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Actress Jill Halfpenny on writing a book about love, loss and living happily

© Rachell SmithJill Halfpenny.
Jill Halfpenny.

Jill Halfpenny believes in ghosts, she admits as The Sunday Post catches up with the ex-Coronation Street and EastEnders actor at her Northumberland home.

From the living room window, she and 16-year-old son Harvey can watch the waves crashing against the pier.

The move was a dream come true for the 48-year-old Gateshead lass who got her break aged 14 in the children’s TV show Byker Grove alongside Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, now the UK’s top entertainment duo Ant & Dec.

Leaving London, where she’d lived from the age of 18, was a turning point in her life and part of the effort to rebuild it after the agonising grief she endured following the death of her adored 43-year-old partner Matt Janes from a heart attack at a gym in 2017.

The tragedy sparked the unresolved trauma of the loss in 1979 of her father Colin, who was playing football when he also suffered a heart attack. Jill was only four at the time.

Having questioned if she could ever feel joy again, the actress, with a broad smile and bright eyes, reveals life is at last good. She sought help to live with the loss and, seven years on, has a new love she says she knows Matt approves of.

‘It was a sign’

“I do believe in ghosts,” she smiles, tenderly. “I have felt Matt’s presence in messages and signs.” Reliving one such experience, she tells The Sunday Post about sitting on the floor, putting on her make-up, Matt’s picture beside her: “I was going on the second date with my new partner, Ian, and I was talking to Matt. I was saying, ‘Is this OK, how do you feel about it?’ and the song Budapest came on. It’s the song Matt had said reminded him of me. It was a sign that I should go for it.”

And she reveals her mum Maureen, 77, also had her dad Colin’s blessing when, after his death, she went on to marry his brother Derek.

Jill, youngest of three girls, reveals: “My mum had a conversation with my dad a week before he died. He asked, ‘If I die, who would you marry?’ She had said, ‘Your brother Derek seems really nice, and he’s lonely.’ My dad said, ‘Marry Derek, that will be nice.’ My stepdad – who we also call Dad – was honouring his brother by looking after his three girls and taking care of his beloved.

“On the face of it, people might go, ‘What?!’ but when you look beneath it, there is something very beautiful about it.”

Jill Halfpenny with her late love Matt Janes. © Dan Wooller/Shutterstock
Jill Halfpenny with her late love Matt Janes.

Derek, now 87, has helped Jill with information about her dad for her first book, A Life Reimagined. It invites readers on an introspective journey through her life, sharing what she has learned about love, profound loss and finding a way to thrive again.

She says: “It has been interesting going through this process and asking my dad Derek a few bits and pieces about my dad Colin.”

Writing new book

The woman who exploded onto the Strictly dancefloor in 2004, high-kicking her way to the champion’s title and landing a record 40-point score for the jive, going on in that year to win the Strictly Christmas special, admits: “I’d been thinking about writing a book, but secretly. I hadn’t told anybody.”

Then her agent asked if she’d ever considered writing. “It was one of those moments when the right person asked the right question.

“I am not a natural writer. It was hard for me to be alone eight or nine hours a day with my thoughts. Some days I dreaded it, some days I cried, some days I felt amazing, others I felt terrible. But I told myself it was part of the process and I just had to keep going.

“Eventually I got to the end. My deadline was February this year, and I was going straight on to a theatre job at the Manchester Royal Exchange for A Taste Of Honey. That was 18 months ago.”

She credits the pandemic for giving her time to rethink her life.

“Through the madness and insecurity of it all there was a slowing down, a calmness, a pause. It allowed me to consider how, going forward, I wanted my life to be. That gave me the courage to come back up north and live by the sea. I was making choices that felt right in my heart, not choices I felt I should make. I’d always wanted to live by the sea but never thought it possible.”

Emotional memories

The move has brought her geographically closer to her family, their emotional bond stretching beyond physical boundaries.

She says: “I keep a metal pin my dad had in his arm after surgery. It makes me feel close to him. Mam showed it to me and I asked if I could keep it, it’s a funny thing to have but I do love it.”

His death left her with unresolved grief. “I don’t remember a lot, but I would have watched Mam fall apart and disconnect, perhaps because everything was a bit too unbearable. For a while I was searching for her, wondering where she was, not only thinking my dad was gone, but so was my mum. It was a deep unconscious thing. If your dad is there one day and gone the next, and your mam is lying on the sofa, crying, then you know something has gone terribly wrong.

“That was difficult. It a made me a hyper-vigilant kid and a worrier and led to unhelpful beliefs I carried into adulthood; like, if I love something or enjoy something too much, it will leave me.

“I was always looking for what could go wrong and was always trying to protect myself, and to hyper-achieve to make myself feel better and fill those uncomfortable feelings with newness, achievements and ambition.”

Jill Halfpenny. © Rachell Smith
Jill Halfpenny.

Through therapy and bringing her feelings into the open, she has learned to let those beliefs go. Instead, living in and enjoying “the moment”. When Ian came along, it felt right.

“I happened to be with my son on a day out in Newcastle when I met him. He made me feel at ease, and my son too. The more time we spent with him, I realised I actually quite liked him. By the time I got in the car to go home with my son, he was like, ‘Oh get a room, I can see that you like each other,’” she laughs. “We went for a coffee the next day, and later went for a meal.” The relationship continues to blossom.

“After you have lost your love, you think, ‘How can I be with someone again, how is that even going to work?’ For me, when it did work it was because it was very natural. I didn’t think about it so much, and that meant it was the right time for me. I wasn’t thinking, ‘what’s it going to be like when we do this, or that, for the first time?’”

She reveals: “He has also asked about Matt. That is such a lovely thing to do. He really respects that I deeply loved this other person who is no longer with us, and the fact he is no longer with us is the reason we are together. Without any ego, he gets that, and for me that is golden.”

What would Matt think?

She beams: “He would be really happy.”

‘My book’s a journey of hope’

Geordie actress Jill has a special message for would-be readers of her first book, A Life Reimagined: My Journey Of Hope In The Midst Of Loss.

She says: “My book is for anyone who has lost someone or something and feels as though they can’t live without it. It’s the story of how grief almost tricked me into accepting a life of fear and sadness, until I learned some amazing lessons and began to see my life through a different lens.

“I want to take you on my journey and show you that our grief is not something we need to hide away and feel ashamed about. I know that it’s forever part of us, but I’d like to tell you how I’ve learned to live with it and learn from it.”

Rupert Penry-Jones and Jill in The Feud. © Supplied
Rupert Penry-Jones and Jill in The Feud.

On screen Jill is working on a new six-part domestic thriller The Feud for Channel 5, having already starred in its previous thrillers The Holiday, The Drowning and Cuckoo.

Jill plays one half of married couple Emma and John Barnett who have the perfect life with their daughter in a peaceful suburb, making close friends with their neighbours.

But how well do they know them? Relations sour when Jill’s character and on-screen husband Rupert Penry-Jones decide to build an extension. Objections are raised, along with tensions, and potential secrets begin to surface. The show is expected next year.

A Life Reimagined: My Journey Of Hope In The Midst Of Loss by Jill Halfpenny is published by Macmillan.