A woman of substance: Barbara Taylor Bradford on life, love and writing her 40th novel
After a seven-year hiatus, Jilly Cooper, 86, is back with a new novel and an upcoming TV series.
“I am nervous”, says Jilly Cooper, shuffling on the sofa. “I haven’t done an interview for centuries.” It’s not quite as long as that but the queen of the bonkbuster – as she was crowned by fans of her rip-roaring, steamy stories – has just published her first novel in seven years, called Tackle!
“There’s not so much sex in this one,” she confesses. “I’m 86 – I’ve forgotten how to do it.”
There is a sadness behind what Jilly says. “I haven’t got a husband now. I’ve always only been able to write about things I could experience.”
That husband, Leo, died at the age of 79 in 2013, having lived with Parkinson’s disease for a long time. “He was ill for 13 years, we had carers living in all that time,” Jilly says softly.
“It was horrid when he died because he was so lovely. The walls of the little church in the village were absolutely groaning, getting all the people in for his funeral. He was very popular, very funny. The children and I were all sad, but in a way, I think he needed to go, because it’s a horrible illness.”
Tackle! is set in the breathtakingly wealthy world of football and does actually have a few moments to set the pulse racing, but it is a different kind of companionship that Jilly seeks now.
“I do miss Bluebell, she was heavenly,” the author says of her rescue greyhound who also passed away two years ago.
“She was just a lovely dog, and she always took up nine-tenths of my bed. When Leo was gone, Bluebell used to sleep on one side, and I would sleep on the other.”
Jilly’s dearly departed dog Bluebell was a black rescue greyhound
For now, there are no animals in her beautiful 10-bedroom house in the depths of the Cotswolds countryside except the many stuffed toys, paintings, statues and other images of dogs she has around the place.
“My son Felix has two dogs, my assistant Amanda has one, so I see lots of dogs, but I’m desperate for one myself,” she says.
What’s stopping her? “I said I would wait until I handed in the new book, then I could concentrate on a new dog. I did hand it in but then 15 months later, I was still rewriting it. So I haven’t got a dog. As soon as I get one, my life will change completely.”
Tackle! took so long because the publishers wanted some changes to fit in with modern sensibilities. The book is funny though, and Jilly clearly enjoys writing about Wags – as the wives and girlfriends of footballers are known.
Fans will be delighted that it features a man who has been in Jilly’s life for more than half a century: polo-player-turned-racehorse-owner Rupert Campbell-Black, a handsome cad who has been setting hearts aflutter since he first appeared in her novel Riders in 1985.
“It’s a long time for a character to be in your life,” says Jilly, who actually came up with his story in the Sixties, when she was a newspaper columnist writing about the life of a young woman about town – pioneering stuff in those sexist days.
“I wrote the whole thing and then went out to lunch in the West End in 1970 and got p***** and left the manuscript on the bus,” she says with a chuckle, because things turned out OK.
It took Jilly a decade to rewrite Riders from scratch, but the result was an international hit, selling millions of copies.
A whole generation of teenagers felt a stirring and grew up as loyal fans of The Rutshire Chronicles, a series of novels in which beautiful, strong and capable women outwitted Rupert, even as he became an Olympian, a TV mogul, a racehorse owner and a Tory MP, eventually meeting his match in the raven-haired and brilliant Taggie. It seems the story may be coming to an end though.
“I think this will be Rupert’s last book,” says Jilly, so quietly it is almost to herself.
“I think he’s got to go. I think his wife has got to go too. I can’t go on writing about them. I must do something new.”
For now, Tackle! gives Rupert one final set of challenges. As the story starts, his beloved horse Love Rat has died, his wife is about to undergo chemotherapy and his daughter Bianca is pleading with him to buy a struggling football club so she can return to Rutshire with her husband, who happens to be a star player.
“Rupert hated football so much in the old days, but gradually he gets won over and likes the players,” says Jilly.
The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be pleased Tackle! is out, after declaring himself a fan.
“Wasn’t that sweet? I was bowled over,” Jilly says. “Men don’t usually admit it but a lot of them love my books.”
“I start writing about 11am and then work through until about 5pm. Then I probably start again later and turn the light off about midnight. This is every day.
“The next morning, I do a bit in bed, looking at what I’ve written before and thinking about the next thing, how I can make a character better and build them up. I do about 15 drafts. I’m terribly slow.”
She’s currently bashing away every morning on a manual typewriter she calls Monica (she also has one called Erica), coming up with a story set in Greece about a whole new set of characters.
Football seems an unlikely subject for someone so immersed in country life and the world of horses and horse-racing, so how did this come about?
“I met Alex Ferguson at a lunch somewhere and he was so lovely and fun,” she says. “I suddenly got rather excited by football after meeting him.” So, does she have a team? “I love Manchester City. Jack Grealish [their star striker] is like a character from one of my books. He”s got swagger.”
Friends have taken her to see Liverpool, Reading and her nearest team Forest Green Rovers. Then there’s a certain neighbour who used to captain Arsenal and England.
According to Jilly, Jack Grealish has swagger!
“Tony Adams is gorgeous,” she says. “He came to a party I gave here in the summer. He’s got a heavenly wife, they’re a very attractive couple. I think football is riveting. I mean, the situation the players put themselves in. They are rich slaves, aren’t they?”
Sorry, what does she mean by that? “Footballers are bought and sold. You can be in a team and your contract can be stopped just like that. The transfer window comes and out you go.
“They might get huge wages, but they are under constant scrutiny by fans and careers are brief. They get used to everybody looking at them and saying how wonderful they are, then suddenly they walk down the street, and nobody recognises them. It must be awful. Applause is such a drug, isn’t it?”
Jilly knows about these things. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties she was one of the most famous women in Britain, thanks to her outspoken columns and frequent, charming appearances on chat shows.
Today, she looks older but much the same, in her spangly golden top, with a hairdo that used to be known as the ‘Jilly Cooper cut’, such was her fame. But things have changed.
“I went to Wimbledon in the summer and walked through the crowd with the Hollywood actor Stanley Tucci, who was in our party,” she recalls. “They were all saying to me, ‘Get out of the way woman, I want a selfie with Stanley.’ I mean, it was hysterical.”
She takes it in good spirits and seems happy in her 14th-century home near Bisley, Gloucestershire, with views of a lush green valley.
“Felix is just a cricket ball’s throw away. He does up houses, he has property. My daughter Emily lives with her three boys and her husband 25 minutes’ drive away.”
🔥 David Tennant, Alex Hassell, Aidan Turner & Danny Dyer join the cast of Jilly Cooper's Rivals, an original eight- part blockbuster saga based on the iconic novel. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/o9GQXcofwR— Disney+ UK (@DisneyPlusUK) March 21, 2023
And lately Jilly has been the talk of the Cotswolds again, as a Disney crew has been seen out and about filming a new eight-part adaptation of Rivals.
“The lovely thing is it’s a celebration of the Cotswolds,” she says. “They’re filming at Chavenage House and in Tetbury. I wrote Rivals on the terrace there, so I just feel my life’s coming back to me,” says Jilly.
David Tennant, Aidan Turner and Danny Dyer are in the series and Rupert himself is played by Alex Hassell, an actor who has dark hair and dark eyes unlike the character in the book who is blond with blue eyes.
Although she’s executive producer, Jilly wasn’t involved in the casting but says, “He’s a brilliant actor and every time I see him, he gets better and better.”
So, has she seen any footage so far? “I’ve seen the first episode. Sensational.”
Her husband would have loved what’s happening, she says. “Leo was a publisher of military history. He was so funny, when I wrote my Sunday Times columns I could use all his wonderful jokes. There’s a few in Tackle! When he died the jokes went too.”
The emotions are clearly still raw, but how does she feel about the possibility of meeting someone else? “No. There aren’t any men down here. I’m sure if I went back and lived in London, I would meet them, but I don’t think I really want to. Eighty-six is a bit old, isn’t it? Over the hills and far away. I think it’s rather complicated. Obviously, if Mr Right came roaring out of the sky…”
There’s a sudden kerfuffle as a pair of soft toy dogs that have been perched on the back of the sofa beside her come tumbling down noisily, for no apparent reason.
“The dogs are not happy with that suggestion,” she laughs. “They said no! That’s hysterical. No, I really don’t want to meet someone. When you are old there is too much adjustment to what you know. I don’t want to get married again.”
Jilly isn’t on the look out for Mr Right, but she would like a new dog
With Christmas looming, Jilly says she will lean heavily on her assistant Amanda for help with the 200 cards she sends. Jilly will spend the day with Felix, Emily and her grandchildren – Felix has two girls, Scarlett, 14 and Sienna, 12; and Emily has three sons, Jago, 19, Lysander, 17 and Acer, 15.
“The book is dedicated to them. I hope they won’t be shocked by it. They’re growing up fast.”
Will she be going to church on Christmas morning? “I don’t go to church any more. I ought to but I don’t. I still believe in God. I need to. It comforts me that I will see people like my parents again.”
A thought crosses her mind. “Leo must be up there with his first wife! She was ravishing and beautiful, so there they are up there. It might be quite awkward when I get there,” she says, smiling, apparently OK with the idea.
“But my best thing is that when you arrive in heaven all your dogs come rushing across a green lawn to meet you, with your favourite dog leading the pack. That will do for me. That would be heaven.”