HOW WE MET: PHOEBE NICHOLLS AND CHARLES STURRIDGE

The turning point in the career of Charles Sturridge, 47, came in 1979, when he took over from another director near the start of work on the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited'. The series took two years to film; one of the stars of the production was the actress Phoebe Nicholls, who played Cordelia. Phoebe Nicholls was born in London in 1957; an undiagnosed dyslexic, she left school early, worked for a while, then went to drama school. From drama school, she went straight into a production of 'Whose Life Is It Anyway?' which ran for 600 performances in the West End, before going on to 'Brideshead'. Sturridge and Nicholls were married in 1985 and live in west London with their three children. Since their marriage they have collaborated on various projects, including the newly released film 'Fairy Tale: A True Story'

PHOEBE NICHOLLS: The very first time I set eyes on Charles was at a party given in the basement at Granada Television. It was basically an opportunity for Charles to meet the whole cast of Brideshead. I was meant to have met him before that, but somehow there wasn't the time. So my first glimpse of him was in this sea of faces. He was 28 and he looked incredibly young. We greeted each other and that was about it. After, we all went out to dinner and he was sitting at the other end of the table so again we didn't say anything.

The following day we met officially to talk about what he was going to do with Brideshead and what he thought I was feeling about Cordelia and all that, and he took me into his office and talked for about an hour and a half, non-stop, incredibly fast. At the time I was a smoker, I'm afraid to say, and he had a packet of Marlboro on the table. I was desperate for a cigarette and I couldn't even ask him for one - I couldn't get a word in edgeways.

He was dazzling and brilliant, and fantastically articulate. He was possessed by the book; he was passionate about it. I was a great believer in it too. I read it when I was about 14 and I was in love with it. I got home after the meeting and Jeremy [Irons] rang me up and said: "Listen, don't worry. If we feel that he's not what he's cracked up to be, in a couple of weeks we'll just get rid of him." But I knew the book was in perfect hands.

That first meeting, I did look at him and I thought he was unbelievably good-looking. He was breathtaking and articulate and clever. I would have been blind not to have fallen in love with him.

It was the most extraordinary time. I can only describe it by saying that I had never felt so free. I was 22, I had no commitments. This was my second major job, and it was unbelievable. It didn't last for six weeks or two months, it lasted for two whole years. It was the happiest time of my life. Also I loved acting, it wasn't difficult, there was no anxiety attached to it - well, there was the anxiety of making sure people understood Cordelia and that I didn't let down people who loved the book, but I loved doing it. It was everything that acting should be. So often actors spend their lives miserable and worried about work, and I wasn't. It was a completely euphoric, hedonistic time.

We were together for six years, off and on, before we married. The relationship had its ups and downs. I suppose after six years, we realised neither of us could get each other out of our systems and it was a bit foolish not to commit. Both of us were very nervous about commitment. But it was great. We were married in 1985, and we had our first child soon afterwards. We didn't want to hang about.

I don't have a great desire to be a partnership in work. It is very hard for the children for both of us to be working at the same time, so it only happens if it fits into their lives. In many ways it's probably easier when we work separately - and more fun, because we can both support each other's work without feeling too incestuous about it. In a way, the more you know someone, the harder it is to work with them. As an actor you go into a job and the good thing about it is that no one really knows anything about you, so the moment you arrive on set or in the rehearsal room, you can just get on with it. But also when you work with someone who knows you better than anyone, it is wonderful because you don't have to get to know each other. Charles doesn't let me get away with anything. Sometimes I can be quite lazy as an actor and use the same tricks over and over, which is my greatest failing. He rids me of that quite quickly, so it's hard work.

I have absolutely no idea what the secret is to staying together. I think the thing is never to delve too deeply into these things. I always cringe when I read about why people are still married or their secret to eternal happiness - we are together because we want to be together.

CHARLES STURRIDGE: The first time I ever saw Phoebe was on film and then two days later I met her, and then we spent the next two years seeing each other every day because of Brideshead. It was 1979 - I can almost remember the day, something like 29 September, certainly a Saturday afternoon, that I first saw her.

I'd been asked to look at all the rushes that they'd shot up to that point. There is a fantastically memorable shot in it which is actually her first entrance in the film - she is clattering across the rooftops of Castle Howard (the location we used for Brideshead) - twisting her way between the chimneys. She's being 12 (she was in fact 22) and her body is sort of whooshing out in all sorts of directions. Pigtails flying, she arrives to greet the naked Charles and Sebastian sunbathing on the roof. That was my first sight of her.

Two days later, I had to meet all the actors, who had no idea who I was and were vaguely suspicious that Granada had set up some sort of plot by putting an unknown director in charge of Brideshead in order to sink it for tax reasons, or some equally sinister motive. So I had to meet them one by one, basically to convince them that I was not quite as terrible as they might imagine. Half-way through this process there was a party; we all met in the horrifically unphotogenic basement at Granada. That was the first time I met Phoebe face to face. It was such a terrifying event. I have to say I remember very little of it, except that I knew that everyone said that Phoebe would be one of the toughest people to convince because she absolutely knew what she thought about the book, and so what I do remember saying is: "Listen, it's much too complicated to talk now. Let's meet properly tomorrow morning and we'll have a proper conversation." We all went out for dinner that night and she was about the only girl there and she sat right at the other end of the table from me, on the left. We couldn't have been further apart.

So it wasn't until the next day that we met properly, in a Granada office. First of all, she wasn't anything like the person who ran across the roof, which was disconcerting, because she was very assured, very beautiful and extremely confident, and so rather frightening. I can remember talking, rather brilliantly I hoped, about the character, what I felt about the book, and what I thought we could do in the months to come. It was a bit like meeting someone on a ship, because we knew we were going on this great journey together. I think it was a good two months before we had a real conversation as people rather than just talking about work, because we started shooting exactly six days after that conversation.

We lived in Castle Howard for nearly six or seven months. It's a very beautiful place, it was very exciting work, every day what you were working on was very exciting and with somebody that you loved so it couldn't have been more enjoyable. We had an absolutely brilliant time, and we've had a lot of brilliant times since.

One of the most spectacular differences since Brideshead is that now we have three children and we're a family. Theoretically all of us can be involved in our work; we've done it once or twice - my son was in Gulliver's Travels. But we've tended to be careful about working together because it makes it difficult for the children. Gulliver was filmed during the school holidays, so the children were able to come to Portugal and have a holiday - that worked fantastically. The work we did together on Fairy Tale - although it wasn't in the school holidays - didn't take very long; still, it was something that we thought quite carefully about before we did it.

Do I believe in fairies? Well, I believe in fairy tales. They are the basis of all our performance of storytelling and film-making - when we twist the real events of the world into somehing that offers us hope - and I believe in that.

'Brideshead Revisited', Sat, 9pm, C4. 'Fairy Tale: A True Story' is on general release.

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