Bill Od­die wouldn’t do yoga, Sheila Fer­gu­son had a date... and Miriam Stoppard couldn’t sur­ren­der to the spir­i­tu­al­ity. Yes, The Real Marigold Ho­tel is back – and it’s more hi­lar­i­ous than ever

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - NEWS - Kathryn Knight

Sur­pris­ing though it may seem for such a flam­boy­ant show­biz type, it turns out that at nearly 70, for­mer Three De­grees singer Sheila Fer­gu­son has be­come a bit an­ti­so­cial. Liv­ing in iso­lated splen­dour on the is­land of Mal­lorca, she can go days with­out set­ting eyes on a sin­gle soul. ‘I’m not used to be­ing with peo­ple,’ she ad­mits. ‘I can go a whole week and not have con­tact with an­other hu­man be­ing.’

So spend­ing a month with seven other celebri­ties – all of a cer­tain age – was al­ways go­ing to be a big ask. More­over, Sheila and co would be re­sid­ing in In­dia, try­ing out re­tire­ment sub-trop­i­cal style, with their ad­ven­tures – and mishaps – recorded by a cam­era crew. ‘In the be­gin­ning I was so OTT,’ Sheila con­fesses with a hearty guf­faw. ‘I was all, “Come on, let’s move it.” I think peo­ple were think­ing, “Who made her the leader?” But I did calm down.’

Still, the for­mula for The Real Marigold Ho­tel is a win­ning one, as the fig­ures for last year’s first se­ries demon­strated. In­spired by 2011’s hit film The Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel, in which a group of re­tirees in­clud­ing Mag­gie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Celia Im­rie take up res­i­dence in an In­dian ho­tel, the BBC fer­ried eight well-known senior cit­i­zens to a villa in Jaipur to find out whether see­ing out their twi­light years there rather than in rainy old Blighty might be more agree­able.

Their ad­ven­tures – and the un­likely friend­ships that en­sued – were an un­ex­pected hit and won a shower of awards, in­clud­ing a pres­ti­gious Rose d’Or award for best re­al­ity and fac­tual en­ter­tain­ment pro­gramme. Af­ter a two-part Christ­mas spe­cial that took some of our in­trepid OAPs to Florida and Ja­pan, the sec­ond se­ries be­gins this week, al­beit with a dif­fer­ent cast. Step for­ward then not just Sheila but ex-Corona­tion Street ac­tress Amanda Bar­rie, 81, for­mer snooker player Den­nis Taylor, 68, Just Good Friends star Paul Ni­cholas, 72, agony aunt Miriam Stoppard, 79, and ex-Goodie turned or­nithol­o­gist Bill Od­die, 75.

Bring­ing up the rear is for­mer TV chef Rustie Lee, the baby of the gang at a mere 63, while vet­eran en­ter­tainer Lionel Blair, 88, is the el­der states­man – and the most anx­ious pre- de­par­ture. ‘It was nerve-rack­ing,’ he says. ‘Things like san­i­ta­tion wor­ried me as I’m very clean.’

Of course, the celebs were hardly slumming it. Their home for the se­ries, a large villa in Kochi in the balmy south­ern In­dian state of Ker­ala, had bal­conies, a swim­ming pool and – at a cost of only £20 a week per per­son – a ret­inue of staff to shop, cook and clean for them. ‘The cost of liv­ing there is un­real,’ says Bill.

And that’s not all that Kochi, known lo­cally as the Queen of the Ara­bian Sea, has go­ing for it. Its res­i­dents en­joy one of the long­est life ex­pectan­cies in the coun­try, which in­trigued Amanda, who ad­mits that she and her long-term part­ner – and now wife of two years – Hi­lary Bonner are open to ideas. ‘We’ve con­sid­ered ev­ery­where to see if it comes up to scratch,’ she ad­mits.

For the viewer, of course, the re­tire­ment c o nu nd r um will be less fas­ci­nat­ing than the dy­nam­ics between the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters in­volved. As with the f i rst ser ies, none of those tak­ing part knew who would be join­ing them at Heathrow Air­port, and most of them had never met be­fore. With the ex­cep­tion, that is, of Lionel, who’d been ac­quainted with ev­ery sin­gle one of his new house­mates at some point over the years. ‘Se­ri­ously, ev­ery- body in the world has met Lionel,’ jokes Bill. Alas for view­ers hop­ing for ten­sion, it seems every­one got on like a house on fire. ‘Bor­ing as it may sound, there was no fric­tion at all,’ adds Bill. ‘Egos went out of the win­dow im­me­di­ately.’

Paul Ni­cholas – who nor­mally lives in Lon­don with Linzi, his wife of 32 years – ac­knowl­edges that while there may have been el­e­ments of a senior cit­i­zens’ Big Brother house about the pro­ceed­ings, the dif­fer­ence was that they were all in it to­gether. ‘A great thing about this show is that it’s not a com­pe­ti­tion,’ he says. ‘There’s no prize at the end and you don’t get voted off. So every­one was re­laxed be­cause we knew we’d be there for the du­ra­tion.’

It helped that there was no short­age of jok­ers in the pack, from wise­crack­ing Den­nis Taylor’s never end- ing one-lin­ers to Lionel’s end­less sup­ply of show­biz sto­ries. ‘It was a case of which ra­dio sta­tion do you want,’ jokes Bill. ‘Do you want to tune into an Ir­ish joke from Den­nis, or a panto story from Lionel?’

Just about the only mo­ment of ten­sion, it seems, was af­forded on ar­rival at the villa, when Sheila loftily made a bee­line for the best bed­room. It wasn’t long, how­ever, be­fore she dis­played a softer side, open­ing up about how the death of her part­ner John six years ago has left her strug­gling for di­rec­tion. ‘I re­alised that what I was miss­ing was the home life,’ she says now. ‘You can’t live alone for all that time and think it’s a good qual­ity of life. It’s not.’

In fact, to her sur­prise, In­dia proved to be the venue for her very first date since John’s death, af­ter she was chat­ted up by a lo­cal en­tre­pre­neur at a smart yacht club. ‘I was ask­ing him about the dat­ing scene for sin­gle women, we talked about that and the fact his wife had died,’ she re­calls. ‘I said. “OK, well thank you very much for hav­ing a chat with me”, at which point he asked me if

‘I’d have been a fat bloke do­ing things thin peo­ple do’ BILL OD­DIE

I’d ever con­sider spend­ing the rest of my life with an In­dian gen­tle­man. I was em­bar­rassed and at first I thought the crew had put him up to it but I said, “Can we have din­ner first?”’ And how did it go? ‘We’re still in touch,’ she says, eyes twin­kling.

Ro­mance, of course, was off the agenda for her hap­pily mar­ried peers al­though Bill, who lives in Lon­don’s Hamp­stead with his wife of 34 years, Laura, formed a close bond with Miriam Stoppard. ‘We be­came im­me­di­ate friends,’ she says. ‘Bill and I were the two scep­tics in the group. So they’d be talk­ing about re­fresh­ing the soul and all that kind of thing and our eyes would roll a bit be­cause we come from more of a sci­en­tific back­ground.’

In­deed, Bill’s cyn­i­cal streak even ex­tended to re­fus­ing to try out the daily morn­ing yoga ses­sions on of­fer in the villa’s gar­den, pre­fer­ring in­stead to shout mock­ing re­marks from the bal­cony. ‘I’d have been a lit­tle fat bloke try­ing to get into po­si­tions that only young thin peo­ple should do,’ he says.

Snooker fan Paul struck up some­thing of a ‘bro­mance’ with for­mer world champ Den­nis, a man he calls ‘a bit of a hero’. It was ini­tially forged on an ex­pe­di­tion to buy al­co­hol, and sealed by a cou­ple of golf out­ings and a trip to the hill sta­tion of Ooty, where the rules of snooker were first drawn up in 1882 by colo­nial Bri­tish Army of­fi­cers. ‘The room where it hap­pened is still there in Ooty, which is the most beau­ti­ful place, 6,000ft up,’ says Den­nis. ‘And they ar­ranged for me to play on the ta­ble where it all started. But Paul turned out to be a bet­ter player than me. I kept set­ting trick shots up and he’d play them... but he had to put the big up­side-down glasses on.’ Den­nis is fa­mous for the spe­cially adapted glasses he de­signed – which are big­ger at the top than the bot­tom for when he’s look­ing down a snooker cue – and now sells them com­mer­cially.

Aside from the re­la­tion­ships be­ing forged, there’s plenty else for the viewer to en­joy in the show, from tem­ple out­ings to fes­ti­vals and pa­rades. Ev­ery even­ing the group re­united on the ter­race to swap tales. It was their favour- ite time of the day, says Amanda. ‘We couldn’t stop laugh­ing,’ she says. ‘What could be bet­ter medicine?’

It wasn’t all plain sail­ing, of course. Most of them, ex­cept for Den­nis, suc­cumbed to ‘Delhi belly’ at some stage and Rustie in par­tic­u­lar strug­gled with the heat. ‘I was sweat­ing all the time,’ she says. ‘We tried all sorts of treat­ments to see if any would help be­cause I didn’t see a lot of sweaty women, just me. If you live there, I sup­pose you get used to it.’

Bill, mean­while, bat­tled oc­ca­sional grumpi­ness, the fact that he’d vis­ited the coun­try three times be­fore mak­ing him less starry-eyed about the trip than his peers. ‘The “Gosh!” qual­ity wasn’t in my head at all, which I think took the magic away,’ he says. ‘If it had been some­where other than In­dia, I might have en­joyed it more.’

Lionel, though, seemed to strug­gle most of all, at least at first. Few view­ers will fail to be moved by footage of Lionel lov­ingly plac­ing his suit­case, along with a small bear called ‘Lit­tle Ted’ on the side of the bed that his wife Su­san would usu­ally oc­cupy in or­der to feel less home­sick. This year Lionel and Su­san will cel­e­brate their 50th wed­ding an­niver­sary and he missed her ter­ri­bly, ac­cord­ing to Rustie. ‘He’s so de­voted, he’d never

been away from her re­ally,’ she says. ‘ It was quite tough for him and we had to gee him up a bit.’

Added to this, Lionel ad­mits he was ini­tially shocked not by the villa but its sur­round­ings. ‘When I first ar­rived I thought, “Oh my God, this isn’t what I ex­pected!” I think it’s my age, you feel very vul­ner­a­ble with an­i­mals roam­ing the street.’ He’s now safely back in Bri­tain, and ad­mits that while he had a hoot and made life­long bonds with his com­pan­ions, it’s un­likely he’ll re­turn to In­dia, much less see out his f i na l years there. ‘ I’ve got three grand­chil­dren and I wouldn’t like the dis­tance,’ he ad­mits. ‘And I like our sea­sons.’

It’s a sen­ti­ment echoed by most of this fresh crop of Marigolds. In Eng­land, Amanda di­vides her time between a flat in Lon­don and a coun­try home in Som­er­set, and main­tains that both of­fer her ‘a great deal more’ than she would have in In­dia. ‘I couldn’t do the climate,’ she says. ‘ The hu­mid­ity de­stroyed me com­pletely. Then there are all the other things – I couldn’t put Ra­dio 4 on, couldn’t hear The Archers. So I think I’ll have to stay in Bri­tain.’ Only Miriam, it seems, is drawn to re­turn. She thought the fact that, like Bill, she’d been to In­dia be­fore might rule her out of tak­ing part in the show, but un­like her new-found ally she re­mains ‘pole-axed’ by the coun­try. ‘I love In­dia and I was gen­uinely try­ing to find out if I loved it enough to go and live there,’ she says. Like Lionel, her grand­chil­dren – she has 11 – mean she would never live there per­ma­nently, but she hopes to visit again. ‘ There’s no way I could sep­a­rate my­self from the grand­chil­dren, but this trip opened up a whole new view of the fu­ture, and the idea that I could stay for much longer,’ she says.

For the rest of them, mean­while, it’s opened up a plethora of new friend­ships. As Rustie says, ‘We all got on so well, which was a gift in it­self.’

‘We couldn’t stop laugh­ing – what bet­ter medicine?’ AMANDA BAR­RIE

The Real Marigold Ho­tel, Wed­nes­day, 9pm, BBC1.

The celebs pose with a bride and groom. From left: Bill, Miriam, Paul, Sheila, Lionel, Amanda, Den­nis and Rustie. Inset: the OAPs at their villa

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