Trouble in paradise

She has a successful career as a writer and a beautiful Mediterranean estate . . . But you wouldn't begrudge All Creatures Great and Small star Carol Drinkwater her time in the sun, as life's not been without its heartache.

She has a successful career as a writer and a beautiful Mediterranean estate . . . But you wouldn't begrudge All Creatures Great and Small star Carol Drinkwater her time in the sun, as life's not been without its heartache. STEVEN RUSSELL reports

IT'S a beautiful blue-sky day in the south of France - one you'd gladly trade for a drizzly and grey winter morning in East Anglia.

Carol Drinkwater's Provençal estate offers a beautiful view down towards the Bay of Cannes, the old port, and the promontory of Fréjus. Look to the left, towards Antibes, and there are the two islands sitting in the bay - the Iles de Lérins.

In front of her villa are terraced olive groves, with dry-stone walls. The trees are 400 years old. The farm has younger trees, too, but these are mainly behind the house.

There's a swimming pool. The bougainvillea on the upper terrace is looking a bit shrivelled because of the frost. It's been colder here than is the norm: lovely and sunny during the days - easily warm enough to enjoy lunch al fresco - but the evenings have been unusually cold for the Christmas/New Year period in the south of France.

Chilly nights aside, it's close to paradise.

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Mind you, life for Carol Drinkwater hasn't always been bright and carefree since she first set eyes on Appassionata - then a decaying villa where no-one had lived for four or five years. As well as the incredibly hard work involved in reviving the house and 10 acres of south-facing slopes, she suffered a miscarriage and witnessed the near-death of her husband in a car smash outside Monaco.

For the best part of a decade Carol had been window-shopping for her dream - almost mythical - “house by the sea”. (She'd looked at Aldeburgh, as indeed she'd looked everywhere she'd gone, during her many visits to Suffolk.)

In the 1980s, six months after meeting husband-to-be Michel Noll, Carol spent a springtime week on the Côte d'Azur while he attended the international television festival. As film-maker Michel rubbed shoulders with the deal-makers, she pressed her nose against estate windows in semi-serious fashion.

Having spent her earnings on travel and the nomadic lifestyle of an actress, Carol had no savings - and no capital buys you precisely nothing in Cannes.

Happily, an estate agent knew of some forgotten properties. He, she and Michel ventured out into the hills and found Appassionata. Snapped balustrades looked like broken teeth and a crater of a swimming pool akin to a rubbish tip. But behind the neglect were signs of the villa's intrinsic elegance.

The property had been built by Italians, around the turn of the century, and its name was a musical term that meant “with passion”.

Internally, the house was more decrepit than the exterior, but the view down the south-facing slopes was breath-taking - as was the fact that the asking price was three times the actress's budget. “Beaucoup de travail,” muttered the notary, one eye on lunchtime. It would be insane to take it on, Carol mused - a folly of a dream. Nevertheless . . .

They found the money from somewhere, begging and borrowing, and moved in during a hot August nearly 20 years ago with just over £600 to last that first summer and fund the early renovations. Within an hour they'd discovered there was no electricity at the flick of a switch and no running water.

But Carol says that because she and Michel were so in love, and because the sun kept shining, “our world felt luxurious. Indeed, my memories of that first summer are entirely blissful”. It's pretty much what you'd expect from someone whose motto is “Live life to the full.”

The future would bring numerous challenges, however. Twice, the couple nearly lost their new home: once to a woodland fire and secondly when a business venture went awry and they found themselves seriously in debt.

However, fast-forward past lots of hard work (the notary was right!), dusty days, insect bites, rusty French and learning curves as steep as the terraces and we arrive at a happy point where Appassionata's trees are producing quality olive oil.

The whole story is told in Carol's books that have come to be known as The Olive Trilogy, published over the past four years. In the second instalment, The Olive Season, she and Michel get married in Polynesia and tame bureaucracy and nature to secure a coveted AOC rating - a protected designation of origin. Carol also falls pregnant, but suffers a heartbreaking miscarriage.

In the third book, The Olive Harvest, a shocking blow leaves her alone and isolated. It was a car accident just outside Monte Carlo at about 2am. Carol, disarmingly frank and open, doesn't hold back the details in explaining to the EADT what happened.

“The battery on his car had gone flat and he called me, and I got out of bed and went to get him. On the way out of Monte Carlo we were just ascending that famous hill - I think it's the one where Princess Grace was killed - and it had just started to drizzle.

“A car coming the other way, with a drunken driver, skidded. Fortunately I had one of those old Mercedes with a great, big, long bonnet and he took the entire front off our bonnet.

“Michel's head was skewered by the rear-view mirror. I was badly bashed, but not as badly bashed as the other two, and when the police finally arrived at the spot they told me that he was dead. It was pretty ghastly.

“The fire brigade - because it is the fire brigade in an emergency here - got us back to Monte Carlo to the hospital. He wasn't dead, thank God, but he was seriously injured in the sense that . . . he didn't have brain damage, but the trauma took its toll.

“What happened was that he left me, left here, and went back to Paris. He became more and more insular and withdrawn. It was after he went back to Paris - 'I want to be on my own; I need to get through this by myself' - which was devastating for me, that I began to write the book (The Olive Farm).

“I did it, really, for myself, to remind myself of the wonderful however-many-years - I can't even remember how many it was; 10 or 11 - of everything we had, who we were, how much we loved each other. I did it as a kind of . . . almost like when you get into the sea and you have to have some kind of lifebuoy.”

For Michel, she says, came “a slow process of healing. He was just very badly skewered.

“To add to it, he was under terrific financial stress at the time. His company was having a bad time because some people had not paid. It's the usual thing, when you're a small company and you're trying to deal with cash flow and you're up against the majors and all this.

“So he was under terrific professional stress at the time. On top of which came this terrible accident. The fact he couldn't go anywhere, had to stay here, meant that his company went under completely. So it was a great deal more than the accident that triggered a pack of cards to fall down, if you see what I mean.”

When she began writing that first book, Carol was the only person who knew how the story would develop (and, then, even she didn't know things would finally turn out). That caused a few problems at the start, when the publisher thought the beginning was a bit too lovey-dovey.

“I didn't tell anybody it was a trilogy; I knew what was in it and how it had to go. I was the only person who knew that I didn't know the ending. I didn't have the courage to tell anybody what was really going on in my life. It was the only way I could hold it together.”

Happily, the couple were to reunite and before they know it will be celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary . . . we think. For Carol admits to being “not good on dates. April '88, I think! Neither of us can remember the date of our wedding; we have to look it up! But that's not the important thing, is it?”

Michel actually asked her to marry him on their first date - which came the day after their first meeting - but it was a while before Carol gave her positive answer. In fact, she joked that she'd get married only if the king of Tonga conducted the ceremony!

And, bizarre as it sounds, that's almost what happened.

“The king was going to marry us,” Carol confirms. “And then I found out that he was very High Church - not that I've got anything against that, but I had in mind a kind of Pacific Islands beach wedding. Not what the king would have given.

“And, also, alcohol wouldn't have been allowed. And a glass of champagne after getting married doesn't seem to me to be unreasonable! So we went to Rarotonga, and I didn't like it very much. So at the last minute we took a plane to an outer island called Aitutaki, where Michel had once made a pilot for a television series, and we got married there.”

Carol does come across as incredibly game and strong, emotionally. Restoring a villa and estate to a working olive farm is enough to floor many mortals, but to compound the load with personal trauma is very tough.

“I think in the beginning those concerns, no water and those kinds of things, didn't really hit me. It was all part of the adventure. It wasn't that I was strong or anything; OK, I was resilient - please God I'm a resilient human being. It was beyond that that I had to dig deep into my own inner resources. And one of the ways I chose to do it was to write the books.”

Her fortitude reminds one of Helen Herriott, the practical farmer's daughter she played in All Creatures Great and Small from 1977-1985.

“I'm not at all like Helen,” she laughs. “Actually, I've become more like Helen as my life has gone on. I was a very wild young woman in the seventies!

“I had no responsibilities. I used all the money I earned - such as it was, because in the days I was making that we got paid peanuts, not like now - I used my money for travelling, for buying myself elegant clothes. I used to go off diving. I wasn't answerable to anybody.

“My parents used to say to me 'I really think you should invest in a flat, so you've got something for when you're not being so successful,' and of course I pooh-poohed that, as one does when you're 27 and thinks the world's at your feet.”

The Olive Trilogy brings her a massive amount of mail. “I think one story or another will touch different people. The fact I don't have children - I got a lot of mail when I wrote about that in the second book: about losing a child and then discovering that in fact I was going to be childless.

“I got a lot of mail from women who had had miscarriages and had children ultimately, or some who never had children, and some who didn't want children.

“A lot of men wrote to me. The male readership is building at a phenomenal rate, and that surprised me in the beginning. I thought 'Oh well, it must be a few old fans from All Creatures, but in fact what I assume is either they like the idea of a woman who stands by her man under all circumstance” - she laughs heartily - “or maybe it's because I speak openly about myself and therefore it's a window into a woman's heart. I don't know.”

Carol was a schoolgirl when she had her first creative writing printed - and the thrill remains with her. “Five shillings! I'll never forget that. I think, probably, with inflation it's probably more than I get paid now!

“It was rather daring of me. I sent it in to a girl's magazine I used to read, called Girl. I sent in this anecdotal story and one day this letter came for me in the post, which was very unusual, because you don't get very much when you're nine. I opened it up and there was this five-shilling postal order.”

She penned three adult novels, which “did honourably, but they were early work”, and three for children. One, The Haunted School, sold more than 150,000 copies in the 1980s and was made into a TV series. “Pre-Harry Potter, 150,000 for a children's book was enormous.”

Carol's well-advanced on her next book, The Olive Route, and has been working on it this morning. It's due out in October.

The book is a slight departure from her theme. “I intend to play historical detective: tracking, charting and retracing a journey that began, as far as we know, some 1,000 and more years BC,” Carol says. “I am off in pursuit of the olive tree and its migration route: from the Middle East, along the eastern Mediterranean shores, North Africa, across to Greece, Sicily, into Italy and northwards to Southern France, ending up back at our olive farm.”

Research has proved a labour of love. Carol's just back from Libya. She travelled on her own, joking that there was none of the back-up a showbiz life sometimes enjoys - such as people to do her make-up or iron her clothes. Before that came Tunisia.

Home nowadays, though, is definitely France, “though actually what I feel more than French is Mediterranean”. Not tempted to return to Blighty? “Well, guess what . . .!” she laughs. That's a Non, then.

Carol does miss the three or so family members she still has in this island nation. “I miss all my mates in the entertainment business, and I miss acting.

“I haven't done any acting for about three years. A couple of companies have approached me about perhaps doing my own television programme linked to all that I'm discovering, and maybe taking the English public on a journey with me.

“I'm quite interested in that, and it would allow me to pace it according to my own schedule.

“That's one of the problems. If I work in the theatre, it's an impossibility for me now, because I have so much responsibility here. To just fly home on Sunday morning to be back for Monday is ludicrous. I've done it and missed planes, and all that kind of thing. It's expensive and too stressful. The theatre is more or less out at the moment.”

TV and film? “Well, if you don't keep your hand in and are in situ, there are other actresses equally suitable for the role who get it. It's out of sight out of mind, unfortunately, most of the time. That's the way it is - a hard fact of the business.”

Until acting's back on the agenda, her writing career keeps her more than busy.

The last book she's had out is The Illustrated Olive Farm. It tells the story of the Appassionata adventure in words and pictures so vivid you can virtually feel the sun on your back, the earth under your feet and the wine on your tongue. It's like glimpsing into a family album as the tumbledown estate is restored to glory.

Carol agreed to do the book, billed as the companion to her bestselling trilogy, only if she were allowed to write new text and if she and Michel took the photographs.

Her first book was dedicated to her partner, whom she wrote lived life through colour - “and of course all that seemed to turn to black.

“I don't see this book at all as a companion to the trilogy. What I actually see it as is a reawakening of someone's visual experience, in the same way that the trilogy was something I wrote to get me through those years.

“It's a marriage of Michel and I working together on something which is to do with colours and light. And watching him during that year - opening up and beginning to grow enthusiastic - was . . . well, it's more than a book.”

The Illustrated Olive Farm is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £20. ISBN 0 297 84404 0

What you might not know

Born in London, Carol Drinkwater will be 58 at Easter

She went to a convent school, but hated its rigidity

Acting credits include:

A Clockwork Orange (1971), Softly Softly and Bouquet of Barbed Wire (1976), The Sweeney (1978), Casualty and Peak Practice (2000).

Carol Drinkwater will soon head for East Anglia, specifically for the Essex Book Festival. She appears at Champions Manor Hall, South Woodham Ferrers, on March 29. For details on her talk, and the festival in general, go to www.essexbookfestival.org.uk. Box office 01206 573948.

HER heart might have been seduced by the Mediterranean, but part of Carol Drinkwater's soul rests in Suffolk.

She knows the county “very well indeed” because one of her best friends lived just outside Sibton, near Yoxford.

“Before I had the farm all my Christmases were spent there. I used to go to the sea and swim at Christmas! I love it there. I've got several other friends who have got houses in Norfolk. I love that part of the world.

“I used to go to Aldeburgh to buy fish - I was great friends with the fishermen. I used to go on my own to the pub and chat with them.

“I've always been game in that way. I'd leave the cottage early in the morning and they'd (her friends) say 'Where are you going?' 'I'm going to Aldeburgh. I'll bring some fish back for dinner.' 'Oh, all right.'

“Back I'd come with fish straight off the beach, having had a pint with the fishermen,” she laughs. “Loved it.”

She also enjoyed walking at Snape.

“That, in its flatness, reminds me a little bit of the Camargue - it's one of my favourite places in the world. Sometimes the colouring in the Camargue brings back memories of my walks along Snape Maltings. They're completely different, of course, but that kind of flatness and dampness - the wateriness of it - is similar.”

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