“You’re famous!” said the compere, Ore Oduba. “How does it feel?”
I was standing on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra behind me and an audience of 5,200 or so awaiting a response. It was Christmas Carols with Bloodwise, the second-longest-running event at the venue (after the Proms), and I had a story or two to tell. But first, I had a question to answer.
“To be honest, Ore,” I replied, “it’s exhausting.”
To be really honest, it felt fabulous.
Five and a half minutes later, I’d complained about Matthew Morrison (star of TV show Glee and a lot more) bugging me for my autograph, explained why I know what Christmas is like when you have blood cancer (uncertain), emphasised the enormous difference medical research funded by Bloodwise makes (it helped saved my life) and introduced my old friend Natalie Rushdie to steal the show with a gorgeous rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
It was one of those moments when everything felt perfect.
For someone who loves speaking and performing, you can’t get much better than the Royal Albert Hall. And I feel hugely energised when I’m able to tell my story in a way that supports others – by showing people with blood cancer that there’s hope, raising awareness of what is often an invisible illness, or inspiring support for charities such as Bloodwise. Introducing Natalie was the icing on the cake.
Natalie and I have been friends since helping people with disabilities in Lourdes with the Order of Malta Volunteers (OMV). She was in my choir; she already had a great voice, but I couldn’t convince her to sing a solo. Since then she’s built an amazing career as a professional singer – I’ve been trying to take the credit…
We’d already teamed up the week before, when Luke Blackall had interviewed us for London Live about the concert, our parts in it and the work of Bloodwise. That was when I really started to appreciate just what a special evening we had ahead of us.
It wasn’t my first TV interview, but I’m not sure Bloodwise realised when asking me to speak at the Royal Albert Hall that I had some experience in that arena, too… Around 10 years ago, I’d compered an OMV fundraiser at Grosvenor House for 1,200 people as Chairman of the White Knights Ball (WKB).
I probably never expected to speak in front of a bigger audience than at the WKB. But there I was, 13 years after my original diagnosis, 5 years after my relapse and somehow still standing, speaking and very much smiling.
I love the photo taken by the official photographer: somehow she caught everything I was feeling: the recognition of what I’d been through (with so many others) over the years, the tranquility in that moment telling my story on stage, and an utter, complete, joyous contentment with life.
My story is long, but my time on stage was short. I spoke about two uncertain Christmases (after diagnosis in 2005 and after relapse in 2013). And I explained how I only got into remission the second time around thanks to the advances in medical research that had been made since my original diagnosis.
It’s a story I love to tell on behalf of Bloodwise, who fund the sort of research that led to those life-saving advances – it seems the least I can give back. I’d told a similar story in September at a corporate event alongside Claude Littner (from The Apprentice), and was delighted to catch up with him again during the interval at the Royal Albert Hall.
There’s still a long way to go with the research, though: too many people with blood cancer are less lucky than I have been.
The most moving moment at the event came from the new Bloodwise President Simon Thomas, the sports presenter whose wife Gemma died earlier this year shortly after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. Simon brought his son Ethan on stage to take an emotional round of applause.
Simon has been open and vocal about his and Ethan’s struggles with grief and already done so much to emphasise how much we still need to do. I try to do the same as a Bloodwise Ambassador, which this year also included featuring in their Christmas appeal.
Mariacristina had had an unexpected surprise when the appeal letter dropped through our letterbox, telling her a story she already knows too well! New to her, though, was the story of the fabulous Emma who was in Intensive Care at Christmas and also spoke beautifully on stage about our role as Ambassadors.
Admittedly I’d lied to Ore when I said being famous was exhausting. The entire evening was energising, exciting and fulfilling. The exhaustion came the next day…
Stars in my eyes
That might have been partly due to sharing a glass or two of bubbly afterwards with other fabulous Bloodwise supporters and stars, including the wonderful original Calendar Girls, though. They’ve now raised more than £5m for Bloodwise, so I loved having the opportunity to thank them for probably helping save my life.
During the evening I’d relented eventually and signed a programme for Matthew Morrison; he had the grace to thank me when he had his turn on stage. My autograph was the least he deserved after performing that night to support people like me whose lives have been saved after a blood cancer diagnosis. I don’t know whether he’s framed it or not, but the shout-out was already pretty brilliant.
Matthew wasn’t at the afterparty, but I did get to meet some of the performers, including Tony Christie (I forgot to ask the way to Amarillo) and MUD II (‘Lonely this Christmas’), who I suspect might be even better than the original line-up…
The bottom line
At the last count (before Christmas), the appeal had raised more than double its expected total – and that’s what really counts. I’ve no idea how much the Royal Albert Hall event brought in, but I’m pretty sure every one of the 5,200+ people there had an amazing, emotional, inspiring night.
It can’t have been as amazing, emotional and inspiring as mine, though – I can still hardly believe I was there sharing the stage at the Royal Albert Hall with so many stars and supporters, telling my story for Bloodwise. My only worry now is… how am I ever going to top an evening like that?!
Visit the Bloodwise site to find out more about blood cancer, look for support or to help save the lives of people like me. Thank you!