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9 May 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 5:02am

How public figures are spending the Covid-19 lockdown

Emily Maitlis, Jon Snow, David Lammy, Elif Shafak, Juliet Stevenson and others on their new routines and what they’ve learned during isolation.   

By Matthew Stadlen

I’m a performer. Yet, as I write, I’ve been in some form of lockdown for 59 days. A long list of carefully curated interviews that I was due to present on stage has long ago been wiped out and there isn’t much prospect of an imminent return of public gatherings. As it is for most of us, being confined to my home is an alien experience. Yes, I’m lucky to have my weekend LBC shows, but I’ve had to adapt to a solitary life. I haven’t been touched since February. I’m not moaning, though. People have been losing their lives in their thousands and losing their jobs in their hundreds of thousands – and being forced to pick up new skills, to think differently, to imagine a new way, can provoke a surge of creativity. I’ve been re-channelling my energies.

Anyway, enough, at least for the moment, about me. As an interviewer I’m interested, perhaps more than most, in other people and how they work. Times of flux and strain can stimulate great waves of imagination, and necessity, after all, is the mother of invention. So I’ve reached out to some of the well-known personalities whose paths I have crossed in freer times and asked them how they’re coping. Have they managed to reinvent their ways of working? Has this been a vibrant time? The answers have been varied and thought-provoking. 

Juliet Stevenson, the Bafta-winning actress and star of Truly, Madly, Deeply and Bend It Like Beckham, is adapting to an extended run without theatre or film. She has, she tells me, built her own sound studio at home “from a mad mix of mattresses, foam, futons, duvets etc and decorated it like a hashish tent.” Isolation has provided an opportunity to grapple with the technology involved. “I have always been a technophobe,” she reveals, “so I decided I had to stop running from it in fear, turn around and tell myself that my brain was up to the task! I sent my first recordings last week!” As part of the 2.6 challenge she is now offering, via Instagram, personal bespoke recordings of poems, stories and prose – or even a mobile phone greeting – to those who donate. She’s raising money for Breaking Barriers UK, a charity supporting refugees, and feels “a desperate need to be useful”.  

Stevenson points out that there are two realities of this pandemic. As she makes clear, it can feel wrong to complain when so many are dying or suffering death, loss and unemployment. But it is, she says, OK to acknowledge how challenging our new circumstances can be: how difficult it is to be separated from friends and family. Still, at least she’s keeping busy and, together with her husband, she’s been transforming the garden. And there’s also the creative flow that she wants to give herself time to explore. “Things keep coming into my head that I want to write or paint,” she explains.

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Actor Samuel West should be in rehearsal for the West End transfer of The Watsons. Not being, he says, has been difficult. “I miss the company, and Laura [Wade, the Olivier Award-winning playwright] and I have loved working together on it,” he adds. “I miss going to the theatre a lot – and football and gigs too. I love, live, communal things.” But the Pandemic Poems project, among others, has helped to give him a “purpose”. In mid-March he asked for requests on Twitter from anyone who wanted him to read a poem they liked. Hundreds of suggestions later, he puts up new recordings every day. “Be an asset to the collective,I thought; the best way to do that in lockdown seems to be reading aloud,” he says. “I’m really pleased that people are enjoying it. It’s a vocal workout and it’s kept my creative muscles fitter than otherwise. The other muscles are busy with two children under five. THAT’s hard.”

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Hermione Norris, star of Cold Feet, Spooks and Kingdom, has been making use of Zoom and workshopping a piece with the playwright Tanya Ronder and two other actresses. And Steven Berkoff, whose extensive credits include the eclectic mix of Rambo, James Bond and Kafka, is throwing himself into a mix of activities. “As an actor I spend half of my life in lockdown,” he says, “that’s when I decided to become a writer. So this new lockdown in a way has been quite encouraging. I have been writing a play about the life of an unemployed thespian.” He’s reissuing his collection of short stories, Tales From An Actor’s Life, and is self-publishing his collection of poetry which will be coming out later this year. He’s even ventured creatively onto the internet: “This has been quite an adventure for me,” he reveals “and something new. For example I put Smoke, a poem about the evils of smoking in the plague year, on my YouTube and Instagram platforms.” Otherwise, he’s been sleeping and reading. “The best book I’ve read in years is Michael Cashman’s book, One Of Them. Heart-breaking.”

Elif Shafak is not only an internationally acclaimed author, she’s an excellent public speaker, too. I’ve shared a stage with her several times and she’s one of the most thoughtful, imaginative people I’ve interviewed. “I am missing public events,” she admits, “especially literary festivals. I miss talking about books and literature and the state of the world, celebrating books together, and I miss book signings, talking to readers from all backgrounds and listening to them. During the lockdown people read more books, which is good, but for writers this is not a ‘productive’ time at all.” I’m surprised, but she continues. “You sit at your desk and stare at your laptop or a blank page with deep anxiety. When there’s so much suffering and inequality everywhere, when life is so fragile, uncertain, what difference does it make whether you put a comma here or find a synonym for that word?”

Shafak hasn’t given up, though. “You lose faith in what you are doing and then you read… you read the words of other authors or poets who have lived and loved in strange times, and you realise that in truth, we need stories all the more now, we need the art of storytelling just like we need water and bread. So you find a bit of faith, and you go back to your desk and maybe write a bit… until you lose faith again. And so it goes, this daily struggle.”

Times columnist Matthew Parris is, in contrast, relishing his new found remoteness.”I have watched ‘cancelled’ receptions, launches, and parties whizzing by in my diary, felt a small inward rush of pleasure and relief, realised I never enjoyed these things, and understood at last that I can really stop going to them,” he admits me over email. 

Although Covid-19 can strike at anyone, no matter their background, Newsnight host Emily Maitlis eloquently attacked the idea that the disease is a ‘great leveller’. In a powerful monologue, she pointed out many on the frontline are disproportionately the lower paid members of our workforce and are more likely to catch the virus because they are more exposed. Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lockdown tougher, she said, and those in manual jobs will be unable to work from home. As for herself, she’s been presenting from the studio but has found time to pick up a new skill. “I learnt to make a hollandaise,” she informs me. “It’s a bit niche and not at the top of most people’s must do list, I am aware. I learnt how many half opened jars of preserved lemons I had. And how many assorted packets of dried chillies I own. It’s mainly been one long experience of discovering what is actually in my house, languishing at the back of shelves untouched since about 1982.”

The recently appointed shadow justice secretary David Lammy directs me to his tweets about growing tadpoles with his six year old daughter and “hopes this qualifies” as a new skill. In mid April he announced, together with a video of the baby amphibians: “Back legs are here and front legs are just appearing. It’s a revelation. We are joyous!” And, of course, there is something peculiarly satisfying about the simple things in life. For his part, the comedian, Omid Djalili, has been busy creating lockdown sketches which he shares on his Twitter and Instagram accounts.

“You can see how well I’m coping with it :),” he messages me. 

Over on Radio 2, Jeremy Vine seems to be as busy as ever, managing to fit in his Channel 5 show, too. But he’s found time to dig out an old hobby. “I bought a drum kit and am learning to play again!” he says. “I played as a teenager, then stopped for years because you can’t have a drum kit in a succession of small London flats. But now they sell electronic ones. Not the same, but good enough. So I put the headphones on and bash out the rhythm to a song. Great for the brain. And after a bad day you can hit them extra hard.”

Veteran Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow, however, has found self-isolating challenging. His wife, an epidemiologist, is isolating with family outside London, and Snow, who is 72 and suffers from mild asthma, has been on his own for weeks. They speak five times a day but – obviously – it isn’t the same. “I’m basically a people person. I enjoy people very much and not having contact with people in the flesh is a very, very curious [thing]. But I’ve dealt with it better than I thought I would. I’ve always theorised that I’m not good on my own but I seem to have survived so far.”

The whole of Snow’s front room has been taken up by a remote control camera and even the autocue is driven from Channel 4 News in Grays Inn Road. Broadcasting from home is, he tells me, a “very weird” experience. “When you’re doing it at headquarters you’re in a newsroom full of bustling people whom you’re chiming off all the time with questions and ideas, cross-fertilising stories and information. And suddenly at home you are alone and everything that you’re dependent upon technically is driven from somewhere else, except the lights – and I turn the camera on, that’s true, but I don’t do anything else and it’s much more difficult to prepare yourself, as it were, to speak to the nation. And the funny thing is, I find myself saying: ‘Now when I get home tonight I must…’ And then you think, ‘Christ, I’m at home!’ The psychological issues are much worse than the physical because you’ve been processed for 30 years to do things a certain way. It’s a collegiate thing, it’s not a solo thing, and therefore to be solo is not fertile, not good for ideas, not good for clarification, not good for getting other people to do things.”

Snow has at least developed new friendships and says lots of people call him and he calls lots, too. And while he hasn’t learned a new skillset, he has, like Vine, revived a former pursuit. “I’ve done quite a few watercolours, mainly of aspects from my own house,” he says. He’s also “cleaned the house as never before – very Freudian,” and every day he completes the 2.8 mile circuit of Regent’s Park twice on his bike. 

My fellow LBC presenter, Iain Dale, who is also broadcasting from home, has spent 40 days in “splendid isolation” and the experience has forced him to do something he never thought possible. “It’s made me re-evaluate my lifestyle. I feel guilty that I have enjoyed not going out of the house. I’m a Type 2 diabetic and my blood sugars have never been better. The stress has gone out of my life and I am wondering if I want it back. I’ve learned a whole new routine, culminating in broadcasting to the nation from my bedroom at 7pm each evening for three hours. I’m calmer. Nicer. I’ve learned to wean myself off a constant diet of 24 hour news. I’ve re-learned the art of reading for enjoyment, not for work. I speak to friends I haven’t had a conversation with in months, OK in some cases years. I’ve also seen my own profession (and my former profession) at its worst. I look on in bewilderment, and sometimes anger, at the government press briefings as I see a succession of journalists ask the most ridiculous questions and then see government ministers trot out meaningless soundbites. I almost want to physically shake the journalists and politicians and scream at them: ‘Don’t you realise how you’re coming across?’ And then I think, sod it, leave them to it.”

Returning to the theme of honing pre-existing talents, the BBC’s technology correspondent,  Rory Cellan-Jones, says he has been developing two skills he already had – baking and procrastination. “I’ve been baking for some years but the lockdown has given me the time to try new ideas – like pikelets made with leftover sourdough starter or a challah loaf. I’m now the sole purveyor of bread to the household so get very offended if my wife comes home from the supermarket with a pack of bagels – must try them some day. Of course it all depends on having a supply of flour and no, I won’t give you the name of my dealer…

“I’ve always been a skilled procrastinator and am getting better at it – the garden needs work but there is always tomorrow. And I’m in the middle of writing a book, and while you’d think this would be the ideal time, I’m finding it hard to concentrate. That’s partly because my day job actually seems busier than ever – my day starts with an 8.20am Zoom call with the technology team, the first of three meetings – somehow I used to avoid meetings when I was in the office. And I’m doing radio, TV and writing for the website from our loft – it’s Saturday morning and I’ve just done a live with Breakfast. So working from home is ok – but it does take time away from baking…”

Dermot O’Leary is another broadcaster who has been keeping busy. “I’ve had a fair bit of radio and a book deadline, so, as yet, I haven’t had a massive Damascene moment,’ he says. “But I’m doing a lot more TV development, cooking a lot more (which relaxes me). Work wise, I’ve never felt more grateful to be broadcasting, doing radio gives me purpose and focus, and the medium of radio has never felt more important. Although as a broadcaster you do realise how useless your skillset is come the apocalypse!”

Alain de Botton’s School of Life, which describes itself as “dedicated to helping people lead more resilient and fulfilled lives”, has had to show a resilience of its own. It has moved entirely online during the pandemic and the whole team has been working remotely. “The good news is that so far, we’re doing OK,” says de Botton. Classes have become virtual and the School’s 25 psychotherapists are operating on Zoom. “On the book side of things,” he adds, “the lockdown is not so different; writers are, in a sense, always in lockdown. I now just feel a bit less alone; everyone – writer or not – is at home trying not to eat too many biscuits, attempting to persuade themselves to work; it’s the writer’s life!”

As for me, I’ve taught myself how to edit on iMovie. When I worked as a presenter-producer at the BBC I spent 1500 hours in a tiny edit suite in the bowels of the old Television Centre with a long-suffering video editor. Together we made nearly 30 half hour documentaries and have somehow remained friends. Yet I could only ever marvel at his editing skills – without the faintest idea of how he was doing what he was doing. Finally finding myself with more time on my hands, I turned my living room sofa and coffee table into an editing suite (not good for my back!) and worked out – with the help of Google and YouTube – how to knit together a celebrity version of The Lady of Shalott. It’s a project I began five and a half years ago in support of the Pass On A Poem movement that my mother started in 2006.

The idea was for people to meet in groups in a home or public space – already a surreal thought – and to recite a poem each – not their own – that meant something to them. Readings sprung up across London and beyond and in 2014 I began recording the celebrities I interviewed reciting a line or two each. The 180 line project, however, began to drift and I despaired of ever filling the gaps. Luckily, Stephen Fry, Victoria Hislop and Martin O’Neill, among others, answered my call for help from isolation and I was finally able to release the almost ten minute video and talk about it on Jeremy Vine’s Channel 5 show. Idris Elba, Dawn French, Sir David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley and John Cleese all starred, but as satisfying as it was to finish the project at long last, the acquisition of a new skill was just as rewarding. 

And in the week that followed I even managed to edit in music, voice-overs and photographs to my next ‘film’ – a one and a half hour surprise celebration of my dad for his 70th birthday that involved 130 friends and family from every stage of his life sending in video messages. 

Where there is darkness, it seems, there is some light after all. 

The stakes for Britain’s artistic landscape, though, are high. Towards the end of April, more than 400 of the UK’s most prominent artists, musicians and creative figures, signed a letter asking the government for urgent financial support of the creative industries. They warned that the country risked becoming ‘a cultural wasteland’ thanks to the economic damage wrought by the pandemic. 

Matthew Stadlen is an LBC presenter and the author of How To See Birds (Papadakis)