Jools Holland: Cancer made me realise it was time to buy a sports car

‘Cancer made me realise it was time to buy a sports car and crack open my best bottle of wine,’ says Jools Holland

Somewhere in between being told he had cancer and being told he no longer had cancer, music maestro Jools Holland bought a shiny new sports car. Doctor’s orders, he says.

‘He did say to me: ‘If there’s something you have been thinking about doing, like buying a sports car, this is the time to do it’.’

By chance, Jools — who is a bit of a petrolhead, and also a millionaire, luckily — had been flicking through a glossy brochure, lusting after all the fast cars, so had a specific one in mind. He bought it immediately.

‘It is a Mercedes SLS. My friend Hugh Laurie (the actor and comedian) said: ‘You should have got the MLK — Mid Life Krisis’.’

Was it a red sports car, by any chance? ‘It was, yes,’ he beams.

Somewhere in between being told he had cancer and being told he no longer had cancer, music maestro Jools Holland bought a shiny new sports car. Doctor’s orders, he says. ‘He did say to me: ‘If there’s something you have been thinking about doing, like buying a sports car, this is the time to do it’

He took off in his new love while on tour with his band on mainland Europe, driving (cancer-free by now) at speed on the German autobahns — with his terrified wife Christabel in the passenger seat.

‘She would say: ‘Could you not go so fast’, but I’d say: ‘What is the point of being on a German autobahn in a sports car with gullwing doors if you don’t go fast?’ ‘ Anyway, he has no regrets. If cancer has taught him anything, he says, it is that we must seize the steering wheel of life, or its equivalent, at once.

‘D-I-N. Do It Now. Whatever your dream is —for me it was the sports car, but, for others, it might be a specific holiday, it might be taking the kids to Disneyland. Don’t wait until it is sensible.’

He stops mid-thought. ‘I mean, I don’t want your readers to rush out and do anything irresponsible, but life really is short and we don’t know what is around the corner.’

Hopefully not an articulated lorry, Jools, but we get the idea.

At 64, Jools Holland is something of a national institution (‘like Stonehenge? Craggy and stony-faced?’ he asks). Prince Charles has gone further and called him a national treasure. He seems to have been part of the entertainment scene for ever.

He was a founder member of Squeeze, had a TV career hosting The Tube with the late Paula Yates (who would have loved a spin in his red sports car), and has since carved out a rather unique position fronting BBC2’s Later . . . With Jools Holland, which has helped, over the years, to launch the global careers of everyone from Amy Winehouse and Ed Sheeran to Adele.

At 64, Jools Holland is something of a national institution (‘like Stonehenge? Craggy and stony-faced?’ he asks). Prince Charles has gone further and called him a national treasure. He seems to have been part of the entertainment scene for ever

He is one of the best connected men in Britain, whose social circle includes everyone from actual royals (his wife is from an aristocratic Scottish family too) to pop royalty.

He’s also a survivor of the most common male cancer. Latest figures show that 47,500 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year in the UK, which amounts to 129 a day. Some 11,500 die a year — one every 45 minutes.

Jools was one of the lucky ones, who found his cancer early, after it was picked up by a routine blood test.

This was in 2014, but he has only just gone public, because he has agreed to front a charity concert in June, raising money for cancer research, while also raising awareness. Performers confirmed to date include Celeste, Paloma Faith and Paul Weller, and helping front the event will be Jim Moir (better known as comedian Vic Reeves), whose father died from prostate cancer.

There is, he says, still a huge problem with men either not knowing what signs and symptoms to look out for or failing to go to the doctor when a problem is flagged up.

‘Some people, I will be frank, don’t like the idea of the doctor putting his finger up their a***, but it’s much better that than dropping dead,’ he says.

‘So if it helps save one man’s life then, yes, I’ll stand on top of my piano and shout about it.’

We meet on Zoom today and he’s slightly apologetic that his cancer experience wasn’t as big and dramatic as some.

There were no symptoms whatsoever: ‘It really was just because of the blood test. It showed my PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level was on the high side.

‘I was referred for more tests and then had a call to say: ‘I think you should come in to see us’. I said: ‘Can’t we do this on the phone?’ and the answer was no.’

He doesn’t actually have much recall of the moment the C word was uttered. ‘It’s funny isn’t it because it’s exactly the time you should be paying attention, but your mind is going: ‘Oh what is on the bookshelves?’ or ‘Oh that’s a nice picture on the wall’. Like when someone is giving you directions and you should focus, but you can’t, even though you need to because your life might depend on it.’

Jools was one of the lucky ones, who found his cancer early, after it was picked up by a routine blood test. This was in 2014, but he has only just gone public, because he has agreed to front a charity concert in June, raising money for cancer research, while also raising awareness

He now knows that prostate cancer is highly treatable if caught early but there was a period after the initial diagnosis where he was floundering a little.

‘No, the doctor didn’t say: ‘Oh it is nothing to be concerned about.’ The message was very much — there are some options and we ‘have to do something about this’ so you are left going: ‘Hang on, is this it, then?’ You do think: ‘This thing could kill me’.’

It is clearly out of character for him to dwell on the dark side of anything. He says he is just like his mother, and tells a story of her being flung off the back of a motorbike once, and thinking, as she flew through the air: ‘At least I will have a day off work tomorrow’. ‘I’m very like that, find the positive. But there was a weekend where that was quite hard. I remember cracking open the good wine, thinking: ‘No point saving this for Christmas’.

‘Of course, you have friends and family around you and you see their look of concern, which frankly you could do without. You can see them thinking: ‘Is he still alive?’ ‘

A mutual friend introduced Jools to Professor Jonathan Waxman, founder of Prostate UK, who was able to talk him through treatment options and put his mind at rest. ‘Which is why I would like to direct other people in my position to the charity. They have a helpline.’

A month after his diagnosis he was admitted to hospital for brachytherapy, a procedure which involves radioactive ‘seeds’, the size of grains of rice, being inserted inside the tumour.

‘They zap the cancer,’ he says. ‘In my case it was very successful. I was in hospital for a few days. I was a bit knocked out afterwards, but I recovered quickly.’

He has also been lucky in that there have been no long-term issues with his bladder. Or his sex life, come to that. Some sufferers who opt for more aggressive surgery are thus affected.

He didn’t go public at the time, though. Why? ‘I think when you do go through this, as soon as you get that diagnosis you go into the ‘unwell’ section (of society). Even if you feel perfectly fine, you get swept up in the appointments, clinics, in that world.’

In short, in a world divided into the ‘well’ and ‘unwell’ he wanted to be out of the latter as quickly as possible. Obviously some friends did know. ‘And what amazed me was how many people I knew who had been through it, too.’

There were showbiz mates such as Elton John, and Rod Stewart, of course. ‘But others, where I hadn’t known. Since ‘coming out’, so to speak, more people have been calling me, telling me about symptoms they have. I have to say: ‘I’m not a doctor. Go and see yours’. It’s astonishing how many people are affected. We are like a secret society.’

Doubtless, many high-profile friends have rallied. I ask about Prince Charles. He is a friend, isn’t he, rather than just someone he sees at society events? ‘I’ll ask him. He’s just putting his dressing gown on,’ he quips, nodding over his laptop. ‘I mean I don’t go down the pub with him but yes we are friends.’

Every inch a Londoner, Jools has always been a royalist.

He may be one of the few entertainers on the planet who performed for the Queen with his pants on show, though, albeit accidentally. 

He laughs about compering the turn-of-the-century bash at the Millennium Dome, which was attended by the Queen. He went to walk on stage, and experienced every entertainer’s horror: ripping his trousers.

‘I was standing beside the Archbishop of Canterbury and bent over to tie my shoelaces and felt this great tear. I thought: ‘This is not happening. It is an anxiety dream’.’

He was hastily taped into his trousers, but had to go onstage anyway.

He has done much work with Prince Charles’s Prince’s Trust charity, which helps young entrepreneurs and entertainers.

‘I see him as Robin Hood, robbing the rich to help the poor,’ he says of the prince.

He is also a Duchess of Cornwall fan and welcomes the news she will one day be Queen. ‘The Queen has done such a fantastic job over the past 70 years and I can’t think of anyone better to carry that on than them.

‘When they attach themselves, say, to a small charity, then the work of that charity is magnified beyond anything anyone could hope for, and Camilla is very good at that.’

Are the royal couple fun to be around? ‘Everyone is fun to be around [with] me,’ he jokes, but deadpan.

Yes, his wits — and his fingers — are as nimble as ever it seems. He counts himself lucky that musicians don’t have a shelf-life, as sports stars do. ‘We can keep going until we drop dead. Not so much in the pop world, in the cut and thrust of the charts, but for classical and jazz musicians, we can keep going.’

Obviously during the pandemic, the music industry folded in on itself. He went online, giving piano lessons to the masses, thanking his lucky stars he had a home recording studio.

He cites recording with the pianist Lang Lang as a highlight. His colleagues weren’t so lucky. 

‘For most musicians it was a disaster. Some of the people in my group — the best arrangers in England; the best trumpet players in the world — were delivering cheese and working as electricians.’

He had personal tragedy to deal with too. His mother June, who had dementia, died just over a year ago, in a nursing home. He had not been able to visit through much of the pandemic, although is relieved that he was able to be with her towards the end. 

‘It was very difficult because you could only see people in the garden, or whatever, and towards the end it was a bit of release, yes.’

When her house was cleared out, the pianola he had learned to play on was transported to his home, and he wept while playing it again.

Did his mother know who he was at the end? ‘I think so, yes. What was lovely was that my daughter was pregnant and we managed to tell her before she died. I think she took that in. She understood.’

He says he read to her in the final days. ‘Which was wonderful. I read her The Diary Of A Nobody (the comic novel by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith), which she had loved. It is very funny.’

Dementia is difficult, though. He nods. ‘If it were me I would not want to be here,’ he says.

Now he has a grandson, Gabriel, who is ‘quiet and chubby and a lovely little boy’, and he is very grateful indeed that he will be around to teach him the piano. Or, dare we say it, to drive.

‘I hate the thought that there are men out there who will not experience life’s great moments,’ he says.

‘If I can get the message across to even some of them, maybe it will make a difference.’

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