Barbara Taylor Bradford: A woman of substance

She loves her dogs, her husband, her writing - well, wouldn't you if you'd sold 75 million books? - and, it seems, her hair spray. In the first of a new series of interviews, Deborah Ross meets the grande dame of blockbusters

I meet Barbara Taylor Bradford in The Queens Hotel, Leeds, where she is mid-tour promoting her 22nd novel, The Ravenscar Dynasty, a vast sweeping saga in which the hero, Edward, has "eyes as blue as the speedwells that grow in the summer meadows" and thick hair that is "a stunning burnished gold". Heavens, could he be the kind of man who can't help but break a woman's heart? Yes! He is! As Alice, the young widow of a local doctor who is already in love with him by page 12, says on page 13: "I know you're the kind of man who can't help but break a woman's heart." Well, fancy. And there's still 600-odd pages to go.

OK, OK, who am I to poke fun? I'm with you all the way there. All told, Barbara Taylor Bradford has sold more than 75 million blockbusters which, in turn, have been translated into 40 languages: Hebrew; Romanian; Finnish; particularly Finnish - "oh, how those Finns love me," she exclaims happily. She is crazily, madly, insanely rich; said to be worth anything from £100m to £600m, depending on whom you believe, and also said to be Britain's richest woman after the Queen. I should confess that when I read up on her, the following thought did cross my mind and then lodged there rather: "She's never had any children, but has to leave it all to someone." I know she has two Bichon Frisés (those fluffy little dogs that make poodles look butch) that she absolutely dotes on, but it's nothing that, perhaps, a good kick down some stairs or a lift shaft couldn't cure. So I put on my best smile in the hope of looking sweet and adorable and very, very adoptable. Naturally, at some point, I shall have to make it clear that, at this stage in my life, I'm quite happy to not be breast-fed.

So, here we are, then, in the lounge at The Queens Hotel. She greets me warmly, but you know she is quite steely from the off. "Of course, Deborah, the thing about interviews is that I know you'll have the last word," she says. "True enough," I concur obligingly, still smiling my best smile; a smile that says, I hope: I don't have eyes as blue as speedwells or hair that's a stunning burnished gold but, hey, I'd be nice to have around, all the same. I do not add: "May I call you mummy?" as I do not wish to frighten her at this early stage.

As it happens, Barbara grew up in Leeds, in Upper Armley on the west side, and remembers The Queens when it was smart and glamorous - oh, the dances! - but now? It's rather dark and tatty and dingy, well past its best, unlike Barbara. I don't think Barbara could ever be dark or dingy or tatty or past it. She is 73, and quite magnificent. True, the ash-blonde hair-do that looks as if it's been set in a mould overnight is a trifle scary, but she is also flawlessly groomed and has the most marvellous, smooth, peachy skin. Come on Barbara, what have you had done? Let's have the full list of works. "Nothing!" she protests. "Well, I did have my eyes done but that was 25 years ago." She does wish her figure were rather different. "I've got a very big bust, no hips and thin legs," she says. Sometimes she thinks she ought to go on a diet. But her film producer husband, Bob, just won't have it. "He says: 'Baaarb, you're fine. All those other women are just too skinny.'"

She is beautifully dressed in an Italian red wool jacket and is accessorised to the hilt. No "less is more" nonsense with Baaarb. There's a Hermès bag and a Hermès scarf and a rope of pearls and a diamond ring and a sapphire ring and a gold bangle studded with emeralds and a Harry Winston gold watch of the kind available from luxury stores on Fifth Avenue - or so I'm guessing - but not Ernest Jones. Barbara, I ask, what is it like, being so rich?

"Well, it's nice to know that Bob and I don't have to worry about our old age. But I'm not a shopper. I don't enjoy shopping." No? "No. I'm not a shopper. My one weakness is furniture. I do love antiques, but Bob's the one who has bought me Hermès bags for years so I rarely buy a bag. And he's the one who will go out and buy me a string of pearls. I know it sounds strange, but I find trailing around the shops very boring. I always feel I could do something better with my time, like write a book." She is still amazingly driven and ambitious, I think. f Later, when I ask Bob - they are entirely devoted, and travel everywhere together - what it would be like if Barbara were to wake up tomorrow and find she were unable to write another word, he says: "It would be a disaster. A disaster!" I add that if he were to wake tomorrow and were to find himself in the mood for buying me a string of pearls, say, that would be fine, though, wouldn't it? He laughs and pats my shoulder in a way that might almost be fatherly. I think I could be in here.

Barbara has lived in New York - in an apartment with "14 internal doors", which I'm assuming means it's on the biggish side - ever since she married Bob in 1963. Does she miss Yorkshire? I don't think so, really. Well, maybe she misses the food sometimes but, that said, there is a store near to her apartment - Myers of Keswick - that sells all the stuff she loves: Heinz salad cream, HP Sauce, Bird's custard powder, piccalilli, Cumberland sausages. She would, in fact, come over more frequently if it weren't for the dogs. They don't like it when she goes away. She can't even pack in front of them, because once they see the suitcases they get all despondent and depressed. And she misses them awfully.

"But I do phone every day, to see how they are," she says. I can see, now, that it really would be good for her to have me around. If something awful were to happen to the dogs - like falling down a lift shaft, say - I would be a great consolation, I think.

Barbara's beginnings were modest but never, she will stress, deprived. Her mother, Freda, was a nurse and her father, Winston, an engineer who lost a leg in the First World War and was out of work throughout the Depression. But they poured everything into Barbara, their only child. "Don't start making it look as if I had a terrible childhood because it's just not true," she says. "I'm not going to lie and say I was beaten. Quite the opposite. I was ironed and starched and puffed out and I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes because I tried to stay clean and I did my homework. In all the pictures of me when I was a little girl I have gloves on."

Certainly, she adored her parents. Her father, she says, "was terribly good-looking and always terribly well-groomed and even today I can't stand ungroomed men. I think he did have quite an eye for the ladies but I don't think he did anything about it. I don't think he could nip around as quickly as some chaps because of his artificial leg."

For Freda, no sacrifice was too great for Barbara. Freda even moved out of the marital bed, into a separate room, "because she didn't want any more children; nothing was going to stop her from giving me a better life." And people wonder where Barbara gets her drive and focus from? Freda taught Barbara to read very early. "I'd read the whole of Dickens by the time I was 12."

Freda dispatched Barbara to a private school, much to the consternation of Winston's mother who, apparently, thought Freda had ideas above her station. Freda took Barbara to stately homes - endlessly! - where she was told: "That's a Constable and that's a Gainsborough." Didn't you find it all a bit suffocating, Barbara? "No. What I did find, though, is that being an only child is a tremendous pressure because all their dreams are put into you and they want you to succeed almost impossibly. I always had the sense I had to do well, no matter what, to please her."

Recently, Barbara's biographer, Piers Dudgeon, suggested that Freda might have been the illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Rippon. Hence, perhaps, the trips to stately homes and Freda's ideas above her station. What's Barbara's take on this? "I don't know if it's true, Deborah. My mother never told me. But you have to think back to that time. Being illegitimate was a terrible shame, wasn't it? Fathers kicked girls out on to the street. It was very hard to live down. So I've no idea if it's true and there is no one left to ask. But it hasn't changed my life. I'm Winston and Freda Taylor's daughter, I'm married to Robert Bradford, I'm a best-selling novelist and have achieved what I wanted to accomplish." Yes indeedy.

She could have gone to university, but didn't. Instead, she left school at 15 for the typing pool at the Yorkshire Evening Post. She knew she wanted to be a writer, had known she wanted to be a writer since she was 10 years old and sold a short story to a magazine for seven shillings and sixpence. "I bought daddy some handkerchiefs and mummy a green vase. Hemingway said you can't call yourself a writer until you've been paid for it, so I've been a writer since I was 10." She was, she says, a hopeless typist; wasted so much stationery she used to take it home in her handbag so she wouldn't be discovered. Alternatively, "I would take a handful to the ladies room, set a match to it, and throw it down the toilet."

Barbara could, by the sound of it, have had any bloke in Leeds at this time. I know this to be so because later we are joined by her childhood friend, Bobby Caplin, OBE (big in ladies' riding jackets, apparently) and he says, well, Barbara at that age "was a cracker, absolutely gorgeous. Every guy lusted after her. Even Arthur Brittenden [who then worked for the YEP but would later become director of Times Newspapers and then a director of Murdoch's News International] was in love with her." Really? Babs, you goer, you. "Oh, but I was very, very busy..." she says. Apparently, she even turned Peter O'Toole down. Barbara! "I didn't know who he was!"

As you'd expect, she didn't stay in the typing pool for long. By the time she was 18 she was woman's editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post and then it was London and Fleet Street. You had a bit of a permissive Sixties at least? "Well, I had boyfriends and I slept with them. I wasn't a virgin when I married Bob." She met Bob at a dinner party. I like Bob. He's an odd conker colour, I'll concede that, but he smells lovely (Yves Saint Laurent) and is wearing a Brioni jacket which, apparently, is quite the last word in elegance. Bob is Jewish and I am Jewish so we talk Jewish for a bit. Do you know I make the best chicken soup, Bob? Have you heard the one about the little boy who tells his mother he's been cast as the husband in the school play? "What?" she says, "they couldn't give you a speaking part?" He laughs again. Oh, I am so in with Bob. Hey, says Barbara, "I'm Jewish by osmosis. Someone once described me as the best Jewish shiksa in the world!" All right, Baaarb, keep your hair on! (Like it's ever going to move...)

She did get pregnant once, but miscarried at three months and never conceived again. Did she ever explore why? "No, I didn't. I was always running here and there, working. To tell you the honest truth it really never bothered me that much. I once said to a journalist, you don't miss somebody you have never known, so I've never missed the child that I never had. And she said, 'Oh, but you've missed the feeling', like a headmistress. Bob always says we've shot that film, it's in the can and we've already shown it, let's move on."

She could have stopped working once she married Bob, but that wasn't her style. So, instead, she wrote A Woman of Substance - the story of Emma Harte who transforms herself from housemaid into tycoon, and transformed Barbara into a phenomenon.

"It came out in May 1979 and was on the best-seller list by the end of June. It did quite well in hardback. But it was the paperback, the following year, which sold three and a half million copies and stayed for 55 weeks on the New York Times list. I kept expecting it to drop off and it kept staying there and staying there..." How does she account for it? "I think it was the first book about a strong woman going out and conquering the world, making it in the man's world." Barbara was always an admirer of Thatcher, needless to say. And she doesn't give a stuff about reviews, or what the literary establishment might think of her. "Well, I write popular fiction, Deborah, and I have a lot of readers so they probably turn their noses up at me, but you know what? I really don't care."

We have to move on now. She has a raft of radio and TV interviews to get on with. She is a brick, I think. She's bumped about from here to there, from this studio to that, and doesn't complain. She only gets a packet of crisps for lunch (Walkers, plain) and doesn't complain. She is charming in the interviews, remembers everybody's names. It is: "Well, Adam, my heart belongs to Yorkshire, of course..." And: "Well, Christy, I once said to my husband it never rained in Armley but that's just because I was so happy..." She knows the score, all right. She knows how to write her kind of books and how to sell her kind of books. But she is also authentic. She may even be a mensch.

When we part I get a hug from her, a hug from Bob and their card, should I ever find myself in New York. "Like, tomorrow?" I don't say. But I'm sure they'll be very pleased when I turn up, all the same.

'The Ravenscar Dynasty' is published by HarperCollins, £17.99. To order this book at a special price - including free p&p - call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897

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