Back in the summer of ‘91, I was invited for interview by a new charity event called ‘Trading Places’, set up to raise money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. The post was 'Celebrity Recruitment Manager', joining the event’s establishing trio: a key early member of the Comic Relief team, a former senior ad agency executive and a member of the charity’s founding family. I don’t remember quite how they found me, but they did, and I got the job.
Looking back, I must have been the event’s first proper employee. I was soon joined by an ever-expanding army of helpers, including many of the era’s ‘girls about town’, from Georgina Goodman (who went on to be a Blahnik-trained shoe designer with her own Mayfair store), former John Galliano PR Danda Jaroljmek and Susannah Constantine (of ‘Trinny and Susannah’ / ‘What not to wear’ fame). None of us were typical ‘charity’ people - and that was most probably the point.
‘Trading Places’ grew in ambition week by week. We upgraded offices and secured a telethon TV slot for the following spring, managing to persuade Cilla Black to be the host. When we met Cilla to talk through the whole event, it was a charming and memorable encounter. I remember being struck by her sweetness and her slightly shy vulnerability; certainly not what I was expecting from the princess of 60s pop and then-queen of prime-time TV. We met over lunch, in some old-school fish restaurant near Victoria Station, the faithful Bobby by her side. Cilla was all wrapped up in a soft, burgundy-coloured leather coat with an enormous fur collar. She kept it on for the whole meal.
The idea behind ‘Trading Places’ was, as per the film of the same name, to be 'someone else' for the day; the more unlikely and comedic, the better. To encourage people to take part, a series of starter packs was created, based on popular celebrities of the day, so that you could be one of the suggested people - or else someone of your own choosing. My first task was to find these key people and bring them on board, often following the mad-but-brilliant hunches of Wendy, one of the founding trio and effectively the event’s creative heart. Alongside Cilla, a starter-pack celeb as well as our TV host, we signed up Dame Edna Everage, Gazza, MC Hammer, Rab C Nesbitt, Nora Batty, Gary Glitter (I know), Michael Fish the Weatherman and Cher - and I interviewed them all about a typical day in their lives to create the copy for the packs.
I remember MC Hammer calling me at home at some unearthly hour, midway through a tour of Latin America. Speaking to Barry Humphries was very unsettling, as he switched between being Barry and Edna at will, so you were always on the back foot. The writer of Rab C Nesbitt and the actor who played him, Gregor Fisher, were particularly charming. We flew to Scotland to meet them and they seemed amazed that we’d go to those lengths. As for Gazza, he was a whole book of anecdotes just on his own. As frustrating as he was endearing (forgetting meeting times and turning up too late for things), I ended up feeling strangely protective towards him. When I brought my Spurs-mad young brother-in-law-to-be to meet him at White Hart Lane a few weeks after the event, you certainly saw the true Gazza – he had all the time in the world for kids.
A second strand to the 'Trading Places' idea was that you could challenge somebody to be someone else for the day. Cher, our megastar signing, particularly liked this idea. Within days of her coming on board, we received a letter and (I can still see the silver embossed ‘CHER’ at the top), challenging Bob Hoskins to ‘be’ her. Cher and Bob had acted together in ‘Mermaids’ not long before and Cher obviously knew not only the fun we’d have but somehow, perhaps, that he'd agree.
I was much less sure and approached his agent with trepidation, but she couldn't have been lovelier and was soon completely onside. We quickly got word back that Bob would love to do it. Brilliant news for the event - we all knew it would be PR dynamite. We fixed a date for the transformation and photo shoot and Bob’s agent pulled all the stops, assembling a crack team from the world of film, including an amazing proper-old-school wardrobe lady and a make-up magician. Most thrillingly of all, legendary photographer Terry O’Neill agreed to take the snaps.
When the big day arrived, it was all my call and I took a chauffeured car to pick Bob up from a tall grey house on a wide street in North London. We chatted with incredible ease from the get-go. Here was an actor I’d adored on screen for his heart-on-sleeve immediacy and, in real life, he seemed no different at all. I remember chatting away about all kinds of things as we made our way to the west end, as if we had some instant bond. I suspect everyone who met him felt the same.
Our first stop was Champneys on Piccadilly, who'd offered to play host to the transformation. Now the fun really started. Bob switched from being a great one-on-one conversationalist to a group performer in a heartbeat. Off came the beard and on went the make-up, wig and false nails – all against a background of continual laughter. When it came to the leg-waxing, the poor man - phenomenally hirsute and frankly bordering on the simian - yelped in pain as the wax strip came off. Later, to the audience of journalists who'd come to pay court, he said 'If I had to go through that for a bloke, I’d be a dyke.’ We all went along with the pretence that he’d had his legs fully waxed, rather than the single strip for the photos. The wardrobe mistress used the transvestite's trick of flesh-coloured tights with fishnets over the top for the requisite smooth look.
The finished effect of Bob-as-Cher was sweetly hilarious - more trucker’s moll than international singing sensation in reality, but Bob carried himself with such humour and grace that everyone was utterly charmed. Two beefcake boys gave their services for free and came along for the final shots, lining up one at each shoulder, happy to ham it up. As Terry O’Neill discarded his set-up polaroids, I asked if I might keep some of them. He said it was no problem and, just before Bob returned to civvies, he took one of us together too for me to keep.
The shots duly went off to the picture editors in Fleet Street, Terry and the film ladies took their leave and Bob and I headed off to The Athenaeum Hotel, then run by the legendary west end hotelier Sally Bulloch, who’d offered to host lunch before the press interviews began in the afternoon.
Before lunch, Bob had another charity meet with some London cabbies in the hotel bar, planning a trip to take disabled children on an outing to the seaside. Bob had all the time in the world for these guys and I thought again how marvellous he was, leaving the morning’s luvviedom far behind in a second to be accessible to his new audience, with exactly the same attentiveness, all-the-time-in-the-world feel and even-handed respect. He had such easy grace. You wondered if it came from a perspective of an ordinary bloke who thought he'd got lucky and was never going to forget it - even if the truth was his gifts were far from ordinary.
At lunch, the guests around the table were Bob, his agent, Sally, me - and my boyfriend David. I’d mentioned to Bob’s agent that Bob was David’s all-time favourite actor. She also knew David and I were very much in love and all the signs were already there that he was ‘the one’. With the same class and generosity that informed all our dealings, she suggested David might also like to join us for lunch? 'Yes please!'
In fact, David had been at a business meeting in New York immediately beforehand and was arriving from the airport. I’ll never forget his expression as I met him in from his cab on Piccadilly. Jetlagged - and more than a little shell-shocked - he simply didn’t seem quite able to believe that he was about to sit down next to his hero, but he and Bob clicked instantly, joshing their way swimmingly through the lunch, with a little extra help from generous glasses of red wine. Bob kept saying to him ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ and David said later it was a wonderful way of making him feel at ease.
The whole day was so sunny. Looking back now, I realise how much fun it must have been for everyone, though I was too overcome with gratitude to see it at the time. During a particularly intense conversation with Bob, he wrote a poem out for me that he’d originally written as a young man, signing it ‘To C from B’. A couple of years later, I read a Sunday Times profile of Bob where he quoted the poem. I kept the cutting of course; the perfect authentication of the identity of ‘B’ on my treasured scrap of paper.
After lunch, we said goodbye to Sally, one of the real grandes dames of the hotel world - with anyone who was anyone in Hollywood staying at The Athenaeum over the years, from Lauren Bacall and Liz Taylor to John Wayne and Cary Grant. We said our goodbyes too to David as we took the lift to go up to the interview room. Just as he left, Bob grabbed his arm, whispering loudly ‘Marry her, she’s a diamond’. He must have been ‘in’ on the story of our romance. David still delights in telling people that he only married me because Bob Hoskins told him to!
Once we got upstairs, it was time to phone Cher and recount all. Such a surreal experience, listening to two megastars chatting away, the conversation laced with laughter and obvious affection. ‘Aaah, Cher’, Bob said to me afterwards. ‘What she really needs is a proper down to earth bloke in her life. An Arthur Mullard type!’ I think, in the sweetest possible way, he meant ‘someone like me’.
I went home on cloud nine. The following morning, we were blown away by the media coverage: two pages in the Sun and the Mirror and one each in the Mail, Express and Star. Not even the then Prime Minister John Major, turning the television cameras on journalists outside Downing Street on Trading Places Day itself, could compete with that.
Cilla hosted the telethon on ITV and was wonderful, with Channel Four taking over the late-night slot, presented by Hale & Pace, joined by some of the England rugby union team. Many stars also appeared in little vignettes we’d filmed. I particularly remember the generosity and genuineness of people like Joanna Lumley (who went out 'on the dust'), Barbara Windsor and David Suchet. Behind the scenes, Anneka Rice regularly came in to cheer on the telethon phone team, giving her time and energy with no public kudos. There are some really fantastic people working in the entertainment industry - with so much more grace, heart and generosity than the daily papers like to suggest!
My day with Bob Hoskins really was unforgettable - one of the most brilliant days of my working life and one that will always have a special place in the story of our marriage too. A 'diamond’ fella...