Jilly Goolden on wine, television and life in Ashdown Forest
PUBLISHED: 11:51 02 September 2013 | UPDATED: 12:46 29 April 2014
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036
Television wine expert Jilly Goolden lives in an Arts & Crafts house down a rhodedendron-lined driveway on Ashdown Forest. As I arrive, followed by a white van, I'm welcomed with friendly barking and much tail-wagging by a Dalmation and friend, who I later discover is a Greek rescue dog.
Jilly appears at the doorway in jeans and an emerald green cardigan. “The swimming pool has packed up and the repairmen have arrived three hours early,” she says apologetically.
She ushers me into her comfortable sitting room with its glorious views over the aforementioned pool and the forest beyond while she goes to give the repairmen their instructions.
Returning a little later, she flops onto a squishy sofa to begin the interview. Petite and with large blue eyes, Jilly was one of the best-known faces on BBC in the 1980s and 90s.
She notched up 18 years on BBC2’s popular Food and Drink series, her pronounced and modulated vowels becoming as familiar as her frizz of “microwaved” blonde curls. But, wait a minute...although the voice is instantly recognisable, the hair is now fringed and almost poker-straight.
“I fancied a change,” she says simply.
Jilly has lived on Ashdown Forest with her husband, Paul, and their children Oriel, Verity and Philip, for the past 15 years. For most of that time she has firmly guarded her privacy, but she decided to give this rare interview as she prepares to launch her new venture, The Wine Room, based at her home.
From a large and beautifully converted room, which features a magnificent, eye-catching wine glass chandelier, Jilly will be hosting five-hour sessions during which groups of up to 14 wine-lovers a time will taste a dozen distinctive wines as she shares some of her knowledge.
“I’ll be demystifying the whys and wherefores of wines of the world,” she says. “It will be informal though embracing and hopefully, help guide people towards trying new wines and give them confidence to experiment.”
The new venture is particularly close to Jilly’s heart as it will be taking place at home, in an area she has known all her life.
“I grew up only 15 minutes away, where my mum still lives in our family house. I had ponies then and horses now, and I still ride the same forest trails I did when I was 10 years old.”
Jilly went to school at a nearby convent. When she was 16, however, she was asked to leave.
“I wasn’t expelled,” she explains with a mischievous smile. “I decided I wanted to part company with the convent routine, and did it in a slightly rebellious way.”
She laughs. “My mother sees it in a different light, as I think she was called in for a series of meetings about me.
“I did enjoy the convent and the head nun was particularly inspiring, but I wanted to get out into the world.”
After completing her A levels at a “glamorous residential tutorial place in Oxford” Jilly turned to journalism.
It was while she was working on magazines such as Vogue and Brides that she was asked to write a wine column. She enjoyed the experience and decided to learn as much about the subject as possible. After going freelance, she quickly found her niche, writing about wine for popular young women’s magazines, including Company, Woman’s Own, Woman’s Journal and Over 21.
“This was the early 1980s,” Jilly says. “It was a great job. There were lots of nice perks, such as vineyard visits, and I was at the receiving end of a lot of samples.”
Her writing on Over 21 was soon spotted and led to the BBC, which, in 1982, launched Food and Drink. She was offered the wine item in the first show.
“I was so anxious,” she recalls. “I didn’t grow up with television – we didn’t have one – so I was full of trepidation.
“I was naïve about anything to do with TV, I didn’t even realise there was a make-up department. I did my own and I used my own clothes. I remember one week, I even wore a borrowed Airtex shirt!
“I was the quintessential girl next door; one newspaper described me as ‘the Cinderella of the small screen’. Even then, I used to try to force my microwaved hair to go straight.”
The TV audience loved her and the show. “It became the biggest programme on the subject of food and drink in the world at the time. Our top audience in one week was eight million.” The audience was learning about wine – and so was Jilly.
“I was really only one step in front of them to start with, but I ran quickly to catch up with my reputation. As well as attending wine courses, I was tasting 150 wines a week (and still do) and got experience on the job.”
Jilly also began to get noticed for her flamboyant and memorable descriptions during tastings on screen, such as referring to certain wines as being reminiscent of saddle-soaped leather, liquorice and even rubber.
“I wanted to convey the scent and flavours of the wines to the audience so I compared them to everyday smells and flavours,” she explains.
As well as being a groundbreaker in terms of being the first woman on television to talk about wine, Jilly was also at the forefront of the revolution that saw wine-drinking progress from the occasional glass being drunk at Sunday lunchtime, or on special occasions, to it featuring as a regular presence in many households.
“When I first started men were the main wine buyers, but that soon changed,” she recalls. “Women didn’t feel excluded anymore; it empowered them and they started to buy wine.
“The 80s saw a massive change in people’s drinking habits. The wine bar culture had begun, but the evolution really came about in supermarkets. They had a huge impact on shopping patterns; women would combine shopping with picking up wine.
The world was opening up too. “The first Australian wine – Jacob’s Creek - arrived in the UK in 1983, while the release of Nelson Mandela from prison opened up the South African industry, and the New Zealand market began to flourish too.”
She cites discovering a Tesco Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon early on as one of her Food and Drink highlights. “We had a big tasting of supermarket wines and this came top. It was brilliant, and overnight Chile’s total exports doubled.”
Jilly left Food and Drink in 2000, staying with the BBC to front You Call the Shots for four years, as well as presenting a programme on antiques and appearing regularly on the BBC’s Holiday programme. In 2005, she decided to go down the celebrity reality show route.
“I sold my soul to the devil and did Extreme Celebrity Detox. It wasn’t fun,” she says with a laugh. That was followed by I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! and Celebrity Wife Swap where she changed places with soul singer Alexander O’Neal’s wife, Cynthia.
Her favourite celeb show, however, was I’m A Celebrity… “I was voted out quite early on, but got to stay in the Versace Hotel on Australia’s Gold Coast. It was fantastic.
“Our suite included two bedrooms, two Jacuzzis, and a private pool. I didn’t mind eating anything on that show if it meant staying there!”
One reality show she won’t ever take part in, however, is Strictly Come Dancing. She makes a comparison with bull-fighting.
“In bull-fighting everyone but the bull knows what it’s in for. But now I do know, so no more reality for me!”
Other recent TV assignments include being a judge on the ITV programme Britain’s Best Dish for six series, but Jilly’s focus now is firmly on The Wine Room.
“I hope people like the idea and come along,” she says. “It is something quite new that’s not been seen round here before.
“I think it is important to keep reinventing yourself. The Wine Room is a new direction and I am greatly looking forward to inviting people into my home and sharing my great passion.”