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Barbara Taylor Bradford: A Woman of Substance

Posted January 19, 2017 - Blog Posts,News and Blog

By: Bridget Arsenault

A season of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s iconic TV films is now playing on Sony TV’s True Entertainment Channel on Freeview. Turn over to channel 61 to watch A Woman of Substance, Hold the Dream, Voice of the Heart and To Be the Best.

Barbara Taylor Bradford always knew she would write. A self-made inventor of dreams – she has both followed her own and entranced the world with her fictional leading ladies. The accolades that proceed Taylor Bradford are staggering. It was 1979 when she published her first novel, A Woman of Substance, now one of the top-10 best-selling novels of all times. Later this year, Taylor Bradford will see her 32nd book make its way to the shelves. And there’s no doubt it will be a runaway success, alongside the 92 million over copies of her oeuvre, sold worldwide to over 90 countries and translated into 40 languages. With sales figures of over £88 million, it’s been said that she’s one of the wealthiest women in Britain. And just like the heroine in the book and later film series that made her a star, Barbara Taylor Bradford is a woman of substance.

Woman of Substance FilmA film still from A Women of Substance

But it’s not these numbers that make Taylor Bradford fascinating or compelling; it’s the fact that at 84 she is just as impassioned about writing and about her work as she was the day she began. There’s an exuberance, a zest, with which she speaks. A passion for novels that can’t be manufactured – doesn’t have an on and off switch.

Born in Leeds to a working class family, Taylor Bradford’s literary journey began when she was only seven. “My mother had taught me to read, and she immersed me in books very young. I started to write little stories, and when I was 10 she was pleased with one, and she sent it to a children’s magazine that was always saying ‘send us contributions’, and low and behold they not only said they would be using it in a couple of months, they sent me a postal order for 10 shillings and six pence. So I’ve been a paid writer since the age of 10.” A story she’s likely told hundreds, if not thousands of times, but Taylor Bradford beams with pride and authenticity as she catalogues the events yet again. And of course it can’t go unnoticed that there’s an element of Oscar Wilde – life imitating art – at play here.

In fact, all Taylor Bradford’s books have a whiff of self-reflection and an echo of her own life’s story. As she explains: “Women of Substance is still being sold all over the world today. I think it’s still working as a book because it hasn’t grown stale – it’s a wonderful story. All the women who have read it have said to me ‘Emma [its compelling protagonist] is my role model.’ I think the story of someone making it against all odds is very appealing to the reader. Emma had nothing, and she became a great tycoon – a great merchant prince as they were called in those days. I wanted to write a book about an ordinary woman who does something extraordinary. And who becomes a woman of substance and then I looked at that line and thought, gosh, that’s a great title. And you know what? Some people in publishing didn’t like it and said, ‘well, what does this mean?’ And I said, ‘well it doesn’t mean essentially money, but it could be the substance of her character.”

Those who love her books equally love the film adaptations. Ten of her bestsellers have been immortalised on screen, a process, which despite her fervent work ethic, Taylor Bradford mostly abstains from. “I am never terribly involved because I think script writing is a totally different craft. I did actually re-write Hold The Dream and a later one called Voice of the Heart because Robert [her husband and the producer of the 10 adaptations] wasn’t happy with the script, but I’m not involved. I’m not the filmmaker. I think a lot of writers get upset when somebody makes a film of their work, and it isn’t close to the book, but being married to Bob, he appreciates the work and the time and the effort I put in. And he chose very good screenwriters, who were able to adapt without inventing.” Not to mention, he chose very good actors, including Anthony Hopkins and Jenny Seagrove, as well as launching the careers of many who are now household names, Liam Neeson and Elizabeth Hurley, to name but a few.

Babs and BobBarbara Taylor Bradford and husband Robert Bradford

Taylor Bradford’s comments about the filmmaking process have weight. Not only do they illustrate her remarkable confidence and self-awareness, but they are also a testament to her relationship with Robert Bradford, her husband of 53 years. “He’s a producer and he’s been a producer his whole life,” she chimes in, “He has a crew and they don’t want a writer poking around. I think writers should mostly stay away from it and let their prose do the job.”

Her courtship with Bob could easily provide the source material for the 33rd novel in Taylor Bradford’s output. They met through a mutual friend, who passed her name to him on a slip of paper. She had just moved next door to the screenwriters Jack and Dorothy Davies. She recites the tale, as if it were yesterday, “Two weeks after being in London he found the piece of paper in a jacket pocket and called the Davies, and they invited him to lunch on Sunday and they invited me. So it was a blind date with other people. When we met I was really up to my neck with a deadline and [the Davies] knew that because I had first protested that I couldn’t go to the lunch. So when he said to me during the lunch, ‘what are you doing later?’ I said ‘Oh nothing.’ And Dorothy Davies looked and me and said, ‘Oh but you have a deadline?’ And I said ‘Oh I’ll get up at 4:00 in the morning and write that story’. And he took me to the movies.”

That compulsion to write remains as strong as ever. “I have no intention of retiring or slowing down. What would I do if I didn’t have a book to write every day?,” she exclaims, giddy at the preposterous nature of the idea. That work ethic has never waned, and it is of course an undeniable factor in Taylor Bradford’s success. The ingredients, as she lays them out, are simple yet surprisingly rare. “You need an imagination and you need drive. You’re inventing characters that don’t exist. You’ve got to make them come alive by giving them a whole back story before they and walk onto your pages. I don’t know how you teach people to have drive, and you also need ambition, and I don’t know how you give people ambition. So I would say that people are born with an imagination, drive and ambition,”

Babs WritingBarbara Taylor Bradford writing in her home

For Taylor Bradford, the three characteristics were always there. Raised in Yorkshire, she left school at the age of 15 and became a typist at the Yorkshire Evening Post. It wasn’t until a member of their accounts department tried to pay her that anyone realised how young she was. Precious and preternaturally talented, by 18 she was the paper’s first female editor and by 20 she had relocated to Fleet Street, as a fashion editor and columnist for a number of London papers. But deep down for Taylor Bradford, it was always novels to which she aspired. Despite starting at 10, it took three more decades to publish a novel. “Over the years I tried. I never liked anything I came up with. I’d get to 50 pages or 70 pages and think ‘Oh, I don’t like this.’ And I did that four times, and one day I actually got very stern with myself and said, ‘OK, you’ve always wanted to write a novel, you must start trying to do it now. Because otherwise you’ll just let it drift, and then one day you’ll regret that you didn’t do it. I took a notepad and I sat at my desk, and I mentally asked myself a lot of questions, ‘what kind of book do you want to write? What is it going to be? Crime? Romance? Mainstream fiction for women? A traditional saga?’ And I came up with all the answers and wrote them down and I gave it to a friend.”

That friend passed it on to an editor at Doubleday publishing in New York, who quickly asked to see the book. Only armed with a 10-page outline Taylor Bradford went back to her desk and wrote the first few chapters. “And they bought it within 24 hours.”

Fast forward to now. Taylor Bradford was recently photographed by Alistair Morrison, alongside 89 other people for a 16-foot triptych celebrating 90 Great British Icons to honour the Queen’s 90th. “I was actually rather flattered and proud to be included as an icon; I mean who wouldn’t be,” Taylor Bradford explains. And as she finishes relaying the experience, remarking on the details, the Oscar de la Renta dress she wears, she pauses and adds with complete sincerity, excitement building in her voice, “So if you go to look for me, look for the pink dress because I seem to be buried in it.”

When to watch the Barbara Taylor Bradford film season on True Entertainment.

Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Everything to Gain
Thursday 19 January at 11am

Barbara Taylor Bradford’s To Be the Best
Friday 20 January at 3pm

Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance
Saturday 21 at 5pm

Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Hold the Dream
Saturday 21 at 7pm

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