Fern Britton: "How I've beaten my demons"
The former This Morning presenter has battled weight loss and depression, and struggled to become a mum. She tells Gabrielle Fagan how marriage, faith and her children are key to her happiness
Depression has been a shadow that has dogged her for years, but Fern Britton is confident enough to say the condition "doesn't frighten me any more".
She exudes contentment and is glamorous and enviably fit when we meet - she cycled 1,100 miles from John O'Groats to Land's End last year for charity, an achievement she says made her feel "invincible".
In fact, all is well for the former This Morning presenter, who enjoyed 10 years as the queen of daytime telly.
She's back on our screens presenting For What It's Worth, a new strategic quiz guessing the value of antiques, while on the home front she recently celebrated 15 years of marriage to TV chef Phil Vickery.
She's feisty, candid and upbeat about facing a range of challenges in the future: ageing, an empty nest when the youngest of her four children leaves home, and even, potentially, another bout of depression.
"Age has given me confidence and these days I don't feel I have to take any s**t from anybody, which is great," says the 58-year-old with a chuckle.
"Do I feel I've blossomed in my fifties? Yes, in a way I have - 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 10 years. Everyone says it's key in helping ward off depression, and it's really helped me a lot."
She's speculated that the illness may have its roots in her father, actor Tony Britton, leaving the family when she was young, and she had a particularly bad patch after her first marriage came to an end in the late Nineties.
"I now understand what can trigger an episode - in my case tiredness, anxiety, life changes or upheavals. Although I've been well now for quite a while and I'm not on medication or expecting another episode, I'm sure one will come along, that's just the way of it, but I don't have the dread of it.
"The difference now is that before, when I saw it approaching, I'd try and 'run', but that's no use. You just have to stand still, let it crash into you and go out the other side. It's very physical and consumes you when it happens. I think of it as a black cloak which has been put over me. These days, therapy every few weeks helps keep me steady."
Her marriage to 54-year-old Vickery (the pair met on the set of BBC Two's Ready Steady Cook where he was resident chef and she the presenter), is undoubtedly at the heart of her current contentment. She dedicated her autobiography, Fern: My Story, to him and described him as the man who "turned my life around".
"It feels as though we've only been together 15 minutes, not 15 years, because it's gone so quickly and we're so happy. I love spending time with him and he can make me laugh, which is very sexy," she says smiling.
"I think our secret is that we never box each other in and allow each other freedom and space. We're both busy, I have my TV work and writing novels and Phil's a farmer as well as a cook these days. So we do our own thing and then come back together."
Although she has three children from her first marriage to TV executive Clive Jones, twins Harry and Jack (22) and a daughter Grace (18), as well as a 14-year-old daughter, Winnie, with Vickery, motherhood didn't initially come easily.
Three failed IVF cycles when she was trying to get pregnant for the first time challenged her strong faith - she describes herself as "an average Church of England Christian".
"My faith's always sustained me through tough times like divorce and some of my bouts of depression. But my worst time was when I was desperate for children, having IVF, but it failed three times. It was like a black hole opening up," says Britton, who on her BBC One series, Fern Britton Meets ... interviews high-profile personalities about their religious beliefs, with past guests including Tony Blair and Sir Cliff Richard.
"At that point, I just said to God, 'I don't believe in you any more, so I won't have to worry about my conscience or judging right from wrong'. It turned out I could only keep that up for half a day. My faith's too ingrained in me and, shortly after that, the fourth course of IVF finally worked and I had the twins when I was 37.
"I'm so grateful for everything I have now, Phil and the kids and such a happy home life. I've never had any teenage nightmares with them, just a few, 'what do you think you're doing moments?' My approach has been to give them the benefit of the doubt, allow them opinions, and take the view that they don't know they've made a mistake until they've done it, so can't always be blamed for it."
One lesson she has, however, diligently taught her daughters is "healthy fitness is the way to go - not all that rubbish about not eating and being skinny".
She had a gastric band fitted in 2006 to help her lose weight, subsequently lost five stone, and proclaims herself "perfectly happy with my shape and size".
"The focus on my figure because I'm a 'celebrity' is so boring. I've never taken any notice of it," she says crisply.
"This pre-occupation with trying to be a certain size and shape is awful and don't talk to me about those grossly inflated lips and breasts that are so common. Why do women want to turn themselves into sex dolls?"
Change holds no fear for her, so she's sanguine about the prospect of her youngest daughter leaving home in a few years.
"I did shed a tear when the realisation hit me that the boys, who are at university, are unlikely to come back home to live when they finish. But the whole point is for your children to become independent and I'm very proud of all of them. When they've all left, it'll open up a new vista for Phil and me. We'll be able to talk to each other without being interrupted for a change."
Fern Britton is hosting new quiz show For What It's Worth on BBC One on Mondays at 2.30pm