Diana Ross, Cher . . . life with stars

East Anglia continues to attract creative folk from London seeking a different quality of life. Steven Russell meets a TV producer who has quickly established new roots in Suffolk

Steven Russell

East Anglia continues to attract creative folk from London seeking a different quality of life. Steven Russell meets a TV producer who has quickly established new roots in Suffolk

THE Daimler inched its way down the street and the driver phoned the Christie residence to announce his arrival. “I went and looked out the window and there was this massive limo parked across about three different houses!” recalls John Christie, with grin. “You could see all the curtains twitching . . .” The outsized car was for his good lady, Genevieve, who as a member of the production team on Aspel & Company was charged with collecting husky-voiced actress Lauren Bacall from the airport, where she was flying in on Concorde. Heady stuff, this TV lark. “If you were starstruck, it was a brilliant job,” agrees Genevieve. Part of her role involved looking after the talkshow guests during their stay in London: collecting them, eating dinner with them, making sure everything was hunky-dory at the studio for recording. “We looked after them very well,” she says, “and Lauren Bacall was lovely - a bit of a heroine, really.”

Aspel & Company was a wonderful show to work on, both as a researcher and an associate producer, as the big names kept coming through the doors. Actor Warren Beatty was “fun and very good to work with”, while comedian Les Dawson was “brilliant and very funny”. There was Diana Ross, Cher - “who arrived with a whole entourage; her in one car, wig in another” - Sting, Shirley MacLean . . . the list went on and on.

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“I suppose, in those days, when there weren't many shows like it. It had a bit of cachet and you had huge audiences, and it was something of an event. If you landed Elizabeth Taylor, it was a big thing.”

There was even something of a family link with Michael Aspel, albeit a tenuous one, for Genevieve. Her mother had been a singer and, in the 1950s, had sung occasionally from Alexandra Palace, where the BBC had studios. A young Michael Aspel worked as an announcer “and had introduced her sometimes”.

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Genevieve is a Londoner, from Chiswick. She read drama and English at the University of East Anglia in Norwich during the mid-1980s - taught for a while by Malcolm Bradbury, author of The History Man - and then hot-footed it back to the capital, bent on a job in the media.

She began working “in a lowly capacity” in TV production and had some training at the BBC. Then it was off to London Weekend Television, climbing the ladder from junior researcher to researcher, associate producer and producer.

Factual entertainment programmes she worked on included the nostalgic “The Trouble with the . . .” series - as in The Trouble with the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and so on. After the production team came up with an idea for a show, researchers would be told things like “We need a sports section; go and find Tom Finney”. In those pre-internet days, they'd have to trawl through books about the 1950s, say, to find information.

She helped cover the Bafta awards when it was ITV's turn and freelanced with independent companies, working on a programme about the Turner Prize for contemporary art, for instance.

“It was very good for learning the craft,” she says of her time at LWT. “One of the shows I really enjoyed was An Audience with Ken Dodd. He's irrepressible.”

There were also a lot of programmes for America's The Learning Channel - Castle Ghosts of England, for instance . . . followed by Ireland, Scotland and Wales - and a series on the Tower of London.

In the late 1990s Genevieve started her own production company, with a partner. Carey Street Productions was an ironical name, referring to the London road where the bankruptcy court used to be. John directed a lot of films and they developed numerous ideas, too, for programmes. One was a series called Tales from the Black Museum, based on New Scotland Yard's collection of crime-related artefacts.

There was Addicted to Death - The Harold Shipman Story (see panel). Other highlights of the Carey Street era included The Great Nazi Cash Swindle for Channel 4, about a huge SS counterfeiting operation during the Second World War that could have destabilised the British economy, and a chronicle following the building of the gargantuan cruise liner Queen Mary 2.

Things inevitably change, however. The couple, who met through TV more than 20 years ago, have a son of six and a daughter aged 11, and Genevieve wanted to spend more hours with the children.

“It all came to a point where we thought 'It's the right time.' I'd worked in television all my career, literally from university. We lived in Chiswick, which is a lovely part of London, and we had a great life, but we just thought 'Time to somehow change. The children are getting a bit bigger; we think there's another way of life for them and us.'

“So it came to a natural end, in a way, and my partner Charlotte, too, had this kind of feeling. She was actually living in Suffolk and going to London every other day or so, and wanted to do something different. She and her husband actually started a smokery; they did really well and later sold it.”

So they decided to leave London and say goodbye to their home, a large converted warehouse.

“We were in the lucky position where we could go anywhere; and because we were in west London, we looked west, initially. Then we had a lovely weekend in Southwold and that was the turning point. We thought 'Why haven't we looked at the east of England?' We'd come a lot to Suffolk, to our friends near Long Melford, and I don't know why we hadn't really considered it before.”

Schooling was the crucial factor. They came up weekend after weekend, basing themselves at Long Melford and going off to look at potential new homes. They found an ancient barn just outside Framlingham fairly early on, though feared it was too expensive and too big. “So we hummed and haa-ed and carried on looking, but really our heart was here.” The barn it would be. “So we left London with ne'er a backward glance!”

The family moved to Suffolk in 2006, renting a house in Framlingham while the barn was converted -a project and a half in itself. It was worth it, mind, as the home to which they moved late in 2007 is light, airy, big and rural. “We're close to Framlingham, with beautiful views. So we feel really fortunate.”

The family has embedded itself in Suffolk life. The kids are at local state schools and Genevieve's a newish high school governor. She's also just helped with the Maverick Music Festival at Easton Farm Park.

And, in partnership with fellow creative newcomers Liz Calder and Louis Baum, the Christies have launched Full Circle Editions - seeking to publish “arresting [East of England-oriented] writing and art in beautiful, collectible books”.

Genevieve misses the buzz of her former TV-related existence a little, but the headaches of big-city hardly at all. “It never felt like work, and that was the pleasure of it. I really enjoyed it for the 20-odd years that I did it, and now I'm enjoying the change.”

John grins. “The children will probably go back there, anyway, as soon as they can,” he says, referring to the fact the capital proves a magnet for young people seeking to make their mark in the world.

“Of course they will,” agrees his wife, “but perhaps they'll visit us sometimes!”

A DOCUMENTARY Genevieve and John Christie produced was Addicted to Death - The Harold Shipman Story. It was an interesting if macabre project - particularly as they met people who had suspected there was something untoward about the GP.

They spoke to a cab driver, for instance, who used to take elderly passengers to the bingo, the station and other destinations, and do favours for them, such as changing light-bulbs. He grew highly suspicious because regulars who seemed fine would ask to be picked up the following Thursday, say, and then die unexpectedly in the meantime. Shipman got the nickname Dr Death because of the number of patients who expired.

“This poor chap (the cab driver) had wanted to go to the police but his wife had stopped him. 'They're not going to believe you against the doctor, are they?'” says John. “He had a list of 29 people who'd died and for whom he'd been a driver. He was very cut up about it.

“Police gave us the interview tape where they effectively trapped him. They did a very smart thing. They had a young woman as one of the interrogators and an older guy with a really thick northern accent, and Shipman thought he was completely cleverer than those two. But they kind of shut these doors one after another and in the end he had to say 'I haven't got any explanation for that.'”

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