HOW WE MET

LADY ALICE DOUGLAS AND SIMON MELIA
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The Independent Culture
Lady Alice Douglas, 31, is the daughter of the Marquess of Queensberry. She went to 13 schools and was expelled from the last before she was 16. She got a job as an assistant stage manager, and has since worked as an actress, producer and director. Much of her work has been in prisons. Simon Melia, 27, is from Prestatyn, North Wales. He joined the army at 16, and bought himself out at 21. In 1991 he was sentenced to nine years in prison for holding up a North Wales post office with an imitation gun. He was released from prison last year and has started a new career as an actor

ALICE DOUGLAS: I met Simon when I was sent to do a production at Blundeston prison at the end of the summer of 1993. I'd worked in prisons on and off for about 12 years. I was completely exhausted and determined to start concentrating on my work outside. I wasn't going to take on more prison work, but I did it just because I wanted to play Lady Macbeth.

When I first met Simon I was struck by his boyish quality. It's always a bit awkward when you first go into a prison. We sat down and had a read- through and I was amazed, because the way he speaks verse is extraordinary. It just skips off his tongue. Often in prison there are the raw emotions of a performance, but it's not an environment where Shakespeare is read much. I hadn't expected to hear such passion within the language.

Simon had a highly charged quality and a great understanding of Macbeth. It was a part that echoed his experiences as a soldier in Belfast. Being able to be in this play was a lifeline that had been thrown to him - and he was giving it his all. I suddenly felt that, as an actress, I wasn't up to matching him. He was always there, instantly in character. I often felt I was lagging behind. I've never experienced that before, even with professional actors.

The situation was very difficult. We'd chat forever about the play, but there was a great shyness. Fairly near to the production, we started to realise that there were strong feelings. Still, there was a sort of innocence about it all.

After the play, Simon was moved to Maidstone Prison and I went to visit him. That was the first time I saw him completely privately. It was a wonderful relief, but it was also fraught with difficulties. I was married, and although I had separated from my previous husband, in my mind relationships were off for a while. The last thing I expected was that I was going to fall madly in love with a guy who was serving a nine-year sentence for armed robbery.

It's very painful waiting for someone who's in prison, but the year that we did that was a very strong foundation. Simon being behind bars intensified the journey we went on. You can't be together, so you analyse and rip to pieces your every motive. You search so deep into each other's lives that it's quite harrowing.

You cling on to every bit of life you can give each other. When you've got an hour and a half for a visit and a few days of home leave, you have to understand the other person. You don't stumble clumsily along going out to the cinema. You just haven't got the time for things to go wrong.

Although our backgrounds are superficially different, we're extremely similar. We're much more like dreadful twins than extreme opposites. As children we looked alike, although Simon wasn't so rebellious as me. He was quite a model little boy. I was chucked out of school before I was 16.

I could easily have ended up in prison doing something stupid. I was definitely not far from it at times - in my late teens. For me it's easy to understand how you go over the edge, storm into a Post Office with a sawn-off gun and demand money. I think it's deeply sad. I wish I could have protected Simon from having done it, and protected the victim of his offence from having to suffer the fear that he must live with, but I've always understood how you arrive at doing something like that.

When I told people about Simon, on the whole they were very supportive, although once or twice I had people warning me off. Some had this obsession that I'd fallen in love with a violent man. You can just feel that sort of gossip going around, and it did upset me. When you're feeling vulnerable and sensitive, these things are hurtful.

It didn't occur to me that the press would be interested, but when they found out, it became headline news. Suddenly I was this great aristocratic person that I'd never been - Lady Alice Douglas. He was an armed robber, I was from a titled family. Occasionally, it is a pressure, especially now that he's out. For instance, if we're going out and we've just had a row, you slightly feel you have to hide those things. The tabloids would love us to have violent screaming matches in the street.

Simon is now moving into a whole new career. It's a lovely success story that he's come into acting through prison. He seems quite meek and easy going, but he's not at all. He's incredibly determined and ambitious. Obviously I've helped him because I know a lot of people, but he got his own agent. I've just made this drama documentary about the parole system and Simon plays his own story and others in it.

He's a very good actor. I'm frightened of him being successful. Frightened that he'll leave me. Obviously I don't think he will, but I like our life how it is now. The thought of him rushing off, making films all over the place, frightens me a little bit.

SIMON MELIA: I met Alice when I was serving a nine-year sentence for armed robbery. I was in Blundeston Prison in Suffolk, where I got into a bit of acting, and Alice came in to play Lady Macbeth. I'd already heard a lot about her. She had quite a reputation as a troublesome, funny girl.

We met in rehearsal. She is very lively with a beautiful smile; a very happy girl. The way she looks into you, she seems to see into your soul. I felt there was a connection straight away, but it was very tentative at first. There was a rule that Alice wasn't to become involved with a prisoner, I didn't want to compromise her professionalism.

For the first few months, we couldn't acknowledge our feelings. It was too dangerous. That heightened the whole thing. As the play developed, we needed to discuss emotions we were feeling with the characters. I suppose we used those to try to convey the feelings we had for each other.

When the play was over, I was moved to Maidstone Prison and Alice came to see me for the first time as a visitor. So much came pouring out, there was so much we'd wanted to say. I almost felt that we had been there before, that it had happened before. Those were the feelings. It tore away the fabric of everything I thought was love. This was just so raw and so overwhelming.

There was so much irony in how we met. Of all the places you go in the world to meet the one person who you believe is completely for you, to meet them while you are serving a prison sentence... But also there was a sort of safety in that, building a relationship in such hard circumstances. It made me feel strong because what else could be thrown at us? To start in that situation, you always know it's going to get better.

When I'd served a third of my sentence, I was given a three-day home leave. That was the first time we had been together on the outside and it was then that we discussed marriage and being together forever. We were hoping that I'd get parole but I was knocked back. I'd been trying to get on a course to address my offending behaviour, but the course was over-subscribed. I wasn't released because I hadn't done the course. I had to wait another year. It was agonising enough to inspire Alice to make a film about it.

I got married during the year I was waiting for my next parole. We arranged the wedding in two weeks flat because we weren't sure whether I was going to be released. There had been some press coverage and, although I was entitled to home leave, they weren't forthcoming with it because they were worried about the media.

Alice wore a dress made of flowers and silk. We walked through the streets of Conway - that's near where I come from. We married in the registry office and then had a blessing in a little church on top of a mountain. It was July, boiling hot, and we had a party up there. It was like a reunion for me. People came who I hadn't seen for a long time.

I hadn't met all of Alice's family before, but they were very welcoming and caring. They didn't make me feel beneath them, and I never encountered any animosity from them. Alice's family never questioned why I did the hold-up. They were always sensitive enough not to ask why I'd done it. I don't think anybody can understand why someone does something like that, but, without sounding like I'm making excuses, you can maybe see the motivation behind it. I joined the army when I was 16 and I was sent to Ireland when I was 18. I became the youngest section commander in Ireland. I was ambitious. I wanted to join the SAS, but I was in a car accident in Belfast. After that, I bought myself out. I'd had a lot of dreams, and suddenly I was doing a desk job.

I think our story has a feel-good factor. My life was spiralling out of control. Then I met Alice and I have gained more control that I have ever had. It's the greatest love story I've ever heard.

I didn't know about her title at the beginning, but when I found out, it didn't really alter my feelings about her. I knew she was special. She meant too much to me by then for me to be concerned about her title. Yeah, she's part of the aristocracy, but in name only. I wouldn't say that she's a typical lady. She's very ladylike, but there's no great extravagances in her lifestyle. We don't have lunch at the Dorchester or anything like that.

If we have a child, I don't know whether it would assume her title, but it would have a grandfather that's a binman and a grandfather that's a Lord. If that's not a recipe for a world leader, I don't know what is.

My fellow inmates called me lucky. My family, they think I fell in shit and came up smelling of roses. There are people who are cynical about our relationship. I'd not be so blinkered as to believe that everybody thinks it's all beautiful. I told one of Alice's friends that I was going rock climbing and that person said, 'Oh be careful, we wouldn't want you to fall off, would we?' Really they would rather I had. But that was just the reaction of one person who doesn't really like me, and they're quite entitled to their opinion. !

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