Grief doesn't get better - but it does 'get different'. Actress and writer Nanette Newman talks to Hannah Stephenson about life after loss

It's four years since the death of Nanette Newman's husband Bryan Forbes, but the pain of his loss still lingers for the veteran actress.

Their marriage was one of the most famous and enduring in showbiz, and Newman nursed him to the end.

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"People always say, 'Is it getting better?' Bryan has been dead for four years in May - it never gets better, it just gets different," says Newman, 82, star of 1960s British screen classics such as The League Of Gentlemen, The L-Shaped Room and Seance On A Wet Afternoon, and the Fairy Liquid adverts of the Seventies and Eighties.

She acted in nine films directed by her husband, including the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives and International Velvet, and has written more than 30 books, mostly cookbooks and children's books, the latest of which is The Importance Of Being Ernest The Earwig.

Newman's now sold the Surrey family home the couple shared for 50 years which, she says, was a terrible wrench.

"My life has changed. I used to live in an enormous house with masses of garden and grounds. When Bryan died I had to sell my house, which was very traumatic and upsetting.

"Moving was a good thing," she adds, "because I was becoming like Miss Havisham, wandering from room to room with cobwebs in my hair. Now I have a different house and I love it. You suddenly have to make a life on your own."

Just 17 when they met, Newman was studying at Rada and got sent along for a job on a forgettable B-movie Wheel Of Fate, in which Forbes was starring. At the time he was married, to Irish actress Constance Smith - but that relationship had already run its course and they divorced in 1955.

Forbes and Newman married a few months later and had two daughters, TV presenter Emma Forbes and journalist Sarah Standing. Their marriage lasted 58 years.

Forbes, an actor, director and screenwriter, had it written into his film contracts that if he was away for more than two weeks, his wife would go out to join him.

"We lived and worked in a profession where you could have such long separations, which Bryan often did. When he went off to make The Madwoman Of Chaillot with Kate Hepburn in the South of France, he was going to be there about nine months. I upped the children and they went to school out there, so we could all be together," Newman recalls.

"We tried not to be separated endlessly, which was always a danger in this business, and we didn't want the children to grow up not being with their parents. We went to live in Hollywood for nearly a year, we spent time in Spain. We went wherever we were working.

"Our profession is full of temptation because you are usually working with very interesting, attractive people and you are away from home. But there are happy [showbiz] marriages. Look at Mike and Shakira [Caine]. They are divinely happy, but you only ever hear about the marriages that go wrong."

Every wall in Newman's work room, where she writes, is crammed with photographs, sculptures and paintings - she's a keen artist.

She certainly hasn't given up on life.

"You don't want to sit down, become morose and feel like it's the end of your life, but on the other hand, there are days when you feel like that.

"There were days when I felt so low and missed Bryan so desperately. If you've been married that long, been in love with each other and you've had a great marriage, you've lost not only a great husband and the person that knows everything about you, you've lost your greatest friend. It's an indescribable thing. There's no remedy.

"The important thing is to keep working and to find something that occupies you. You need distraction and things to look forward to."

Her wider family have been tremendously supportive, she adds. She has four grown-up grandchildren and a great-grandson called Huck, who'll be three in May.

"My family has got me through the really bad times. I've been really lucky. My daughters were amazing. The three of us were with him right up to the moment he closed his eyes for the last time."

Forbes was ill for more than two years, suffering from emphysema and a complex heart condition.

While her family remain close by, Newman still finds it difficult going home alone.

"You change your life in certain ways, but you come home to an empty house, a double bed that you've always slept in with your husband and you try to think of happier things.

"The loneliness strikes you at odd moments. I might think, 'Oh, Bryan and I used to sit here with a cup of coffee and have a laugh'. That's a part of my life that's gone."

She used to host huge family gatherings, cooking delicious Sunday dinners, but today doesn't want to cook for one. "I reach for a pack of granola and yoghurt. It's a different life, where I'm on my own but surrounded by the people I love. I make myself look on the good side and think of something else," she says.

When Forbes died, family and friends gathered for a celebration of his life in Newman's garden.

Trying to remain positive helps keeps her going, including her writing. Her new children's book, which she started writing after her husband died, is illustrated by her friend Lindsay Branagh (wife of Kenneth).

"I've just written a television play because I wanted to keep writing. I've taken a sculpting course. Keeping occupied is important.

"Moving was good for me," Newman concludes. "Here, I've created something which is a combination of us both, and have kept the things I love from my old home.

"At the moment, I'm sitting at Bryan's desk. I love that. I can see pictures we chose together or paintings Bryan bought me as a present. I sense the happy times."

  • The Importance Of Being Ernest The Earwig by Nanette Newman (illustrated by Lindsay Branagh) is published by Templar, priced £6.99. Available now