Carol Drinkwater: ‘Brexit has dented my finances’

Natalie Graham, The Telegraph, UK

19 FEBRUARY 2017

Carol Drinkwater, 68, is best known as vet’s wife Helen Herriot in the BBC television series All Creatures Great and Small.

Her 21 fiction and non-fiction books include four memoirs set on her olive farm in the south of France. Her latest novel, The Forgotten Summer, is set on a vineyard in Provence.

Carol lives with her husband, Michel Noll, a documentary filmmaker, in their farmhouse in the French Riviera.

How did your childhood experience influence your attitude to money?

Very strongly. My childhood was quite turbulent and there was sometimes great insecurity about money.

My father started out as a musician but he had a salary from a day job working as a health inspector for the government. When he left to set up his own entertainment agency his income became more uncertain.

From the age of nine I was encouraged to earn my pocket money. I would type out contracts for my father’s bands, for 10p a copy. At 13 I used to go out cleaning on Friday after school and Saturday mornings, so I could pay for my drama lessons.

What was your first job?

My first job after drama school was with Stanley Kubrick. It was only a few lines in A Clockwork Orange, but I was working with a master of cinema. I was 21, and I appeared as a nurse. The film came out in 1972.

They got behind on schedule, so they kept cancelling the days that they needed me and rebooking me, but they had to pay me for the days they cancelled. Producers don’t do that any more.

I negotiated the fee myself, about £100 a day. Stanley had seen my photograph in the actors’ directory Spotlight and requested a screen test.

What has been your best career decision?

Accepting the role of Helen in All Creatures Great and Small in 1977. At first I refused it, because I was meant to be doing a film in America that got cancelled.

My agent insisted that I take All Creatures because it was a series of 13 episodes and regular money for six months, which any actor would say is a dream.

How difficult was it to diversify from acting into writing books?

If I had not had a high profile as an actress it would have been much harder. Publishers can get publicity more easily if you are already in the public eye. Literary festivals can sell more tickets on a TV name.

The royalties coming in from repeats of All Creatures and other programmes were a godsend and helped pay the bills. I still find it difficult to cope with the solitude of writing. I often crave the feedback of working with a team.

Do you make money from the farm?

No, not really. We only sell a few litres of olive oil to friends, and those sales cover the cost of the pressing. We have a little cottage here that we sometimes rent out on an informal, low-key basis.

The real value of the farm is that we have peace and quiet. Our great pleasure is to have friends to stay, eating and chilling out in the beautiful garden by the pool with a glass of local rosé wine.

It took 11 months to complete the purchase of the farm. We had put down the deposit in cash, so I was fearful we would lose our money – about £12,000. It was a fortune to me, everything that I had. I had raised £7,000 from cashing in a pension.

What is your most treasured possession?

It is probably a very small gold necklace with an emerald that Michel bought for me when I was pregnant. Alas, I lost the child so I treasure the necklace. I never take it off, even when I go to sleep.

Does money make you happy?

Not at all. However, I love the freedom to travel and to make my own choices. It means we now own a place outside Paris that I was able to buy 13 years ago from the proceeds of the six Olive Farm books.

The property is a 13th-century commanderie, where knights, such as Knights Templar, used to live. It’s a pretty big manor, with a crofter’s house set in four acres.

How do you prefer to pay: card, cash or cheque?

I use my American Express card whenever possible because I earn Air France points, which have taken me to America in business class. I like top quality so I will pay well for an item if I think it is finely made, but I’m not extravagant. I also keep €100 or so in my purse.

Have you saved for retirement?

Not really. I always think there will be a time when we rent out one of the properties, possibly even the farmhouse. I did not take out a second pension. I did not want it. I like to have control over my assets.

My first property was a garden flat in Primrose Hill. I bought it in the late Nineties and sold it four years later at close to double my money. Before this I had lived in a rent-controlled flat in Kentish Town for 16 years.

When I moved in there I was only paying £32 a month. When the landlord sold the place to the new owners he paid me a lump sum to go. That money I put towards the deposit for the flat.

Have you ever worried about money?

Yes, definitely. There was a terrifying time in the late Nineties when one of Michel’s films got into trouble.

It looked like we would lose the farm, so I sold my London flat, which helped. With the profit I was able to hold off the worst of the debt. The main thing was that my writing saved the farm.

What financial advice would you give to someone trying to write their first novel?

Don’t give up any other means of income until you have established a relationship with a publisher and secured a good contract.

Even when you are up and running as an author it is very hard to make a decent living. There are many authors who earn between £5,000 and £10,000 a year, but who can survive on that?

How many books did you write before they were profitable?

I was lucky as my first book, The Haunted School, was made into a TV series and won the Chicago Film Festival Award for Children’s Films in 1987. The book sold about 180,000 copies, exceptional sales back then, before Harry Potter.

I was 35. I played the lead in the film, for which I earned a fee.

My finances were less certain as I made the transition from full-time actress to writer, but since the first Olive Farm book came out in 2001 my income has been secure.

What’s the most extravagant thing you have ever done?

When I met Michel I was living in London and he was in Paris. I decided to surprise him in Monaco on Valentine’s Day. I flew in with a bouquet of red roses.

For me it was a huge expense, flying from London to Nice, and hiring a car. There were no cheap flights then.

Do you keep an eye on your finances on a regular basis?

Yes, I check my bank accounts daily to make sure that they are in credit. I bank online because I prefer to spend time at my desk writing, rather than driving to the branch in Cannes.

I also deal with the house accounts for the farm.

Have you been affected by Brexit?

Yes, badly, because of the exchange rate between sterling and euros. My publishers are in England and my earnings are paid in pounds.

At the moment I am living on the euros we have already got. I will just have to see what happens.

Carol Drinkwater’s most recent novel is The Forgotten Summer, published by Michael Joseph.

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