John Bird - Living the rural dream in Surrey

Since moving to Newdigate some 20 years ago, TV star John Bird has thrown himself into rural life in the village - and now he's taken over as patron of the local arts festival, too. TRACY COOK went to meet him - and got slightly more than she bargained for...

When I arrive at the home of political satirist and TV star John Bird, to talk to him about his involvement in the Mole Valley's Arts Alive Festival, the last thing I expect is to find him stroking a llama. But instead of a biting wit, it's a biting member of the camel family that greets me at John's tranquil garden in Newdigate near Dorking.

"Oh, that's Whisper!" he says affectionately, as he introduces me to a tall, inquisitive creature. "He doesn't mean to hurt, but he can be a bit mischievous. Snowflake, the white one, is quite different. Much calmer."

John and his wife Libby have kept the two animals for over a decade. Apparently, Libby first fell in love with llamas when she petted them at London Zoo and set her heart on owning her own herd.

"When we moved to this house, we finally had the space to keep them," says John. "We feed them and brush them every day and let them out of their paddock occasionally into the garden."

All quite surprising, really, for someone who is rather better known for his writing and acting abilities than his skills in animal husbandry...


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Extensive career

Now aged 71, his extensive career has spanned political satire, comedy and serious drama. He remains best known, however, for the hugely popular Channel 4 comedy series Bremner, Bird and Fortune and, in particular, his series of sketches with John Fortune, the Long Johns. He also starred with Stephen Fry in the series Absolute Power and appeared on Have I Got News For You.

Other TV credits include A Very Peculiar Practice, Inspector Morse and Yes Prime Minister, among many others, beginning back in the Sixties with the topical show That Was The Week That Was.

"I've been very lucky," says John. "Over the years, I've had the chance to work with some wonderful actors and directors - people like Alfred Molina and Jack Gold. I really enjoy doing television and am pleased to still be involved."


A wealth of events

Today, however, we are meeting to discuss his new role as patron of the Mole Valley Arts Alive Festival, having taken over the mantle from Louis de Bernieres, writer of Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

The festival runs throughout October and promises an exciting range of more than 100 events and workshops - from weaving to samba dancing - with concerts as diverse as Boy George and the African Children's Choir.

"It's a very unusual display of public spiritedness on my part," laughs John, leading the way through the French windows and into his living room. "When they rang up to ask if I'd like to be patron, I told them I don't do things like that.

"But then I thought about it and I'm very much in favour of the spirit of the festival. I like the idea of people devoting time and energy to things like this. It's very worthwhile. There's nothing like doing new things..."

In fact, John and his wife are themselves a case in point. "Libby taught herself to spin and knits me sweaters out of llama wool," says John. "Every two years, we have the llamas sheared. Whisper makes such a racket roaring like a camel and afterwards won't come out of the shed for three weeks, he's so embarrassed."

Libby, a concert pianist, has also taught John to play the piano, and now they have one each - one in her studio in the garden and John's upright in the dining room.

"I love playing the piano," he says. "There's nothing I enjoy more in the world than sight-reading a duet together."

his year's Arts Alive Festival will also pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams' death - the celebrated English composer who lived in Dorking and is commemorated with a statue outside the Dorking Halls. I ask John if he will be going along to any of the concerts...

"I'm a bit ambivalent about his music," he admits. "But I shall make an effort - that's the justification for this festival: it's a chance to get to know something you don't know or have ignored."

As we talk, one of his cats climbs into his lap and his dog, Poppy, curls up at his feet. He is clearly contented living tucked away down a tranquil, wooded lane, far from the world of TV.

The couple first moved to Reigate more than 30 years ago and, in a typically Bird reference, arrived in their cottage in Newdigate "the year Tony Blair moved into Downing Street".

Since then, they have quietly become very much part of the community: John has joined the local bowls club and Libby, his wife of nearly 30 years with whom he has two step-sons, has composed choral pieces for the Beare Green and Newdigate Choir that were performed recently at The Weald School in Beare Green.


New TV series

A private, unassuming man, he is embarrassed at suggestions of being the star of the village. But while he may enjoy the peace and quiet of village life, he certainly hasn't turned his back on TV. In fact, he is currently working on a new series with his old partners in crime, John Fortune and Rory Bremner, which is due to air this autumn.

He has known Fortune since they met at Cambridge and did the Footlights, and they have worked together on and off ever since - most notably on their series of sketches with the Long Johns, in which one of them plays a government minister or similar, while the other interviews him on a topical issue of the day. Together, they have been honoured by Bafta, the Variety Club and the British Comedy Awards, to name but a few.

"He was just down here this morning actually," says John. "He drives over from Chiswick every day when we have a series on. At the moment, we are working on this new Channel 4 series with Rory Bremner for the autumn. Its working title is Silly Money - about different aspects of money. We're trying to find something funny in the balance of payments with China...

"We've been doing these conversations for about 20 years and never done a retake. I think we only stopped once because we were laughing so much. We've never done anything twice: probably not an admirable thing, some things we should have done again. I'm the opposite of a perfectionist," he deadpans.

In a fitting tribute to the pair, last year Melvyn Bragg dedicated an edition of The South Bank Show to the Two Johns.

"We did a sketch on the sub-prime market for it," says John. "Somebody put it on You Tube and it's been watched by about two million people. Apparently, it's the second most watched comedy clip of all time!" he chuckles, evidently gratified.

He says he prefers acting to writing and enjoys recording the shows with Bremner.

"Rory's incredibly generous, a very stimulating figure. He's got an amazing ability to see a joke in something. He's very quick. We help him write his monologues and, on the morning of the recording day, the three of us sit around and Rory says it's his favourite part of the show."

But for now, John is looking forward to watching other people's shows at the Arts Alive Festival. And who knows, you may well just catch him, llama wool in hand, at the spinning workshop...


My favourite Surrey...

View: "I like walking the dog down the lane just here. It's all wooded and you suddenly come out and there's a beautiful view over fields towards Leith Hill."

Place: "Polesden Lacey. Again, there's this place where you walk through woods and suddenly you come on a view of Polesden Lacey from the top of a hill."

Restaurant: "The Gurkha Kitchen in Reigate. It's very, very nice."

Shopping: "Dorking. Although Reigate's much nicer now than when we moved there 30 years ago."

Place to chill: "This is my favourite place - I just love looking out and seeing the llamas!"