HOW WE MET

CAROLINE CHARLES AND GAYLE HUNNICUT
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The Independent Culture
Clothes designer Caroline Charles, 53, was born in Cairo. She worked for Mary Quant before setting up on her own in 1963. She is married to the environmentalist Malcolm Valentine and has a son and a daughter. She lives in Knightsbridge.

Actress Gayle Hunnicut, 52, was born in Texas and has lived in Britain since 1969. She is married to the former editor of the Times, Simon Jenkins, and has two sons. She lives in Primrose Hill, north London.

CAROLINE CHARLES: I first met Gayle in 1977 through her then husband- to-be, Simon Jenkins, who was a family friend. Simon took Gayle and I to the circus at Windsor. Gayle was there and I found her intriguing in her beauty and in her southern "Englishness" - by which I mean that she's a southern American who speaks English perfectly and understands all its subtle intonations yet retains that southern identity. She was a famous beauty, and I had seen her in things before I met her, and in the pages of Vogue. She has a rather fragile kind of loveliness, and I remember before I met her seeing her playing an Edwardian beauty in Nicholas and Alexandra, with lots of pearls round her neck and her hair all piled up on top of her head. Something we had in common was that we both had fathers who were in the cavalry. My father was in the British Army, and her father was in the American Army. And we had sons the same age, so we talked about them. Gayle and I were neighbours then because Simon and she lived in Primrose Hill, and Malcolm and I lived round the corner and we both had these naughty boys, my Alex and her Nolan, and we shared a nanny for a while. Gayle and I both worked, Simon was a political writer, and Malcolm an environmentalist and would-be MP, so there was a great deal of coming and going between our houses.

What tends to happen with Gayle is that I see her often, and then not for ages because she's on tour, or I'm frantic, preparing for a show, but we talk a lot on the telephone. I always pick up with her again instantly. I think one of the main things about her is that she is always so calm and so charming in all circumstances. She has this southern belle way of keeping everything going in a smooth, calm manner, making sure there's always things to eat, and people are happy and everything's just fine. I'm not like that, but sometimes I wish I was. Gayle's in-credibly supportive to me; if I have a show she's always there in the front row looking wonderful. I've seen her in lots of plays and television dramas, and she always becomes the character she's portraying. Whatever it is, she's just it, physically and intellectually. She teaches acting too, so she's very versatile.

Something which bonds Gayle and I closely is that we both have this thing of being professionals. Men presume it of each other, but I don't think women do. I know that I have to present myself very neatly wherever I go - I understand the importance of what I do - and Gayle, as an actress, has to do the same thing.

One thing we don't have in common is an interest in food. She's very involved in it, she knows all about this vitamin and that vitamin and what makes a good diet. I'm not into that at all - she just looks at me in amazement as I stuff a slab of white bread into my mouth. Also, we're different when it comes to clothes. She's got an incredible wardrobe - 70 outfits or so, some of which have come from her various shows and productions, whereas I have just three black outfits in my cupboard. I find her being different from me interesting. She's incredibly brave. She's just done 11 months in JB Priestley's Dangerous Corner - a very long run, and she hadn't been well before she started as she'd recently had an operation. But she just went straight into it. I think there's a sort of heroism about her.

If you're ill, Gayle is your most wonderful comforter. She'll bring you wonderful books and lots of food that she's prepared. She's also generous with ad-vice and support. My daughter Kate is a director, and Gayle has always given her lots of valuable, practical advice. She's taught her lots of worldly, sensible strategies about how to get on in the theatre, but in that very gentle southern way.

The most annoying thing about Gayle is that she is always beautiful, and she talks in the most mesmerising way. She's a natural storyteller, and that makes her wonderful company. Although she talks a lot she's not domineering, she doesn't just grab the conversation, but it's so lovely to have someone who has such a pretty voice, and who tells you so many interesting things. I tend to sit there and ask her questions. She knows a lot. She's really funny about old Hollywood and Sixties Hollywood, and she's a great reader, so you can discuss books with her. She's so nice, and so gentle. I'm much more matter-of-fact. I'm much sharper than her, and I tell her when she shouldn't put up with bad behaviour.

We like each other for the determination we both have. I think we are both there for each other and would support each other to the bitter end. What I would miss about her most if I didn't see her is her talking. She talks so beautifully, and you can imagine her as a very beautiful old lady rocking on a verandah, telling some wonderful story to another generation. I like that image of her.

GAYLE HUNNICUT: I first met Carol-ine on a visit to the circus in Windsor. I had been going out with Simon Jenkins, now my husband, rather secretly because I was doing a 14-hour day rehearsing Twelfth Night at Greenwich during the day and performing in The Admirable Crichton in the evening, and I hadn't actually been able to go out with him in public, because there simply wasn't time. So no one knew that we were involved, none of our friends. Although we were already very committed, I knew no one in Simon's life. The first friend of his I ever met was Caroline Charles, that night at the circus, and they were obviously very close friends, laughing a lot. I remember thinking what a wonderful person she was, how interesting, how vital and dynamic. I was very impressed by the rapport that Simon had with another woman with whom he was not romantically involved. It's so important to be married to a man who likes women, and Simon does, he really admires Caroline. So, meeting her was encouraging, because a great part of any relationship is the new friends you acquire.

I was struck by Caroline's vivacity and humour - she has a wonderfully dry wit. She's quite acerbic and incisive and sees right to the heart of things. I like friendships in which you learn from the other person's survival techniques for life, and certainly Caroline abounds in survival techniques. She's sharp and direct, but with a heart of gold. She's a devout Catholic - a very "good" person in the true, old-fashioned sense of the word.

After that first meeting our friendship developed partly through our children. I always respected her commitment to her children. Americans are all too often "professional" parents: often the children are by and large brought up by the nanny, and the adult world takes precedence over the world of the nursery. Caroline has never been like that, although it would have been all too easy because she is an incredibly busy person.

Caroline and I have always had an unspoken understanding that we are both professionals. If I'm in a play I can't just say "I've got to run home now because my child needs me." That's one of the great dilemmas of being a mother and an actress, and for Caroline it's similar: she has to get the collections ready in time for the show on the given date, the frocks have to be designed and made up and got out, and so there are these very tough deadlines which she goes through, and there are periods when I don't hear from her at all, because she's totally immersed in her work. But I'm never offended by that.

Caroline has a much clearer business mind than I. When she's talking to me she can always see brilliant strategies and common sense approaches for moving things forward. One of the great things about her is that you know where you are with her at all times, That makes me feel very comfortable. I always feel that there are certain people, when you're in a room, that you want to stand next to because you know you're going to have a really fun time talking to them. Caroline is one of those people, and I know a lot of people feel that way about her. She's twinkly, switched on, never complains, she's not self-indulgent and she's very shored up by her faith.

The only thing I had to learn about her was that the directness is exactly what it is - it is not a rebuttal in any way. I had to get used to that because I'm a southern girl, and in the south there's a kind of languid, softer approach to life. Caroline speaks her mind. If her directness were not accompanied by an incredibly warm, good heart, then it could be rather fierce, but it doesn't take you long to realise that she is a good, kind, truthful person. What I've learnt from her is that it isn't always helpful to be accommodating, and sometimes it's better to be able to cut across the waffle.

She's wonderful when I'm in a play, she comes on the first night and she arranges a dinner afterwards and understands the support people need at crucial points in their lives when things hang in the balance. She is the focal point of the group of friends that Simon and I have. She's always having parties and dinners: at all the festive times of the year you know that Caroline will be having a small dinner for her closest friends. She keeps us all together.

I own quite a lot of her clothes. I love them. They fit perfectly, the fabrics are wonderful - her clothes spoil you for life. I think what I'd miss most if I didn't see her is her sense of humour, and she's a great raconteur. Caroline's not at all selfish or self-involved. She's an expansive person with a great heart. !

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