The true story of Bridget Jones
Long before the best-selling books and star-studded film premieres, Helen Fielding began writing an anonymous weekly column in 'The Independent'. Terry Kirby on the birth of a global phenomenon
Saturday 13 November 2004
Claiming credit for global phenomena is always a v. tricky business, as Bridget Jones might have said. That is why Charlie Leadbeater always tries to stay in the background when it comes to his part in the cultural benchmark that is Bridget Jones. Similarly, Nick Turpin tends to avoid the subject: it is not mentioned on his website, in his cv or his portfolio. And this newspaper,
The Independent, has, while not denying involvement, always felt a little modest about owning up to its full role in the affair. But now, dear readers, the true story must be told: we created Bridget Jones. A lot of older readers may, of course, be aware of
The Independent's part. But others, particularly more recent ones, can start here.
Claiming credit for global phenomena is always a v. tricky business, as Bridget Jones might have said. That is why Charlie Leadbeater always tries to stay in the background when it comes to his part in the cultural benchmark that is Bridget Jones. Similarly, Nick Turpin tends to avoid the subject: it is not mentioned on his website, in his cv or his portfolio. And this newspaper, The Independent, has, while not denying involvement, always felt a little modest about owning up to its full role in the affair. But now, dear readers, the true story must be told: we created Bridget Jones. A lot of older readers may, of course, be aware of The Independent's part. But others, particularly more recent ones, can start here.
The origins of Bridget Jones's Diary was, says Leadbeater, a rare thing: "The serendipity of it was that we found the right person, who wrote in the right voice, in the right format and at the right time, to create something that seemed perfectly formed. And it was incredibly funny."
In early 1995, Leadbeater was features editor of this newspaper, anxious to find new ways of developing the paper and to capture what then, to many, seemed the Holy Grail of missing readers: young, professional and semi-professional women. A target for many newspapers because of their perceived lack of allegiance to any titles, and their disposable income makes them attractive to advertisers.
Leadbeater wanted a column with attitude, to appeal to the kind of young women at work in the features department: "They would come in to work in the morning and one minute they would be talking about Gordon Brown and the next about their make-up. And I thought it would be a good idea to have a fictional column to reflect that kind of thinking, which doesn't compartmentalise things.'' He discussed the idea with his wife, Geraldine Bedell, then a writer on the Independent on Sunday. She suggested a colleague as writer: Helen Fielding.
Yorkshire-born and Oxford-educated, Fielding was no novice. She had worked in television for 10 years, made films for Comic Relief, had written a novel and was now carving out a career as a freelance. Crucially, for Leadbeater, she had already found the right tone of voice for the still-unnamed woman in her book, Cause Celeb. "She had created a female character - single, thirtysomething - that I had in my mind's eye,'' he said. He drew up an outline and the pair talked. At the first meeting, Fielding came up with the idea of a daily litany of cigarettes smoked and calories counted. Out of thin air, she conjured a name, something anonymous and universal: Bridget Jones. She went off to work on a couple of trial columns.
It was decided to have a visual image to head the column: a nod to the conventional picture byline used for "proper" columnists. Nick Turpin, a young freelance photographer doing a casual shift, was asked to shoot something and Leadbeater asked Susannah Lewis, then secretary to the paper's managing editor, to pose.
They went to a champagne bar near The Independent's offices in Canary Wharf, bought a bottle of wine, Lewis lit up a cigarette and Turpin shot three roles of film, capturing in those few minutes one of the most enduring media images of the era. If Bridget Jones became an icon, that undeniably sexy, evocative, silhouette - a half-filled glass, a stray lock of hair and a swirl of cigarette smoke - became the image that helped define the icon. It was, as Leadbeater said, pure serendipity.
The column went live on 28 February 1995, plunging the reader right into the confused centre of the life of this young woman. It was, from the start, fully formed and gloriously funny, as can be seen in the column on the right, a testament to Fielding's skills as a writer and the careful conception of Leadbeater. The rest should have been history.
But not quite. The paper had not made a big thing about the column; it merely appeared in the second section. There were no clues as to whether the person was real or not; Fielding's name was nowhere. Other executives on the paper were uncertain. Leadbeater said: "A couple of people wondered whether we could sustain it for very long. And some - like my dad - simply did not get it. But very quickly we got this fantastic reaction from women. And then everyone got it, the letters came flooding in and it just went on from there.''
The paper began to promote the column on its front page. "It was good because it was cheeky and unpredictable, it marked the paper out. I like to think it would not have happened elsewhere, on a more earnest or politically correct publication," said Ian Hargreaves, the editor at the time.
The Bridget voice was not imagined by Fielding; it was based on her own life. She was in her early thirties, single, living in a flat in north London. Her best friends were two other women of similar ilk: Tracey MacLeod, the broadcaster and presenter of BBC2's The Late Show and Sharon Maguire, a producer/director on the show. MacLeod said yesterday: "We were all at the end of rather sticky relationships and we formed a mutual support group which involved going out and getting drunk and having fun. There was a sense of good female company being better than bad male company."
Fielding said nothing about her new commission, remembers MacLeod. "I was standing in my kitchen reading this column in The Independent and something about it seemed familiar and I said, 'Have you seen this, Helen?' And she said, 'I write it, Trace.' I was amazed.''
The female bonding continued through the life of the column: "We would find these situations in which we ended up appearing in the column, with suitable comic effect.'' MacLeod and Maguire became Jude and Shazza, partners in crime over endless bottles of Chardonnay at Café Rouge.
Using Maguire's phrases, such as "emotional fuckwittage", "sad singletons" and "smug marrieds", the column provided a new lexicon for the age and a point of empathy for women. Others saw a modern comedy of manners, with echoes of Jane Austen.
Two other young women executives who took over the in-house editing of the column: the late Ruth Picardie (who would later write a diary of her terminal cancer in The Observer) and Genevieve Fox, both played their part in shaping its tone. But for the wider public, unaware of Fielding, the image above the words came to represent Bridget. One man wrote to The Independent proposing marriage to Bridget "if she looks like the photo..."
Fielding had signed a contract with Picador to reproduce the column in book form. When it appeared, with the Turpin/Lewis image on the front, it was an instant success, helping to spawn the literary genre we now know as chick-lit: agents and publishers were soon falling over themselves for tales of young women about town and their emotional ups and downs. To date, around 10 million copies have been sold in 35 countries.
But in autumn 1997, Fielding wrote her last column for The Independent after failing to agree a new contract with its editor at the time, Andrew Marr. The column went on to appear in the Daily Telegraph for another year. By then, an industry was gathering pace. "Bridget Jones" became a convenient label for sociologists, market researchers, even journalists, for a type of woman, a generation, a lifestyle. The first film, directed by Maguire at Fielding's insistence, has grossed £40m, making it one of the biggest British movies of all time. It earned an Oscar nomination for Renée Zellweger and enshrined her in the public's eye as the enduring image of Bridget. The second book, Edge of Reason, followed in November 1999 and has so far sold five million copies. The film was premiered this week.
Nearly 10 years on, how do those involved look back? It was just another day for Turpin. "It was no big deal. I probably did two or three other jobs that day,'' he said. Turpin, now a successful advertising photographer, kept the rights to the photograph and reckons to have earned around £16,000 over the years from its use.
Lewis has had a love-hate relationship with the image. At the time, she was also a thirtysomething, single girl about town. Speaking from Madrid, where she now lives, she laughs at the idea that she was a role model as well as a physical model: "I was just doing a favour for Charlie. And I think there were other girls around the office who could just as easily have fitted the image in the column.''
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Lewis, now 42, has had more than a few Bridget Jones-style moments in her life. She fell in love with Madrid after a particularly riotous weekend there, married a Cuban drummer 12 years her junior (they separated two years ago), spent time as a salsa teacher and now works full time for Hello! magazine as a layout editor. "I got nothing for the use of my image, but it's not the kind of thing I would pursue. I was invited to the premiere of the first film by Helen - whom I knew from The Independent - and had a good time. But I introduced myself to Zellweger at the party and she just cut me dead.''
Leadbeater, who now works with Demos, the think-tank, is quietly proud: "I think the great thing is that all sorts of people can read themselves into it. It has become an open metaphor for people.''
Now professor of journalism at Cardiff University, Hargreaves feels the same: "I still get a flicker of joy that I played a small part in helping it see the light of day. But it was down to Helen's creative genius.''
MacLeod, who still writes restaurant reviews for The Independent, said yesterday: "I'm proud and happy to have been part of it."
She had just returned from a morning walking on Primrose Hill with Fielding, who has left her home in Hollywood this week to come to London for the film premiere. "Of course we still keep in touch, all of us. There aren't any boozy nights out: we are all forty-something mothers with young children. But we had plenty to gossip about.''
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