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Mark Willerton’s new book on Kathy Kirby

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At the height of her fame she belted out her big hit Secret Love and melted the hearts of millions of fans, particularly older men who adored her glamorous looks and stage presence.

In 2011, Kathy Kirby died of heart failure, aged 72, having spent years battling mental health problems – an image about as far removed from the stunning 1960s beauty that captured the limelight as it is possible to imagine.

In between, she struck up a friendship with a young man who, certainly initially, wasn’t a great fan as he was more interested in the Beatles and Sandy Shaw.

Having enjoyed success in the 1960s, Kathy made a come-back in the early 1980s and was in the middle of her tour when Mark Willerton, who co-owns the Burtey Fen Collection at West Pinchbeck, was invited to go along to one of her concerts by his friend who had resurrected the singer’s fan club.

“I wasn’t really interested in going to see a singer who was I thought a bit old-fashioned, but I went to support my friend,” says Mark. “When she did the show I was just amazed by her, the stage presence, the big voice.”

They struck up a friendship that lasted until her death, and Mark has now paid the ultimate tribute to the singer by writing a book, No Secret Anymore – The Real Kathy Kirby, due to be published by Matador on December 12, priced £19.99.

Mark, who has dedicated a wall of fame to Kathy at the Burtey Fen Collection, says her greatest success was from 1963 to 1965. Her Secret Love reached number three in the charts in 1964 and that was followed by other hits. She also had her own BBC television show, the first female singer to do so, and in 1964 appeared in the Royal Variety Performance. The following year she represented the UK in the European Song Contest, coming second.

Mark loves all things pop and film and has collected memorabilia since being a ten-year-old, and most of it now decorates the Burtey Fen Collection, so that concert-goers are able to admire the posters and other memorabilia or relax in the 1950s room Mark has created. This is wonderfully nostalgic, with items such as a cocktail cabinet and a coffee table with the spindly legs that were so popular in the 1950s – decorated with motifs of items then considered the height of sophistication, such as cocktail shakers and glasses. The room also contains a radiogram, and Mark plays for me one of Kathy’s records.

Kathy was 43 and Mark 21 when they met, but friendship grew, and Mark explains the connection as: “I think it was because I was star-struck. There is an aura and charisma there and you are just sort of drawn to stars. The big thing about Kathy was she had this Marilyn Monroe look about her and she was known as the first to wear lip gloss on television and that made her stand out.

“I decided I had to collect every record she ever made. I have got them all, and she made dozens.”

In time, Mark was visiting Kathy at her London flat regularly, sharing meals with the singer, and he remembers learning about Kathy’s diagnosis of schizophrenia – Kathy simply showed him the consultant’s letter.

Mark says: “I stayed in touch with her right through to the end. By then she had become totally removed from her showbusiness life and it wasn’t until Kathy died last year that stories came out in the press about her illness.

“When you lose someone close there is a big void and so shortly after her death I felt that by writing a book she would remain close. I knew an awful lot about her career and about Kathy as a person, and with the collection of records, photographs and old newspaper cuttings I had lots of material. I started writing it backwards, while events of the last year were still fresh in my mind, and gradually went back to 1981 when I met her.

“The Kathy I knew in the beginning was Kathy the star, the big voice and the lip gloss and gorgeous looks. Later on it was as a close friend I felt a certain obligation to look out for and look after.”

Copies of the book will be available from the Burtey Fen Collection (01775 766081), from Bookmark in The Crescent in Spalding and in all good book shops from the New Year.

 

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