The secret to a happy marriage? Jealousy, anger and passion

Jan Etherington with her husband, Gavin Petrie, daughter, Lucy, and her partner, Nigel Credit: Linda Nylind

I’ve just asked my husband, ‘What’s the secret of a long marriage?’

‘You tell me and I’ll agree,’ was his instant reply.

It made me laugh - which partly explains why we’re still together, after 33 years.

On New Year’s Day, Radio 4 broadcast my comedy, Conversations From A Long Marriage. A two-hander, starring Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam, in which they talked, laughed and reminisced. They were jealous, angry but most of all passionate. It appeared to resonate with many couples, including my friend Helen, who told me ‘It sounds just like us. We’ve made a New Year Resolution to stop bickering!’

I’ve been writing comedy for over 40 years – chronicling pretty much every stage of my life, in features, scripts and sometimes, in broadcasts or stand-up routines, from my first love (Barry) , my children (two), work, dog and oh, yes, my marriage to Gavin for all these years.

Now I’m a Senior Railcard holder – but I don’t feel any different from when Barry first held my hand at the Youth Club. I wanted to reflect that in my writing – because I was tired of the stereotypical view of those of us who’ve ‘become old’.

How the world sees us – and what we see, as we look in the mirror, or the shop window - is not how we feel inside.

As the ‘wild child’, Iggy Pop, put it, when he reached 70 and announced he was going to get fit: ‘I want to look in the mirror and recognise the person I feel inside.’

Hurtling towards the same decade, I felt the the same. A few years ago, I’d written a poem, which ended ‘I can’t hide the outside me- but here, inside, I’m Lady Chatterley with Mellors. I’m Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.’

I started writing Conversations over two years ago and I wrote it specifically for Joanna. National Treasure status aside, she is the epitome of how we’d all like to grow older. She may be 70, but she is very much in her prime. It didn’t surprise me one jot that she had been chosen to replace Stephen Fry to present the BAFTA’s this year. Initially, some asked me ‘But isn’t she too beautiful and confident to have insecurities about ageing and marriage?’ But Joanna herself thought she would be perfect for the piece I’d written. She has been married to the brilliant musician, conductor Stephen Barlow for over 30 years and when she read it, she said ‘You’ve been listening at my window.’ A huge compliment.

Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam, who voiced Conversations from a Long Marriage Credit:  Matt Stronge

Joanna and I then had to think who would play the husband, we both wanted Roger Allam - a strong and urbane character who could be Joanna’s equal in every way. We thought it would be a dream team.

And so it proved. They were playing a couple who were children of the 60s, free spirits, loving music and each other. They were strong, opinionated – but they were still together. Still talking. As I sat in the studio, watching them, I couldn’t stop smiling. It felt absolutely right. The whole day of recording was warm and wonderful, with hilarious anecdotes from both of them between takes but. I believed them as a couple.

As we get older, we learn that not every relationship is forever

Keeping a long marriage alive is not easy. I’ve done my fair share of door-slamming, plate-throwing, flouncing off to the spare room. I’ve echoed Lucy’s, (from the Peanuts cartoon), response to Charlie Brown. ‘OK. I have my faults – but not as many as yours!’ I’ve lain in bed, tearful and furious, waiting for him to come up and apologise. Only to stomp down and find he’s fallen asleep in front of Newsnight.

Show me a couple that don’t ever fight and I’ll show you…. Well, I don’t know any. And post-Christmas, with all the heightened emotions – and expectations that come with the season, there’s bound to be someone ‘having a strop’. After receiving a matching set of saucepans from her husband last year, my sister stormed ‘Don’t you dare get me anything USEFUL!!’ He flinched, but rallied and this year, she opened a small, engraved box to find a beautiful pair of earrings. He braced himself for hugs of joy, but it was not to be. “They’re for pierced ears!” she wailed. “My ears are not pierced. Don’t you ever look at me?”

He sighed heavily. ‘Even when I think I’ve got it right, I’m wrong’.

Of course, as we get older, we learn that not every relationship is forever. We’re living longer and healthier lives. The chances of meeting someone as a teenager and still loving them 60 years later is pretty low, because we’ll change – and not always in the same way that our partner will.

We’ve all seen marriages flounder and fail. Some become toxic - those couples we all know snapping over the dinner table, putting each other down so much you dread spending time with them.

And yet, they may stay together. Like George in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’?, taunting his wife ‘ Martha, in my mind you’re buried in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose, it’s much quieter’ - you wonder if it is the conflict that binds them and powers them on.

Or will eventually make them snap like Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, in War of the Roses.

She snarls ‘When I watch you eat, when I see you asleep, I just wanna smash your face in!’ We leave them both clinging to a chandelier, which we know will, shortly, crash to the ground, ending their marriage in the only way possible.

Other marriages go through a rough patch but spark up and revive. Two of my oldest friends met and married very young and then split up. Thirty seven years later, she had been widowed and phoned him, ‘How are you?’ They re-married and ‘I love the bones of him,’ she confided in me one night.

Like many, I am addicted to The Crown (Netflix), and have watched Claire Foy (playing The Queen) and Matt Smith ( as Prince Philip) discussing their marriage crisis. ‘Divorce is not an option for us. Ever’, she said, unequivocally. If that had happened today, you wonder if this young, glamorous, strong-willed couple would have made it, or would they have divorced like three of their own children did. But, no, they stuck with it and on their golden wedding anniversary, she hailed him as her “strength and stay” noting that the family and nation “owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know”.

And mild bickering and teasing is often more delightful than it is harmful in a couple who have been put through their paces in life. See June and Leon Bernicoff from Channel 4’s Gogglebox. Sadly, Leon died just before Christmas but over the years we fell in love with them both as they gently chided and ribbed each other over the years - their relationship obviously as comfortable as an old slipper. Married in 1960, they met at a dance ‘he kissed me – and that was it,’ said June while admitting she’d “like an invention to make me more patient’.

So many of us felt sad upon hearing of Leon’s passing because this couple epitomised the necessary ingredients for a long and happy marriage --be kind, keep talking and laughing and yes, as it says in the Shoop Shoop song, ‘It’s in his kiss’.

Although, my neighbour, Ken, had additional advice, at a party to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary. ‘People often ask me the secret of a happy marriage. It’s simple. Once a week, go out for a romantic supper. Candlelight, sweet music, lovely food and wine…. ‘ He paused ‘She goes on Tuesdays and I go on Thursdays.’

 Conversations from a Long Marriage is on BBC iPlayer.

Jan Etherington & Gavin Petrie’s TV comedies, Second Thoughts, Faith In The Future and Next of Kin are available on DVD.