If you’ve seen Sarah Beeny’s New Life in the Country, you will know exactly what her house is like: unimaginably vast, unsettlingly new, modelled on a stately home but manifestly not one, like a fairytale you’re slightly too old for. But even knowing it inside out, I was still surprised to find that it actually existed, that anyone lives like that. You enter through a porch into a massive boot room, where everyone in the family has a floor-to-ceiling locker, stencilled with their name, which is what, I guess, contributes to the incredible sense of order, the un-stately-home tidiness. The rolling view from the dining room windows is enough to make you drop to your knees in quasi-religious thanksgiving. “Sometimes I have the doors open and think: ‘This is actually not real,’” she says. “This is like a holiday camp.” Even her dogs, who caper into the high-ceilinged drawing room, oblivious to how charming sitting on that Chesterfield is going to make them look, are perfect.
Beeny has adapted seamlessly to the dress code of The Simple Life (the title of her book about this escapade, published this August); she’s a jeans and shirt and (probably, when she’s going outdoors) wellies person now, after more than two decades of her distinctive, rock-chick-goes-to-a-meeting-with-the-bank-manager style. The main difference is that her hair is still very short, after treatment for breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with last August.
This is the subject of her other documentary, Sarah Beeny vs Cancer, which shows that gruelling journey close up and with remarkable honesty. “I thought, if I’m going to tell a story, I might as well tell a true one,” she says. A video diary she makes in her car, as her hair first starts to fall out in her fingertips, is such a poignant and forceful portrait of the realities of cancer treatment – denaturing, remorseless – that this might sound like a radical departure, a plummet, even, from her life’s work, which has been to take a can-do attitude and turn it brick by brick into one perfect thing after another.
But Beeny has always been a little more complicated than just a happy-go-lucky person to whom good things happen: a mix of disarming openness, casual self-effacement and the sense that she genuinely wants to help. Her husband and business partner, Graham Swift, thinks there are two types of people, she says: “The ‘why?’ people and the ‘why not?’ people. If you’re a ‘why not?’ person, your life is better.” Her own version is: “The people who’ll see someone carrying a box, and go: ‘Do you want me to take the other side?’ And those kinds of people, weirdly, they’re luckier. And that isn’t a random coincidence. That’s because things come along for those people.” It tells you plenty about the person Beeny is: one who would prefer to connect than not, who never needs to roll her sleeves up as she arrives with them pre-rolled. So whether her news is good or bad, whether she has cancer or a 32-bedroom, at-risk listed building in Yorkshire, her brand is always the same: you like her because you like her. You’d be crazy not to.
Born in 1972, Beeny grew up in Hampshire; although her dad was an architect, she describes her early life as semi off-grid and non-materialistic. “I think the hippy family bit just made me realise that self-sufficiency is really hard work. It’s easier to just earn a living.” Alongside that drive to earn, though – she was on her way to becoming a property developer by the age of 19, when she bought her first flat with Swift – there remains a devil-may-care attitude. “You have to dare to risk and be prepared to lose. As long as the worst-case scenario leaves you with your family … I’m really lucky to have Graham, because he gives me security. I think Graham and me in a caravan would be quite fun.”
When she was 10, her mother died of breast cancer: probably the most painful part of the documentary is when she unearths her mother’s medical records, and discusses with an oncologist how different the treatment would have been today; her mother would still be alive. “I suppose, if I’m honest, I wanted to get her records to go: ‘She had that treatment and it didn’t work. But I’m having this treatment, and therefore it will work because now it’s better.’ I wanted to prove that I was going to get better, to myself. I was quite shocked by how they talked about her, because we’ve come a long way. Loads of things they didn’t tell her. Misogyny, alive and kicking. The chemotherapy she had would have made her infertile, but they didn’t bother telling her.”
If these relationships have unfolded like destiny over 30 years, it is nevertheless – and she admits this readily – quite weird to buy a flat aged 19 with your 18-year-old boyfriend. “My 19-year-old son asks: ‘What do you press again, on the washing machine?’ And I think: ‘Wow, by your age I had my own washing machine, in my own flat, with my own council tax that I paid, and I got my own deposit, and my own mortgage.’ I just was early, I started early.” She got a head start because she didn’t go to university, she says, and this was the early 90s, when even doing random jobs (she was a window cleaner, sold vacuums door-to-door) meant you could still save for a deposit. But much more than that, it was what so many people who are bereaved in childhood describe: the sense that her life would be short. “I’ve always been in a hurry. My mum died when she was 39; I think I’ve always assumed that I would die at 39, so I’ve always been very impatient, trying to fit loads of stuff in.”
By the time Beeny and Swift were in their mid 20s, they’d bought Rise Hall in East Riding, originally intending to live there, later turning it into a wedding venue. Her TV career started at around the same time, in 2001, with Property Ladder, in which she tracked other people’s “challenging” buildings and watched in horror as everything took four times as long, and was 10 times more expensive than expected. I’d call it a descent into hell, but she was really into it. “I was really interested in the concept of home. So I’m interested in my home, other people’s homes. I’m interested in how people live in their homes. I really like people. I love the things that make people different and the same.” A huge part of the charm of that show, which ran for six years and was very much at the vanguard of the home-improvement genre, was that sense – which endured through her later shows, Property Snakes and Ladders, and How to Live Mortgage Free with Sarah Beeny – that nothing could go that wrong with her around. There would always be someone to help you with a box. That was very much the impression of her personal life, too: that nothing could go that wrong, since she was in it. “Don’t think shit hasn’t happened,” she says, “because loads of stuff has, over the years; there’s no such thing as a person who hasn’t had failure. You couldn’t be successful if you hadn’t had failures.”
Because the house itself took longer than anticipated, the show ended up more fly-on-the-wall, with her tumble of boys playing lockdown guitar and helping out with gravel. She said once that four boys were easier to cope with than four girls would be, but adjusts that. “You probably want the children you get; I’m sure if I had four girls, I’d go: ‘Oh my God, it’d be awful having four boys, so ghastly.’ It wouldn’t matter what I had, I’d think that was better. While they’re chaotic, boys, they’re very loving, very forgiving, they don’t hold grudges, they can’t be bothered, they’re on with the next thing.”
The boys’ band is called the Entitled Sons; they won the Pilton stage competition last year, which means they play Glastonbury this year, and they’ve written a single released coincidentally with the cancer documentary, and plan to give the proceeds to Cancer Research UK. Gilded but self-aware, making things look effortless but also grafting, socially minded, cooperative: I’m not sure it is because they’re boys; they sound a lot like their mother.
Beeny has hardly been insulated from criticism. There are plenty of people on social media who will tell her she’s “showing off, or whatever. But there was a nurse who said: ‘I’ve just done a 14-hour shift in a hospital. Thank you for making this show. It’s just lovely escapism and it makes me smile.’ It’s meant to be escapism. There’s loads of horrible stuff you can watch, you can see hideous, horrible things online if you want to see them. I don’t want to see that, I don’t want to put it in my eyes, I don’t want it, I don’t need it.”
Less than a year into the project, she got her diagnosis. “They say: ‘You’ve got cancer.’ And you hear: ‘What kind of coffin do you want?’” she says. “I was slightly hysterical about not dying, with everyone going: ‘You’re not going to die.’ And me saying: ‘I can’t die, I can’t die.’ ‘No, you’re not!’ It takes ages for you to hear it.” She didn’t even know the difference between chemotherapy and radiotherapy, “it was just all therapy for cancer stuff”, and she approaches the topic like a game layperson, getting her head round it so you can too.
The documentary came about because she thought, at the start, she’d tell no one: but then she realised this would put a burden of secrecy on her sons, too, “and I wanted them to be able to talk to anyone they wanted to. As a basic principle, I think secrets are really toxic.” So she chose radical openness instead, an article at first and now the documentary, thinking: “If I told this story, there might be loads of people who wouldn’t be so scared. Because living with the fear of cancer is really hard. It’s disproportionate to the risk. I’m not going to say that all cancer is the same, breast cancer is completely different. But I do know that with all cancer treatment, we can base our fears largely on something that happened 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, to someone we loved.” Thankfully, Beeny was given the all-clear in April.