Philippa Gregory has always had a particular affection for Chichester Festival Theatre because it was there she saw one of her first plays. She can’t recall the production but vividly remembers seeing Millicent Martin, famed for her regular appearances on the BBC’s flagship satirical show, That Was the Week That Was, treading the boards.

Gregory was taken to Chichester by her ‘beloved aunt’ Winifred Leonard – in truth, her second cousin once removed – who was one of the founding sponsors of the theatre. ‘I often stayed at her home in Heyshott, near Midhurst, and she was like a guardian to me,’ she says fondly. ‘She took me there because she had a real love for theatre and knew I was a big reader, very interested in words, plays and music.’

It seemed only natural then that when Gregory was told the award-winning dramatist Mike Poulton, best known for his RSC, West End and Broadway adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, was interested in adapting her international best-seller, The Other Boleyn Girl, her first thought, in terms of staging, was Chichester.

The play, which is directed by Lucy Bailey and stars Freya Mavor as Anne Boleyn and Lucy Phelps as her sister Mary, showed in April and was an interesting new take on this well-loved story. The setting, of course, is Henry VIII’s court, where the weapons of choice are sex, marriage and the executioner’s axe. As Henry’s mistress, Mary is a pawn in her family’s lust for power. Queen Catherine of Aragon hasn’t produced a male heir, and Mary’s ruthless uncle scents the chance of putting his niece on the throne.

She says the staging of The Other Boleyn Girl at Chichester is exciting. She says the staging of The Other Boleyn Girl at Chichester is exciting. (Image: Chris Leah)

But Henry’s wandering eye has fallen on another – Mary’s headstrong sister, Anne, whose ambition not only threatens to destroy her bond with Mary and their brother George but also shakes the foundation of Church and State.

The novel, which has been adapted three times before, most famously for the 2008 Hollywood film starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana, continues to bewitch audiences.

Why does she think that is? ‘It has the appeal of a story we know,’ says Gregory. ‘We all think we know about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, so it’s a well-told story. In that sense, it’s almost like a fairy story. It also has a number of very attractive, very different women atits heart. They are genuine protagonists; actors in their own history. Nobody can pretend this is a story about men in which women are just the plus ones. They are where the action, the drama and the plotting really sit.’

Gregory collaborated closely with Poulton, and it seems to have been a real marriage of minds. ‘When we met, it was one of those wonderful moments which happens in creative life now and then when you just go: “Oh, I get how you would see this.” The play is not exactly how I wrote it, but it’s a really interesting other life.

Philippa says she may well write her last novels in the county, too. Philippa says she may well write her last novels in the county, too. (Image: Chris Leah)

‘It’s much more a family drama than the novel. It’s about a family’s rise to power through the manipulation of women, and women articulating not just their feminine charms but also intelligence and strategic thinking. You also get a much better sense of how the Boleyns fit into the aristocracy, the world of the court, global politics even.

‘And the really interesting development, where it really moves away from the novel, is that while everything is being done for Henry VIII, actually, he doesn’t have an in-person presence on stage that much.

‘Mike has this wonderful device, which I won’t spoil. You have this brooding presence but you don’t always have the actor in your face, delivering lines.It’s a real development of the psychological truth of the court which is possible to do on stage in a way that isn’t possible in other forms.’

Interviewing Gregory, albeit at a remove on Zoom, is a slightly intimidating experience. She is formidably intelligent and answers questions at length, with great seriousness, in perfect sentences. She has a regality; a natural authority that brings to mind Helen Mirren. She is courteous but there is also a certain flintiness. With her high forehead and definite features, she brings to mind one of those portraits of Tudor women that stare inscrutably from many a long gallery.

Gregory’s remarkable career has garnered many glittering prizes. In 2016, she was presented with the Outstanding Contribution to Historical Fiction Award by the Historical Writers’ Association. In 2018, she was awarded an Honorary Platinum Award by the marketing research firm Nielsen for achieving significant lifetime sales across her entire book output. In 2020, she was made a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for her services to literature and charity.

Philippa has been inspired by Sussex.Philippa has been inspired by Sussex. (Image: Chris Leah)

In the world of historical fiction only one writer, the late Hilary Mantel, received more acclaim because she brought a new literary complexity to the genre.

Gregory doesn’t care for such comparisons; women have been pitted against women for far too long, she says. She and Mantel steadfastly refused to rise to the bait when pitched as rivals, instead enjoying a mutual respect and admiration. ‘We had a pact that we would never respond to it and we never did,’ she says. ‘It was just being a grown-up in a world which is sometimes very childish about women’s rivalry.’

Gregory was a born storyteller. As soon as she could physically write, her mother gave her an old business ledger with blank pages in it and she used to write things in it for the sheer pleasure of imparting words on the page.

She was born in Kenya, though she has no memories of living there because her father, a radio operator and navigator for East African Airways, died in a plane crash when she was very young. By the time she was two, her mother had moved her two young daughters to Bristol.

‘My mother was in deep grief, I think, all her life,’ she says. ‘Certainly in my early years, we were all very conscious that the family dream had gone terribly wrong.’

She credits several maternal aunts with helping to steer her through those difficult formative years. ‘There was this network of talented, stylish and beautiful women who ran their lives in a way which feltindependent of men. Some were single; some were married but clearly ruled the roost.

‘It was a powerful upbringing for a girl to see these women of such natural innate authority. There was never a whisper of excessive sensibility.

‘You never got the impression that anything fazed them. They represented an extraordinary slice of British history and were the inspiration for my recently published [non-fiction] book, Normal Women, which views English history through the eyes and lives of historical women.’

The author dreams of living in a caravan in the Sussex countryside. The author dreams of living in a caravan in the Sussex countryside. (Image: Chris Leah)

Gregory’s connections with Sussex date back to the early 1960s when she stayed with ‘Aunt’ Winifred at her country cottage.

‘She had a succession of beautiful labrador dogs and from a young age I was allowed to take a dog up the Downs, round the fields and down the lanes,’ she says. ‘I was friends with the local kids and we would wander off, climbing trees and splashing about in streams. Nobody seemed to mind.’

She returned to Sussex after gaining an apprenticeship with the Portsmouth Evening News. ‘The Chichester Observer and Midhurst Observer were in the same group, so I chose Portsmouth so I could live and work in Sussex.’

Nevertheless, she quickly realised she had taken a wrong turn; what she really wanted to do was study. So she got a place at the University of Sussex (where she is now a fellow), ostensibly to read English, commuting to Falmer from Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve, where she and her then boyfriend had a house share.

‘I was lucky because they had this inter-disciplinary approach at Sussex so I also took philosophy and history, and met Maurice Hutt, then a senior lecturer and historian. He was quick-tempered, dramatic, handsome and completely inspirational. I remember him asking a seminar room, very irritably:

“What do you think I do here?” And somebody said: “You teach us”. He said: “No, I do not. I do history. But you may watch me.”

‘I had this epiphany moment where I realised history answered every question I had. I had discovered my life’s vocation.’

She wrote her first novel, Wideacre, while completing her PhD. Five UK publishers bid for it and it became a world-wide bestseller.

Set in the 18th century, it follows her heroine Beatrice Lacey’s destructive lifelong attempts to gain control of the Wideacre estate on the South Downs.

‘I don’t think my first novel would have been based anywhere but Sussex,’ she says. ‘It may well be that my last novels will be set in Sussex as well. The landscape has always meant a tremendous amount to me. Pagham Harbour was the setting for the last novel in my Fairmile series, Dawnlands. Any place that I have loved deeply always ends up in a book because the geography is almost as important as the history.’

It’s easy to forget now, but Gregory was a pioneer. ‘When I wrote Wideacre, historical fiction was in decline,’ she says. ‘It was never seriously reviewed or expected to be anything more than historical romance. But it’s now regarded as part of the literary canon and that’s a real breakthrough.

‘I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but I subverted the form by not reproducing the stereotyped behaviour of earlier historical novelists. Anya Seton, Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy were fine writers, but they were locked into their own time and beliefs of what women could and should do. Their historical characters are 1950s housewives. When you come to mine – and I was writing in the 1980s – the idea of what women are capable of, both good and bad, is much more expanded; the idea of judgement much more reduced.’

Gregory hasn’t produced a novel since 2022 but made her playwrighting debut this March with Richard, My Richard, inspired by Shakespeare’s Richard III. Coproduced by Shakespeare North Playhouse and Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, it’s a tender, passionate portrait ofthe Plantagenet king with an emphasis on the influential women who determined his fate.

It seems Gregory, who turned 70 earlier this year, remains indefatigable, and a quiet retirement at her home in Leicestershire seems a long way off. But now and again, she does permit herself to dream about a slower pace of life in Sussex. ‘Every time I visit, I think surely I can get a little caravan here. It’s a part of the world I feel very attached to.