Thanks to her stint on the sofa at This Morning, Fern Britton, 62, remains greatly loved as a reassuringly ‘safe’, mumsy figure.
At the centre of her life was her marriage to Phil Vickery, the television chef who swept her off her feet.
When the couple got together in 1999 — she a divorced, fortysomething mother of three young children, he a handsome bachelor four years her junior — she couldn’t believe her luck.
Some friends believe the split has been timed so Fern and Phil don’t have to go through a ‘brave face’ 20th anniversary party. Others suggest the couple had hung on to see their daughter through to adulthood
While she wasn’t sure Phil would want to commit, she couldn’t have been more wrong.
He told her: ‘Well, it’s a recipe, isn’t it? Just add water: instant family. If I want you — and I do — I get the rest.’
When I interviewed Fern after their wedding the following year, she wept as she told me how blessed she felt to be with Phil, her knight in shining chef’s whites.
‘He is my life’s great love, a really amazing husband, partner, friend.’
Small wonder, then, that her fans have been left bewildered by the couple’s announcement — via synchronised tweets — that they are to separate after nearly 20 years of marriage.
Fern has said in interviews that she and Phil, 58, have had ‘humdinger’ arguments over a range of issues, not least a late-life tattoo she had inked on her hand two years ago after a ‘spiritual awakening’. ‘He’ll get over it,’ she said with a shrug
In a statement on Twitter, Fern said: ‘After more than 20 happy years together, Phil and I have decided to go our separate ways. We will always share a great friendship and our lovely children.’
Behind the scenes, though, their friends are less surprised.
A TV source said yesterday: ‘I have seen Fern and Phil together and have never seen that fun chemistry they used to have on screen.
‘Fern has completely changed. She has become very assertive and it has been obvious from being around Phil that he is very pained and strained under it all.’
One thing is clear. Fern is a darker and more complex figure than her cosy television persona suggests. Her struggles with depression are well known but as she entered her 60s it seems further turbulence followed.
Her beloved mother Ruth, who raised her alone after Fern’s actor father Tony Britton left when she was a baby, died in 2018, leaving her daughter ‘bonkers’ with grief.
Her father died a month ago.
Fern also nearly died herself after contracting sepsis after an operation for fibroids in 2016.
And, perhaps most seriously for the marriage, she experienced a ‘re-powering’ as her nest emptied of growing children.
Fern says she has been discovering the woman she was before the responsibilities of family life took over.
With youngest daughter Winnie now 18, she is looking to a future that she feels happier facing solo.
‘I’m at a point in my life where if I want to grow a moustache and beard, I will,’ Fern told Prima magazine in 2018.
One passion she discovered was for bike riding. Phil was in the habit of dismissing her epic girls-only cycling trips for charity as ‘holidays’ but actually she was discovering herself.
In one interview after such an adventure, she noted: ‘It was life-changing for all of us. One girl went home and divorced her husband!’
Industry insiders believe the seeds of Fern’s steelier persona were sown at the time of her departure in 2009 from ITV’s flagship breakfast programme, This Morning.
A TV source said yesterday: ‘After leaving the show, she became another personality and everyone noticed. Also, it was weird to everyone that Phil stayed on This Morning when her leaving had been so acrimonious. Nobody ever understood that.’
Fern is pictured above with first husband Clive Jones. Fern had split from TV executive Clive Jones when their third child, daughter Grace, was only five months old. At the time, they also had three-year-old twin boys, born through IVF when Fern was 37
There was astonishment when Fern ‘retired’ from This Morning — at the time she was one of the best-paid and most-loved women on television, earning £750,000 a year.
She said she wanted to spend more time with her four young children and pursue other interests.
Behind-the-scenes sources insist she had fallen out badly with her co-presenter Phillip Schofield, whom she found ‘unbearable’. He was being paid £2 million a year.
A source said: ‘It was terribly sad. On that final day they played clips of her and Phillip laughing and joking and by that point they were not speaking.
‘She was furious with him and with ITV, she felt she was being pushed out. She was tremendously angry.’
Speaking to Hello! magazine last year, Fern insisted she simply felt that it was time to call it a day: ‘I did ten years of it and I loved that show — I can’t tell you how much I loved it. But after ten years I just felt it was right to stop.’
Now, it seems, after nearly 20 years, the same thing has happened to her marriage.
Some friends believe the split has been timed so Fern and Phil don’t have to go through a ‘brave face’ 20th anniversary party. Others suggest the couple had hung on to see their daughter through to adulthood.
There have been clues that all was not well for a while.
Fern has said in interviews that she and Phil, 58, have had ‘humdinger’ arguments over a range of issues, not least a late-life tattoo she had inked on her hand two years ago after a ‘spiritual awakening’. ‘He’ll get over it,’ she said with a shrug.
There was astonishment when Fern ‘retired’ from This Morning — at the time she was one of the best-paid and most-loved women on television, earning £750,000 a year. Behind-the-scenes sources insist she had fallen out badly with her co-presenter Phillip Schofield, whom she found ‘unbearable’
She was similarly insouciant when she had spray tans to appear on Strictly in 2012 and Phil was so ‘sensitive’ to the smell that he retired to a spare room for the duration, after a terrible row. ‘We didn’t speak for four days,’ she said.
It was also noted that he didn’t once come to the studio to cheer for her during her six-week stint on the show. There were rumours of an impending separation even then.
Former agent Jon Roseman, who looked after Fern’s career during her golden years at This Morning, said yesterday: ‘I hold Phil in the greatest affection and he was always very devoted to her.
‘I remember we once met up for a drink to talk about Fern’s weight, as there were rumours that This Morning weren’t happy about it and he was really concerned.’
Fern, who went on to lose five stone, became embroiled in a row over her weight when she failed to disclose that her slimmer figure was due in large part to a gastric band she’d had fitted in 2006.
She only admitted to the band two years after it was put in place, initially maintaining she had shed the pounds by eating more healthily and cycling to work.
However, Jon Roseman remembers them as a close-knit family. ‘They spent a lot of time as a couple and a family,’ he said. ‘When I’d go over for dinner it would tend to just be the two of them.
‘She was very close to her mum but mostly it was her and Phil and the kids and that seemed to be it. It’s sad when people run out of steam after so many years.’
The romance started with fireworks on the set of Ready Steady Cook. Fern had split from TV executive Clive Jones when their third child, daughter Grace, was only five months old. At the time, they also had three-year-old twin boys, born through IVF when Fern was 37.
She had been suffering from terrible depression and had suicidal thoughts.
‘I remember very clearly when they were all little and sitting around the table, all shiny-faced and having their supper, and I’d think: ‘Right, you’ve got everything you want. Lovely! Now I’m just going to pop upstairs and kill myself’.’
She said of meeting Phil: ‘The boys were four; Grace hadn’t even started toddling. I remember thinking at the time that nobody was going to take a fortysomething woman with three kids.
‘Then, one day at work, someone said ‘Phil Vickery fancies you’. And I went, ‘Remind me. Which one is he?’
‘Eventually, I kidnapped him, put him and his dirty washing — he was single at the time — in my car and drove him home. The next day, he baked me his irresistible gooseberry crumble.’
They were married in May 2000 at a register office in High Wycombe, shortly after her divorce from Clive Jones came through.
Their witnesses were plucked from the street and no relatives, friends or photographers were in sight.
Phil said: ‘We planned it a long time ago but hadn’t set a date. Yesterday it just felt right, so we went out and did it.’
Their daughter Winnie was born the following year.
The couple appeared together regularly on This Morning, which Fern fronted for a decade from 1999 and Phil joined as chef in 2006.
After This Morning, her professional life changed completely. There were a few appearances as a guest or stand-in host. She presented Fern Britton Meets, an interview show, from 2009 to 2017.
There were hopes that a turn on Strictly Come Dancing in 2012 might help her to be viewed in a less ‘mumsy’ light.
The fact that Fern wore her wedding ring only once, for her first cha-cha-cha, fuelled speculation.
What were their issues? Well, Phil has said that he is averse to conflict, an ‘obedient person who is very good at being told what to do’.
He added: ‘I said at the beginning of our relationship that I didn’t want to argue — I can’t be bothered with that.
‘We both had an agreement at the start that we wouldn’t row, that we would always discuss our concerns, and I’ve kept my part of the bargain.’ But Fern found such consensus ‘boring.’
She spoke blithely of ‘humdinger’ arguments, adding: ‘But then we’re normal. That’s good for the children to see — this is a real relationship.
Fern says she has been discovering the woman she was before the responsibilities of family life took over. With youngest daughter Winnie now 18, she is looking to a future that she feels happier facing solo. She is pictured above with Phil
‘You hear people say: ‘Thirty years and not a cross word.’ Sorry, I simply don’t believe that. But if it is true, how boring.’
In the years that followed, Fern built a successful second career as a writer of chick-lit novels set in Cornwall.
She popped up on TV from time to time to promote her books and also toured in the musical production of Calendar Girls, which led to long separations.
Fern insisted last year that it didn’t matter if they were apart for months on end.
‘He has always been my best friend and he always says I’m his best friend, too, which is amazing,’ she said, adding: ‘Sex is great but a cup of tea is great, too. There’s nothing nicer than getting into bed with a cuppa.
‘Lust is great, but when you really love someone and you trust each other, and you’re in bed together drinking tea and chatting, that is a true relationship.’
However, in truth, their paths had for some time been diverging quite radically.
Phil continued on This Morning, writing cookbooks and going to festivals, tending to his pigs and his orchard at their house in Buckinghamshire.
Fern said: ‘We have let each other have our freedom. He’s a man who has always got to meet a man about a dog. He says ‘I’ll be half an hour’. That might be a couple of days. We don’t crowd each other and we are happy with that.’
Fern had started a health kick. She cycled from John O’Groats to Land’s End for charity, which made her feel ‘invincible’.
She said: ‘Age has given me confidence. I feel more carefree, I suppose. Also, I’m well and incredibly fit because exercise, cycling and weight-training is part of my life and has been for the last ten years.
‘Everyone says it’s key in helping to ward off depression, and it’s really helped me a lot.’
Her depression meant that she felt ‘somewhere under the medium line all the time’. She had therapy once a week and was on antidepressants for many years.
She felt the illness might have its roots in her father leaving the family when she was young.
The death of her mother, aged 94, was a heavy blow. She said last year: ‘The grief hit me the day her ashes were scattered.
As soon as it was over, I thought, ‘I just want to sit and drink gin and go to bed,’ and that’s what I did. I did some bonkers things in the immediate aftermath.
‘I booked a cruise on the Queen Mary 2, on my own. I cried a lot in those two weeks but I also wrote a lot, and I found that very soothing.’
In an interview last year, she said she was at last feeling liberated and happy. ‘I talk to a lot of my friends who are in their 50s and early 60s, and we’re all feeling the same.
‘The children are getting sorted and we can stop being quite so responsible as adults.’
No matter where the next chapter of life will take her, Fern seems to be set on doing it solo.