Let’s not get too hung up about age. After all, as the perennially youthful Joan Collins is fond of reminding us, ‘it’s just a number’.
Joan’s husband Percy Gibson is 55. ‘If he dies, he dies,’ the actress and writer famously quipped when pressed about the significant age difference between them.
But how does her daughter Tara — Percy’s contemporary — feel about the fact that her step-father is six years younger than her husband?
When novelist Tara Newley, 56, married fellow writer Nick Gilador Arkle, 61, Percy — resplendent in a Gibson tartan kilt — gave her away.
‘Percy walked me down the aisle to one of my Dad’s songs, Feeling Good.’ It was Joan’s second husband, the late actor and singer/songwriter Anthony Newley.
‘Annoyingly, people think Nick looks a lot younger than I do,’ adds Tara. ‘I try not to think about my age but, having dated younger men in the past, I’ve decided an older one is a better match for me.
‘Nick is funny, kind and generous; the sweetest man I’ve ever met. He’s such a supportive stepdad and loves my children.’ (She has two —Miel, 21, and Weston, 16, by different fathers.)
Her relationships have not always been as loving as they are with Nick. As she tells me today, she has had some ‘that could be considered abusive’ and admits she has had to ‘learn what healthy relationships are’. But it’s clear things are different now.
‘I fell in love with Nick through the written word. It’s a writerly love story!’ she exclaims. ‘We started to communicate on social media and our messages got longer until they were like mini-novels.’
Then he invited her to dinner and they began to date.
‘Now we’ve been married for four years,’ she says. ‘Having been round the houses in terms of relationships, I feel I’ve finally come home. Mum is very fond of him, too.
‘We had a quiet little West Country wedding on a perfect English summer’s day. I chose a Fifties Grace Kelly-style dress cut across the shoulder, off-white; cinched in at the waist. They say the dress chooses you. I think it does!
‘Mum looked beautiful, as always, in a pink floral dress that complemented the flower arrangements. She read Desiderata, one of our favourite pieces of prose. There were about 80 people, all the friends and family. Just the right size. Lovely!’
I’ve met Dame Joan once and Tara twice — the first time eight years ago — and both mum and daughter are sharp-witted, fun, amusing company.
Their cut-crystal voices, similarly modulated, share a lilt and cadence. Close your eyes and you’d be hard-pressed to know which one of them you were talking to.
But that is where the resemblance ends.
Today, Tara looks scholarly in specs; her hair fringed and bobbed. Her legs are modestly exposed to the knee in a summer dress decorated with lemon motifs as she sits in the book-lined study of her rambling 200-year-old Somerset home, a collection of dog-eared Penguin classics on shelves behind her.
A couple of chickens cluck in the back garden; bees buzz among the orchard’s fruit trees; bats have colonised an outbuilding and her cats laze in the sunshine. There is even a cave in which she is considering ageing her own Cheddar.
When glamorous Joan visits — sometimes accoutred in jodhpurs and a hacking jacket, although she doesn’t ride (her attempt at ‘fitting in’, her amused daughter observes) — she looks like an exotic migratory bird blown off course.
Dame Joan has opulent homes on the Cote D’Azur, Belgravia in London, New York and Los Angeles. Tara prefers rural life in the village near Weston-super-Mare that has been her home for 14 years.
It is easy to forget that Tara’s parents were Hollywood aristocrats. Her London-born father, brooding and darkly handsome, moved to the U.S. in the Sixties and became as big a star in Las Vegas as Frank Sinatra.
Joan soared into the showbiz pantheon in 1981 when she was cast as super-bitch Alexis Carrington in the U.S. television soap Dynasty.
While Joan was working, Tara and younger brother Sacha were often cared for by nannies — one of whom, Sue de Long, would take them to her family home in Weston-super-Mare for holidays, hence Tara’s affection for this unassuming corner of the West Country.
Indeed her son, by property developer Richard Skeates (Sue de Long’s nephew), is called Weston in jokey homage to Posh and Becks, who named their eldest son Brooklyn after the New York borough in which he was conceived.
Tara herself was born in New York and lived an itinerant showbiz life, shunted between her parents’ luxury homes in London and Hollywood after they divorced in 1970.
When she was 14, apparently infuriated by her mum’s frequent absences networking at showbiz parties, she decamped to the U.S. to live with her dad. The mum-daughter rift was well-publicised.
‘I wasn’t an easy teenager,’ she sighs. ‘You have hormones raging left, right and centre. It isn’t until you have children yourself that you really understand your parents.
‘Mum used to say: “It’s important to go out to events as they can be fortuitous. You meet people in the business.” That’s how she got the Dynasty role, from meeting someone at a party.
Like most mothers today, she couldn’t afford to stay at home cooking. She had to work, as she was the breadwinner.’ (Joan was by then married to her third husband, record producer Ron Kass, who frittered away vast amounts of money on a drug habit.)
‘Mum and I had our ups and downs like most parents and kids. But I couldn’t have more respect for her than I do now,’ Tara says.
‘I’m so grateful for everything she’s done for me and continues to do. She’s an absolute inspiration. I can’t tell you how many women come up to me and say that.’
She adds: ‘Not so long ago, once the menopause hit, women would literally fade into the background. My mother has raised the profile of women of a certain age; we feel better about ourselves.
‘I asked Percy: “How does she do it?” He said: “You know what? She just loves life.” ’
Joan even joins Tara on an annual United Nations Elimination of Violence against Women march in Bristol. Photos show Joan rugged up in a scarf, heavy coat and baseball cap (but still unmistakably her glamorous self), bearing a banner and striding out next to her daughter.
Tara, it emerges, admits to having suffered ‘tumultuous’ times with men in the past.
‘I’ve had relationships that could be considered abusive,’ she says carefully. ‘I think I had to learn what healthy relationships were.
‘If you can’t have a conversation without yelling, it is not a normal, loving relationship. You should be able to settle your differences in a calm voice.
‘Traditionally, we associate domestic abuse with physical violence. But if you’re walking on eggshells; if you’re afraid; being put down, bullied and threatened, then you’re living under coercive control and that’s a form of abuse.’
For six years before she met Nick, Tara was single. ‘I was on my own with a couple of cats, raising my kids, not looking for a relationship,’ she says. ‘I thought, “This is probably it”.
‘For a couple of years, I worked as case co-ordinator in a women’s refuge and in the community, and one of the dear women I worked with said: “You’d really like my friend Nick”. I said: “Yeah, sure.”’
By then, she’d had a short-lived marriage to the French composer Michel Adam, Miel’s father. Her son was born in 2003 and when her relationship with his father, Richard Skeates, broke down, she was with roofer Paul Beck, 13 years her junior, for two years.
After that relationship finished, she told me — on my previous visit — that she would be more circumspect.
‘I won’t fall too quickly into bed with any man,’ she said. ‘I will never introduce a new man into my children’s lives unless I’m sure he’s The One.’
Then, of course, when she least expected it, The One came along. Divorced with no children, Nick was living in the next village.
‘My friend invited us both round to her house, then Nick sent me a message on Facebook. I didn’t see it for three weeks — I’m not the most literate on social media,’ she says with a laugh.
‘But once I did, we started to write to each other. We touched each other’s souls on the page. The word was powerful, then it was made flesh!’
Now the two of them spend their days writing in their respective studies and Tara’s first novel, Radio Honey, about the simmering sexual tensions at an all-female radio station, is just published. I wonder how much of her younger self is invested in its feisty heroine, DJ Cassandra Bates.
The fictional Cass is raised by her father after her ‘flighty’ mother walks out on her husband and daughter, never to be seen again.
‘I think it’s a coming-of-age novel,’ she says. ‘We tend to think that happens in our 20s, but I think you can come of age at any time. I don’t believe in the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. You can learn to dance to your own music at any time in your life: I don’t think I started to take control of my own until about ten years ago.’
She says her husband is romantic in an understated way. ‘He bought me a red velvet cake to remind me of the one we had on our wedding day,’ she says. ‘He’ll leave out a spoon and bowl with vitamins for my breakfast. Little day-to-day gestures such as that mean so much. They let you know your partner cares about you.
‘And he shares my sense of fun. He has the same childlike sense of humour. We’re very happy in our own silly little world. This is for keeps. We’ll go to that great hallway in the sky hand-in-hand.’
She seems, after her rackety youth and a string of transient relationships, to have attained the happy equilibrium her mum also achieved — after four previous marriages — when she met Percy. An unashamed daddy’s girl, Tara still misses her father, who died, aged 67, from cancer in 1999.
His photo sits on the desk in her study. Does she talk to him? ‘I do, I do!’ she says. ‘I don’t think I’ve fully processed that he’s gone.
‘His body has passed away but I don’t think his spirit has. He still feels very present in my world. He got to meet Miel as a baby but not Weston and that’s still a sadness.’
She prefers to remember her father’s wisdom: ‘Dad used to say the most important job you can do as a human being is raise your kids. I was on my own with mine for six years. You just get on with it. You love them and you’re grateful you have them to look after.
‘You feel like the winner because Dad is right: it’s the greatest career of all, being a parent.’
Tara thinks of herself as the sum of all the disparate influences that have shaped her. But for all the exoticism of her peripatetic upbringing, she prefers the quiet life.
‘I’ve always said I’m half-Hackney, half-Hollywood, but I’m actually more comfortable in the country.
‘I’d go to the end of the Earth to be with my mother but London is her world and I’m here. I don’t see her enough but we speak every Sunday without fail. She’s really well. In fact, she’s incredible.’