Susan George Tells Why Christmas Will Be Tingled With Sadness
(Mainly a Susan George article)
It won’ t be stockings but stable duty for Susan George on Christmas morning. In “scruffy jeans and a flat cap”, she’ll be outdoors early, feeding, watering and hanging hay nets for her 20-odd Arabian horses. It’s a long way from Hollywood for the star of Straw Dogs and many other films, but the 12-acre Northants stud farm Susan shares with her husband, actor Simon MacCorkindale, is the fulfillment of a long-held dream.
In fact it’s more than she ever dreamed of to be breeding, showing and – when their busy film production company permits – riding out with Simon on their prize-winning Arabs. “Fifteen years ago,” Susan explains, “my dream was of having just one horse grazing outside my own front door.”
There’ll be tinsel around the stable doors and “something special” for every four-legged friend – including the quartet of Irish setters. But Christmas Day will also be tinged with sadness for Susan as it’ll be the first she’ll spend without her much-loved mother Billie, who died in January at the age of 88. And Susan is still devastated by the loss of her older sister – “and best friend” – Pam just before Christmas two years ago.
Billie was once a beautician but turned to running the family’s small hotel in Maidenhead. “My parents worked unbelievably hard, but were not well-off,” says Susan, who by the age of 12 was a success on the West End stage. “So as soon as I could, I bought a house on the Thames for us all to live in.” She was then just 16.
During a five-year relationship with the singer Jack Jones, Susan and he acquired a second house 11 doors down, “and thereafter we were always together in one or another place”. When she and Simon found their present 17th-century farmhouse, there was no question but that Billie and Pam would complete their harmonious household. The farmhouse has been loved and renovated into their perfect family home and everywhere Susan’s boundless energy prevails. Scripts, projects, films, horses… she always has a variety of projects on the go. She’s also put heart and soul into a new equine venture – a range of natural aromatherapeutic products for horses which she dedicates to Pam, “who was altogether my inspiration”.
Susan George Naturally was launched in September last year and has taken off as a rapidly growing ail-order and retail business. Susan’s Christmas gift sets are now also on the shelf of the smart people’s horse goods purveyor, Swaine Adeney Brigg, and testimonials are coming in from users – or rather their owners – all over the country.
Poignantly, Pam died before seeing Susan’s plans fulfilled. “I don’t go in for regrets,” says Susan simply, “but if I have one at all, it’s that my darling Pam can only glimpse what we’ve achieved from a long way off.”
Though Susan admits that what she and Simon have been through recently “does sound a bit traumatic”, she is admirably resilient: “I am extremely positive. No stone is left unturned for me in life. I consider everything that happens as a learning curve – another bridge to cross.”
Susan, you seem to thrive on juggling so many different enterprises.
‘Juggling is the word. But it’s my choice, away of life that’s just evolved. I was very disciplined and single-minded when I made Straw Dogs at 21. But showbusiness was never my whole life – or, if it was, I grew out of it What most appeals is the chance to make reality of my best ideas. I’m a huge ideas person and, whenever I announce one, Simon stands back somewhat and groans, ‘Oh no, not another!’ But I’m very tenacious and a bit of a terrier. If the idea still seems good once I’ve thought it through, I’ll usually put my head down and make it happen come hell or high water.”
Tell us about your passion for horses.
“I learned to ride at five. I had lessons on a little pony called Rusty and, like so many kids, paid for them by mucking out at the local stables at home in Maidenhead. In California, during my twenties, I was bought a seven-eighths Arab chestnut mare, Schatzy, who was absolutely divine. Whenever I went to her field she would turn at my call and come charging across with that wonderful head and flowing mane. We were a partnership for many years but, with less and less time for her, I began to feel selfish. So I made the colossal decision to give her and her filly that I bred to an Aussie friend who rode every single day.”
Then you met Simon…
“And he promised me that, when the time was right, we would have our own horse world. Riding and just being around horses is pure happiness for me.”
How did you become Honorary President of the Horse of the Year show?
“Several years ago the show hit a low ebb. I remember looking out at our superlative show-jumpers performing to endless, unfilled seats. So when I was asked by the new organisers, Mark Wein and Mike Gill, to help raise the profile, I felt it was something I could do. They’ve made it a real spectacle, with dressage to music and the Metropolitan Police jumping through hoops of fire. I have a committee of star names – Chris Tarrant and Ronan Keating have been among them. I feel my main job is to spread the word and encourage a much wider audience outside the horse world.”
What’s the story behind this new venture, Susan George Naturally?
“It’s the culmination of long-term discoveries I’ve made about natural remedies. Thirty years ago in California, I found the road to homeopathy after suffering regular sore throats and being prescribed constant antibiotics. I knew dial couldn’t continue, so I went to a holistic centre in Santa Monica at a time when homeopathy was so new dial you were regarded as away with the pixies just for going. An allergy to sulphur – so prevalent in the local smog – was diagnosed. According to the homeopathic principle of treating like with like, I was given minute amounts of sulphur just to rub on my arm – and it cured me. Sold, I began to research and explore other natural phenomenona.
“My sister also found acupuncture virtually stopped the asthma attacks that had plagued her childhood. And shortly before Pam died, she trained in aromatherapy.”
Tell us about your sister.
“We worshipped each other and were best friends, though she was 12 years older than me. We had different fathers, yet we never saw each other as ‘just’ half-sisters. Pam’s chronic asthma was triggered by a ‘V” bomb exploding very close to her during the war. She never had the breath to run around with me yet never complained and never felt sorry for herself. You were largely unaware that she lived with this kind of disability, because she wouldn’t have it.
“So little at the time was known about her condition that at 12, sadly, she was sent to a special school. Her life was all about cortisone, pumps and pills that had a disastrous effect on her future health. They were degenerative, weakened her immune system and made her older before her time.”
How did Pam feel about you having all the fame and the limelight?
“Our lives were unbelievably different. She had every right to be jealous because I was so fortunate and so totally blessed. I had so much that she didn’t, yet she never once made me feel it. She only shone in my light – that’s how much a part of one another we were. She had several relationships and I hurt bitterly for her that her one great love didn’t work out. She never married.”
She also came to live with you, first in Wraysbury and then here at the farmhouse, where she cared for your mother.
“When Simon and I came back to England in 1986, Pam was going through a particularly lonely time. I felt it was time we were all together. Simon fortunately adored her, so I brought her to live with us. The years that followed, she always said, were the happiest of her life. I was finally able to do for her what our nanny and mentor, Doris, had done for me – nurture the confidence to fulfil her dreams.
“After seven years at the Open University, Pam got her BA in English Literature at the age of 55. It was one of the proudest days of my life when she stood in her mortar board and gown. Then Pam decided to train in aromatherapy. We talked endlessly and I was the eternal sponge taking in all that she told me. That’s when I started my research, testing potions and using the oils on the horses. I told Pam about the effects I had seen for myself. Horses offer undeniable proof that natural therapies work as they cannot be preconditioned. The idea was born. Pam fed me back Doris’ words, ‘Anything you put your mind to, you can do.’ So it’s a tribute to Pam. She was my inspiration and its success I dedicate to her.”
Sadly she didn’t live to see your success.
“She had a virus two years ago and never really picked up. Simon, who’s a realist, tried gently to warn me that Pam’s asthmatic past had taken its toll on her, but I couldn’t accept how frail she was. I suspect she’d not felt well for much longer than we knew, because she didn’t want to burden us. Eventually, in November 1998, she went into hospital for treatment. We were still talking about her coming home for Christmas, how we’d spend it together. Then she suffered a heart attack. The doctor told me that if Pam did survive, she would always be on a respirator – the last thing she would have wanted. A decision had to be made that was really no decision at all. I completely believe it was right. I held Pam in my arms… and then I had to come home and tell Mummy that we’d lost the battle.”
And you had lost your best friend.
“Pam had just had a wonderful surprise 60th birthday party and we had every intention of growing old together. The positive part is that she felt she had really accomplished so much in what proved the last years of her life.”
What will 2001 bring for your production company, Amy International?
“We have a zillion balls in the air and several projects always on the go. We’re definitely dramatising two Dick Francis racing novels for TV – and we’ll produce two more every year. We’re working on a TV drama script, which I’m actually going to act in myself. We’re also producing our TV series The Power Of Love, a documentary of real-life love stories in all their drama and diversity.”
Love and inspiration seem recurring themes for you.
“They’re the spice of life, what matters to every waking hour.”
What do you feel about Christmas this year?
“My life has changed irrevocably with the deaths of Pam and Mummy. It isn’t the same and it never will be. Life takes its toll, but you have to move on. So Christmas will be very different this year. I don’t know quite how I’m going to feel. I catch myself thinking I have Mum and Pam to buy for.
“I’ve always been a complete child at Christmas: my parents provided for me and made it a fairyland every year. You couldn’t see the tree for presents. So when I was old and wise enough to make it the same for them, I turned the tables around. And for the last 20 years my family have been my children. Suddenly I don’t have that, but there will be Simon’s family, who I adore.
“We shall certainly be at home on Christmas Day because Simon and I are on stable duty. They will have something special – dogs as well as equines. So that will be my essential giving this year – to my other, four-legged family.
“Though there are times when it just desperately hurts, I don’t fret and I have many more happy than sad times. If I dwell on anything, I dwell on the happiness that we had, the memories and, of course, the happiness I still have. It’s just a very different kind.”