‘Fertility cuts to the root of yourself as a being’
Standing outside Greg Wise’s house, I suspect I’ve been given the wrong address. A faded, hand-written note says that if there’s no answer, try the house opposite (where, it turns out later, his mother-in-law lives). You ring the buzzer and Wise flings open the front door. Before you know it, he’s making you a cup of tea and his wife, Emma Thompson, is admiring your shoes.
Wise is waxing lyrical on two of his favourite subjects: his vegetable garden and fatherhood. “I was 33 when Gaia turned up. There’s the fear before that it’ll be the end of your life. You think: ‘I’ll never be able to go out and dance all night.’ Then you think: ‘I’ve never gone out and danced all night so I’m not going to miss it’.”
He and Thompson have been open about the fact that Gaia (who is now 10), was conceived via IVF, and about the heartbreak of their subsequent failed attempts. Wise says the whole IVF process was horrible “because you’re filling your partner full of drugs all the time”.
They were, he adds, “fantastically fortunate” that their first cycle produced Gaia. “But you do think: ‘God, it would have been so much nicer had you not had to go through all of that. Your fertility cuts to the root of yourself as a being, especially as a woman. You have the potential of producing life and if there’s a glitch ... I think even now there still are a lot [of people] who] think that you’re not a whole woman.”
He also realised that, as a man, he was only a small “and not terribly important” part of the process. And after that first successful cycle, they both had high expectations, perhaps too high, of conceiving again. Both he and Thompson were raised in two-child families, so that seemed like the norm to them and what they wanted for their own baby. “You have the idea that two kids make a family and one kid doesn’t, and so you have another go.”
But after two more gruelling cycles of treatment, they reluctantly conceded defeat. Although he was only 33, Thompson was 40 and they were told that there was little point. “There is a huge drop-off in the potential of conception once the woman hits 40. It just plummets and you have be pragmatic and say, well, there’s no point enduring this physical and emotional brutality if the numbers are stacked against you so heavily. And we have a beautiful baby. But it was hard.” The couple have also taken into their family a former Rwandan child soldier, Tindyebwa Agaba, whom they met in 2003 at a Refugee Council party. To make his life easier, they prefer not to talk about him.
They first saw their baby, under a microscope, when she was eight cells old. “Now we’ve got this thumping great ten-year-old. From there to the birth it’s all growing inside the woman. It’s unbelievable.”
How was the birth? “Loud.”
Eighteen hours later, his daughter was in a papoose around her father’s neck while he ate schnitzel in a Jewish restaurant. “I took her out for lunch. Which was rather good. Just the two of us.”
She was 7 when Nanny McPhee came out and realised that, as he puts it, a lot of other people have a relationship with her mum. “It’s hard for a little one to try to get her head around that idea. Now she’s discovering that there is a certain cachet involved as well, so that’s something she’s going to have to understand herself.”
It sounds as if she shouldn’t have too much trouble: in March they took her to the premiere of the second Nanny McPhee film. While Wise, who finds the showbiz side of things embarrassing, was skulking in the background, trying to protect her and hoping that no one would talk to him, “she escaped and did an interview with GMTV!”
He’s a hands-on dad, perhaps helped by fewer of the sort of acting roles that he tends to be offered — period drama, mainly — being available, because fewer of those productions are being made. He doesn’t think the BBC will ever again be able to make something such as Cranford because it can’t afford it; the licence fee, he thinks, is spread too thinly over all the corporation’s digital channels.
Wise is the executive producer on a film for the BBC, a rather marvellous-sounding version of a 50-minute narrative poem called The Song of Lunch. He does a bit of this and a bit of that: makes a documentary, writes the odd script, some producing here, some acting there. He likes the insecurity of not knowing what’s going to come up.
Before he turned to acting, he spent three years training as an architect. He designed their kitchen (free-standing, lots of wood) and has a big workshop at their house in Scotland, where he built a bar in a barn. This (Scotland, not the bar in the barn) is where he, Thompson and Gaia spend as much time as possible, usually three months of the year.
“There are tree houses and death slides and kayaks and rivers, and you can just go out in the wild,” he says, his face lighting up.
It all sounds quite tomboy-ish for a little girl. “Yes, but luckily that’s mitigated by the fact that, like her mother, she’s got a shoe fetish. She can be the feminine urbanite here, and the tearaway up north.”
For Wise, becoming a father meant that he had to grow up, but it was losing both his parents in the space of 13 months last year that brought him up short. “Becoming an orphan is the big one. You realise you’re next in line.”
On the plus side, he’s still only 44, and fit and healthy enough to climb mountains, chop wood, cycle with his daughter uphill to school and all the other things he wants to. He gave up smoking two years ago because he started to hate himself. “When you think: ‘God, you’re not having another fag? That’s just pathetic’ — that’s when you have to stop.”
And despite — or perhaps because of — being absurdly handsome, he has never succumbed to the tyranny of the gym, the teeth bleaching and looks-obsession of many actors. “Once you do that, you’re unable to play a period role. You’re too buff. You look too big and healthy and your teeth are too nice.” And Wise doesn’t have time for that sort of nonsense. He’s a busy man, with work to do and a vegetable patch to tend to. His lettuces need him.
IVF The facts
In the UK, 40,000 couples a year have IVF treatment, compared with 7,000 in 1990.
Of the babies born each year in the UK, 5 per cent are through IVF.
The NHS aims to offer childless women aged 23-39 one IVF cycle.
About 25 per cent of women who have one cycle of IVF treatment become pregnant.
A single cycle of IVF treatment costs about £5,000.
Less than 2.2 per cent of women over 43 who undergo IVF treatment are successful.