Fiona Fullerton is surely the archetypal English actress. In a successful career encompassing television, film and stage, she managed to combine silver-screen era elegance with a sensuous, contemporary edge that enabled her to convincingly portray a variety of characters. Although Fiona has moved on to a new career, that aura of Englishness and elegance remains, and her home, a beautiful old vicarage in a small Cotswold village, provides a setting that seems to suit her better than any contrived film set could hope to do. A dark green Jaguar Sovereign on the driveway completes the scene. But acting is no longer the focus of Fiona's enthusiasm.
"I retired when my little girl was born. I'm so much happier. For me, the main reason was that I had my baby very late in life and I wanted to spend some time with her and with a husband who I absolutely adore. The work I was doing, theatre mainly, meant working every night, six nights a week, so I hardly saw my family. I thought, well I'm going to have to stop, this is ridiculous, I want to be at home. And I love writing: I've always been a writer. Although predominantly I was acting, I always used to write. I've had pieces published since the 80s, and I thought that's something I can do at home. I have an office here and I run my property business and my writing and the new accessories business from here, so it really suits me very well."
The subject matter for her writing is provided by another of Fiona's major passions.
"I suppose I'd always been interested in property, in fact I've been investing since 1976. It seemed to me a sort of natural progression to become more involved in the rental market. I used to develop - to buy and sell, but now what I do is buy to let, so I'm a landlord. I have a small portfolio of properties which I let to young professionals in central London and Oxford. Then, because I love interior design, a natural extension of that was to come up with a mail order company providing accessories and soft furnishings for the home that are slightly unusual and difficult to access on the high street - the sort of things that you can't necessarily buy in John Lewis or any of the smart department stores. And because I've been doing up houses for years and years, I've come across suppliers in the trade that most women like me, who are doing up their houses, might be completely unaware of. So my idea for the company was to provide access to some of these much smaller suppliers who make beautiful things. I mean, I'm talking about everything from lamps to tiebacks for your curtains, beautiful tassels, beautiful finials, beautiful linens, cushions, all sorts of things. That's the company Casa Libra which we're launching at the end of this month, as soon as the website's finished. The whole catalogue will be online literally in about a week or so, so we're very close now.
"My career at the moment is sort of multi-dimensional. I'm on my third book, which is about buying to let. It's my third property book. I do a lot of features for newspapers as well, so I write every day, because I have various commitments and columns and things that I have to write. but it all tends to be revolving now around houses, so everything that I do is to do with property."
Enthusiasm is obviously a natural state for Fiona. After years of acquiring, restoring and selling property, the fascination and enjoyment evidently remains. That same enthusiasm, it seems, extends to the family's cars. Both Fiona and her husband, businessman Neil Shackell, are confirmed Jaguar devotees and both drive cars which sport their personalised number plates: 2 FF on Fiona's Sovereign and NS 26 on Neil's XJSC convertible.
"Actually there's quite a cute story behind that. My husband bought his Jaguar XJS back in the eighties. He went all the way up to Lincolnshire to find this car, and it had that NS 26 plate on it. Neil is a very unassuming gentleman - he's not somebody who wears a big gold Rolex watch and would naturally have a flashy number plate - it doesn't seem to fit with him at all; but he told me that when he went to buy this car it had that plate on it, with his initials. So he said to the chap he was buying it from 'Well I love the car but how much is the plate?' and the man said 'Oh, well you can have the plate with the car.' So he did.
"Neil absolutely loves his cars. His business is IT, based in communications, but ever since he was able to drive he had a little garage tacked onto his house in Weybridge in Surrey, which is where we met. He used to do up cars for other people. He's not a trained mechanic or anything like that but it was his hobby. His way of relaxing at the end of a horrible day in the office would be to come home and tinker with a few cars. His very first car was a bright red MGA which we've still got in the garage, and which he's restoring for the second time! He's restored it once and got it roadworthy and I don't know what happened but he's restoring it again. So his passion, like a lot of men I think, is playing with this life-sized toy. it's the ultimate toy. He absolutely adores anything to do with cars.
"The local mechanic here in our village lives on the egg farm where we get our eggs, and he is more or less kept in full time employment because my husband is convinced that you have to service a car every five miles [laughs], and one of them's always in there having something done like new wheels or something's being balanced or it needs new brake callipers. always something. We have a lot of cars: we've got two Volvos, two Jags, a really old Landrover that's forty-two years old - a long wheelbase one which is gorgeous - and then his MGA. One or other of them is always down the egg farm having something done to it. It's hysterical! And it's very complicated for me and for Andrea, our nanny, because I never know which cars are around, so there's a lot of juggling goes on. What is lovely about that is that they're all beautifully maintained. Neil really cares about those vehicles, you know, they're all in fantastic condition because he really does care about them. The insides and the outsides are all immaculate as he loves everything to be just so. It's lovely, but it's very time-consuming, and on a Saturday morning when most guys would be reading the sports section or putting their feet up, he's out there washing them all. He just loves them to look nice."
NS 26 isn't the only cherished registration Neil has acquired over the years.
"He's got a couple of double Ds which have got like four digits and then DD. He's got two of those. One is on one of the Volvos that he's driving today, I think, and we've got another one. oh, it's on the MGA. It's not a particularly special plate, just four digits and then DD, but they're two corresponding plates which is nice. He purchased those back in the 70s. I think he's one of those people who feels that a cherished number plate is better than having an ordinary one. For one thing, you can't tell what year that model of car is.
"When I married him in '94, I was driving an absolutely disgusting little car, and he said, 'You're going to have to have a Jaguar, you know'. I'm not particularly influenced by status symbols or flashy cars or anything like that, but for purely practical reasons he said, 'If we're going to be shipping children around the place I want you to have a sensible car'. I said: 'Can't it just be a Volvo?' [laughs] and he told me 'No, you have to have a Jaguar'. As it happens we've got two Volvos as well now, but he wanted me to have this Jag, and then I said, not to be outdone, that I'd like a really nice number plate, please! You know how in the Sunday Times and in your magazine and in lots of publications they have all the number plates, don't they, at the back? Well, we found FF 55, which I thought was quite nice simply because of the symmetry of the two digits and the two letters. So I rang up and made some enquiries about it and I think they wanted five and a half thousand pounds or something for it, and I procrastinated which is something I hardly ever do because in my business, in property, you simply can't afford to procrastinate - you have to make very quick decisions. Anyway, I left it for about a day and a half I suppose, and when I rang back the man said they had sold it. So I was a bit miffed, but then we kept looking and then Neil saw 2 FF, in one of the Sunday papers, I think.
"It was a very good price; but apparently, from what I'm told, if the digit comes before the letter it's cheaper than if the letter comes before the digit. It's interesting isn't it? So really it's quite a business for some people because I suppose they buy the plates and then sit on them. I imagine that if I kept mine, like anything, it would slowly increase in value."
The investment aspect hasn't escaped Fiona's sharp eye for a potential deal, and as the conversation turns to this aspect of personal plate ownership we give Fiona an estimate of the current value of her 2 FF registration. Happily, the news is good enough to give cause for fleeting incredulity.
"What? You're joking! Worth. [laughs]. Well that's interesting!
"Originally it went onto a red Jaguar XJ6 and then in February 2000 I bought this Jaguar - the green one, the Sovereign - and switched the plates over. For a while we had the three cars parked out front: my two Jags had 2 FF on them - on both of them [laughs]. Of course you couldn't put them on the road like that! Then we put Neil's car in the middle, and it was such a cute picture. We sold the red Jag with just an ordinary plate on it, and kept my plate and put it on my current car. In fact, in the next couple of weeks I'm just about to buy a Jaguar XK8 which is a smaller, rather more feminine version, and we're going to put the plate on that, which I think will look really nice."
How does Fiona view the effect a personal number plate can have on one's anonymity?
"I have to say, living in the country makes a difference because I think that if I was in London with a plate like that I'd be a lot more vulnerable, and I would think twice about it: but down here, where life is so sort of calm and gentle and kind, it's never really been an issue for me. I think that if I was in an inner-city, urban environment I would watch out, simply because of the jealousy factor; you know, you'd get a key run down the car... so I think one has to be fairly careful about that, and garaging and things like that.
"I like having the plate but I think there are times. for example, when I'm doing the school-run in the morning, all the mums at school have got very, very smart cars but they haven't all got fancy plates, so the thing is that because of the car and the plate I can't afford to go and park badly or block anybody in because they'll all be saying: 'That Fiona Fullerton, she's terrible. She's so selfish!'.
"So, you know, I have to really toe the line and park properly. When you're on the school run and dropping your kids off, a lot of mums just pull up, jump out and off they go, but if I did that I'd be in deep trouble because everyone would know it was me. So, occasionally I go in the Volvo - well actually, more often than not - and then nobody knows it's me!"
What do family and friends think of Fiona's registration?
"My cousin's little boy is called Freddie Fullerton and he's got his eyes on my number plate already! Now that I know what it's worth though I don't think I'm going to give it to him too quickly! He's only a little boy at the moment - he's about nine but he's always said, 'Because we have the same initials, can I have that plate one day?'."
The revelation about the current value of her personal plate is a source of continuing amusement to her. She asks what her husband's registration would currently be worth, and once again the answer comes as a surprise.
"Less than mine! Oh, you see, I made the smarter investment! See, that's the story of my life - I do it every time! [Laughs] Excellent!"
We tell Fiona about another FF registration that Regtransfers is currently buying in for stock.
The price of that one will be about one hundred thousand pounds.
"OH! No, I can't afford that!
I didn't actually pay all that much for mine. I'd rather spend that sort of money on buying another property."
Despite her absolute dismissal of the idea of paying a very high price for another registration for herself, would Fiona ever consider purchasing a registration purely as an investment?
"Well, not with my initials. As an investment. some other more common initials where the price rises accordingly, yes probably, but FF I don't think is too good a bet really."
Why does she think people buy personal registrations?
"If your neighbour has got one then you want one. So it's keeping up. But in my particular case, being high-profile anyway, one wouldn't have thought that I'd need to draw any more attention to myself, which is quite true [laughs]. I don't know, I suppose it's Neil's thinking that a nice plate certainly will look gorgeous on an XK8."
This is a busy time for Fiona. She has her new Jaguar to look forward to, and she is currently working on her third property book. This time the focus will be on letting and the new book's ETA is late spring 2004. For the moment, however, all attention is on Casa Libra, the online catalogue of unusual and hard-to-find accessories.
The website, www.casalibra.com, is live and ready for browsing and even the casual visitor will immediately see that it boasts a selection of stylish and unusual items that one would certainly have difficulty finding on the high street.
Some might be puzzled that a successful star of stage and screen would so readily give up the spotlight. nevertheless, it is hard to imagine anyone being busier, happier or more enthusiastic than Fiona Fullerton.