Profile: A certain compassion: Geraldine Bedell on a campaigner whose determination makes governments change their minds; Marjorie Wallace

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THE Prince of Wales last week joined the debate about whether schizophrenics should be roaming the streets. It was not necessary to look far for his adviser. The Prince's concerns about the Government's care in the community policy echoed precisely the position of Sane, the mental health charity of which he is patron, and which is the formidable lobbying tool of Marjorie Wallace, the former campaigning journalist.

'The Prince has listened to my broadcasts. He is very encouraging,' is as much as Wallace is prepared to say about last week's useful intervention to support Sane's case. A highly effective lobbyist, Wallace has given 192 interviews since Ben Silcock climbed into the lion's cage at London Zoo in January - seven in one day last week. She uses her airtime to argue, persistently and powerfully, against the wholesale emptying of asylums and, with three murders and a multiple rape committed by schizophrenics in recent weeks, she has been making all the running. Virginia Bottomley now says she is considering fundamental changes to care in the community.

On Wednesday the Saudi royal family will present Wallace with pounds 750,000 towards the Prince of Wales International Research Centre, which Sane is setting up in Oxford; a Greek shipping family will give another pounds 750,000. 'Marjorie has the capacity to do what most charities would love to do - waltz into first class connections, royal, industrial, whatever,' says a friend, the television presenter Nick Ross. A journalist for most of her life, Wallace has become an impressive activist, but activism has always been important to her: 'She believes passionately in journalism as public service,' says Ross. 'For her, a good story is only a good story if you can change something.'

Talking about herself in her office off the Edgware Road, London, Wallace sounds almost more novelist than journalist. Not that she doesn't tell the truth, but she has an eye for the romantic, slightly self-dramatising detail. She was, she says, 'spouting poetry about destruction and morbidity when I was three'; she 'fled from the Royal College of Music in the first couple of days when I overheard someone else playing. I never touched music again.'

She married a Polish count, describes herself as a countess, and named all her children after Austro-Hungarian emperors and empresses. Her approach to interviewing the mentally ill or Thalidomide families, she explains, has always been to 'give their misery some shape, some colour, some drama, so that it read more like a novel than just another case history; so that they became characters in something'.

She was born fortysomething years ago (she says she is too vain to say precisely) in Karen Blixen's former house in Kenya; her father was a civil engineer and her mother 'an adventurer, who went with him everywhere. We children - two daughters and an upright piano - went everywhere too, and I grew up to the sounds of Chopin in the bush.'

When she was nine, the family moved back to Ashstead: 'I couldn't believe that suburban Surrey was how people lived. It was Tony Hancock land; it always seemed very small. I don't think I ever got over it.' At her independent girls' school, she 'was very competitive. I'd be in tears if I didn't get the first prize'. The journalist Mary Kenny, her former flatmate, says this trait lasted: 'We were a pair of little Becky Sharps, both determined to make our mark.'

Friends describe Wallace as 'obsessive, focused, even ruthless'; she admits she has 'always been very work- driven'. Visiting her former contacts in Broadmoor, is, she says drily, 'a Sunday afternoon treat for the children'. She once left her first child behind in a restaurant: 'Everywhere I went in the evenings, I had this carrycot. I walked out of this restaurant, and said 'Oh, was I carrying something?' I'd left him under the table.'

Abandoning plans to become a concert pianist, she studied philosophy and psychology at London University, not entirely happily. 'It was the Sixties: I didn't like the culture much. People tried to get me into the feminists, but I'm not a feminist.' Kenny confirms that she is 'an old-fashioned kind of woman who likes men. The idea of the Commons full of women would be an absolute nightmare to her.'

Ron Hall, former Sunday Times Insight editor, remembers the Kenny- Wallace menage in West Hampstead as 'a great place for parties'. The pair knew a lot of journalists and aspiring politicians. 'I used to meet the Bow Group lot for lunch on Saturdays,' Wallace says. 'Geoffrey Howe, Leon Brittan . . . Simon Jenkins was part of it . . . I mean, I didn't have any politics at all, I just thought it was jolly good fun.'

As a graduate trainee, she became a researcher on The Frost Programme. 'It was very punishing. I developed a haemorrhaging ulcer and nearly died, but the work was worth it. You met absolutely everybody who was anybody.' She also produced religious programmes, where, despite her youth, she had a relatively free hand. 'I made a list of all the exciting people in London, then invented series round them.'

Philip Knightley, who worked with her on the Thalidomide story, remembers that: 'Marjorie was always out to extract the greatest career possibilities from every story. She used everything to the ultimate degree, turning her stories into books and TV plays - multi-media activity other journalists talked about but most never managed.'

After stints at Nationwide ('I was hired as a dolly-bird to sit on the sofa beside Michael Barratt'), and at Midweek, a forerunner of Newsnight, she joined the Sunday Times to write the human story of Thalidomide.

She had just had her first child. (She is vague about when she married: when I ask how old she was, she says, 'Can't remember. In my twenties.') Being an unmarried mother appears to have filled her with wicked delight. 'She was always teasing people, saying perhaps they were the father,' says Hall. The BBC was less enthusiastic - so, having gone to the Sunday Times for two weeks to help out, she stayed 17 years.

Her first interview was with Terry Wiles, the armless, legless child whose foster father had constructed him a kind of fork-lift wheelchair, from which she subsequently wrote a book and television play, both called On Giant's Shoulders. She visited families affected by Thalidomide, 'staying the night, living with them, not just walking in and doing the interviews. There were children with three rows of teeth, lying incontinent on mattresses on the floor, parents blaming themselves, or each other . . .' It was, says Knightley, work that very few journalists could have done week after week.

'The worst part of people's misery was that they could see no meaning to it,' she says. 'I suppose I thought that if you could only give them a role to play, by building them up, giving them a character, then you might be able to bring some meaning to the anguish.'

In time, she covered other stories, including that of the silent twins, June and Jennifer Gibbons, who spoke to no one, but kept near-indecipherable diaries, which, however, Wallace deciphered 'mostly from midnight to three or four in the morning. I never have slept very well, and with four children, it was the only time'.

Unlike most journalists, she stays in touch with her subjects long after she has finished writing about them: on the day we met, she had spoken to the Wiles family; she saw the twins shortly before Jennifer died, and still speaks to June regularly. 'I wouldn't know how to live with myself if I didn't take calls from someone who's become a friend, because I don't need their story any more. That's why I hate news, because of its ephemeral quality, because people can be in the news for two days and then forgotten.'

She also covered the 1976 Seveso chemicals-factory explosion, interviewing women who had miscarried, though she was pregnant herself. She lost the baby. A year later, pregnant again - a circumstance that might have led others to decline the job - she returned. 'I didn't miscarry, but he was born with hearing difficulties and other problems. It wasn't a very clever thing to do.' She co-wrote the story with Tom Margerison, the Sunday Times's former science correspondent, later director of the nuclear industry information group, with whom she has lived since leaving Count Skarbek 10 years ago.

Her interest in schizophrenia was sparked by a housing officer who invited her to see the squalid living conditions of schizophrenics discharged from mental hospitals. She suggested a Thalidomide-style campaign, but there was a new regime at the Sunday Times, and this met with less enthusiasm than it would have done earlier. But a senior News International executive had a personal interest in schizophrenia, and offered her six months to research her story; the resulting articles were eventually published in the Times and won Wallace her second Campaigning Journalist of the Year award.

Her approach, as always, was to focus on the particular and the personal: she met people who didn't eat because they didn't know how to cook, 'living on mattresses on the floor with urine all over them'. She concluded that 'it's a con trick, to empty the mental hospitals so as to stop paying the heating bills, under the banner of ideology'.

The articles prompted the foundation of Sane (helped initially by money from the Burton Group); Wallace was on the board from the outset, and became chief executive in 1989. Since then Sane has gone from employing two full-time members of staff to 22, acquired 100 volunteers, trebled its income and set up a telephone helpline, which has received 70,000 calls.

Not everyone shares Sane's view of care in the community. Judi Clements, national director of Mind, suspects 'Marjorie would like to see institutional care on a scale we don't think is necessary. What doesn't come through to me is her longer-term vision for people who are diagnosed schizophrenic.' Wallace denies that she is on the side of families rather than patients, claiming that patients, when lucid, often beg to be protected from themselves - 'but we have got to think about those poor mothers: have they no right to a night's sleep without thinking that their house is going to be burnt down?'

Thanks to her passion, persistence, and flair for publicity, the Government, and public opinion, are now coming round to her point of view.

(Photograph omitted)

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