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DEATH OF BARBARA CARTLAND (article first published : 2000-05-28)

One of the major aspects of my acting work in the late 70’s and early 80’s was focused on radio theatre and, in particular, adapting the works of Barbara Cartland for a morning drama series on Springbok Radio. The Romantic World of Barbara Cartland had been launched by Barry Meehan and his radio production house Sound Ideas in the late 1970’s. Initially, Barry did most of the adaptations himself before handing over the series to me and for about four years, Barbara Cartland “ran” my life. Writing a daily series and all it entails is no picnic and unless you were at least two weeks ahead of recording dates, you had no breathing space at all!

With its distinctive opening music and introduction by Gillian Lomberg, the series involved virtually every actor and actress in Durban who had ever stood in front of a microphone. And, as Barry Meehan recalls: “It was usually a problem, though, to find heroes and heroines who could relate with sincerity to Barbara Cartland’s philosophy of love and romance. Each story took place in a different locale and those actors who had a good command of accents from Turkish to Venezuelan were much in demand. And, if they were sufficiently versatile, they could play anything from a Chinese laundryman to a French duke.”

Although her works had been read before and they went on to be turned into movies, this was the first time in the world that Barbara Cartland’s works had been dramatised.

After the closure of Springbok Radio, I went on a visit to England in 1984 and thought it would be nice to meet the person who had formed such a major part of my life – and ensured my financial survival - for so long. So her agent, Rupert Crew Limited, set up a meeting at her imposing ivy-covered home at Camfield Place at Hatfield, Hertfordshire.

I wasn’t sure what sort of a person to expect. Lavender and lace, maybe – prissiness, perhaps, gentleness, possibly? I certainly wasn’t prepared for the taller-than-expected, forthright, highly focused and no-nonsense woman who swept into the room closely followed by a bad-tempered white Pekinese and a lovable black labrador which proceeded to make me hugely welcome with licks and nudges.

We had a highly enjoyable chat and I discovered that she had a crisp, laconic and delicious sense of humour. I remember we laughed a lot, particularly about one of her books which had been made into a film. She was extremely disapproving of the cast chosen - strongly questioning “the virginity of the heroine” and the fact that the hero was “such a wimp that everyone wanted to jump into bed with the villain!”

Don’t eat a large lunch” was the warning from her agents, “because you’ll be given an enormous tea.” And they weren’t wrong – the table was laden with everything from tiny sandwiches to cakes. And honey, of course – Dame Barbara’s remedy for all ills. The Peke had his tea in a saucer on the floor on one side of the table – far away from me, thankfully - and the Labrador wolfed down a piece of cake at my feet!

Dame Barbara used to answer personally and promptly the tens of thousands of letters she received every year. While we were having tea, her assistant secretary came in to have the outgoing mail approved. Dame Barbara riffled through them, checking the envelopes and pointing out a wrong spelling here and there. Or, worse, a title left out. – “This man’s a Baronet, you must add “Bart.” on the end,” or “This man is a Duke, not a Viscount …”It was like a scene from one of her novels!” She could out-Burke Burke’s Peerage!

All must have been satisfactorily completed because by the time the Royal Mail van arrived to deposit at least six bags of mail, the driver appeared to take on a similar amount!

When the time came for the interview to end, I was genuinely delighted when she presented me with a small package. While this was standard procedure for her afternoon guests, I was told by her agent that I must have made a really good impression considering her choice. Wrapped in pink and nestling on pink velvet (what else?) was an oak leaf on a chain preserved in 22 carat gold. A card explains that “This lucky leaf has been picked from the Oak planted in 1550 by Queen Elizabeth 1 of England on the spot where she killed her first stage with a crossbow in the beautiful grounds of Camfield Place.”

And it was under this tree that Barbara Cartland chose to be buried on May 21. Interred, fervent environmentalist that she was, in a cardboard coffin. “The funeral procession of family, friends and members of Dame Barbara’s staff left the house at 12 noon and walked slowly through the pathways banked by rhododendrons in full flower, that lead to the oak tree,” says her agent Doreen Montgomery, who has known her for 50 years.

“The ceremony was conducted by her local vicar and the simplicity of the service was deeply moving. A recording of Perry Como singing I believe – a favourite of Dame Barbara - signifying, too, her own abiding faith. We were invited to join in singing the song a second time which we did. The sun shone throughout, on a day when rain had been forecast. And the flowers sent in tribute for Dame Barbara were beautiful indeed, predominantly pink in colour as one might expect.”

Before she died, Barbara Cartland appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most prolific novelist. Since her death, most newspapers have devoted major coverage to her passing. Only fitting for someone who wrote 723 books in her lifetime with estimated world-wide sales of 1 billion copies in 36 languages. As Doreen Montgomery says: “We shall certainly not see her like again.”




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