By: Marcus Field
Helen Fielding still enjoys a good Mr Darcy joke. Twenty-five years after she published her first newspaper column as Bridget Jones, the novelist has chosen me to interview her because I once wrote an article about the ups and downs of being a Colin Firth lookalike. V v funny, as Bridget might say.
“Ooh, you do look like Colin,” says Fielding when we meet on Zoom, she dialling in from her north London kitchen, complete with a green Aga and set of shiny cheese graters. Firth, who plays Bridget’s on-off boyfriend Mark Darcy in the three Bridget Jones films, is one of the many starry contributors to a new BBC Two documentary, Being Bridget, made to mark the 25th anniversary of the BJ phenomenon.
Fielding, a youthful 62 with cool spectacles and blonde hair, is both thrilled and amazed that her creation has become such an enduring part of our culture. Her four Bridget Jones novels have sold millions of copies worldwide, and the most recent of the three films, Bridget Jones’s Baby, released in 2016, was the UK’s highest-grossing romantic comedy of the year. “If somebody had told me at the time that people would still be talking about it in 25 years, I would never have believed them,” she says. “It was so lightly done.”
Among the surprising things we learn from the documentary is that the origins of this very metropolitan romcom lie in the West Yorkshire mill town of Morley, where Fielding grew up. “It was a world in which you didn’t take yourself too seriously,” she says. “The whole basis of the humour was to bring anything too fancy down to earth.”
The Morecambe and Wise Show was the family’s favourite TV, and the cine films made by Fielding’s father contain the kind of slapstick humour for which the duo were famous. Footage shows a one-year-old Helen learning to make biscuits. “What makes me laugh is how much like Bridget I was at that age,” says Fielding.
“I look at the camera with a maniacal gleam in my eye and proceed to mess the whole thing up. That was the seed of the Bridget Jones moment.”
After grammar school Fielding studied at Oxford, where she met Richard Curtis, later the screenwriter of box-office hits including Notting Hill and the first two Bridget Jones films (v v useful). “She was the funniest girl in the university,” remembers Curtis. “We went out together for a while, but I wasn’t good looking enough for her, so she brought that to an end.”
It was some years later, when Fielding was working as a journalist in London, that she wrote her first Bridget Jones column for The Independent. The humour may have originated in Yorkshire, but the character of Bridget was very much based on Fielding’s own experience of being a 30-something “singleton” in the capital.
“The image of single women was still one of spinsters being left on shelves, of Miss Havisham or Miss Jones in Rising Damp,” says Fielding. “And that just wasn’t what I was seeing around me.” Instead, she and her friends were out having fun, drinking buckets of chardonnay and leading independent lives.
So her newspaper column, “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, began as a way of recording this social change, with much of the comedy arising from the fact that the people around Bridget don’t seem to have caught up. Her mother’s friend Una nudges her and whispers “tick-tock”, while potential boyfriends assume she is desperate.
Fielding soon turned her popular column into a bestselling novel, published in 1996. She is often credited with having created the chick lit genre, but she rejects the notion. “I think it was part of the zeitgeist. My idea was assembled into a book and published very quickly, but other people were working on the same ideas.”
And while the Bridget Jones films could be said to have blazed a trail for later TV romcoms such as Miranda and Fleabag, Fielding prefers to see them all as part of a longer lineage. “We have to remember that there was The Liver Birds [which began in 1969]. Sitcoms about girls dating came before Bridget.”
Recently speculation has arisen about whether Fielding’s character, human rights lawyer Mark Darcy – a riff on the smouldering Mr Darcy played by Colin Firth in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – might have been partly inspired by current Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who was making his name as a barrister at the time. Is it true?
Fielding laughs. “Well, I think he’s fantastic. But no, I’ve never met him. They are very similar, though. He’s so good and decent and intelligent, but so buttoned up. I always want to say, ‘Come on, Keir, loosen your tie, ruffle up your hair.’ He doesn’t think of himself as sexy, but he’s really sexy. And when he and Boris spar, it does remind me of Mark and Daniel.”
The first film, Bridget Jones’s Diary starring Renée Zellweger, marks its 20th birthday next year, and Fielding admits to being shocked by some of its dated sexual politics when she went to see it with her teenage daughter soon after the #MeToo movement began.
“I realised what a huge leap there’d been since that time,” she says. “Bridget assumed she just had to put up with Mr Fitzherbert [aka Mr T*** Pervert] telling her to wear a tight dress, and Richard Finch saying, ‘Give me a shot of your boobs’. They would just be fired now.”
Fielding says she experienced this kind of sexist behaviour herself while working as a reporter at the BBC in Bristol in the 1980s, and later in newspaper offices in London. “That’s just what it was like and you navigated it. Women have now got more power, thank goodness. But at the same time, flirtation at work is fun, if it’s consensual. The interesting question is whether it’s sexual harassment if [Hugh Grant’s character] Daniel Cleaver puts his hand on Bridget’s bottom. They were both at it.”
Feminists have had mixed views about Bridget Jones, with some questioning whether she’s a good role model. One of the contributors to the documentary is Germaine Greer, who says the character isn’t liberating because she’s so desperate to be part of a couple.
Fielding disagrees. “You can’t say it’s anti-feminist to want to love and be loved; it’s part of life. You can’t neatly fit the idea of feminism with the idea of being a woman. That’s what Bridget is struggling with. She doesn’t just straightforwardly want a man, she wants the whole works – her independence, her life, her moral view, and she wants somebody who matches that to be her partner.”
The success of the Bridget Jones novels certainly gave Fielding new economic freedoms. In 1999 she moved to Los Angeles, drawn by the sunny climate and the fulfilment of a childhood dream to live in a house with a swimming pool. There she met Kevin Curran, a writer on The Simpsons, and they went on to have two children together, Dashiell, now 16, and Romy, 14.
She moved back to London with her children in 2013. Although Fielding still spends time in LA, it’s the “solid core of decency” that makes Britain her home, she says. “What people here generally want to be is a good person; it’s very shameful to be just going after money or to lie or pretend. And British people are very funny.”
It’s this sense of humour, thinks Fielding, that helps us through the hard times. She has experienced her share of grief and sadness, including the death of her children’s father in 2016. “As I say in the books, life has dark notes and light notes. And most people when they get to this age have gone through difficult things as well as fabulous things. So the ability to find humour in tough situations is essential.”
The lockdowns in Britain were a good example, says Fielding. “A lot of people realised the value of community. Our street in Primrose Hill began to remind me of a street in Yorkshire; everyone became friends and started to help each other because someone was ill or had run out of dishwasher tablets. And people were sending each other funny things and laughing.”
For her part, Fielding has written two lockdown Bridget Jones columns for The Sunday Times. In them, we see Boomer Bridget, now 57, being told off by her two Zoomer children for breaking the rules when she’s caught drinking non-socially distanced margaritas with her friends outside a pub. It’s confirmation that there’s always the possibility of more instalments to come. Maybe a novel, too. “I might do one set in LA,” she says. And a film of Mad about the Boy, the third Bridget novel, is in the works – “That’s going to be a thing.”
Meanwhile, Christmas is approaching, always an important date in the Bridget Jones diary, followed by the inevitable New Year’s Day turkey curry buffet. How will Fielding spend hers?
“I can’t predict that,” she says. “But what’s important is that there’s a spirit of community and people being sweet to each other.”
What is certain is that Fielding won’t be counting the number of calories consumed or glasses of wine poured. “I know I’m going to eat and drink a lot,” she says (v v good).
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.
Being Bridget Jones airs on Tuesday 22nd December on BBC Two. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.