It’s about 4pm, on Sunday 15 May 2011, and for several hours now I’ve been sat in the Lemonia Restaurant, Primrose Hill, opposite one of the most vital and fascinatingly eccentric women I’ve ever met. We’re now well on to our third or fourth G&T, neither of us are counting, and we’re both feeling relaxed, entirely comfortable with each other, and ever so slightly sozzled. We have shared a fantastic Greek meal – and I do mean shared, I was nowhere near brave enough to fend off her cutlery advances – and now after a whole day in the company of this sprightly 85-year-old, I’m still pinching myself. I’m with legendary Tenko scriptwriter, former actress, former model of the London and Paris catwalks, former leading light of the Fitzrovia set, former trained soldier, former everything it seems, Anne Valery. I’m there to talk Tenko for my book on the series, but we’ve only just started on the topic and I haven’t minded one bit. It’s about this time in the afternoon that she first grabs my arm, beckons me close and tells me with passionately wild eyes ‘I loved the war!” I don’t doubt it for a moment, in fact I’m gradually reaching the conclusion that she still misses it terribly some 65 years later.
My day with Anne had started inauspiciously. I had arrived at her flat, situated in a rather grand house in Hampstead, at the agreed time of 10am, but when she finally answered the intercom she seemed confused, if not a little irritated, that anyone would be up this early. She told me to go away and come back later. Feeling as though I’d crossed her at the off, rather than the other way around, I set out to find a coffee shop to wait for my interviewee to become presentable. The wait was worth it. I’d been told by Tenko actress Claire Oberman, who had kindly helped me arrange this meeting, that back in her heyday Anne had been stunning, with a cinched-in waist and looks to die for. Her looks hadn’t entirely faded and her timeless jumper and slacks with a thin belt suggested that the same was true of her sense of style. I was immediately invited into her kitchen where the discovery that she had no milk heralded her first rant of the day and her point blank refusal to let me just have water rather than a cup of tea. The rant surely started out as frustration at her lack of grocery supplies but quickly became a tirade against the water drinking obsession of this modern age!
After establishing that I was there to talk to her about Tenko rather than her time at the Rank Charm School, Kind Hearts and Coronets, her two autobiographies, or her war, and making no bones of the fact that she thought it very odd that I was most interested in what she clearly considered to be the dullest part of her life, the second rant began. This time in response to a phone call from someone whom I surmised was her home help checking in on her. Although pleasant enough to the caller during the conversation, as soon as the receiver went down she spat out: ‘I can’t stand perky people in the mornings. What is there to be so bloody cheerful about!’ I laughed and the ice was partially broken. I was warming to this wonderfully irascible lady who Stephanie Cole would later describe to me as ‘a true English eccentric’. Despite still feeling a bit on edge, there was definitely something about the way that Anne ranted that made you instantly agree with her, she had a winning almost conspiratorial way about her that made you want to join in as she effectively said ‘And up the lot of yer!’ to the world. I’m not one of the world’s most ‘backward in coming forward’ people myself and I immediately identified with her directness. As we began our interview proper, a description of her early life – Anne having decided to talk about her childhood rather than Tenko – prompted a discussion about authority figures. I revealed that I struggle to respect those in authority and dislike being controlled and from that point on I was metaphorically taken to her bosom: ‘Good! Keep on questioning authority!’ she cried. I was home and dry. This it transpired had been a running theme in her life too, stretching from her London childhood to her days on the BBC’s Tenko when she would have screaming run-ins with producer Ken Riddington in his TV Centre office, most memorably when she argued over her scripting of the death of a mother and a baby in her very first episode. Needless to say Anne won the day!
As I heard about the writing of her acclaimed first autobiography about the pains and pleasures of her early childhood in the 1930s, Baron Von Kodak, Shirley Temple and Me, which turned Anne into a writer rather late in life, it became clear to me that her personality had been shaped by the misdiagnosis of her dyslexia (a condition for which there was no name at the time), the absence of her father, hated periods of schooling, and an overactive imagination fed from her first formative years by a mad, if much loved, nanny. As a result, despite being open about her insecurities (she revealed to me that she occasionally suffered from terrible writer’s block where she ‘became aware of every single word on the page’), she developed a rather brusque nature. But even in this, Anne preferred to be more direct: ‘I’m basically an aggressive person!’ I later discovered this at first hand when we failed to secure a table quickly enough for her liking at the restaurant and she turned to me to darkly intone: ‘I hate everyone in this room’. She didn’t and she knew that I knew she didn’t, but it vented her frustration to say it. I now think her aggression had much less to do with her childhood and far more to do with her war.
The war, as she related to me over our shared moussaka, had given her a new-found freedom in every sense. ‘It was absolutely wonderful. I’d never been so alive as I was in the war. The idea that you might die tomorrow was gorgeous. You were constantly on tenterhooks. There was an awful lot of making love. It was very liberating. If you were a women it was marvellous. For women, the first time in history, we were liberated.’ However, Anne’s war was to end far too abruptly for her liking. Having been trained in commando tactics she was more than ready to fight. ‘I was taught to bayonet: ‘Twist it round or it doesn’t do anything. Come on Annie! Into the stomach and turn.’ I’d learned how to jump from a parachute platform: ‘Close your eyes and jump!’ I wanted a war. I wanted to do those things for real.’ Anne felt wholly cheated by the Japanese surrender in 1945 and never did get the chance to put into action what she had learned. Or did she? It seemed to me that, in a way, she was still fighting, and perhaps had been since that day in the Medical Officer’s hut when she sat and wept bitterly when she realised she wouldn’t be going to the Far East after all. Anne had campaigned tirelessly throughout her life against censorship and for feminism and enjoyed nothing more than a verbal punch-up. In fact she told me that on one occasion in post-war Dean Street she actually physically knocked a man out cold because he had annoyed her. ‘I can’t remember what about’ she added casually, ‘but after that my reputation went before me’.
I like to think that Anne later ‘got her war’ through writing almost half of Tenko, with the equally talented and vital Jill Hyem: ‘I was for guts and so was Jill,’ she told me with a wicked grin, as she ordered dessert. ‘Ken [Riddington] was wonderful, but the most middle-of-the-road man you could meet. He thought he’d got hold of these writers for this romantic story about women in a prisoner-of-war camp.’ ‘He had no idea he’d taken on these two vipers!’ she added with obvious relish. As we reminisced about Tenko, Anne’s passion for the series’ characters shone through: disaffected Dorothy (‘she was my darling… I loved that the war made her. She was more of a prisoner before the war’); atheist doctor, Beatrice (‘She was marvellous’); Blanche (‘The heroine’); the scheming Verna (‘I adored her. You’ve got to have someone who will betray everyone. She did have her principles in a way’); Yamauchi (‘We were the very first series to show any sympathy towards the Japanese’); Mrs Van Meyer (‘One of my favourites. Turning her character around was lovely’); and orphan Daisy (who reminded her of a downtrodden cockney maid she once met as a child – ‘I had always regretted not speaking to her’).
She still clearly felt and remembered Tenko’s storylines vividly and it became obvious as we talked that the drama was actually a far more important part of her life than she was first willing to admit. Perhaps because it was about the war, but was not the real war she felt she had missed out on? Anne also loved the reality behind Tenko: ‘What was really important was that these were based on real women, real victims and many of them were still alive so we couldn’t let them down. You couldn’t do less than the blazing truth. We had a tremendous responsibility to them,’ but was also keen to expose the British abandonment of the women and children who ended up in the camps: ‘They were in Japanese prison camps for three-and-a-half years. Half of them died. Their children died. The British government put a hat on it. It was secret. As far as Britain was concerned we had evacuated all the women. They disowned some of the bravest women in the war. What they did was wicked. I would spit on all of them.’ Anne choosing to hold back as usual. She also loved that it was a feminist piece that had something to say about women’s liberation but perhaps most of all that it gave her the opportunity to go out on a limb. She told me: ‘I like to push boundaries all the time, even when I don’t know exactly where I’m going.’ Her last word on Tenko was: ‘I would have been a survivor in the camp, one way or the other.’ I wasn’t about to argue with her.
As we concluded our Tenko talk and ordered more drinks, Anne elected to paint me a mental picture of the old London she loved, the London in which she was married to Greek poet Nanos Valaoritis (the derivation of Valery), the London of the Fitzrovia set when W. H. Auden lived upstairs and Christopher Isherwood called round, the London in which she was ‘known in most bars’. And as she described it, so wistfully and beautifully, I couldn’t help but think that she knew all too clearly as she spoke that her London was long gone and that her occasional rants were simply about the cruel pain of old age.
As our time together drew to a natural conclusion, and we were sat perched on stools at the entrance to the restaurant waiting for a taxi to take her back to Hampstead, Anne offered up one last gem: ‘I do find writing very easy, its dealing with people that’s impossible.’ Anne Valery knew her strengths but she also knew her faults and together these traits endeared her to me completely. Hearing today that Anne died a week ago, painlessly in her sleep, I felt even luckier to have spent the day with this remarkable woman. I think it says something about how special it, and she, was, that it feels like yesterday.
11 May 2013
Anne died peacefully, aged 87 on 29th April 2013, after a short illness. Funeral to be held at Golders Green Crematorium on Friday 17th May at 1.30pm. Flowers may be sent to Leverton & Sons, 181 Haverstock Hill, NW3 4QS.
My book Remembering Tenko which contains much of the testimony I gleaned from Anne that day is now available. I highly recommend Anne’s two wonderful autobiographies, Baron Von Kodak, Shirley Temple and Me and The Edge of a Smile which only take her up to the age of 23. Such a shame she never wrote more.
N.B. One of those strange coincidences. Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which Anne plays Clothilde Duval and dies alongside Alec Guinness’s character in a punt, is on BBC2 at 1:15pm today.