Hilary Bonner is a one of a kind. Once you meet her, it would be impossible to forget the former Fleet Street editor and journalist. Hilary is a striking, tall blonde with a theatrical voice. It would be hard not to notice her at any showbiz event. I met her for the first time at a wrap party that was held at Madame Tussauds for the now defunct TV show, “The Bill” and fell instantly in love.
Hilary is 70-years old and is an English, best-selling crime novelist. Her critically acclaimed work draws from her journalistic past. To date, she has written over 19 books across both fiction and non-fiction genres. In 2014 Bonner married legendary British actress, Amanda Barrie.
Here, in a rare interview, she offers Steven Smith a fascinating insight into her life with 12 short questions.
Your latest crime novel, Deadly Dance, is the first in a new series set in Bristol; can you tell us a little about it?
Deadly Dance is a chilling psychological suspense novel, the first in a new series featuring my Bristol based detective DI David Vogel. It begins with the murder of a schoolgirl, Melanie Cooke, in the city’s red-light district. There are three, apparently very different, deeply disturbed suspects. One of them must surely be guilty. But in this book nothing is as it seems. It is the most complex and technically challenging novel I have ever attempted, and the premise is, I think, highly unusual. I would almost say unique – but I know better…
I know that you put a lot of research into your novels; did you explore the red-light district personally and do you feel it is time to legalise prostitution?
Yes, I did explore the red-light district of Bristol! In particular I sought out a real-life location for the fictional murder of poor Melanie, in a cobbled cul-de-sac called Stone Lane, leading off West Street, along which probably the majority of the city’s brothels, sex shops, strip clubs, adult theatres and so on can be found. After dark, Stone Lane, which provides access to a row of commercial warehouses and goods depot, is usually deserted and more than a little creepy. It seemed to me to be a perfect murder alley! And I could all too vividly imagine Melanie’s young life coming to a terrible end there.
The book is not actually about prostitution, and I do not feel qualified to express a strong view on whether or not prostitution should be legalised, but my gut-feeling is that it should, if only to enable better protection for sex workers. Melanie, of course, is not a prostitute, she’s a 14-year-old kid who lived with her caring family, and the first mystery DI Vogel must solve is what the heck Melanie Cooke was doing in such a notorious red-light district.
You were good friends with Gorden Kaye, who played Rene in the great TV show, ‘Allo ‘Allo, and you ghosted his autobiography, Rene and Me. What is your fondest memory of him?
I think my fondest memory of Gorden is of our late-night interview sessions in my little house by the river in Brentford, West London, when we were working together on his autobiography. He was appearing in the stage show of ’Allo ’Allo at the London Palladium at the time. We were near neighbours and he used to rush straight to my place as soon as the curtain came down, usually arriving about an hour before midnight. We would talk into the early hours, drinking copious amounts of tea and coffee to keep us awake. Gorden was a compulsive smoker, and the first thing I did once he’d left was to empty his over-filling ashtray. However, the house still stank of cigarettes when I woke in the morning! Nonetheless, this was a very happy time. We were good friends, we enjoyed working together, and the book was extremely successful. It was also, I think, a tad therapeutic for Gorden, as he felt able to talk frankly for the first time about his sexuality.
You also collaborated with your now wife, legendary actress Amanda Barrie, on her autobiography, It’s Not a Rehearsal. After years of speculation, Amanda came out in the book as bisexual. What was the reaction from the public to this and has she ever regretted doing so?
No – somewhat to her surprise I think, because she was anxious about it at the time – Amanda has never regretted coming out it in her autobiography. She once asked me, whilst we were writing the book : ‘Do you think I’ll be stoned in the street?’ That was, of course, a joke. But only just.
In fact the public reaction was extremely positive. People were, and still are, almost always lovely to her. And she had a lot of reaction from gay women and girls who said how much her openness had helped them, which pleased her a great deal.
What was it that first attracted you to Amanda?
Do you really have to ask? She’s amazing and gorgeous. She’s also one of the funniest people I have ever known.
There is a lot of buzz around ‘later life lesbians’, with shows like Different for Girlsand The L Word. When did you come out and what advice would you give to people who feel later in life that they want to be with someone of the same sex?
I think I came out by accident within weeks of meeting Amanda, when the press picked up on us being together! I’m not big on giving advice about anything, but I would say that if you meet someone you really really want to be with, their gender can sometimes be of secondary importance. That’s how it was with me, anyway. I was straight until Amanda!
Do you think life is easier for people who identify as LGBTQ to be out in the arts community now?
I think it was probably always less difficult for people to be out in the arts than in most communities. But, of course, it has to be easier in almost any walk of life than it used to be. The law is on-side for a start! Amanda always says my timing was good. She had to struggle with her sexuality through the fifties, and it was tough.
One of my favourites of your books is Friends to Die For, set in and around London’s Covent Garden. Did you ever get into trouble with your friends for making the characters rather similar?
Golly gosh! All I can say is if I did make the characters similar to my friends, none of them ever seem to have noticed!
It is, however, true that I got the idea for Friends to Die For whilst sitting in the famous Covent Garden restaurant Joe Allen with a group of friends and thinking to myself: ‘What if someone sitting around this table has a terrible secret, and what if someone else found out…’ And what happened of course, in the fictional version, was a great deal of intrigue, murder and mayhem! Whilst we real life friends continued to refrain from murdering each other, and still meet on Sunday evenings in Joe Allen beneath a plaque paying tribute to Sunday Club – and there fact does meet fiction just a little.
What advice would you give any young LGBTQ people wanting to break into mainstream journalism or wanting to write a book?
The same advice I would give young straight people. Re. writing a book, get on with it. Don’t talk about it, write it. Make yourself write something every day. Even 500 words a day would give you a reasonable first draft in three to four months. And once you’ve done that you have the ammunition and have earned the right to explore publishing options.
With regard to mainstream journalism, or certainly in the written word, I’m afraid it’s a dying trade, as I knew it anyway. The great newspapers and magazines are struggling for their very survival. My last Fleet Street job was as showbusiness editor of the Daily Mirror, a newspaper which sold five million copies a day in its heyday. Now it sells just over half a million. So my only advice would be, think carefully!
Which author do you most admire?
I really can’t single out one. Sebastian Faulks is certainly right up there for me, amongst contemporary authors. I love all and any great storytellers, so I have to name Charles Dickens. In my own field, and sticking to British crime writers, I greatly admire Val McDermid, and, of course, Ian Rankin and Peter James. There are many many more.
What was the last movie that made you cry?
Pain and Glory, the latest and allegedly semi-autobiographical Almodovar, made me cry. It’s a tale of the decline, in this case from greatness, which age must always ultimately bring. Yet it’s a strangely beautiful film. I found it very moving.
What is your favourite venue for a romantic meal?
A desert island in the Maldives takes a bit of beating. But I’ll settle for a bench by the British seaside and a bag of fish and chips. Lotsa salt, no vinegar, please.
Deadly Dance, by Hilary Bonner. Black Thorn paperback £8.99, available from Waterstones and other bookshops and on Amazon from October 3rd. Also out in e-book, hardback, large format paperback and audiobook.