Growing up, we never managed to go away with the whole family. My mother, Lesley, would take us to a seaside hotel in Devon or Cornwall with my grandma, and my father, George, would come down at weekends, as he was busy with work.
I loved those holidays – the hotels were the sort of places where they had activities for kids – but I probably spoilt things by fighting with my siblings. I was the middle child, standing my ground, and there were five years between me and my older brother, Geoffrey, and younger brother, Roger.
When I was about 11, we went to Italy, and then Portugal. Being the middle child, I lucked out, but it was never the three of us boys at the same time. Either Roger was too young, or Geoffrey was off doing his own thing, or it was too expensive for all of us. We did a lot of sightseeing, as Mum liked to shove culture in us, and we’d never stay in one place. We went to Rome, Naples and Pompeii. Neither of my parents were the kind to lie on a beach for two weeks.
Italy was my introduction to Mediterranean life. Holidays until then had meant Mivvis, strawberry splits and pasties in cellophane, and suddenly here was someone asking, “Would you like pistachio or dark chocolate ice cream?” I was a bit greedy, and the food seemed to me the ultimate child’s diet – pasta and ice cream! I have this memory of seeing a family, with the balding old chap at the head of the table, kids running in and out of the restaurant and everyone clinking glasses.
It was so different, from the way the adults drank wine to the relaxed attitude of the fathers, happily hugging their kids. My dad, who was of Romanian origin, had never been comfortable with the whole English stiff-upper-lip thing, and suddenly I could see other people like him who seemed to be more in their element than he had been in England. I’d look on with envy when I saw these extended families lunching in the sunshine, and it gave me a yearning for that kind of holiday.
As I got older, and busier with work, it was impossible to book two weeks away. But in the early 2000s, I got back together with Roberta, who’s now my wife. We’d first met in 1978 and lived together for 10 years. We asked ourselves what would we most like to do. I was pretty skint, but we were both insistent we have a proper holiday, and bring our families together.
We don’t have children together, but I have two sons, Stanley and Harvey, from my previous marriages, Roberta has a son and a daughter, and there are seven step-grandchildren. We found the dream villa near Aix-en-Provence, with a pool and a terrace. It was really expensive, but we thought, “We’re just going to do this, whatever, and we’re going to stay in one place” – because that’s what I’d always have liked to have done as a kid.
We took the Eurostar to Avignon and six hours later were in the south of France. Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that appears in several of Cézanne’s paintings, was at the bottom of the garden and the light was beautiful. We went to markets and bought olive oil and fresh fish and spent a lot of time cooking and eating long lunches, with an age range of four to 70.
I’d spend hours in the pool teaching the grandchildren how to swim. Every few days, we’d do a day trip to see the Roman ruins at Arles, or visit Châteauneuf-du-Pape – Côtes du Rhône is my favourite wine – or Cézanne’s studio. It made me realise, sometimes you don’t know what it is you want and who you are until it becomes inevitable. Then you think, “Ah, so that’s what Tigger likes!” I remember looking down the table and feeling fulfilled, like I’d arrived and the family issue was finally settled.
We loved it so much that we did the same thing for the next five years, in slightly cheaper places, with a mix of children and in-laws and friends. We were determined to make it happen and it meant when Roberta and I got married, eight years ago, we really were one big happy family.
Eventually, the kids grew older and did their own thing, and we had some crazy adventures taking Harvey around the world. But I still love the area, and I found myself revisiting those wonderful holidays for my role as Pierre, a gardener at a French villa in the new series of Skeletons in the Cupboard. There’s one scene where the crickets are chirping, and it fired my imagination all over again. It’s everyone’s dream to escape to a French farmhouse, with those long, lazy days filled with sunshine. I’m so pleased I managed to fulfil mine.
As told to Lebby Eyres
Skeletons in the Cupboard is on BBC Radio 4 & BBC Sounds on Friday at 11.30am.