The two faces of Jacqueline

Peter Parker used to be Jacqueline du Pre's cleaner. Here he looks at the new film about her life and recalls the woman whose house he dusted

It was with more than the usual curiosity that I went last week to see Anand Tucker's controversial film Hilary and Jackie. I knew about it in advance, of course. I had heard that it offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the private life of the cellist Jacqueline du Pre, and that some of those who admired her were upset by its candour. But I had my own reason for wanting to see how she had been portrayed on screen. For about ten weeks, at the beginning of 1978, while trying to decide what to do with my life, I worked as Jacqueline du Pre's char.

I got the job through an agency which operated out of a cramped room above the offices of a gay travel company in Old Brompton Road. From here an assortment of students, artists, out-of-work actors and aspirant writers were sent into Knightsbridge, Kensington and Chelsea to clean and tidy up after those too elderly, too infirm, too disorganised, or simply too grand to keep their homes in order.

It was not entirely unknown for us to work in the houses of famous clients. Some weeks earlier I had been sent to a Mrs Banks and was delighted when a barefooted Sandie Shaw opened the door. So when I was told to report to a Mrs Barenboim in Rutland Gardens Mews, it did occur to me that I might find myself vacuuming Jacqueline du Pre's carpets. Some five years earlier, du Pre's hugely successful career as a cellist had been cut short by the onset of multiple sclerosis. She had virtually disappeared from public life, and I had no idea how far the disease had progressed or what state she might be in.

At this time, Daniel Barenboim was principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris and spent most of his time in France, although he would make the occasional appearance, padding round the house in a towelling dressing- gown and jumping every time he encountered me. On that first morning I was let into the house by an elderly woman with a strong European accent whom I took to be the pianist's mother. I addressed her as "Mrs Barenboim" without being corrected, and as she showed me round there was something about her manner, at once proprietorial and censorious, that suggested a resident mother-in-law. She was, in fact, the Barenboims' formidable housekeeper, Olga.

The house, which had been lent to the stricken cellist by Margot Fonteyn, could hardly have been less like the tall, beautifully appointed but completely impractical building in Hilary and Jackie. The real house was in a mews, and had been specially adapted for Fonteyn's husband, who was himself severely disabled. The layout was curious, consisting of enormous, low-ceilinged areas and rooms scarcely larger than closets. There was a great deal of parquet flooring and the huge panelled sitting-room was dominated by a grand piano, on top of which, on its side, lay a cello. It had the forlorn look of a museum piece rather than an instrument in regular use.

This sense of time having stopped was increased by a large collection of Perspex blocks in which flowers had been preserved in full bloom. Framed photographs showed a young and radiantly healthy du Pre similarly captured en fleur. There were banks of LPs, and the bookshelves were crammed with volumes on all aspects of Judaism, the faith to which du Pre had converted before marrying. What the room conspicuously lacked was any sign of life. There was scarcely a speck of dust for me to wipe.

Life appeared to be confined to the small kitchen, where Olga spent most mornings frying up onions and potatoes, making cakes and barking orders down the telephone to a local delicatessen. Charts on the wall detailed the assorted diets that were supposed to assist in the treatment of MS. It was here that I would be summoned for my coffee break and for some of Olga's complaints about life: "My God, this place is a barn!" she would say; "My God, the war was terrible!"; and, gesturing to the soft furnishings, "My God, what rubbish! They are so rich, why do they not buy good stuff?"

During the course of that first morning, du Pre wheeled out of the gleaming lift that dominated the hall in order to introduce herself. The golden tresses that once whipped about her face as she played Elgar's Cello Concerto had become tarnished and frizzy, and her face and figure had become heavy from taking steroids, but there was no mistaking her. The voice was soft but distinct, and she smiled a great deal in the way the chronically ill sometimes do as if to put you at your ease. But there was nothing saintly or beatific about her. One could tell that in different circumstances she would have been fun to be with.

She would never appear much before mid-morning, so in the days that followed I would spend the first hour or so trying to find things to clean on the ground floor. Then, after she had descended, I would go upstairs to start on the bathroom and the bedroom with its huge walk-in wardrobe, hung with rack upon rack of dresses.

Du Pre always treated me more like a helpful relative than a hired hand. She was embarrassingly grateful if I performed any small additional task, such as shopping for vegetables or buying copies of the newspapers so that the household could follow the progress of a strike which was then disrupting Barenboim's relationship with his French orchestra. Hilary and Jackie gives the impression that for the most part du Pre had only a taciturn housekeeper for company, and suffered the indignities of her illness without professional assistance and in totally unsuitable surroundings, marooned in the middle of a beautiful but wholly impractical antique bed. In fact there was a devoted full-time nurse, Ruth Ann, as well as a succession of auxiliary nurses from an agency, and the bedroom and bathroom were fully equipped for her disability - and this was at a time when her condition was far less advanced than shown in the film. In 1978 she was still giving lessons on a regular basis, and sometimes played her cello. On one dreadful occasion she apologised to me for the "terrible noise" she had been making. I could think of no appropriate response, partly because her apology seemed absolutely natural (the noise had indeed been fairly terrible), but also because it was quite devoid of self-pity or special pleading. It was distinctly odd to see a similar scene in the film, when du Pre fumblingly plays her instrument down the phone to her husband.

Film naturally needs to telescope time and alter circumstances for dramatic reasons, but du Pre's physical deterioration was less swift than Hilary and Jackie suggests. She did not die until nine years after I stopped working for her. I retain absolutely no impression of her mother, which is odd since she was clearly a forceful character, but I remember her father distinctly, chiefly because he was far less of a dry stick than he appears in the film. He showed me some beautiful stones he had been polishing - he was a keen geologist - and, having heard that I hoped to write a book about the First World War, spent one whole morning following me round the house talking knowledgeably about Rupert Brooke.

Both parents were visiting on my last day at the house. I had arrived the previous morning to find Olga in great pain and distress. She had suffered a hernia. Because she would be out of commission for some considerable time, a much younger replacement was found who could do the housework as well as the cooking, thus making me redundant. Du Pre came to tell me this, but did it so gently and tactfully - almost as if reporting a death - that I did not at first realise that my job was at an end. She insisted I come into the dining room to bid a formal farewell to her parents and to Ruth Ann. I never saw her again.

"It will do you so much good to meet some really spiritual people," a friend commented when I first told him about the job. I pointed out that swabbing someone's floors was not quite the same thing as mixing with them socially, but he persisted in believing that my character would improve merely from being in the Barenboim's house. It didn't, and when emptying the overflowing waste-paper baskets I found myself reading with an appalled fascination the cards and letters that had been tossed there. They were mostly from cranks, suggesting unlikely regimes that would lead to miraculously cures. Many of them urged this famous convert to Judaism to put her faith in the healing power of Jesus. I don't suppose she ever answered such letters.

No man is a hero to his valet, still less to the char, and while remaining perfectly aware that du Pre was one of the century's great musicians, I also thought of her as someone whose hairs I had to remove from the plug-hole while cleaning the bathroom. It was a relationship at once formal and curiously intimate, and was, I now realise, good preparation for a would-be biographer. Hilary and Piers du Pre called their memoir of their sister (the main source of Tucker's film) A Genius in the Family, and it is the fact that geniuses do come from families - often quite ordinary ones - and are subject to the same vagaries of emotion and experience as the rest of us that is so interesting. "When you are not on your pedestal, you are not interesting," Lord Alfred Douglas once told Oscar Wilde. In this (as in most things) he was entirely wrong. One of the reasons the du Pres wrote their book was as an antidote to the virtual canonisation their sister had undergone after her death.

It comes as no surprise that much of the outrage over Hilary and Jackie had been occasioned by sex: specifically by the scenes in which du Pre "borrows" her sister's husband. But the Jacqueline portrayed in the film is a far more complex, interesting and likeable figure than "Saint Jackie", a patronising invention of people who like to believe that suffering leads to sanctity, and which bears no relation to the woman I met.

Biographical films always present particular problems for relatives and friends. But since the biopic is here to stay, we should be grateful that Hilary and Jackie is as intelligent and well-made as it is. The days of Song Without End (Dirk Bogarde as Liszt) and Night and Day (Cary Grant, of all people, as a heterosexual Cole Porter) are mercifully long gone - although Meg Ryan's proposed film about the troubled first marriage of the late Poet Laureate ("When Teddy Met Sylvia"?) should keep us from becoming complacent.

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