Byline: JONATHAN AITKEN
THE bond that has kept Mary and Jeffrey Archer together has long been a mystery even to those, like me, who have known them for many years.
What is it that drew this beautiful and brilliant research chemist, precise and icily reserved, to the brash self-publicist - and has kept them together through near bankruptcy, infidelity, the ruin (three times) of Jeffrey's political career and now his imprisonment for perjury?
Mary herself has given little away. The rare interviews she has granted over the years have been models of self-control in which she bats away uncomfortable questions with disdain or provides neutral answers like an academic explaining some abstruse formula.
But now one filmmaker has got closer to what makes this enigmatic woman tick.
Independent producer Fiona Sanderson spent four months following Mary, interviewing her family and friends and going through her archive of photographs and home movies in order to answer the question: Why, after everything, is Mary standing by her man? The result - Mary Archer: My Life With Jeffrey - to be screened on Channel 4 next Monday - is a revealing portrait of a woman described by many as cold, unemotional, even calculating, but who emerges from this documentary as deeply vulnerable, fiercely loyal and driven by a sense of duty and propriety instilled by her upper-middleclass upbringing.
This is Mary as she has rarely been seen: at home with a subdued and rather shrunken Jeffrey on day release from prison for her birthday; chatting with her brother and sister over lunch, visiting her dressmaker Bruce Oldfield, with her son, with patients at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, where she is a non-executive director.
What is most striking is that, even offduty, she never loses her almost unnatural poise and aloofness. Neat and immaculate, her porcelain features and English rose complexion show few signs of age. But the guard slips occasionally. 'Are you romantic?' Sanderson asks her. 'No, but that's not the same as having no feelings,' Mary says, in slightly hurt tones.
Suddenly, you are reminded that not even Mary Archer can have remained immune from the indignity of seeing her husband's affairs exposed in the Press and having her own personality picked apart during two gruelling court cases.
Mary's feelings - or the presumption that she lacks them - is what this documentary is about, and indeed most of the time they are kept carefully under wraps while we are left to sift through the clues.
The daughter of chartered accountant Harold Weedon, Mary spent her childhood in the sheltered, leafy Surrey town of Epsom. Her traditional upper-middleclass upbringing and strait-laced schooling at Cheltenham Ladies' College had no room for touchy-feely relationships.
Speaking for the first time, her elder sister Janet Brearley says: 'We've been brought up to believe that you don't show your emotions in public. As Mary says, it doesn't mean that you don't feel it, of course you do, but you don't push it on other people. That's bad manners.' Yet Mary evidently has no regrets about her upbringing. Instead she appears to lament the disappearance of the traditional stiff upper lip. 'I don't think I am cold,' she responds to Sanderson's probings. 'I think I'm just British reserved.' ABRILLIANT and precocious child, it is clear she always had a certain sense of her own intellectual superiority. One of her earliest memories is of 'jolting along on a Green Line bus in Epsom looking at the blank and bored faces of all the people opposite and thinking, "Do these people have interesting thoughts going on in their heads like the interesting thoughts going on in my head?".'
One senses she has been the doing the same thing ever since.
But there are also some intriguing glimpses of a frivolous side to Mary's character - one she keeps carefully hidden. …