EXCLUSIVECelebrity Big Brother star Fern Britton finally breaks her silence on the rift with her former This Morning co-host: ‘I haven’t spoken to Phillip Schofield in 15 years’. Here’s what happens 👇👇

Fern Britton looks happy. ‘I’m rebuilt and I’m doing okay,’ says the much-loved television presenter, who admits she struggled after losing both her mother and father and separating from her husband, the TV chef Phil Vickery, in the space of two years, just before Covid struck.

‘I was not suicidal, but life had knocked me for six. I was lost, then I found a bit of purpose again and it’s been lovely.’

Fern has made a new start in the Cornish seaside village that has become her home.

Now 66, she’s had life-changing surgery on a bad shoulder injury that was dragging her down, has taken up running, lost a lot of weight and is enjoying the single life with her friends.

‘Being in your 60s is somehow very relaxing. You’re not in the hubbub of life any more, although you can be if you want to be.’

Fern Britton tells how she struggled after losing both her mother and father, and separating from husband Phil Vickery, in the space of two years

Fern Britton tells how she struggled after losing both her mother and father, and separating from husband Phil Vickery, in the space of two years

That all sounds splendid, but now Fern is risking her newfound inner peace to do something very daring indeed.

As we’ve seen, on Monday she swapped Cornwall for a locked house full of strangers with cameras watching them 24 hours a day, as she entered ITV reality show Celebrity Big Brother.

‘I know it could be difficult but I think it’s going to be fun,’ Fern says as we chat before the show begins. ‘To be inside the Big Brother house is iconic and interesting. The whole idea caught me unawares, but I thought, “Yeah, why not?”’

We’re talking at a bar in west London, to which Fern has turned up bright-eyed and breezy in white trainers, black slacks and a cream cotton blouse. She understands the perils of Big Brother, although reality producers are less likely to push contestants to extremes these days.

‘ITV were very careful to say it’s going out at nine o’clock at night, 14-year-olds will be watching. I guess there will be no chance for me to have live sex,’ she says, deadpan. ‘It’s very disappointing.’

The line is all the funnier coming from Fern, who has for decades been the sunny one on British TV – the warm, reliable presenter of This Morning and many other popular daytime shows. She was at the height of her fame when the first Big Brother couple got cosy on air, back in 2004.

But her kids clearly know just how salty Fern can be in real life, because she adds, ‘One of the daughters just said, “Mother, please don’t use the C-word on air. And please don’t show your [whistling and glancing down towards her nether regions] anywhere.” That’s perfect advice!’

Fern has three children from her first marriage to TV executive Clive Jones: twins Harry and Jack, 29, and Grace, 26, and a 22-year-old daughter called Winnie from her 20-year marriage to Phil Vickery. The kids were the only ones she could tell about going on Big Brother, which as usual was shrouded in secrecy.

Fern and Phillip Schofield (pictured together in 2004) presented This Morning together until 2009 - but the pair haven't spoken in 15 years

Fern and Phillip Schofield (pictured together in 2004) presented This Morning together until 2009 – but the pair haven’t spoken in 15 years

‘The papers you get at the start are a mental health check. “Can you deal with people not liking you, with people booing you, with bad headlines that you’ll have no idea about until you come out?”’ she says. ‘You’ve got to be pretty robust.’

Celebrity careers can take a knock in the Big Brother house. Jade Goody was caught bullying the Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty in racist terms that sparked a diplomatic crisis, while politician George Galloway lost all credibility at the time by pretending to be a cat lapping milk from Rula Lenska’s cupped hands. Is Fern confident in her ability not to do something stupid?

‘Not necessarily,’ she says. ‘I will try very hard not to have a meltdown. It would have to be over something pretty ghastly. Essentially it is an entertainment programme and we are there to have fun.’

What if they ask her difficult questions – for example, about her relationship with the disgraced TV presenter Phillip Schofield, who stepped down from This Morning last year and admitted lying to the team about an affair with a much younger male colleague? ‘They probably will ask me,’ says Fern, who worked alongside Phillip for seven years as the main hosts of the show until 2009. ‘I will truthfully say I have nothing to tell them about This Morning over the last few years, because I haven’t been there.’

She walked out on the screen partnership with Phillip halfway through a lucrative contract. Was that her choice? ‘To leave This Morning? Ultimately, yes. I loved it and I would probably still be there if…’ Fern pauses, then says, ‘Phillip and I were not getting on very well at that stage.’

They were widely thought to loathe each other, and there’s a clue to why when she talks about the power games that were played by male presenters in those days. ‘Lots of the men you work with are much more fussed about their piece to camera and how many words they’ve got than they are about you.’

Have she and Phillip had any contact since she left This Morning 15 years ago? ‘I haven’t spoken to him, no.’

Ben Shephard and Cat Deeley are the new presenters at This Morning. ‘Ben has real emotional intelligence, Cat’s got warmth,’ Fern says. ‘If they can trust each other, the audience will trust them.’

Fern tells how she's slimmed down and had life-changing surgery after being in a lot of physical pain

Fern tells how she’s slimmed down and had life-changing surgery after being in a lot of physical pain

Fern appeared on Strictly Come Dancing after she left This Morning and has made programmes including travel show My Cornwall With Fern Britton, but otherwise her time has been spent writing bestselling novels set mainly in her adopted county, with a new one on the way.

‘The headline is, “A woman who has lost everything is left a house that is falling down. Can they save each other?” I was telling a friend this the other day and she said, “That’s your life.” I went, “Oh yeah!”’

The story of how she ended up relocating to the coast is moving. ‘We bought the house 18 years ago. I knew that as soon as the children were out of school I was going down there to live. I thought Phil [Vickery, her then husband] would too, but unfortunately we just… that didn’t happen. But I was free to go.’

Her parents Ruth and Tony passed away in 2018 and 2019 respectively. She and Phil announced that their marriage was over in January 2020. ‘We simply needed to follow our own paths,’ she later told a magazine. ‘Over time we realised we weren’t necessarily having the kind of life we once did. It seemed right to say “thank you” and move on.’

She put a brave face on it then, but now Fern admits she was hit hard. ‘It was tricky, because my mum and my father died very close to each other and unfortunately Phil and I divorced and the pandemic came. So Cornwall wrapped itself around me after a very difficult set of events.’

She lived there during Covid with her daughters Winnie and Grace and that was good, but Fern was grieving. ‘Looking back, I don’t think I was as sane as I thought I was at the time,’ she says. ‘I remember endless days of indolence, not being able to go anywhere, not doing anything, not wanting to get out of bed.’

Fern was also in a lot of physical pain at the time, from arthritis in her knees and shoulder. ‘I wouldn’t go to the doctor because we couldn’t and there were people in more need,’ she says. ‘But it was killing me.’

The turning point came when a surgeon said he would rebuild her shoulder. ‘I cried with relief.’ There was a waiting list, though. ‘I knew I had a year. I’d been eating myself stupid. I was not moving my body and putting a lot of weight on. I thought, “I’ve got to get fit for this.” So I logged into the Couch to 5K app on my phone and started running up and down the lanes. I got quite evangelical about it. I’m running a lot now, although not too far: 5K is still my stopping point.’

The operation last September was a success, and now Fern is looking forward to a future on her terms. ‘In my youth, I wasn’t always behaving very well. I got about a bit, shall we say? I didn’t get married until I was 31. I sowed my oats early on, then I’ve been very sensible: a good wife, a good mum, as much as I could have been, and now I can do what I want.’

Is she looking for love again? ‘I’m not dating. There’s an awful lot I’d like to know about myself first and to know that I am ready to be looking, otherwise you might turn up as another kind of hysterical mess, saying, “He left me and it was awful!”

‘Not that Phil did leave me. You don’t want that kind of conversation with a date who is just looking for someone nice to have dinner with. But I never want to live with anybody again. I like my own space,’ she says.

The single life suits her. ‘I have two fantastic girlfriends. I still have my stupid sense of humour with them. Anyone does a bum joke, it’s hilarious. One can discuss sex and all sorts of stuff.’

She joined her local church as part of the recovery process. ‘I’ve always had a faith but sometimes life gets in the way and you don’t go. Now I’ve got all the time in the world and I love it. We’ve got such a nice congregation, very small, and a beautiful church.’

Fern entered the Celebrity Big Brother house during the launch show on Monday evening

Fern entered the Celebrity Big Brother house during the launch show on Monday evening

She does sound content. ‘What makes me happy is time to myself. I like my own company. My three pussycats give me great joy.’ But she’s predicting an early exit from Celebrity Big Brother. ‘I’ll probably be out again quickly. Older people will be watching but it is the younger ones who vote.’

They’ll love her, surely? ‘They won’t know who I am!’ she laughs. ‘A taxi picked me up from Paddington to get me here and the driver said, “Hello, Fearne Cotton, I think you’re great.”’ He was talking about the Radio 2 presenter. Fern was much too kind to challenge him. ‘I just said, “That’s lovely. Thank you very much.”’

The newly rebuilt Fern Britton feels at peace, and ready for whatever happens on the show. ‘Big Brother is a challenge mentally, I’m aware of that, but I still think, “What an experience.” I want to see inside that house.’

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