How We Met: Hildegard Bechtler and Billy Paterson

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Theatre designer Hildegard Bechtler, 42, grew up in Stuttgart. Her work includes Peter Grimes and Lohengrin for the English National Opera, Coriolanus at Salzburg, and the current ENO production of Lohengrin. In 1984 she married Billy Paterson; they live in London with their two children.

Actor Billy Paterson, 48, has worked in stage, TV and film. He has appeared in Guys and Dolls and Death and the Maiden and the films Truly, Madly, Deeply and A Private Function. His television work includes Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Licking Hitler, Traffik and, most recently, Wall of Silence.

HILDEGARD BECHTLER: It was my first job, a crazy play called Ella which was a monologue by a man in a frock surrounded by live chickens. Tim Albery, the director, said: 'Billy Paterson just might do it, he's such an interesting actor.' Billy rushed in, very nervy, wearing this little raincoat, and not quite sure whether he'd take on the part. Being the kind of actor Billy is, he did it.

At the first read-through I was terrified of showing my model. I'd been up since 4 am, and I met Billy at the bus stop. He was fabulous] When I talked the whole thing through, he asked such interesting questions I knew he would really bring it to life. I'd put him in a cage with these chickens and I made him wear a blue nylon dress and a flowered pinny.

There was such excitement in the air after that first read-through. I found myself going to rehearsals early to clear out the chicken shit, and Billy was arriving early, too, on his bike. I just wanted to be around him.

Rehearsals were a slog, but I was on a high throughout. I became the person who helped Billy stay positive because he found the part very daunting. When I watched him on stage I felt recognition: our lower-middle- class backgrounds are very similar. He reminded me of my father and my brother. He'd be intense and serious then break into laughter and light- heartedness. He has a great gift for being funny. I love laughing; I'm not the deadly serious Germanic type. Humour is the most attractive quality in a human being.

I thought Billy should change into his own clothes for the end of the play, so I asked him if I could look through his clothes. 'I thought you'd never ask,' he said.

Of course, he's a charmer and a flirt. I went round to his bed-sit, where he kept his clothes in a cardboard box. He made a wonderful bowl of Italian soup, and we ended up sitting on the sofa, looking at maps, which he loves.

I was very attracted to him and I thought it was mutual. During rehearsal I saw him riding by on his bicycle - he didn't see me - and I felt such a thrill, I was on a high for the rest of the day. But I was aware that he liked being the loner: marriage, children and houses weren't what he wanted, but I wasn't planning on marriage either, so I felt quite strong. But I didn't want just to have an affair with him; I'd rather he was my friend.

After the first night I went to Paris to see an old flame. When I came back, I went straight to the theatre to see Billy. I loved seeing him on stage: he's a very exciting physical actor - he has very masculine legs with big calves, and he relates very well to women - a man who can't, couldn't wear a dress.

We couldn't seem to make a date. One day, I phoned him for a genuine reason and he said: 'We should have dinner' - our first date. It was very romantic. We talked and walked and I realised that I felt more strongly about him than anyone else I'd met.

Jack was conceived in this little cottage in the north of Scotland which Billy had bought with Miriam Margolyes. I was on a light-dose pill, so when the test came up positive we both felt elation and terror. We got married because of our mothers who were both old, and mine is very religious. But it's a very real marriage. We were both totally happy when Jack was born in 1984. When he was three months old, I was asked to do a film in Wales. We met through work, but I don't think Billy realised what that would be like after we married. It's difficult for him to be with a busy person like me. Many men wouldn't put up with what he has.

After two years I gave up doing film, but it's difficult to turn down Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne and Peter Stein in Salzburg. Your family has to share you with the work, but it causes friction for us. Designers are relatively poorly paid, so Billy earns the real money and, when he has time off, I'm so busy. But I've turned down Peter Hall and Robert Wilson, so now I really only work with two directors - Deborah Warner and Tim Albery.

Billy is a very good thermometer for me about what really matters. He's very romantic - not in a bunches-of- flowers sort of way but about big, meaningful things like the children. He has a real integrity: quality of life is very important for him so he doesn't follow up his successes and go to America like many actors.

Sometimes, when I've got productions opening in London and Munich, Billy withdraws support just when I need him most. I fantasise about living with someone who is dreamy and painterly and would want to talk about my models. But really I'd change nothing for Billy. At the moment it's not the perfect marriage because we're two busy people with two small children and we're still learning how to appreciate and support each other.

Recently we were meeting at a party. I was late, and I arrived into a sea of people. Then suddenly I saw Billy. And I felt just like that time when I saw him riding on his bicycle. He still does the trick for me.

BILLY PATERSON: I was trying to get out of this job with some grace, because it was a very complicated, dark, stream-of-consciousness monologue. Tim Albery had the idea that this Bavarian character should be played by a Scot, and he talked me into it. He said: 'It's being designed by Hildegard Bechtler]' Hildegard was at this meeting, and I thought, 'Well, if this nice, attractive girl with her bob haircut is the designer, it'll be a bit easier.'

I saw her model at the read- through and it was just wonderful. She'd carried the original set into a much more expressionistic form. She was wearing white trousers and silver pointed sandals and a nice T-shirt - she's got very good shoulders. There was something about her whole physical shape and size which seemed compatible with mine.

It wasn't exactly a pulling part: I felt ridiculous wearing this Crimplene dress, with a pinny and rubber gloves and my hair in a bandana. Hildegard would be in rehearsal early cleaning out the chickens. She was a terrific confidence boost when I was despairing at the length of this monologue.

Tim suggested that Hildegard came to look at my extensive wardrobe, which didn't take long. We soon got the wine out and I started telling her all about Scotland and maps. I felt very attracted to her - I thought wouldn't this be wonderful if she was free? I was having a relationship of sorts, but nothing serious, and Hildegard was the same.

She brought this noticeably glamorous bunch of people to the first night - my pals were a bit different. Then off she went to Paris in a white belted raincoat. 'Typical,' I thought, 'the actors slog on nightly in their own gunge while the designer is in Paris. Don't worry Hildegard, I'll be fine with the chickens.'

I liked it especially when she was watching the show: I felt I was performing the play for her, because Hildegard was German and suavish. After the show one night I took her to the Village Taverna, and we had a little kiss and cuddle on a bench on the Fulham Road. That was the first time.

We don't have a shared cultural identity, which has its pluses and its minuses, but when you do come together it's very profound. We have a shared work ethic and drive - we really believe in giving value for money.

We've drifted from a single room on Charing Cross Road to our six- bedroomed house on the slopes of Highbury. Hildegard's career has rocketed while mine has sat firmly in the doldrums. We've done nothing by halves: in one year we went from being footloose and fancy-free to mortgages, children and driving licences. Anna popped along after Jack, also completely unplanned, and this immense activity on the domestic front has been equalled professionally. Sometimes I've felt she should say 'no' to jobs more often, but this freelance business has no rules.

Throughout all this Hildegard has discovered this great inner strength. Me? I've discovered a terrific ability for going to Safeway. I'll say to her, 'Couldn't you say no to Salzburg?

Do we have to spend the spring in Glyndebourne?' But when I talk about Hildegard I feel so very proud. When I saw her on television recently, I felt this real glow, just like when we first met.

(Photograph omitted)