How we met: Sarah Kennedy and Lee Durrell

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sarah Kennedy, 46, is a popular TV presenter and broadcaster who currently hosts 'The Dawn Patrol', an early-morning programme on Radio 2 (her two non-fiction best-sellers, 'Terrible Twos' and 'Terrible Pets', were inspired by stories sent in by listeners to the show). She is single and lives in London and Warwickshire. Lee Durrell, 47, is the honorary director of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust. She took over this role after the death of her husband, the naturalist Gerald Durrell (whom she met while studying lemurs in Madagscar), and now co-ordinates the Trust's internationally renowned conservation projects from her apartment in the middle of Jersey Zoo

Sarah kennedy: I first met Lee professionally; it was about 1983, and Gerry and Lee Durrell were guests on a TV show I was hosting . Gerry was obviously a domineering personality, but they counteracted each other very well, and I thought Lee was an exceedingly intelligent, attractive woman, with a lovely soft Memphis accent. I remember thinking: "What a lovely couple of guests" - but never in my wildest dreams did I think that Lee and I'd end up sharing a flat together.

I then did Animal Roadshow with Desmond Morris for the BBC, followed by Animal Country for ITV. When we were looking for somewhere to do our Animal Country awards (for people who we felt had devoted their lives to animals), the obvious place to set the award-giving ceremony was on Jersey. We went to Gerry and Lee's home at the Jersey Wildlife Trust and had a very formal dinner. Desmond and Gerry were the same age, coming up to their late sixties, and Lee and I were the same age. It was a very, very nice evening.

The next time we went back, the following year, I remember the two old chaps sitting there gassing away. I was going through a rather emotional time, with the break-up of a long-term love affair, and I went into the kitchen and Lee and I shared a glass of wine and I stirred the sauce, and we just talked - about men, life, living, gorillas, Madagascar. I felt so comfortable with her.

I instinctively knew, right from the beginning, that she's a very private person, like me. When Gerry got very ill she stayed in a hotel next door to his hospital in south London, not far from me. I offered her my spare room, but I don't think she wanted to take it up at that time. Then one day I had a call; she sounded very flat. She said: "I'd really like to take you up on that room." So she moved in.

I'll never forget when I opened the door: she really looked like a waif and stray, her hair was all over the place and she looked terribly tired. She'd been living out of a suitcase, so it was so nice just to be able to say: "There's your room and there's a bathroom opposite." We sat and had a glass of wine, and I gave her the keys to the flat. I said: "I'm going to leave you to it, I won't cook for you, but somebody does a supermarket shop for me - just add to the list", and she just entered into the spirit of the house. She'd find me at 4pm in bra and pants, or in a gown, and I'd find her in rollers in the morning listening to Radio 2.

She, being a Memphis belle, likes everything very, very warm, so at first she'd go round jacking up my night-storage heaters, and I'd go round jacking them down again and opening windows (I call her the Lodger from Hell, and I'm the Landlady from Hell). Then it fell into a little routine. If possible every evening we would rendezvous on The Rug (as it became known). I'd light the fire and crack open a bottle of white wine for her, red for me. And we'd play a Jimmy Buffett tape. We only had about half an hour - if we were very lucky, three-quarters - before her regular mini-cab would come to take her to see Gerry in hospital at about 8pm.

She was marvellous, she never missed a visit. I only went and saw Gerry once she'd taken him back to Jersey for the last time. I said I didn't want to go, because I'm not very good at things like that (I don't go to funerals, I don't like hospitals), but she insisted. He looked wonderful because he had incredibly blue eyes, like the sea in Corfu, where he was brought up - and these great orbs looked out, so clear and fresh, and he gave me a lovely beam. I think I was able to say: "I'll look after her."

We really are good friends. We trust each other, you see; there's an innate trust, an empathy. She is a very busy woman, but sometimes I think, oh I must ring Lee, then the phone rings and it's her. So there's a rapport. She's rung me a couple of times and I've said, "How are you feeling?" and she's said: "I'm terribly busy, but I'm lonely in my soul."

It's a very deep friendship. If anything happened to her, I'd be distraught. We both have our space, we both have our lives and we're there for each other if we need each other. I think I'm very lucky at my age to have found a wonderful new friend.

Lee Durrell: Sarah was doing a TV chat show, a live show with an audience and several guests, and Gerry and I were on with Spike Milligan. I thought: "Wow! Such a dynamic person, bouncy, full of personality - and good grief, how does she do this television business? I couldn't do it."

The next time we met was nearly 10 years later. Desmond Morris did a programme with Sarah called Animal Country, and they asked Gerry and me to be the judges on the programme's annual awards. Gerry was great friends with Desmond and adored him, so we filmed the judging in our flat in the zoo, which was great fun.

The day afterwards they came to dinner. I can't remember what we fixed for supper - Gerry was so much the cook at dinner parties. It was probably a curry. I remember Gerry and Desmond sitting in the drawing room. I was out in the kitchen warming plates or something; Sarah came in and we started chatting. We just hit it off. We had in common a love of animals. Saving endangered species and habitats is our main thing.

One year she had the brilliant idea of getting Gerry, Desmond and David Attenborough together for a dinner party. This was to be a big surprise for Gerry, so Sarah set it up herself and invited Desmond and David. On the actual evening, when the doorbell rang and David and Desmond burst in giggling like boys, Gerry was truly surprised - I wasn't able to keep many secrets from him. He looked over at Sarah and said "You **** ing bitch!" It was a terrific evening. Sarah and I listened to the three of them talk: it was reminiscences, different stories of animal behaviour, or "Have you heard about the new research on so-and-so?"

The last six years of his life Gerry wasn't particularly well. He would go through bouts of bad health and then get better. He had two hip operations, and a couple of cataract operations. Then in March 1994 he had a liver transplant at Kings College Hospital, in south London. I knew Sarah lived somewhere south of the river, so I rang and said: "I'm looking for a flat: can I come and stay with you for a couple of days?" She said "Oh yes, do", and I stayed for several months.

One major bonding thing that we have is music. I'd come home from visiting the hospital during the day, sit on the rug in the drawing room in front of the fire and listen to music, particularly Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. Jimmy Buffett was a great comfort to both of us in those days. His music is so jolly.

She was so kind to me, enormously supportive - just talking and sympathising - I honestly don't know if I would have coped without this home base and a friend to talk to. During the day I spent most of my time at the hospital and came back at night, and that worked out very well. Because of her early radio show she has to go to sleep about 7.30/8pm. I would organise a taxi for that time, so we'd be sitting having a glass of wine listening to Jimmy Buffett, and suddenly the bell would ring. That was the taxi to take me to the hospital, the signal for Sarah to go to bed.

I stayed with Sarah from September to late November '94. Then, after people at the hospital said there was little more they could do for him, in late November I brought Gerry back to Jersey. Sarah came and visited a few weeks later, so she stayed with me in my flat at the zoo. Gerry died at the end of January.

Since then, whenever I come to London she gives me her place to stay, for which I'm very grateful because I'm always coming up for business meetings. I don't stay with her every single time, it depends on what I'm doing and where - and I don't want to wear out my welcome.

Since Gerry died and whenever I come back and stay, we've done various things together. In September 1996 I asked her to come to a fete with me in Wiltshire, on behalf of the Trust. To put it mildly, it was not very successful. I'd been asked to do a little speech. Nobody came, so I didn't speak. It was my birthday and by the time we got back on the train into town Sarah said: "I'm taking you out for your birthday." The Savoy bar has the best Bloody Marys in London, the barman there has won all the awards, and there was a lovely lady pianist. So that made up for the rain-soaked fete to which nobody came.

In real life Sarah's just like she is on the radio: open, honest and always a great support. She's very generous to her friends and loyal, a great listener, terrific fun, always laughing and giggling. Both of us are rather strong characters; we're complementary, don't ask me how.

We ring each other every two or three weeks for a longish chat. Usually she says: "I can't tell you that now. It'll have to wait till you get here and we have our glass of wine and listen to Jimmy Buffett on the rug."

! Sarah Kennedy's first novel, 'Charlotte's Friends', is published on 1 May (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 16.99).