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Tell Me Good Things by James Runcie review: a tender memoir of the challenges of bereavement

Anyone grieving will find companionship in the Grantchester author’s account of losing his wife to Motor Neurone Disease

By Helen Brown 19 November 2022 • 8:00am

“Terminal illness is a full time job,” says Grantchester author James Runcie. So when his wife – celebrated radio drama director Marilyn Imrie – was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in 2020, they approached her rapid decline like “some kind of weird and unexpected new production.” In this tender memoir “on love, death and marriage”, he describes how the five months and 22 days between her diagnosis and death started off feeling like “the bleakest of bedroom farces”, and ended on a night when “there were no more words”.

As the guiding light behind BBC Radio 4 dramas such as John Mortimer’s Rumpole (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) and the Stanley Baxter Playhouse, Imrie believed in preparation, adaptability and holding your nerve. But the cruel attrition of MND left the couple with “no script and no ideas about the casting”. The formerly charismatic star was soon stripped of mobility, speech, energy and enthusiasm.

They met at the BBC in 1983 when Runcie was the 24-year-old son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Imrie was a single mother, 11 years his senior. He sat beside her in a script meeting and was smitten by her milky complexion, gentle voice and scent of hyacinth, jasmine and coriander. She had been married (to actor/director Kenny Ireland) and divorced in the early 1970s, then, in 1978, had a daughter (Rosie) with the BBC journalist Ian Kellagher.

By the time she met Runcie, Imrie had “completely given up on men”. But he lured her into a friendship by offering to babysit the five-year-old Rosie (who promptly tied him to a chair). As their mutual attraction grew, she fretted about the age difference and warned him there was “absolutely no chance of a relationship”. Yet she soon started to send him witty poems and riddles through the BBC memo system. Eventually, she invited him over. “She smiled and made Earl Grey tea in her black velvet dressing gown with nothing underneath and said, ‘Oh for goodness’ sake, come to bed.’”

Runcie’s next challenge was convincing his parents that Imrie was the woman he should wed. “She’s very nice,” said his mother, “but it’ll never last.” Runcie went to see his father at Lambeth Palace (“there are less intimidating places”). The Archbishop “looked very dubious”, but when he realised his son was serious, he offered to do everything he could to support them.

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