Daisy Goodwin: A woman of substance

Already TV’s face of poetry, awardwinning producer and ‘head girl’ of her own company, Daisy Goodwin has writtenher debut novel. She talks to Arifa Akbar

Wednesday 15 September 2010 00:00 BST

The reception area of Daisy Goodwin's production company looks more like the entrance to a rambling family home than a matrix of steel-on-grey offices. A long sofa spreads itself across one end; a bicycle rests on another. The detritus of interior décor bric-a-brac – plants, cushions and books – is framed by a large-windowed view of central London. The "woman's touch" to this place of industry becomes more apparent on arrival at the name-plaque on the door of the company's CEO: "Head Girl".

Goodwin, 48, the chief executive of the TV production company Silver River, is sitting on another cushion-thronged sofa, surrounded by yet more flowers, family photos, framed Bafta nominations (her winning Bafta and RTS gongs are tucked away at home), Pushkin novels and miniature glitter balls, bearing little of the outward bossiness of the archetypal "head girl".

She has been ticked off for her job title on more than one occasion for its public-school prankishness, although it is not so much a prank as one might imagine; it has appeared on all her emails ever since she set up her company five years ago, and she defends it against charges of juvenility.

"I couldn't face calling myself CEO of 10 people and I'm slightly suspicious of titles anyway. You can take the work seriously, but possibly not the structures. I got taken to task by Muriel Gray at the Edinburgh Book Festival once. She questioned whether the title was not demeaning for women. I don't think it is. Women who run companies can do things differently; we don't have to ape male corporate structures."

Goodwin certainly appears to be a different kind of company boss. In between devising television shows, editing poetry anthologies and reading over 100 books in her outspoken tenure as this year's chair of the Orange Prize (she expressed exasperation at having to sift through heaps of spiritually enervating "mis-lit" to get to the good stuff), she has been using up the remaining slivers of her free time with lunchtime trips to the London Library.

The result, three years later, is My Last Duchess, a fin de siècle romance about the marriages of convenience forged between a European aristocracy facing a cash-flow problem and American billionaire heiresses willing to exchange their fortunes for a marriage proposal that will buoy their social standing. The novel, which she will discuss on Sunday at The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival, has so far been likened by some readers to Henry James, but "without the boring bits."

She was inspired to write it at the height of the economic boom, which came to an end in 2008, with its decadence and slew of Russian billionaires finding footholds in Europe. "It's always fascinating that things you think are completely contemporary were there 200 years ago," she says.

The aptly-named female protagonist, Cora Cash, is in part inspired by the real-life story of Consuelo Vanderbilt, a scion of the American billionaire dynasty whose marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough became an international emblem for socially advantageous unions.

Goodwin did not have to sketch out her character or storyboard the narrative. Cora, written to resemble one of Jane Austen's spirited 19th-century heroines, was easy to conjure, she says, not least because she reminded Goodwin of herself.

"You find her reading [Austen's] Emma at the beginning of the novel," says Goodwin. "There are a lot of authors now who think the long-suffering heroine is passé, but one of the things I was thinking was that I wanted a heroine in my book, a woman who is the author of her own destiny. I based her on the poor little rich girl. I myself was spoilt and I kind of sympathised with her."

Writing fiction was an ambition that had remained unfulfilled by what appears to have been her high-achiever's performance anxiety. In the end, she was galvanised by the practical courage of Winston Churchill's axiom not to let perfection stand in the way of the good, and the surplus of creative energy felt after the completion of her memoir, Silver River, in 2007. The memoir recalled an emotionally splintered childhood when, aged five, her mother left her film-producer father, Richard Goodwin, for another man.

The young Goodwin was sent to her grandmother's house in the New Forest for two years with her brother, Jason, until a return to the family home in London following her father's second marriage. Goodwin adapted and thrived, first at Westminster School, then Trinity College, Cambridge, where she read history and met her husband of nearly three decades, Marcus Wilford, a former foreign correspondent, until it all came home to roost when she had her first daughter, Ottilie, now 19.

Goodwin was struck by a debilitating depression as an outpouring of love for her baby collided with unresolved memories of her mother. The early childhood experience was no tragedy, she insists pragmatically, yet it left its fault-lines on her life and those of her siblings.

"After my parents divorced, I felt I was a double agent, going between West and East Berlin, between the two households. I sometimes think back to my five-year-old self. Children are pretty adaptable, but I was bewildered by it. I and my siblings have been with their partners for a long time. I'm sure that's because of the divorce. You have a lot invested in a relationship."

Her own family home in Hammersmith balances in a perfectly ordered state of chaos, she says, with Ottilie about to leave for university, her second daughter, Lydia, aged 10, ensconced at school. The only force of destruction, she adds, with a forgiving smile, are the three dogs – "the straw that broke the camel's back".

The home life, the award-winning TV programmes, the novel, were never part of a grand plan, she reflects. "I'm not driven in the sense that I'm like Anna Wintour and I get up to play tennis when it's still dark. I'm a girl who just can't say no. What I really enjoy is doing something new; I'm on the side of doing things that don't conform. I can't bear authority."

It may have been her aversion to corporate structures that led to her television career's momentary blip when, aged 27, she was sacked from the BBC. She had been the corporation's rising star, joining them after two years of studying film at Columbia University, when her contract was, ignominiously, not renewed.

"Looking back, it was probably the best thing that's ever happened to me. I was cocky and clever, a rising star, and I think I expected to rise effortlessly. I realised that to be good, you don't just have to be clever, but smart – and get people to like you. It was a good lesson. I got another job ten seconds later, but I was a bit devastated at the time.

"I remember going to a restaurant in Westbourne Grove and a man came up to me to ask whether I was looking for work, and that I looked like I could be a really good waitress. At the time, the BBC was full of ghastly old men. It's changed now, but it was the first time I encountered sexism. The all-male crews were not interested in listening to me and I thought 'is this what the real world is like?' "

She decided to become her own "head girl", and after a stint in the independent sector, working for Peter Fincham at Talkback Productions, she set up Silver River. "I thought people like me were better off doing things on their own. That's why so many women set up their own companies."

Daisy Goodwin will be talking to the editor-in-chief of 'The Independent', Simon Kelner, at the Woodstock Literary Festival, at Blenheim Palace, at 11am on Sunday 19 Sept

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