One of the great adventures of being an actor is filming abroad, when suddenly you have the opportunity not only to visit, but actually to work somewhere else; to feel temporarily part of another city’s fabric rather than floating along its surface. This, then, comes to you from glorious, sweltering Rome, or more precisely from the Cavalieri Hilton, whose view over this ancient, unreal city, is quite breathtaking.
I’m here doing costume fittings for The Red Priest, a movie shooting later this summer. Luca, my tailor at Farani, the historical costumiers, is clearly a genius but has perhaps something of the demonic about him. As he laces my 18th-century corset, my waist seems miraculously to have shrunk to the size of Keira Knightley’s, but at some point my eyeballs must be popping out of my skull and my face turning purple because the director Liana shrieks, ‘Luca! Loosen it!’ Luca looks dismayed. ‘But it’ll ruin my shape!’ he wails. ‘She can’t breathe!’ Liana helpfully points out. Luca grudgingly lets some air in, and wow, I can respire again. That evening, Liana, who refreshingly appears to have scant regard for the concept of size zero actresses, takes everyone to dinner in Trastevere. We eat like kings (it’s a few weeks until the dreaded corset has to go back on) and talk into the night about film, life and, naturally, Italian politics. Is this work? It doesn’t feel like it.
Still, I sleep like a baby in my palatial hotel suite. It was a manic last week in London, much of it spent hopping between broadcasting studios. To Sky News first, where I had the honour of discussing the papers on Adam Boulton’s show with Tony Benn. No sooner had the octogenarian legend, as sprightly as ever, pointed out that Labour, unlike the Conservatives, were not in the habit of stabbing their leaders in the back, than David Miliband launched his artfully transparent clarion call to wavering voters in the Guardian. At LBC Radio a few days later, the talk was all ‘will-he-won’t-he’; a question that was still rumbling on when I arrived at the BBC, where I’m a regular studio guest on Radio 5 Live’s Sunday morning show. (Presenter Gabby Logan was in Beijing, but replaced by the lovely Gethin Jones.) Political blogger Iain Dale and I had a debate about what Mili-Vanilli’s intentions might really be, and were later joined by the Chinese ambassador, Fu Ying. Humble and articulate, she conceded that China still had a long way to go when it came to liberalisation, but insisted that politicising the Games was not the way to accelerate progress.
Back from Rome, it’s to Pinewood Studios, where I’m voicing an animated film called A Fox’s Tale. It’s got a fantastic cast — Bill Nighy, Helena Bonham Carter and Sienna Miller are attached — but the curious thing about this process is that you sit in a studio, alone but for the director and engineers, dubbing your part in complete isolation. But the story is charming, and it’s a treat to be doing a film that my young nieces can enjoy. With that almost in the can, I’m expected over in Swindon, where my publishers are throwing a barbeque with WH Smith Retail. I’m here to meet the people who make the decisions to stock the books we see in the shops — in my case, hopefully, my first novel, The Other Side of the Stars. This is all new to me, and exciting. I’ve never met anyone who works in that side of publishing before, and their insights about the nation’s reading habits as we munch burgers and chicken wings are fascinating.
Speaking of exciting: the Royal Albert Hall during Proms season has to be one of the most thrilling places on earth. I’ve spent so many hours here as a Prommer that it’s something of a dream to be part of it. It’s Roger Wright’s first summer as director, and the buzz backstage is palpable. I’m second presenter on a clutch of BBC4’s broadcasts, which means I get to interview some of the world’s greatest performers, including members of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, who are returning to the Proms with their founder-conductor, Daniel Barenboim. Since 2004 I have been regularly to Israel and the Occupied Territories with another bridge-building musical outfit, the Choir of London, and am increasingly convinced that although music will not solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is one of the most effective ways of creating dialogue and understanding between people on both sides. In a happy coincidence, the young Palestinian beneficiaries of our new bursary scheme are in town performing at the Wigmore Hall on 15 August, so they too will meet Barenboim and his visionary orchestra; and hopefully will be inspired to keep on with their music, a potential ticket out of the hell that is the West Bank.
On a coffee break snatched in sunshine by the Albert Memorial, I get a phone call. It’s the Wedding Shop. I’m due for a dress fitting, remember? Ah, yes. I’m getting married in a matter of weeks, but life’s been so hectic recently it’s easy to forget how imminent is the date. I call my fiancé, James, to see if he’s managed to book our DJ and photographer (let alone our honeymoon), but he, like me, is run off his feet. He works at Downing Street, where apparently there’s quite a lot going on right now. Whoever said August was about silly season and recess and bank holidays? Chance would be a fine thing.