They don’t fight, she forgives him everything (even for driving over her foot) but doesn’t trust him with the washing-up. Elizabeth Day finds out why I’m a Celebrity winner Harry Redknapp and wife Sandra are still totally devoted after five decades together.
I am in the process of explaining modern dating to Harry and Sandra Redknapp. It’s a bit of an uphill struggle, to be honest. The two of them have been together since they were 17. They’re now 71 and have been married for 51 years and when I ask them when their wedding anniversary is, they reply simultaneously, ‘30th June’.
They met in a pre-digital era when flirtation wasn’t conducted via text or Instagram direct messages. In fact, the only way Harry could get in touch with Sandra was to use the payphone on the street outside his family’s council flat in Poplar, East London. Sandra’s family were a bit posher: they lived in Barking and had a phone of their own, except the line was shared with another couple who lived over the road. ‘You’d pick up to ring Sandra and there’d be someone else already on the phone,’ Harry recalls, chuckling.
So have they heard of Tinder, the dating app where sex-hungry millennials swipe right to denote their interest in hooking up with strangers? ‘Tinder?’ says Harry, puzzlement creeping over his face. ‘It’s something you light a fire with.’
What about Bumble? ‘Who?’ he replies. Sandra looks equally mystified.
Nor do they understand the concept of ‘ghosting’. Ghosting, I explain, is when you go on a date with someone and you think you get on quite well with them, but then they never text you or call you ever again. ‘Oh,’ Sandra says. ‘I think I saw someone talking about that on TV the other day…’
It means that you never have closure, I continue. So you never get officially dumped, someone just disappears. ‘You want to know why they didn’t like you or why they’ve not made another date?’ she asks sweetly. Yes.
‘I don’t know,’ Harry says. ‘I’ve never heard of all this.’
‘Things they come up with,’ Sandra murmurs.
‘I just thought you went and met someone and went to a dance or something,’ Harry says and although he is not visibly shaking his head, I feel the head-shaking is definitely internal. ‘I dunno how people meet now. It’s all changed.’
We are in the expansive sitting room of their house in Sandbanks, Dorset. From the outside, I’d been surprised by their home, which is modern and looks like a series of ever-decreasing storage boxes placed one on top of the other, flanked by steel girders and floor-to-ceiling glass. I’d expected them to live somewhere more traditional, in keeping with their decades-long love affair, during which they have produced two handsome sons – Mark, 48, a property developer, and Jamie, 45, a footballer-turned-pundit – and seven grandchildren.
During Harry’s recent victorious stint in the Australian jungle for ITV’s I’m A Celebrity…, our hearts were melted by the loving way the former football manager referred to his wife. He spoke about Sandra as the only woman he wanted to see in a bikini, about how he missed her home-cooked jam roly-poly (made with suet) and about how she was ‘my life’. He worried openly that he loved her ‘too much’. When they were reunited on-screen, Harry was so choked with emotion that he broke down in tears. Overnight, their marriage became the nation’s favourite love story. ‘It was very emotional,’ Sandra says of the surprise reunion. ‘But I tried to contain myself because I thought, “We can’t have the pair of us blubbering.”’
Anyway, Harry’s back at home now and is enjoying his creature comforts, although the Redknapps have had no hot water for six months because of an issue involving flooding in the basement. Neither of them seems to mind that much. The most important thing is being back together – Harry’s three-week stint in the jungle was the longest they’ve ever been apart. Normally he calls his wife several times a day.
Apart from the flooding, the Redknapps’ home is impeccable: the floors are parquet and the walls are white. The kitchen is dominated by a free-standing island with bar stools along one side and a huge TV that is beaming an oversized Piers Morgan into the room (Harry is going on ITV’s Good Morning Britain the day after we meet). There are bulldog-shaped trinkets and sculptures everywhere, and two real-life bulldogs scampering around my ankles. At one point the bigger dog, a substantial animal who looks as if he’d win a wrestling contest, launches himself at my skirt.
‘Barney, no!’ Sandra says, but she has such a gentle manner that the command comes out as a sort of compliment and Barney pays no heed. Sandra puts him on a lead. ‘That calms him down,’ she says apologetically and she potters around the kitchen with the lead looped elegantly around her wrist, the dog following obligingly as she puts the kettle on and makes me a cup of tea.
Sandra is extravagantly beautiful, but wears it lightly as if she doesn’t like to make a fuss. She is dressed like an off-duty model: jeans, roll-neck and leopard-print espadrilles. She has high cheekbones, almond eyes and hair dyed a dashing shade of copper. When Harry walks into the room, in a navy fleece and chinos, his eyes go straight to Sandra, and it’s clear he still can’t quite believe his luck. ‘Jamie always says to me, “How did you pull her, Dad?”’ Harry grins.
In person, he is smiley and welcoming. You get the impression he would talk to anyone in the same way; the product perhaps of a certain old-school cockney charm that translated so well on television. He’s thoroughly nice and at ease with himself – and the ease expands to whatever company he’s in, whether that be a bunch of celebrities in the Australian jungle or a taxi driver picking him up from Poole station.
We take our cups of tea next door to the lounge and sit on an L-shaped sofa upholstered in dark blue velvet. The windows overlook a rollicking sea, waves buffeted by the winter winds. Dotted around the room are framed photos of Harry meeting various sporting legends I don’t recognise.
‘Who are you with in this one?’ I ask.
‘That’s Pele,’ he says.
‘Oh… and that’s..?’
‘Tiger Woods,’ Harry replies helpfully.
Harry and Sandra sit next to each other, and Harry extends his arm along the back of the sofa, protectively framing his wife’s shoulders. They fit so perfectly together that they finish each other’s sentences (well, to be more accurate, Sandra mostly finishes Harry’s and looks at me with a smile of feminine solidarity).
Sometimes they simply choose to echo what the other one has just said, as if to underline the depth of their compatibility. Halfway through the interview, their 19-year-old granddaughter Molly pops over (she lives nearby) and when we get chatting she admits that both she and her sister Emily ‘always say we want something like Nan and Granddad have because it’s been so lovely growing up and seeing how much they love each other’.
Harry met Sandra at a dance in 1964 at The Two Puddings pub in Stratford, East London. He was a West Ham youth prospect at the time and arrived at the disco dressed in a made-to-measure suit and winkle-pickers along with his team-mate Colin Mackleworth. Sandra was a 17-year-old hairdresser, earning £1.50 a week doing perms and sets. Both their families worked predominantly on the docks, which is what Harry would have done too if he hadn’t discovered a talent for football.
At The Two Puddings, Harry worried she’d be more interested in his friend, who was deemed to be the handsome one, but at the end of the night, Sandra gave Harry her telephone number. ‘I wrote it in pink lipstick,’ she says.
‘You wrote it in pink lipstick,’ he repeats, then recites the phone number by heart. ‘01594 1254.’
Sandra turns to look at him. ‘Can you remember what I had on?’
‘A pink dress?’
‘Yes. A pink shift dress. I think I got the best deal,’ Sandra says loyally. Colin, she adds, ‘has had three wives.’
‘He’s had three wives,’ repeats Harry.
Harry went on to play football for Bournemouth before eventually turning his hand to management and taking the top job at clubs including Tottenham Hotspur, Queens Park Rangers and Portsmouth (twice). When he started out, he was earning £7 a week as a West Ham junior. The couple’s first house cost £6,200. These days, he says, ‘the average player is earning absolute fortunes. The money is crazy… Football managers are earning sort of £20 million a year. I mean, it’s beyond belief, isn’t it, really?’
So, I ask, what’s the secret to staying married for over 50 years? ‘I always say never go to bed on an argument,’ Sandra replies. ‘And if you have had an argument, I always think it’s no good rowing at the time. I just leave it until tomorrow and tell Harry how he’s upset me or whatever. That’s my way of working it out. But we don’t really argue.’
That’s not to say they live in a state of constant bliss – Harry is useless around the house, and when he washes the cups, he leaves them to dry standing up, which means all the dishwater slides to the bottom, and that drives Sandra mad. But she seems to view it as a lovable quirk. ‘I’m quite placid,’ Sandra adds.
‘I know people might think it’s silly, but I’ve only got to look at Sandra and I couldn’t argue with her,’ says Harry. In their day, he adds, ‘you got married and unless something was drastically wrong, you stayed married’.
Their youngest son, Jamie, split up with his wife Louise, who used to be in the band Eternal, in 2017 after 19 years of marriage. I wonder whether Harry and Sandra’s devoted relationship is a difficult thing for their children to live up to? The way they answer this question is not quite a side-step, but not quite a direct response either. I get the impression they don’t want to upset an already febrile situation.
‘Your mum and dad were the same, weren’t they?’ Harry asks his wife. ‘They were so devoted it was unreal. And mine were the same.’
Sandra nods: ‘That was the norm I think, those days… I think it’s too easy now to not make a marriage work.’
‘You’ve got to work at it,’ Harry agrees, then clarifies: ‘I mean, we didn’t have to work at it. We just sort of fell in love and stayed that way.’
I want to be like you, I say, the words slipping out of my mouth before I can stop them.
‘Oh dear,’ Sandra giggles.
When Sandra says she’s ‘quite placid’ it is an understatement. Afriend of hers recently gave her a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and she thinks that’s fairly accurate because ‘I’m not a wuss’. The only time she wells up during our conversation is when we talk about her beloved younger sister Pat (mother to the footballer turned manager Frank Lampard Jr) who died in 2008 at the age of 58, ten days after being admitted to hospital for severe pneumonia. ‘She was my best friend,’ Sandra says, voice breaking.
‘The past five years have been horrendous [for Sandra],’ Harry says. She had sepsis just before he went into the jungle and for a while he wondered about cancelling the trip, but she recovered just in time and his grandchildren were begging him to go on the show, which was the reason he did it in the end. Afew months before that, Harry says, ‘She tripped over the hoover.’
‘Henry hoover,’ Sandra interjects.
‘The Henry hoover. Broke her kneecap. Ended up going to bed that night, crawled up the stairs because she didn’t want to bother anybody. The next morning she’s in agony.’ Harry was away in London and Sandra hadn’t wanted to worry him, so she’d just taken a paracetamol and gone to sleep.
‘How’d you get through the night with a broken kneecap?’ he asks, mystified. ‘Then you tripped over in Bournemouth and broke your ankle. I ran Sandra over [in 2016], which was the worst of all. That was horrendous. In Westbourne. She crossed the road and I went to pull away and I saw her going and she backed up against my car.’
‘Because there was a bus coming,’ Sandra explains calmly.
‘I didn’t notice and she had one foot back… Anyway, my back wheel sliced her ankle in half almost. Sandra was the only one not panicking. Everyone around her was going, “Don’t look! I think she’s lost a foot!” And Sandra was so calm it was unreal. She just gets on with everything.’
‘I don’t want to worry people,’ she says.
Has she forgiven Harry for running her over? She looks at him fondly and pats his leg with perfectly manicured shiny red nails. ‘Yes, of course. I never even had a go at him because I think he suffered more than me. I could see his face and he felt so bad about what happened. For me to see him like that – it upset me.’
Her dislike of fuss has meant that Harry’s newfound fame has come as something of a shock. He’d been in the public eye for decades but winning I’m A Celebrity… has catapulted him to a new level of recognition. On their way back from Australia they stopped off for a few days’ holiday in Dubai and went for a meal at a steak restaurant. ‘It was full of English people having dinner,’ Harry recalls. ‘We went in there and the place went manic [with] people coming up to me. And she goes, “Hazzer, what have you done to me?” She said, “I just want a quiet life.”’
‘I just want a quiet life,’ Sandra agrees.
Maybe, in the end, it is this grounded outlook that has given the Redknapps such longevity. They’ve known each other for 54 years but they say neither of them has really changed in that time, not in the ways that count. They’ve got more money now than they had before and their lives have altered dramatically, but he’s still the teenager in the winkle-pickers asking for a dance with a beautiful girl and worrying she fancies his mate instead, and she’s still the girl wearing a shift dress who writes out her number in pink lipstick and hopes he’s going to call.
And here’s the thing: he always does.