COULD YOU SPEND YOUR LAST DAYS IN THE RAJ?
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
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