How We Met: `I beg her to tell me about film things'

FRANCESCA SIMON & MIRANDA RICHARDSON

Best known to television audiences for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in `Blackadder', Miranda Richardson (right), 46, launched her film career with an award-winning performance in `Dance With a Stranger' in 1984. She has gone on to receive two Oscar nominations and won a Bafta (for `Damage') and a Golden Globe (for `Enchanted April'). She lives in west London with her two dogs and two cats.

Francesca Simon was born in America and studied at Yale and Oxford. She worked as a journalist until the birth of her son, Josh, in 1989, after which she was inspired to begin writing her `Horrid Henry' series of children's books. Since the first was published in 1994, her books have gone on to sell 17 million copies worldwide. She lives in north London.

MIRANDA RICHARDSON

It was 1984 and I was very inexperienced in the world of interviews. My sum total up to that point had been the publicity for Dance With a Stranger, but already I'd decided it wasn't my favourite thing in the world. When they said a journalist from Vogue was coming, my heart sank. I was expecting someone so polished that I could see my face in them. And I just knew they would have a set idea of me and probably had the article written already.

Instead, Francesca showed up and something about her instantly made me think, "Thank God". I just totally, immediately, instantly related to this person. She made me feel very at ease. I was filming in Kent and we went to a funky little cafe where we could hide out. There might have been one other person in there. We had a perfectly acceptable rissole and salad and I remember nothing of the specific questions she asked. I just recall thinking this is a well-researched, interesting, intelligent person with whom I'm having a conversation. It was like we might have known each other for a long time.

At the end of our session - and this was the first and only time I've ever said this to an interviewer - I suggested to Francesca that we should keep in touch. And she said something like, "Oh great! I'm so glad you said that because I couldn't, but I'd like to." I had an instinct that there was something there worth exploring. And there was. We've been good friends now for 20 years.

A few weeks later I went to her house in London. She was making a garden which was something I was longing to do then. And then she dragged out her record collection. As ` we swapped records, we were swapping ideas. Soon after that, Francesca started working for a theatre company from LA. She was looking for stuff for them to produce and so was going to the theatre a lot. She asked me to go with her.

I remember whenever we'd be at a play I would feel Francesca turn to me trying to gauge my reaction. It was very disconcerting. We'd always have a discussion about it - at the interval, or at the end. I always find it difficult to say something about a performance straight afterwards. I have to form my thoughts, but Francesca is right there. She's very open and she can do it almost immediately. I couldn't keep up.

We're both Pisceans - which we treat as a joke, but then a lot of our mutual girlfriends are too. We're both very loyal as friends. Neither of us is afraid to be enthusiastic about people, though Francesca has that in spades and I'm a little bit cooler. But we are also very different. She's always fabulously well researched for anything she does. She wants to seem smart. It's important to her. So she's very analytical while I fly by the seat of my pants. I do research for my work, of course, but I do it in case I get caught out. I think my work is fear based. Francesca's is not.

I'm in awe of what Francesca has achieved with her books. Somewhere there is a novel languishing in her drawer. She was working on it for years. And then it was like she had this road to Damascus experience when she had her son. She started writing for him. She was interested in everything he was interested in. And it just took off. I'm thrilled for her - and thrilled by her. She's firing on all cylinders.

FRANCESCA SIMON

I was working as a freelance journalist with Vogue and I had just seen Dance With a Stranger. I was completely bowled over by Miranda's performance as Ruth Ellis, so I arranged to interview her. She was filming an Elizabeth Bowen story down in Hythe. I remember being unbelievably nervous, despite having done many interviews before. I think it must have been because I was so in awe of her performance.

In the film she'd been platinum blonde but in the flesh she was this little person in these too-big dungarees which were covered in paint. Because it was on Vogue's expense account, I suggested we could go to lunch somewhere swish, but Miranda took me to the cheapest restaurant I'd ever been to in my life. It was some kind of veggie health and salad bar. It cost about pounds 3 for both of us.

So we had this very earnest meal. I always prepare for interviews, so had a lot of serious questions, but our roles ended up being reversed because Miranda was asking the questions. She was the one trying to put me at my ease. She's very intense and she really listens to what you're asking. I remember after one of my long questions, she looked at me and said, "What do you mean?" And I thought, "Oh my God, what do I mean?"

In the end, I finally did relax. Miranda responds to the person she's with. She wasn't just trotting through a list of pat answers like some interviewees. She was trying to engage. So there was a real dialogue going on. And we kept discovering things we had in common. Somehow it came up that I was fond of an obscure Breton folk singer called Alan Stivell and so was Miranda.

After we did the interview, Miranda suggested that we go for a walk. She must have already decided she trusted me because we talked comfortably and honestly. When we came back to the hotel, we were sitting flopped on the sofa laughing and giggling. Her director walked past and said to Miranda, "Oh, I thought you were being interviewed." Miranda replied, "Yes, this is the interviewer." The director looked at us and said, "I'd assumed you were old friends."

As I left, Miranda asked if we could keep in touch and so, a couple of days later, she called and came to lunch wearing a wonderful green and white 1950s dress. When we are together, we never talk very much about our work. I find out about what she's doing from the newspapers - and the occasional visit to the set. I went to see her recently when she was filming the new Harry Potter. I have to beg her to tell me about film things like the Oscar ceremonies. And then she only does it to humour me.

When she recorded the audio version of my Horrid Henry books, I couldn't quite believe that this long friendship had come to the point where we were linked work wise. I was a little nervous of approaching her about reading them - in case she didn't like the books. But she did and she said yes and she's fantastic. When I listen to her reading them I sometimes forget that I've written them. She makes them sound so different. Now I write with her voice in my mind. So I wrote one about a sleepover that involved an opera karaoke, just so I could telephone Miranda and say, "Guess what - you're going to be singing."

`Horrid Henry's Bedtime', by Francesca Simon, is published by Orion Children's Books at the special price of pounds 1 to mark World Book Day on 3 March. Miranda Richardson will appear as Rita Skeeter in `Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' in November

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