'I willed Timothy to beat cancer'

In diary extracts raw with emotion, SHANE SPALL reveals how her film star husband overcame 'terminal' cancer and is now fulfilling a vow he made to her on his deathbed

Shane Baker first met the actor Timothy Spall when a mutual friend took her to see him in a play in London — and she was immediately smitten.

Shane was 27 at the time — she’s now 58 — and within three months of that meeting she and Timothy were married.

Over the next 15 years the couple settled happily into married life, bringing up Shane’s then four-year-old daughter, Pascale, whom Timothy adopted, and having two children of their own — Rafe and Sadie, who are now in their 20s.

Ordeal: Timothy has recovered from cancer with wife Shane's support

Ordeal: Timothy has recovered from cancer with wife Shane's support

As Shane and Timothy raised their family, he was simultaneously establishing himself as one of Britain’s best and most popular actors, starting with Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, before starring in Nicholas Nickleby and, later, the Harry Potter films. Shane was a full-time mother and then a student at London’s Goldsmith’s College.

Then, in 1996, the Spall family was thrust into darkness when Timothy was suddenly diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukaemia — and given days to live.

But, defying all medical expectations, Timothy fought back against the cancer, undergoing chemotherapy in a London hospital, where he was kept in isolation.

During a recovery most would regard as miraculous, he was allowed home from hospital in August 1996 to begin the long hard battle back to health — and back to work.

In Timothy’s darkest hours, he and Shane had fantasised about buying a boat and sailing around British waters.

So, when he was finally well enough to do so, Timothy and Shane bought a narrowboat, initially using just an AA road atlas to navigate their way around the country’s canals and waterways. Then, in 2004, Timothy commissioned a new boat — The Princess Matilda — in which the couple now spend as much time as they can exploring Britain’s coastline.

So far, their voyages have taken them into treacherous and challenging seas. But, as ordeals go, nothing has eclipsed Timothy’s illness.

Here in her moving diary, Shane charts the trauma of her husband’s life-threatening cancer, his slow recovery, and their happy realisation of what was a death-bed dream...

May 8, 1996

‘See you tonight, chicken. Love you! Bye.’

You tucked me in and set my alarm for an hour later. Later I took the kids to school, then sorted the ironing out ready to pack for our trip to the Cannes film festival in France for the premiere of your new film, Secrets And Lies.

I missed the doctor’s phone call because I was dropping your evening suit off at the dry cleaners when he rang the house. It was me who’d sent you to see the doctor in the first place.

Life is sweet: The couple with their daughters Pascale and Mercedes when Timothy received his OBE

Life is sweet: The couple with their daughters Pascale and Mercedes when Timothy received his OBE

We’d been in the garden one day in April 1996 when you stood in front of me with fear in your eyes.

You opened your mouth, and said: ‘Look at these.’

There were horrible purple-red patches on the inside of your mouth.

‘Phone Dr Gaynor,’ I’d said. ‘He’ll sort you out. You’re run-down, darling, you’ve been working too hard.’

After you’d seen the doctor, you left a message for me at my gym.

‘Can you come? I’ve got a serious blood disorder.’

I shouted at God as I climbed into the car: ‘You b******!’

Our doctor says to get you to University College Hospital in London now, but you won’t let the crew of a TV advertisement you are filming down.

You say: ‘I’ll be finished in a couple of hours — go home and pack me a bag, I’ll only be in hospital overnight. We can always go to Cannes tomorrow, right?’

'Dr Panos replied: "You’re lucky to be here. You have 90 per cent leukaemic cells"'

On the phone, your doctor said to get you to the hospital immediately, in case you had a brain haemorrhage. Apparently, he said, you could drop down dead at any moment. You’re facing a life-threatening illness, but you want to finish the job first.

I want to hide. I want it to be yesterday again. How will I tell the children? I wander around the house and see my dress for the Cannes premiere, still wrapped in white tissue paper.


Tim’s Secrets And Lies co-star, Brenda Blethyn, called from Heathrow on her way to Cannes. She’d been told you had flu. You love Bren. The last thing you’d want is for her to worry about you.

‘We’ll see you when you get back, Bren. Have a smashing time.’

The doctor comes in to your hospital room and asks how you are feeling as you undergo your first dose of chemotherapy.

‘Well, doctor, let’s put it this way: I’d rather be in Cannes than having this stuff dripped into me.’

Dr Panos replied: ‘You’re lucky to be here. You have 90 per cent leukaemic cells. Even a small internal haemorrhage could kill you.’

May 9, 1996

Today I told the children that Dad wouldn’t be home for a while because he had something wrong with his blood.

Rafe asked: ‘Will he be OK?’

‘Yes, of course,’ I said, ‘but he has to stay in hospital.’

Rafe’s face crumpled. ‘How long for, Mum?’

I have to be strong for my kids. I’m not ready to end their childhood. This is what I fear most.

‘He’ll be home as soon as he’s better. I’m going to get Nanny Sylvia and Grandma to take care of you. You will like that. They’ll spoil you.’

All aboard: Timothy and Shane on 'The Princess Matilda', which they commissioned after his health recovered

All aboard: Timothy and Shane on 'The Princess Matilda', which they commissioned after his health recovered

May 28, 1996 — midnight

I feel so useless, so lonely out there on my own. I find bedtime the worst. You are all of me, and I am a fish out of water.

You tell me to take it one day at a time. I try, but every now and again I feel crushed by the enormity of the illness. Our bed is too big, too hard for me.

We watched Tim’s video together in the hospital, which the actor Jimmy Nail had put together to cheer you up — a compilation of friends sending you their love and messages of support.

You loved it. It was very moving and made me cry, especially when Rafe read his poem, My Baldy Dad.

You were truly humbled by the number of people who spoke on the video, including actors Imelda Staunton, Robbie Coltrane, Martin Clunes, Richard Briers and Kenneth Branagh.

‘If and when I get better,’ Tim said, ‘we’re going to get two things: a Rolls-Royce and a boat.’

'How vulnerable and helpless one is. How brave you are'

I’m writing this on my laptop in the waiting room of the X-ray department at the hospital. Poor Tim, even less hair today. You are so vulnerable.

People always stare at sick people, but you are a well-known actor, so they look twice.

We have four more months of this ahead.

May 31, 1996 — midnight

I’m jealous of the nurses because they do things for you. I say all the wrong things, and feel useless. People think I’m strong, but inside I’m jelly. You were my strength. I took it from you. Now you need to take it from me.

I want to be a ray of sunshine for you, but I’m no actress. I love you, I miss you, and I want you home. Fifteen years ago tonight, you kissed me for the first time.

June 10, 1996

After ten days of chemotherapy, the doctors have given you a seven-day reprieve, so you can come home to get some strength back. Rafe took a day off school and we went to the seaside at Broadstairs. It was so hot. We hired three deckchairs to sit on the sand. I made you wear a hat because your hair’s wispy and thin like a newborn baby.

‘I’m freezing cold,’  you said.

I ran to the car and fetched a blanket. It was easily 30c. I look at your face and want to cry. You look like a little old man.

June 13, 1996

Thursday morning, and neither of us wanted it to arrive because I have to take you back to the hospital today. I can tell you’ve been crying.

You know what’s in store. They are going to fill you full of toxic drugs again.

A month from now, God willing, you will be able to come home for a few days again. Dr Panos says you need four or five courses of chemotherapy. That’s five months!

The show must go on: Timothy playing 'Wormtail' in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban when he was in remission

The show must go on: Timothy playing 'Wormtail' in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban when he was in remission

So here we are again. You are in surgery having a new Hickman Line (an intravenous catheter into your heart) put in, and I’m waiting. It’s 9.30pm. Secrets And Lies won the Palme d’Or award at Cannes.

Everyone says the same thing: we love Tim, is there anything we can do? It’s amazing the number of people who cried over the phone when I told them the news.

July 6, 1996 — midnight

You have eaten nothing for over a week. The past few days have been hellish. It is only as I write that I realise just how ill you have been.

Last Sunday, you had a temperature of 40c, which caused your body to go into spasm. The whole bed shook.

I saw fear in your eyes as they searched the room to find mine. You have no immune system to fight infection, so they’re having to keep you away from other people, in isolation.

July 22, 1996 — midnight

You have been desperately ill. Last week, I held your hand as someone did a bone marrow biopsy. How vulnerable and helpless one is. How brave you are.

You will soon have spent nearly three months in protective isolation, being treated with aggressive chemotherapy, during which time many of your arteries have collapsed.

'I drove to the hospital, concentrating, and chanting: "You will get well, you will get well, you will get well"'

You are still on diamorphine to ease the pain. They just told me the last scan has shown up a fungal infection on your lung, which may need surgery. How can they operate on you? Your platelets, which make blood clot, are at zero. You would bleed to death.

July 23, 1996 — midnight

I keep thinking about funerals, about my mother and how she suddenly hissed ‘I want to punch the wall’ at the crematorium when my dad’s coffin was carried in.

I know why now. You were a pallbearer. My mum gave you his shoes, which you wore, saying you would be proud to step into them. My dad loved you, he was so happy I found you.

You lie in your hospital bed, breathing oxygen from a machine. I look out of the window. The view never changes. I do not believe in God.

July 24, 1996

You must wake up, Timmy, you must wake up. I want to tear the mask off your face, and the tubes and wires. I want you to talk to me, look at me. You are in a dark and dangerous place.

I drove home from hospital after yet another day watching you waste away, and realised you may never recover. There, I’ve written it.

I stopped off at Brenda’s house. I couldn’t speak at first. She sat me in a chair in the living room and poured me a drink.

‘He’s dying, Bren. Tim’s dying,’ I said. Then I howled like an animal.

July 25, 1996

When I woke up this morning, I sat for 30 minutes, focused on you, imagining you as you used to be. I slowed down my breathing and every breath I took, I gave to you, sending my breath through the ether to you.

I could see the room very clearly. I was in the room, my lungs became your lungs, and I breathed for you.

I kept my mind focused even while making the kids their breakfast and sorting out their quarrels. I drove to the hospital, concentrating, and chanting: ‘You will get well, you will get well, you will get well.’

Auf Wiedersehen, Pet: Timothy with his TV co-stars who lent their support during his illness

Auf Wiedersehen, Pet: Timothy with his TV co-stars who lent their support during his illness

My anger turned to rage. I was not going to let this happen. I would not let you die. I wanted to stamp on the filthy thing growing inside you, to smother it with my fury.

I parked the car in the car park near your room. I knew you would be unconscious, but I played a track by the band Crash Test Dummies, one very personal to us. I cranked it up so it boomed out of the speakers, then opened all the car windows and it boomed louder.

Wherever you were in your pain-ridden, morphine netherworld, I had to grab you, reel you in. When the track ended, I knew you would be awake. I walked into your hospital room.

‘Hello, my love,’ you said weakly. ‘Will you help me up? I want to go to the bathroom.’

You pushed the mobile drug pump in front of you, using it like a walking stick. Then you began to silently cry, and for the first time in front of you, I did, too.

‘They are starting you on a new antibiotic today, my darling, and I just know it’s going to work,’ I say. ‘You will stick with me to the bitter end, won’t you?’

‘You know I will.’

July 27, 1996

You walked to the nurses’ station, which took about ten minutes. All the domestics came out of the kitchen and gave you a round of applause.

July 29, 1996

Dr Panos gave us the results of the latest bone marrow biopsy and it’s good news. At last, your immune system — which was flattened by the chemotherapy — is returning. You are in complete remission. We can’t believe this.

I phone everyone to tell them: ‘Tim’s in remission. His healthy blood cells are coming back.’

We live one day at a time.

Living the dream: Timothy and Shane love sailing around the British Isles

Living the dream: Timothy and Shane love sailing around the British Isles

Spring 1997

We have just become the proud owners of our very first narrowboat! Tim’s recovery back to health hasn’t been plain sailing, so our plan is to be able to escape London for the weekend, but be close enough to University College Hospital for Tim’s ongoing treatment as an outpatient.

He has to have tests, as well as blood and platelet transfusions, twice a week for months.


Tim got the all-clear in 2002, and his five years in remission was the big milestone in our lives.

By now we had explored most of the inland waterways, so Tim wanted to venture farther afield. As in, go out to sea!


Eight in ten of all new cases of leukaemia are diagnosed in people aged 50 or older

He eventually won me round. The kids had all but flown the nest, so it was now ‘our time’.

Our boat, The Princess Matilda, was commissioned in 2004 and named in honour of our first grandchild, Pascale’s daughter.

June 2005

There’s nowhere more peaceful on a summer’s evening than the Thames. We are so happy to be side by side, delighted to be doing what we had dreamed of in the dark times nearly a decade before.

Neither of us had the first clue about seafaring — the closest Tim came to water as a boy was the lake in London’s Battersea Park. For me, it was a filthy canal in the Midlands.

April 2009

A gale is blowing as I look out of the porthole of The Princess Matilda. It is spring, and we’re on Tiger Bay off the coast of Cardiff.

So cold and bucketing down  with rain, but Tim and I can’t  think of any other place we would rather be.

Since we left the salty end of the Thames in 2005, Tim has worked on location in Los Angeles, New York, New Mexico, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Italy and Watford.

I have travelled with him, so we have to find a mooring for the boat while we are away. We are fair-weather sailors, so we only cruise between April and, if we are lucky with the weather, October. We go off on an adventure every year now.

Tim and I are very self-contained. Even though we have been married for almost 30 years, we still enjoy each other’s company.


Tim has been in remission for 16 years on May 8 — a day when we still say a little prayer.

Adapted from The Voyages Of The Princess Matilda by Shane Spall, published today by Ebury at £11.99. Copyright © 2012 Shane Spall. To order a copy for £9.99 (including p&p), call 0843 382 0000.


Timothy Spall's wife Shane on how her husband overcame 'terminal' cancer

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