How we met: Barbara Cartland & Laurie Johnson

Cayte Williams
Saturday 22 May 1999 23:02

Dame Barbara Cartland wrote her first book in 1923 and now has 704 romantic novels to her name. She is in the `Guinness Book of Records' as the bestselling author in the world. In 1964 she founded the National Association of Health and has campaigned for many causes, including housing for the elderly. Widowed with three children, she lives in Hertfordshire

Laurie Johnson is a composer and film producer. He wrote the score for Stanley Kubrick's `Dr Strangelove' and the TV theme tunes to `The Avengers', `This is Your Life' and `The Professionals'. In 1955 he formed The London Big Band. He co-owns Gainsborough Pictures, which has made four films based on Dame Barbara Cartland's novels. He is married and has one daughter

DAME BARBARA CARTLAND: I first met Laurie when he came to see me about the films he was making based on my novels. I was thrilled to meet him because he was writing the film music. He's always understood my writing so he understands what I like. We have a rapport. I've always enjoyed his music enormously. When you talk to somebody who's musical it's something quite different from someone who isn't. When I was with Laurie I felt that I had learnt a lot about music and love because he plays so beautifully.

He lives nearby, so when we'd finished working together on the films I kept in touch. I talk to him a lot on the telephone. He's given me records to play. Some of it we've listened to together, otherwise I play it by myself when I'm in bed and I think, "That's marvellous", and that's all I want to think about.

I knew that what I learnt from Laurie was something very dear and our friendship has very much affected me. I've written 704 books now, and a great number of the last ones have come through the music which he makes exciting for me. He has had an enormous influence on me. He gives me something very valuable whenever I see him because he has enormous respect for me, and I'm very grateful to have a friend who is as clever as he is. I write entirely about love, and music gives more love to people than anything else. You're overwhelmed by the beauty of it.

He has all the things that women long for and think are marvellous, which are charm and talent. You've got to have something when you're as old as I am, and have written as many books as I have, that suddenly spurs you up and makes you think, "Ooh, that's exciting, how thrilling!" And he has that spark.

Apart from his talent, I admire him as a person. I think he's a gentleman, which is very rare these days. One of the things I'm trying to bring back into the country is the English gentleman. And Laurie behaves like one whether he was born one or not. He's unique today, when a lot of people have dispensed with manners.

I love his enthusiasm for life and we both love dogs. I love my Pekinese, Tai Tai, while he loves his Dalmatians. I thoroughly enjoy his company. I invite him here to dinner parties and we go to concerts together. I remember the first time I went to hear him play, at the Royal Festival Hall, and it was so exciting. I'd never seen anyone have so many players - he had about 60 - and I was astonished when they all played together. They were all playing different parts, but he had arranged it so well that you weren't overcome by it. It was quite different from anything I had heard before. The tunes were wonderful - they stayed in your mind.

Laurie is an older man who knows about the world, and I think men need love, especially today. It's a hard world for them now. Relationships are all about love. You need to love and be loved. You have to have trust and respect for each other, and Laurie and I do.

LAURIE JOHNSON: I first met Dame Barbara in 1984 when I went to her home to discuss how we could adapt her novel A Hazard of Hearts into a screenplay. My company owned the film rights to her novels and I had to break the news to her that we had to think up various ways of changing her book for the screen. It was quite daunting to have to tell the world's bestselling novelist that you were going to have to rewrite one of her stories. I offered some suggestions as to how the screenplay would work and I thought I would be in for a rough ride, but she was 100 per cent professional.

When I suggested some changes she said, "How clever, I wish I had thought of that." I thought, "Thank gawd for that!" Because she so readily accepted the alterations we made, we worked really well together. I came to see her about the films, mostly on my own, and we had an understanding. Most authors that you deal with when transferring their work to the screen will argue you round in circles. She could easily have said, "Forget it", but she didn't. She showed great interest in how the filming developed, especially in the casting.

As soon as I got to know her she put me at my ease. It wasn't until she heard the scores that I had written for the film that she became interested in me. She started coming to my concerts, and we found other areas of interest, such as our love of animals and art. We would talk on the phone and she would always be asking for music, so I'm always sending tracks over to her. She's a great historian and an extraordinary person. Anyone who can have vast audiences in India, France and China must have a recipe that works. She's a very kind and loyal person. She has done a lot of good for many people over the years, which I don't think is generally known.

Everything she does she takes seriously, but she doesn't take herself seriously. A lot of the jibes she has to put up with - and I've told her this - are through envy, because I think anyone who writes realises that it's not an easy thing to sell a billion copies and a lot of people must like the sort of world she creates. She knows there is a lot of predictability about the ending of her novels but the route by which you get there is obviously a journey that is worthwhile for all the readers.

Her word is her bond, and that is very rare these days. Some people make comments about her taste, but she saw the colour pink in 1925 when she met Howard Carter at Tutankhamun's tomb. He showed her the pink and the scarab blue and she adopted them because she liked them. That was before she became famous.

Anyway, it is the person, not the image, that is important. I'm making a documentary on Dame Barbara and I recently filmed her telling her own story because I wanted to have the whole of her life told in her own words. Someone who experiences all these incredible things is totally different when they're there telling their story as if it all just happened yesterday. I suppose she must trust me to allow me to do that. I'm hoping to give a true presentation of an incredible life.

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