The Mail on Sunday
4th March 2012
By Emily Hill
She was TV’s most promising star in the Nineties – the girl who gave hit TV comedy drama Cold Feet its warm heart.
Playing disgruntled but feisty housewife Jenny in Britain’s answer to Friends, Fay Ripley stole the show with her impeccable comic timing and rough-edged charm.
Each week ten million viewers tuned in to ITV on Sunday evening to catch Jenny’s latest tart put-down, and the gossip pages eagerly reported Fay’s regular trips to fashionable restaurants in the company of fellow stars.
But then, to the distress of her legions of fans, Fay sensationally quit the series. Her character was written out midway through season four as Fay decided to put marriage and children ahead of her career, having fallen in love with Muriel’s Wedding star Daniel LaPaine.
Cold Feet, many viewers felt, was never the same after her departure and the next series was to be the last.
Now, after years away from the public gaze, Fay has found herself once again in the spotlight.
But rather than spending her evenings enjoying haute cuisine in glamorous restaurants, she slaves over a hot stove at home, perfecting recipes for her no-nonsense cookery books – before waking up at 3am and fretting over whether her burgers taste better with or without beetroot in them.
Last year, her debut cookbook, Fay’s Family Food, was voted Mumsnet’s Best Cookery Book.
Her second, Fay Ripley, What’s For Dinner?, was published last week and shot straight to No 1 on the Amazon bestseller list. It is Fay – rather than Heston, Nigella or Jamie – who seems to know instinctively what modern mothers need in the kitchen.
‘For me, the Mumsnet award was better than winning an Oscar,’ says Fay, 46.
‘Fame has been a progression for me. First, people shout at you, “Hey, it’s that one off that programme.” Then it’s, “Hey, it’s Jenny – Jenny, stop being mean to Pete!” Then it’s, “Hey, it’s Fay Ripley.” Now it’s, “Hey Fay, I tried the chicken recipe – it was great.” And that’s when I cross over the road to talk to them, to check the chicken was moist and tender.
‘In my Cold Feet days I was showing off with the restaurants I could go to. Since having a family, I’ve had to learn to cook through burning pans. I’m not pretending to be a chef or an expert. But I was sick of buying cookbooks and using only one or two recipes from each one.
‘I’m a really busy mum. I don’t have time to take a donkey trek across the Himalayas to find some particular spice, I want to find all the ingredients for a recipe in my corner shop.’
Rooting in the corner shop for ingredients seems a far cry from her days as the queen of Sunday night television. Fay starred in Cold Feet alongside comic John Thomson, who played her husband – well-meaning but plodding Pete.
The show, which chronicled the tangled love lives of six close friends in Manchester, had as its intended star couple Helen Baxendale, who played advertising executive Rachel, and James Nesbitt, as twinkly-eyed Irish charmer Adam.
They were rumoured to be paid far more than the rest of the cast in the series, which tackled tough issues such as abortion, infertility and testicular cancer.
But it was clear that Fay’s Jenny was garnering much of the sympathy – as Pete had an affair with a co-worker – and raising most of the laughs with her dry one-liners.
‘Our storylines were not very sexy,’ says Fay. ‘We had the funny stuff. Apart from the one time when I had to have comic sex with John. He would fantasise that I was a much younger, blonder barmaid fantasy version of me. I spent a full 16-hour filming day on top of him, dressed in fantasy outfits.’
In real life, Fay had eyes only for her boyfriend, Australian actor LaPaine, who played the handsome groom – and Olympic swimming hopeful – in Muriel’s Wedding.
‘People always expect him to be wafting around my house in Speedos,’ jokes Fay. ‘Which I do not advise him to do.’
Eventually, tiring of the long hours and, perhaps, the downtrodden nature of Jenny, who was habitually depressed by her marriage and never seemed to have any luck, Fay left the series.
More than anything, she desperately wanted to be a wife and mother.
‘I made a life decision,’ she says. ‘At that point, as brilliant as it was, and against all the advice, I did leave. I was so in love with my gorgeous fiance, Daniel, who is now my husband, that I was not sure I could spend so much time away from him.
‘I wanted to jump in and start the next phase of my life. And thank God I did. We have been married ten years now and have two wonderful children.’
Fay recalls quitting halfway through the fourth series in 2001.
‘They threw a leaving party for me with a film of all Jenny’s best bits. At the end, John, my on-screen husband, was crying. I thought it was so sweet, he was really upset at me leaving,’ she laughs. ‘But no, he was crying at his own acting. It was really shocking – he just thought he was so good in my farewell scene.
‘I came back for the final episode in series five, when Rachel was buried. I was eight months pregnant – so you could probably see what I was doing in the middle of that time.’
Although Fay’s life may seem blessed, it has not been without struggle. She was born in Wimbledon, to Bev, a businessman, and Tina, an antiques dealer. Her parents separated when she was two. Both remarried immediately and it meant that, throughout her childhood, Fay would spend half the week with her mother and the other half with her father.
‘I was brought up around Weybridge, in the Surrey stockbroker belt,’ she says. ‘Cliff Richard was always in the local Italian restaurant.
‘I never missed my parents being together because I could not remember a time when they had been. I just thought it was great that I had two Christmas trees at Christmas, and two lots of stockings, double the Easter eggs, double the presents.
‘I felt loved. But throughout my early years I was incredibly forgetful and disorganised, and always used to be late. I lived out of an overnight bag, half the time at one house and half the time at another.
‘From the age of six my ambition was to have a house of my own.’
Fay first fell in love with acting at her well-to-do convent school.
‘I had a great drama teacher who gave me confidence. If the mathematics teacher had been that encouraging I would probably now be an accountant. But I was rubbish at everything and I wasn’t too bad at acting, so I thought, fabulous – I will be an actress.’
It was Fay’s grandfather who realised her true potential, however.
‘I had a very posh, aristocratic grandpapa on my father’s side of the family – a real blue-blood. On the very rare occasion I was taken to the Ritz to be presented to him, he would say, “You are funny. You will do comedy.” Unfortunately, he died too soon to see that play out.’
At college, studying drama, Fay took the lead in a production of Romeo And Juliet alongside James Purefoy, now star of the American HBO series Rome.
They fell for each other while playing Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and the relationship was to last more than a decade. Purefoy is said to come over misty-eyed when he mentions his first love – but Fay is reluctant to talk much about her famous ex.
‘We were still children, really,’ she says. ‘Even though it was quite a long relationship, it didn’t feel grown-up.’
She applied to the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama three times.
‘It was third time lucky,’ she says.
‘The rejections were desperately painful. My world fell apart every time I didn’t get in.’
After graduation, Fay tried to make a go of it as an actress – with limited success – while living in Shepherd’s Bush, where she worked part-time as a receptionist in a health centre.
‘For five or six years, I didn’t work much. I only ever played prostitutes – roles such as “third whore”, “mistress with no name”, “homewrecker”.
‘Dad did not approve. He is a businessman and could not understand why I would put myself into an arena where you get paid no money, you never know where the next job is coming from and you are constantly humiliated. Now I agree with him. It is a stupid job for a grown-up.
‘He came to see me in one play at the Bush Theatre. The Bush may be a really well-known theatre – but it is above a pub and there were no backs to the seats so you had to lean against other people’s knees. The play was called Two Lips Indifferent Red. I asked him if he enjoyed it and he said, “Honestly Fay, I’d rather you were a prostitute – you’d get a better hourly rate.”
‘I laughed. My dad was funny, but he did mean it. I remember wishing away my 20s, thinking life was awful. Essentially, I was a receptionist, with no boyfriend.’
In 1997, however, things turned around, practically overnight. Fay landed an audition for a new ITV drama pilot, called Cold Feet.
She produced a pitch-perfect Mancunian accent, and had immediate chemistry with her soon-to-be on-screen husband, John Thomson.
Then, just after she had finished filming the first series, she met the man who was to transform her life for ever.
‘I met Daniel in London. He was making a film called Elephant Juice. We had a couple of mutual friends, bumped into each other and started chatting. When he asked me out to dinner I said no. I thought it was a joke. I just didn’t believe that this god would want to date me.’
After they met up again in New York at fellow actor Alan Cumming’s New Year’s Eve party, Fay knew that Daniel was the man she wanted to marry. The only obstacle was the Atlantic Ocean.
‘He was in America doing films but I wanted to bag him as a proper boyfriend,’ Fay explains. ‘So I lied and said I had auditions in LA and flew over with a friend so I could hang out with him.’
While her Cold Feet co-star Helen Baxendale landed the role of Emily in Friends, America was not to prove such a success for Fay.
‘I had one audition and that was my last. The response when I walked in was as though someone had broken wind. “What am I supposed to do with that creature?” they seemed to think. “Short, slightly overweight, thinks she’s funny. Don’t get it. Next.” I wanted to die, I was so humiliated. But although I didn’t get a job, I did get a husband.’
Fay and Daniel, 40, have now been married for a decade and have two children, Parker, nine, and Sonny, five.
Fay has no regrets about her decision to prioritise love – and her role as a mother – over acting.
Now she enjoys nothing more than putting on a pinny, cooking for her children and scribbling down recipes to share with other families.
‘Acting is just a job,’ Fay says. ‘But creating recipes and writing them down – that is part of me. I have had an amazing and privileged life so far. And doing this, I am happier now than I have ever been.’