PUBLISHED: 13:00 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013
Christine's verbal attack on former war correspondent Martin Bell - who took Neil's Tatton seat from him - earned her the nickname 'Battleaxe'. It's a title this Hampshire-born girl has embraced with pride. Photography by Mark Fairhurst....
THERE are six of us standing in the kitchen at Neil and Christine Hamilton's country house: a Sunday Express journalist and photographer; two of us from the magazine; and the Hamiltons themselves - outnumbered two to one by the press.
"This is what happens when I'm not here to organise the diary!" Christine Hamilton says fiercely, looking pointedly at Neil. "I go to London for the day, and everything goes to pieces..."If I'd been here, I'd certainly have made sure you all came at different times!"
As ever, the press have descended on the Hamiltons. But today, the hacks are not hiding in the undergrowth or lurking, surreptitiously, beneath leaded light windows as they have in the past. Today, they've been invited here for various interviews... All at the same time, unfortunately - and it's quite patently Neil's fault.
"Err... Should I go into the sitting room with the Sunday Express?" asks Neil, with the air of a volcanologist edging round a crater billowing ominous black sulphurous clouds.
"You arranged this; you decide where you're going to go!" Christine says, all molten lava and gathering ash.
On Mohummad Al-Fayad: "Can we take the 'Al' out? If you put his name into my mouth, I never say the dreaded 'A' word. It's like me calling myself Lady Hamilton. He's not entitles to it. He's just adopted it."
Were Martin Bell present in this select gathering - which he most certainly isn't - this is the moment, petrified and white-faced, he'd dive for cover: maybe you'd catch sight of him fleeing through the garden to the moss-covered tennis court; or skimming along the aged stone barns of this one-time farm; perhaps, if you peered under the polished oak kitchen table, he'd be there, flak-jacketed and quaking, underneath.
Bosnia? Pah - it has nothing compared to this woman crossed.
The rest of us, however, (clearer thinkers every one), aren't taken in a bit. We can see a certain twinkle in those fiery eyes; an undeniable humour in those twitching lips. This isn't Christine the harridan and Neil the brow-beaten husband. This is Christine of the Jungle; Christine the pantomime Fairy Battleaxe; Christine the media butterfly, the entertainer.
This is the Christine Hamilton who defended her beloved husband with unswerving loyalty and devotion. And who, instead of being feted for her spirited action, was branded the wife from hell; the bossy termagant. "To compare Christine Hamilton with Lady Macbeth is to insult Lady Macbeth" wrote John Sweeney for the Observer.
But did that throw her off her stride? Did she rail against the unfairness of never being able to win? Of course not: as I said, this is Christine Hamilton we're talking about. She embraced the caricature with good humour: she went on to write The Book of British Battleaxes; even her email has the word 'battleaxe' in the title.
And as for John Sweeney, who considered The Thane of Cawdor's murderous wife a veritable Julie Andrews in comparison... "Oh, we've made it up since then."
Look - if you promise never to tell Martin Bell, then there's something you should all know. I really can't vouch for Lady Macbeth, but Christine Hamilton is a poppet.
Behind the jokes there is truth - for it's hard to believe that ten years ago, Neil Hamilton was the beleaguered MP, embroiled in a cash-for-questions scandal
Not only a poppet, but genuinely, awe-inspiringly admirable. There can't be many people in this world who've been knocked down so many times, only to drag themselves up, brush themselves down and re-emerge with a good-humoured smile. More importantly, there can't be many who've been wrongly accused of crimes they did not commit; who've lost a much-loved home and seen their husband declared bankrupt because of it - and yet not shown a trace of bitterness. "We have got friends who make our silly little problems pale into insignificance," Christine Hamilton says, now we're finally ensconced, alone, in the kitchen. "We have friends who had five children and they lost three; I have a friend now who is currently undergoing her second round of chemotherapy - she thought she'd cleared it. We have other friends whose daughter was killed in a hit and run accident just before Christmas. Neil's sister had four children and one died in a terrible accident when he was two. And so it goes on. "There's no point in being bitter. I sometimes get asked: how do you feel towards some of the main players in your story? I really don't think about it now; it's a chapter of life that happened and we are where we are now."
So she doesn't think of Mohamed Al-Fayed at all? The Harrods owner who accused Neil Hamilton MP of accepting cash in return for asking questions in parliament?
For one second, Christine's lips are pursed. "Can we take the 'Al' out? If you put his name into my mouth, I never say the dreaded 'A' word. It's like me calling myself Lady Hamilton. He's not entitled to it; he has just adopted it." OK, the Egyptian grocer aside, there really does seem very little rancour within this big-hearted woman.
And perhaps it's that ability always to look forward that has allowed the two of them to recreate a life, here in their beautiful heart-of-England manor house, that's possibly even better than the one that was taken away. "Some of our friends are quite surprised. 'You seem to have done all right for a bankrupt!'" laughs Christine. But behind the jokes there is a truth - for it's hard to believe that 10 years ago, Neil Hamilton was the beleaguered MP for Tatton, embroiled in a cash-for-questions scandal. So vilified was he that Martin Bell was able to capture Neil's parliamentary seat from him on an 'Anti-Corruption' platform with few other visible signs of moral purity than the donning of a white suit.
In the light of ignominious defeat, you could have forgiven the Hamiltons for burying themselves in a dark corner. But far from slinking away from the limelight, the couple accepted an invitation to appear on Have I Got News for You just one week later. And, suddenly, it was not scandal but the Hamiltons' ability to laugh at themselves that became headline news. "I did have an extremely happy childhood in Hampshire," Christine says. "And I'm sure that has helped me in life. I was brought up to cope and I've always had massive support in good times and bad."
She was born in a sea-front room, in a nursing home near Bournemouth, and grew up in Ringwood. Though the family lived in a market town, there was still room for a menagerie, which included hens, hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, cats and dogs.
"The New Forest was unfenced and ponies trotted around Ringwood at will," she recalls in her autobiography, "which was charming until their hooves created havoc on the lawn, so we were always on 'pony alert', rushing to shut the gates. I was horse mad, trekked all over the New Forest with the local riding school..."As soon as they (my parents) could afford it, and we were old enough, sailing took over. My earliest memories are of Wanda, a little, pale blue, clinker-built boat... In the early days, our boats were based at Poole or Keyhaven, and we would potter over to Yarmouth, anchor in Alum Bay, running up and down the cliffs of coloured sand, or sail to Cowes and Bembridge, marvelling at the Queen Mary and other great liners steaming past. It was paradise."
It was while Christine was at York University, reading sociology (or 'Advanced Partying' as she describes it), that she first clapped eyes on Neil Hamilton when they both attended a student political conference. His political ambitions were perhaps more attractive than the bushy black sideburns he sported at the time, but their relationship lasted three years before she dumped him, with no thought of ever rekindling the romance.
On Neil's work as a Chairman of a company in London, "he recruits girls in Soho - he loves saying that!"
After York, she set her sights on becoming an MP herself, and started out in the House of Commons as secretary to the larger-than-life MP Gerald Nabarro, whose family house was in Broadway in the North Cotswolds. During her time working for him, events were eerily to presage those she and Neil encountered years later. The MP for South Worcestershire - universally known as 'Nab' - was falsely accused of dangerous driving. Though he was finally acquitted, he went on to suffer two strokes almost certainly brought on by the stress. His portrait - a strikingly modern work by Royal Academician John Bratby - now takes pride of place in Christine's drawing room. For sure, the experience with Nab was good training for the traumas that awaited her. For - five years after their original romance - Christine and Neil met again, had dinner, and never parted.
They've stayed together through the cash-for-questions scandal, through the loss of a libel suit against Fayed that bankrupted them. And then, perhaps most brutal of all, through a false accusation of rape by Nadine Milroy-Sloan who received a jail sentence for her part in the fiasco. To complicate matters (nothing in the Hamilton household is ever simple) they were in the middle of filming a documentary about their lives, with Louis Theroux, when the police came to arrest them. "It is not funny being arrested; it was surreal. But it was also very frightening - having your house, flat and car minutely searched, your computers and papers seized, and your whole life turned upside down. You can stand there and scream, 'I'm innocent! I'm innocent!' but nobody's listening..."Actually, the police weren't listening but the press were and they got the message very quickly. We were criticised for keeping it in the public eye, but we were determined to. It took the police two-and-a-half weeks to admit there was no case to answer, and that was through keeping it in the news. If we had slunk away, it would have been 'Hamiltons arrested! Hamiltons have nothing to say! No smoke without fire!' We were determined we were going to be as noisy as possible."
Their very public arrest hasn't stopped them courting the media spotlight. Since then, they've both become popular after-dinner speakers. They've appeared in pantomime and the Rocky Horror Show; Christine won public affection with her spirited performance in the Australian rainforest in I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here, and the couple together presents a chat show, Destination Lunch, for Sky 287.
These media appearances - plus Neil's work as chairman of a recruitment company in London ('he recruits girls in Soho; he loves saying that!'), his earnings as a tax barrister, and his Sunday Express column - mean they have been able to buy their current seven-bedroom Grade I-listed manor.
"I wouldn't like anyone to think that life in the Hamilton household is a bed of lovey-dovey roses; it is not. He drives me absolutely screwy alot of the times..."
It is a beautiful house, complete with ecclesiastical-looking medieval hall; a Tudor part where lies the formal drawing room; and a 19th-century extension which holds the lemon-painted kitchen with blue-and-white patterned crockery on a huge dresser, and enormous cream Aga. Every room is crammed with artefacts and mementos from the Hamiltons' 24-year marriage, and even longer relationship, in which they have stuck with each other through thick and wafer thin. "Isn't it sad that it should be a cause for comment?" Christine muses, "Middle-aged people who are still together. If only people thought a little bit more about their marriage vows - for better for worse, for richer for poorer; and if that's through scandal and bankruptcy and goodness knows what, well that's how it is. "It's not easy. I wouldn't like anyone to think that life in the Hamilton household is a bed of lovey-dovey roses; it is not. He drives me absolutely screwy a lot of times but then he's a man and that's what they've been put on this earth to do. But we've been very, very lucky and it's obviously easier for us than for others because some people don't succeed and we have. We were lucky to have found each other in the first place and then to have refound each other."
It's no empty clich to say it's all turned out right in the end: it really has. She doesn't regret their hasty exit from politics, despite having devoted their years to it.
Nowadays, she says, the House of Commons is dull: the dragons have been slain; the barricades breached. Blair is the son of Thatcher; Cameron the son of Blair. "I don't really want to get dragged into politics because I'm just so not a politician any longer but I do think after 10 years people shrug their shoulders over scandals now and say: That's just what you expect of a Blair Government."
If she retains any crusading ambitions, they are directed at the newspapers. After all that has been said about her, she does feel anger that the tabloids feel free to print whatever untruths they like. "Even when they know the story of the footballer having an affair is untrue, they know perfectly well it's going to sell so many more copies of their newspaper. So they build that into their finances and, if the thing goes to court, they're happy to pay out. "If instead they could be taken off the streets for a certain amount of time when they are found guilty, that might just concentrate the mind. When Kelvin Mackenzie was editor of The Sun, he used to say to his journalists, 'Make it short, make it interesting and, if necessary, make it up.'" And what about her? As what sort of character would Christine describe herself? "I think my experiences have made me more understanding and tolerant of people. If I offer any advice, it's always 'Be there when your friends are in trouble'."
But the long and the short of it is, she's survived - by being a battleaxe. Is that a tactic she'd advise other women to adopt? "Oh, no!" Christine Hamilton laughs. "Absolutely not. I don't want too much competition!"
For more information on Christine Hamilton, visit www.christinehamilton.co.uk where you can buy copies of her autobiography, For Better for Worse, and The Book of British Battleaxes. The Hamiltons are taking their sell-out show, Lunch with the Hamiltons, back to the Edinburgh Festival this August. For more information,
tel: 0131 556 6550 or log onto www.pleasance.co.uk