says. “I’m not sure I ever made money from that business — I’m an academic really.”

Today she drives a Mini and her boat, her husband tells me over the telephone, is “a plastic tub”. He adds that they have hardly had a family holiday in years because Glover follows the “cult of work”. (Her 28-year-old stepdaughter works worthily in sustainability.)

“Kafkaesque” is Glover’s description of the Brussels machine. Although she is proud of what she achieved there, she seems relieved to be off.

“If I so much as went to Antwerp, between 6 and 12 people had to sign the trip off as ethical,” she says.

“I once took a short-haul flight and because I had an electronic boarding card they couldn’t process the ticket on expenses. I tried to photocopy my iPhone but it didn’t work.”

She also distrusts the lack of transparency in Europe. After a closed interview process for the EU job, she “emerged” as the winner, almost like the Tory leaders of old.

“I was told that when I gave a formal briefing to the president I was not allowed to publish it — I strongly disagreed with that,” she says.

Altogether it sounds as if it was a very lonely three years. Ian, who is 10 years older and retired, would visit her in Brussels but, she says, “I was working all the time, including the evenings, so it wasn’t much fun for him”.

Later this month Glover will take up a fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. “He was a German industrialist and once said that he would rather lose profit than trust. That’s very important for me.”

I ask her whether, after years of telling politicians what to think, she is considering a move into politics.

“Categorically no. Politics is about compromise — and I’m not a compromiser. I say it how it is.”

Indeed she does. And that was her downfall in Europe. By rejecting her, powerful decision makers have lost a crucial, rational voice.

Interview: Kate Phillips

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Originally published in the Sunday Times

Fame has just come to Kate Phillips — but for the wrong reason. Last week the television personality, Tudor pundit and codpiece-obsessed historian Lucy Worsley was reported to have sniffed that Phillips was “too pretty” to play Jane Seymour in the BBC’s expensively brooding production of Hilary Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall.

Contemporary portraits of Plain Jane show a prim twentysomething with eyes inches apart, a ski-jump nose and a forehead like an ostrich egg. Phillips, it is fair to say, is spared the same challenges.

She really is beautiful, I think, as she orders a pot of Earl Grey at Aqua Shard, a restaurant on the 31st floor of the London skyscraper. She is waifish, with almost fairy-like, floaty movements, a wide, gawky grin and hair styled in a Gatsbyish marcel wave. She is wearing skinny jeans and a fluffy turtleneck that, she tells me, “my boyfriend picked up from a market in Shoreditch. But most of my clothes are from Asos.”

They met at drama school from which, incredibly, the 25-year-old Phillips graduated only last summer. Straight from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama — alumni include Orlando Bloom and Daniel Craig — to standing opposite Mark Rylance, who is being lauded for his Mandelsonian performance as Thomas Cromwell.

Almost immediately after starting her career, and inadvertently boosted by the too-beautiful-to-play-an-ugly-girl controversy, Phillips is now in huge demand. This week, she will fly to Lithuania to begin filming the BBC’s next vast costume fest, War and Peace.

Your old thesp chums must hate you, I say. “It would be naive to think that none of them felt any envy,” she replies carefully.

This is her first national newspaper interview; she appears to have had zero media training and is all the more genuine and likeable for it.

Phillips is clearly miffed about Worsley’s intervention: it seemed nit-picking and, in an odd, inverted way, unkind.

“All that ‘too pretty’ stuff,” she says, “there’s nothing I can do about it. [Worsley] came to the cathedral where we were filming and made the observation. You’re trying to perform as well as you can in a role and it’s difficult when someone makes those comments.” She pauses, hesitating, then says with a sharp laugh: “I’m trying to think what Claire Foy would say now.”

Foy plays a spunky Anne Boleyn and is “the most extraordinary woman . . . the best person . . . totally authentic, fun, relaxed”. She has become a “mentor” to Phillips, “although she would be mortified if she heard me say that”.

Phillips really is a proto-luvvie. “I was so elated by auditioning for Jane,” she says, “I was brought to tears by the experience.” Everyone she works with is “amazing” or “a genius” or “incredibly supportive” or “warm and joyful” — but acting is a craft of hissing bitchiness plastered with fake smiles and frigid air-kisses. Phillips is smart enough to know not to slag anyone off in public.

If you watched the first episode of Wolf Hall on Wednesday, you might have missed her. She appeared briefly in the final 10 minutes or so along with Damian Lewis as a non-fat Henry VIII. We will see more of her in the coming weeks.

“I was only on for five seconds,” says Phillips, “but it was nail-biting. My brother told me I went red.” They live in Hackney, east London, where he is a tutor and writer; their eldest brother works for a telecoms company.

Appropriately enough, Phillips spent her first nine years in Esher, Surrey, near Hampton Court and the Cardinal Wolseley pub. Her parents divorced when she was six and she was raised by her mother and stepfather, who worked in the wine trade. They moved a lot: Nottingham, Bristol, London.

“I found it hard —always the new girl. Some people are good at making friends immediately. I wasn’t.”

Would it be a stretch to say that was why you became an actor, I ask. “No: I genuinely think it was the reason. It wasn’t cool to push to be in plays when no one knew who you were,
but I felt that I belonged when I was part of that community. I’ve always found it difficult to articulate myself — when I’ve got a script, I’m happy. I feel like I don’t really know who I am at any one time.”

Lots of actors are like that, I say.

“Lots of people are,” she says. They don’t really know themselves.

“I never had a boyfriend at school,” she continues. “Oh God, I can’t tell you this. The first time I was kissed was during a school production of Romeo and Juliet. In front of my drama teacher. I was 16. The boy from the boys’ school kissed me and” — she does an ironic fist pump — “I thought, yeah! I’m a woman now.”

It must be at once thrilling and terrifying to have success, money and fame so close. Amid the fizzing enthusiasm and starstruck humility, I sense in Phillips a great sigh of relief.