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Tessa Peake-Jones

20 July 2021

Born in 1957 to an unmarried mother who went on to suffer from severe mental illness, actor Tessa Peake-Jones had a sometimes chaotic childhood. Yet, she tells Richard Barber, she feels nothing but gratitude for her mother’s deep love and resilience...

Tessa Peake-Jones || Image credit: Ken McKay/​ITV/​Shutterstock

Tessa Peake-Jones is indelibly embedded in the public consciousness as Del Boy’s long-suffering girlfriend, Raquel, in classic BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses, and now as the lemon-lipped vicarage housekeeper in the hit TV series Grantchester.

We’ve met to discuss the latest series of Grantchester, and I’ve just asked whether her parents had been proud of her success.

She makes no bones about it. ‘I’m illegitimate,’ she says matter-of-factly, referring to her birth in the 1950s, when unmarried mothers were widely stigmatised.

Her mother, Tessa tells me, followed her career minutely - but Tessa never met her father, so she never knew what he thought of the path her life took.

And then she shares her extraordinary story. She has nothing but kind words for her mother, Mary, who raised her – initially, at least – single-handedly, but who later fell prey to bouts of mental illness that saw her sectioned in psychiatric units for months at a time.

The story begins just after the war, when Mary married the best friend of one of her brothers who’d been killed in action.

‘I think it was a relationship built on mutual grief,’ says Tessa now. It lasted less than a year. Still in her early twenties, Mary then picked up the pieces of her life and got a job in the civil service, living in a shared, rented flat in London.

In her thirties, Mary embarked on an affair with a married man and, in 1956, found herself accidentally pregnant.

‘When he found out about the pregnancy, my father wanted nothing to do with me, although I understand he paid money into a bank account every month towards my upkeep until I was 16,’ recalls Tessa.

However, Mary’s own mother, a woman with Victorian values allied to an iron will, told Mary if she continued with the pregnancy – and careless of the fact that abortion was illegal – she would disinherit her. Which is exactly what happened.

In the event, as the pregnancy advanced, Mary moved in with her brother, Peter, and his wife. After that, she had to make her own way. ‘She was absolutely determined, though, to keep her baby. But it meant she’d gone from a fairly privileged middle-class upbringing in a big house in Muswell Hill and a private education to nothing.’

Looking back now, Tessa realises just how brave her mother had been and what a tough life she’d chosen. ‘She got jobs as a live-in housekeeper in the Home Counties with me in tow. She still had her wedding band, of course, so I imagine she cast herself as a young widow.’

Then life changed dramatically when Tessa was four. Her spinster godmother, Renie, an old family friend, lived with her elderly mother in a large house in Kenton, Middlesex. When the mother died, Renie got in touch with Mary and suggested she and Tessa come and live with her.

‘I have no memory of moving there, but I do remember my first day at school and wearing my new uniform.’ While Mary was open, demonstrative, if given to increasingly unpredictable mood swings, Renie was strict, almost like a father figure, says Tessa.

‘But it was a good balance, and I became incredibly fond of her.’ The plentiful hugs, she says, came from her somewhat wayward mother: ‘She was exceptionally affectionate.’

Mary had first started suffering ‘episodes’, as they were called, when Tessa was nine or ten. Eventually, she was diagnosed with what we now call bipolar disorder; it was referred to as manic depression back then. ‘When an episode was coming on, she’d become very hyper, talking in a high voice and very, very fast,’ recalls Tessa. ‘And she’d develop a buying mania. She’d go into a shop, choose a dress she liked and then buy ten identical dresses. That felt very weird to me. But I can’t say it scared me because she was always so loving.

'When her behaviour reached a certain point of hyperactivity – even in her madness, this was something she’d recognise in herself – Mum would call the doctor and effectively section herself. She knew she was on a runaway train she couldn’t control.’

To this day, Tessa has clear memories of driving with Auntie Renie in her shop van – she worked in a hardware store – to whichever psychiatric unit it was.

‘They were horrible old Gothic asylums. We’d park in the car park, assuming the grounds were secure, and you’d see patients wandering around in their pyjamas. Or you’d go back to the van and there’d be someone sitting on the roof.

‘On the days she’d had electroconvulsive treatment (ECT), Mum was awful, pretty much wiped out. God knows what it did to her brain. She’d be very down but then, with each weekly visit, I’d notice her emerging slowly from the fog. She’d say it was like gradually climbing out of a deep, black hole.

‘When she was well, she was an incredible mother. She made me feel so loved, so wanted. When she was ill, she was absent. I’m very much a glass half-full type of person. Each time Mum was committed, I told myself it would never happen again. And then, of course, it always did.’

Mary died in 2014 in her early nineties on the day Tessa was told she’d won the part of Mrs Chapman in Grantchester. ‘It was almost as though she’d left me this gift. Only Fools wasn’t her cup of tea – she didn’t care for sitcoms – although she enjoyed my success in it. But she’d have loved Grantchester. She always took vicarious pleasure in my career.’

Looking back now, Tessa feels no resentment about her upbringing. ‘For a start, you don’t know any different. But it’s more than that: when you go through extremes of emotion, loving someone so much and then they’re taken away from you, it teaches you to appreciate every day as it comes along. Life could have been awful all the time, but it wasn’t. I was lucky.’

A longer version of this article appeared in the July 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today


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