How we met: Sheila Mitchell and H R F Keating

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The Independent Culture
The actress Sheila Mitchell, 69, trained at the Central School in London before going into rep. In 1953 she married H R F Keating, and gave up work for 20 years to raise a family. Now back on the stage (and television), she is planning a one-woman show based on the life of Dorothy L Sayers.

H R F Keating, 67, was born in Sussex and studied at Trinity College, Dublin. He graduated from journalism to detective fiction in 1959; his most famous creation is the resilient Indian detective Inspector Ghote. He and his wife live in London. They have four children and six grandchildren.

H R F KEATING: We met in the bar of a tatty theatre in Swindon in 1953. She was in rep there and I was fresh out of college on the local paper. They used to send me to review the weekly play. Soon after we'd been introduced she managed to mention that she'd been reading Gide. My ears pricked up. It was pure intellectual snobbery. I started chatting her up and we went from there.

In those days I was a fairly convinced Catholic, and in one play Sheila played a Jewish lady so well that I was convinced she was Jewish. This was a terrible problem for me because I didn't know whether Catholics were allowed to marry Jews. There was no question in my mind of living with anybody. It was going to be marriage or nothing. But she said: 'No, I'm not Jewish,' and my difficulties were over.

I was tremendously in love. I can remember walking to work one morning while we were engaged. I was so full of exuberance that I swung my umbrella round and round in the air and it flew off the handle. You can't be in love more than that] As soon as my contract was over, I went to the Telegraph and then the Times, then I started writing books. As a young man I had had a vague ambition to be a writer, but when I left college I decided in a rather whimsical Irish fashion that I'd be a gentle failure. Sheila metaphorically shook me out of that. She said: 'You like reading detective stories. Why don't you write one?' So I did. It went round the publishers and came back, I wrote another which the agent couldn't do anything with. So I wrote a third. Eventually a letter came from Gollancz, 'Dear Mr Keating, I would like to publish your book . . . ' We both felt over the moon.

It's not a very gallant word to use, but I think 'forceful' would be the word that would spring to mind about her. And 'commonsensical' - something women are more than men.

We were poor for many years, until the children were through their education. She was always prepared to be economical and sensible. Sheila has faith in me as a writer, and that's the most important thing. She always insisted that I had the time I needed to work, and fended off telephone calls and visitors. She always believed that the books were good. Equally, I have faith in her. I know she's a very good actor.

I do think that Sheila sees Ghote as a bit of a threat, however, particularly since I wouldn't take her with me the first few times I went to India, this strange country which I'd been writing about for ten years. When she did come she didn't like it at all: the beggars, the smells, the crowds. I had wanted to like it, so I did.

A writer does have to be selfish, but at the same time you have this trick of empathy. I think I'm moderately easy to live with, though there are times when I will storm out of the house, and walk the streets a bit. Sheila is less easy. I like to think that nine times out of ten we'll do things her way, that I'm a nice accommodating fellow. There's a lot of Inspector Ghote in me. He's modest and he tends to be put upon and he longs to be nice or good. Another boast - he has, deep down, the spine of steel which enables him to get to the end of a case, and me to get to the end of a book.

SHEILA MITCHELL: I was in rep at Swindon, and Harry came to review the play. After the show we got talking. I was reading Andre Gide's Strait is the Gate at the time, and he was terribly impressed by that for some reason. The play was called Dark Summer and was a fairly passionate piece about a Jewish woman. Harry says he left the theatre saying: 'Oh my God, what shall I do? Catholics can't marry Jews]' Well, I didn't go quite so far on the first night, but I thought he was rather nice. I had actually taken the job at Swindon to recover from a broken heart. I was going to make my career the all-important thing, and I didn't want anything to do with men. But I met Harry and all that went out of the window.

It was Coronation year, and the rep was going to do a revue called Coronation Revels. So Harry wrote me a monologue. I remember he was furious because in order to get a good laugh at the beginning, I did a pratfall as I came on. He didn't think that was at all funny. So that was a black mark. Nevertheless, not long afterwards he said he thought it would be very nice if we got married. We were engaged by the end of June and married in October. The rep closed - inevitably - and I got pregnant. I decided that if I was going to have children, then I wanted to make that my job.

When I met Harry, he'd just got a first at Trinity College, Dublin. But then something happened, I don't know what. He had wanted to be a writer but then he thought: 'No, there's no way. I don't have anything to say.' I told him it was absurd. And then, Harry claims - though I don't remember it - that I said: 'Well,

why don't you write a detective novel? You like them and they don't say anything.' After the first book, he became a full-time writer. My parents were horrified: 'Two children and another on the way? It's not right]' But of course it was right - that's what he was meant to do.

I think it's my stubbornness Harry values most. But I suspect I irritate him enormously at times by trying to nitpick. I'm convinced there's a reason for everything and a solution for everything, but Harry is far more fatalistic. Maybe that's why it is a good marriage: we are very different in temperament. I have a much quicker temper, but it's over and done with. Whereas Harry, if he's roused to anger, takes a very long time to get over it. He actually doesn't like getting angry, so it affects him deeply. He also has a more quirky mind. He's far more imaginative than I am. He's a creative artist and I'm very much an interpretative one.

I didn't share his love of India, though I'd hoped to be able to take it in my stride as he does. I deliberately did not go with him the first few times, it was essential he found out on his own if what he was doing equated to the reality.

It was actually Harry who said, when our youngest was nine, 'I think you're going to be absolutely miserable. You ought to go back into the theatre.' I was very dubious - it had been a long gap. But I was lucky. I got the part of Lena in Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena in a touring production. Harry was fantastic - he'd sit down with me and hear my part. I was away on tour for three months and he did the cooking and things like that. Even so, it was a difficult patch when I was trying to find myself again.

I do think I've been extraordinarily lucky. We've been married for 40 years now - it's quite staggering. Other people have lived more exciting lives in their marriages, but I wouldn't have wanted to do anything different.-

(Photograph omitted)

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