Interview: Mary Archer - A Jeffreyish streak: With her seasonal album, the demure ex-don reveals a taste for publicity, says Geraldine Bedell (CORRECTED)

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NOT CONTENT with singing from the top of a piano on television last Christmas, Mary Archer has this year released a seasonal album, on which she sings flutily with a couple of children's choirs. Before she started disporting herself on pianos in low-cut dresses, Mary Archer was chiefly famous for being fragrant - which was understood to mean, among other things, discreet and reserved. Now the former Cambridge don and respected photoelectrochemist seems to be turning herself into a celebrity. On the album cover she appears poised beside a Christmas tree - neat, tidy, cheerful, unassailable, the ideal of a certain kind of sensible and demure femininity. Which was also how she looked at 9am this week, after the last of the Archers' annual three Christmas parties.

She emerged to greet the lift which powers straight up into the Archers' penthouse, apologising for the wreckage of the morning after the night before. But the flat was entirely ordered, despite the fact that they had only fully moved in three weeks ago, when the four-poster bed arrived from their previous flat below. Dr Archer - she does not want to be called Lady - 'I come from the middle of the middle classes, and I don't hold with titles. I'd be just as happy if they were called members of the upper house or something' - was quietly immaculate in skirt, jumper and expensive but unostentatious jewellery. The only sign that she had this week entertained 360 guests, including prime ministers past and present, was the single carrier bag of rubbish she was carrying.

She is keen to promote the album, which is called A Christmas Carol, and on which she sings 18 carols, and is rather cross with the record company for not pushing it harder. 'I'm not a pop star and not aiming to be a pop star, but I'd like to see it do well.' To listen to the record in the Archers' flat, it is necessary to remove your shoes, to preserve the colour of the new cream carpet in the music and television den. So you pad across the room in socks, sink into the impossibly plump sofa, and Dr Archer fiddles with the controls of the new stereo for a bit. 'I need to sit down with the instruction book and master this,' she says. And she obviously will. Eventually 'Silent Night' floats out of the walls. 'I very carefully put in all the 't's and the music company has faded them out,' she complains. 'It's that precision thing again.'

'That precision thing' is overpoweringly Mary Archer's most striking quality. She speaks not merely in sentences, but perfectly formed paragraphs. Her enunciation is crystalline; she places her words clearly and carefully, and conducts herself with unfailing, charming politeness. When she enthuses (about being close to politics, for example) she does so temperately. She attributes the need for precision to her scientific training, and finds its absence elsewhere odd. 'When I first decided to learn about business, I felt frustrated by its unsystematic quality. If you set out to get on boards and committees and so on, nobody teaches you. I had to unlearn my scientist's inclination for everything tied up and labelled, organised and categorised.'

Dr Archer's demeanour - in control yet essentially feminine - appears to be powerfully attractive: most famously, of course, to the judge in her husband's successful libel action against the Star newspaper, following allegations that he had had relations with a prostitute. Mr Justice Caulfield urged the jury to remember Mrs Archer in the witness box. 'Your vision of her will probably never disappear. Has she elegance?' he asked. 'Is there any absence of marital joys for Archer - for Jeffrey?'

Kit Hesketh-Harvey, of cabaret group Kit and The Widow, who effectively launched Mary's singing career (it was on their TV show last year that she sang from the piano), makes the point more forcibly: 'She is a fantasy of most Englishmen. She taps into some great psychic longing. She's a bit like Julie Andrews in that respect - I, for one, just gibber. Certainly any man who has been brought up by a nanny can't resist her. It's that idea of ice in the loins. Absolutely delicious. I adore her.'

SHE WAS born Mary Weeden 48 years ago next week in stockbroker-belt Surrey, the middle child of a chartered accountant; she progressed smoothly from Cheltenham Ladies' College to Oxford and a brilliant academic career.

Being married to Jeffrey - they met in her second year at Oxford and married as soon as she came down, in 1966 - must always have involved her in accommodating him to a degree. Where she is quiet and dignified, he is flamboyant; where she is academically brilliant, his cleverness is flashy and superficial. 'Jeffrey has a gift for inaccurate precis,' she once said; asked to expand, she says: 'He is not a man for detail, I suppose that's what I meant. He's a man for the large stage and the large sweep, whereas I am fanatically accurate.' In the past, the accommodation seems to have involved her getting on with her very different kind of life and allowing for his. Now though, suddenly, there are hints of a Jeffreyish streak of self-promotion, of flamboyance, and a hitherto undiscerned naffness. 'I think,' says Kit Hesketh- Harvey, 'that that choirmistress's stall in the church at Grantchester probably just isn't big enough to contain her.'

Mary Archer's list of achievements is impressive. And typically, no sooner had she made A Christmas Carol than she was being described as an authority on church music. 'I think that's overstating it,' she says; 'but I'm president of the Guild of Church Musicians, which fosters high standards of musicianship among choristers in parish churches, so I hope I'm reasonably knowledgeable.' As we run through her life, she keeps remembering commitments: she was educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College - oh] she's now on its council; she went to Imperial College after Oxford - now she's a visiting fellow. Apart from being a brilliant chemist, she is the first woman to have been elected to the Council of Lloyd's, chairman of its members' hardship committee, and she sits on the boards of Anglia television and MidAnglia Radio, chairs the National Energy Foundation, and is a trustee of the Science Museum.

She and Jeffrey have always lived fairly separate lives. She went back to Oxford after her PhD, and had a room in college; Jeffrey was then on the Greater London Council. Later he got his parliamentary seat: 'Oxford-London-Louth was a bit of a far-flung triangle, but we managed to spend most weekends together. But we also spent quite a lot of time apart, and still do. There was never any question of my needing to establish myself as somebody separate, because I was somebody separate. I was set on being a chemist before I met Jeffrey; I was single-minded about that. I suppose now that I've left that world, and am enjoying one that's more like his, it might be difficult to keep that separateness established.'

They have two sons: Will, now at Georgetown University in the US, majoring in history of art, and Jamie, who has just finished his first term at Oxford reading chemistry. Mary was never immersed in motherhood: 'I would have been sorry not to have had them, and I'm enormously proud of them, but I've never been a full-time mother.'

Jeffrey's roller-coaster fortunes have brought her wealth, bankruptcy, and more wealth, but it has probably all had more emotional impact on him than on her. 'Material possessions aren't terribly important to me. The more things you have, the more time it takes to manage and look after them.'

AFTER 10 years teaching at Cambridge, she apparently decided to become one of the great and the good, to take public appointments and sit on committees. 'I wanted to learn more about management and business, and I think the long-term game plan was - and still is, insofar as I've got one - to go back to university life, but with that broader managerial experience. I've also always had the strong sense that one only has one life. I didn't necessarily mean to step on to a more public platform, but that's what happened.' The move was precipitated by an approach from Anglia Television to become a non-executive director. But at around this time she was making a huge success of her court appearance, discovering the potency of her brand of intelligent and competent femininity; it must have been a heady experience.

'The children are funny about it: they say it's bad enough having one famous parent, it's intolerable to have two. And I did think twice about making the record, because I think there comes a point where if you're in front of the scenes too much, it affects your ability to do things behind the scenes. But I didn't feel uncomfortable making it, and I haven't been asked to do anything uncomfortable promoting it, so . . . I'm content. I wouldn't want to do such a thing comercially for my own part.' Royalties from the record go to the two choirs - the Salisbury Cathedral Girls' and Cambridgeshire Boys' Choirs - with a small percentage to the Iris fund, which helps children with sight defects.

Those who have worked with Mary Archer in her new incarnation as a businesswoman stress her cool, logical approach. 'She masters things very quickly,' says one boardroom colleague: 'It's very much her academic, scientific side that comes to the fore, and sometimes one is amazed the showbiz side exists.' As chairman of the Lloyd's members' hardship committee, she is said to have acquired the nickname 'the poison cactus'; certainly there are members who regard what one called her 'head-girl efficiency and perfection' as less than sexy.

The puzzle with Mary Archer is why a woman who says 'a chemistry textbook is a real relaxation for me' and has built a life out of being a quintessential English rose, should suddenly start making records and singing cabaret. (She appears with Kit and the Widow again next month at a Lloyd's function). The aims of A Christmas Carol are unquestionably high-minded; there just seems something rather, well, vulgar about this particular means of raising money. The album cover does not, remember, feature the choirs; it features her. The whole thing smacks, somehow, of Jeffrey-type grandiosity. But visiting the penthouse flat jutting out over the Thames (in which Mary is these days spending more time, now that work brings her more often to London) you do not get a sense that she is restraining and moderating Jeffrey, rather that she goes along happily with the whole thing. The wood-lined walls, automatic lights, interior- designed and unhomely furnishings are more Manhattan than South Bank. Mary acknowledges that Jeffrey has taught her a lot about publicity: 'He's helped me knock off some of the corners that come with being an academic.' And she did, after all, marry him.


Mary Archer has asked us to point out that while at one stage in their lives she and her husband, Jeffrey, were certainly in debt, neither of them has ever been declared bankrupt, as we suggested in our profile of 20 December.

(Photograph omitted)