How Adjoa Andoh met Howard Cunnell: ‘I saw her coming down the stairs and I lost my head’
Actor Adjoa Andoh first recalls meeting the author Howard Cunnell at the Battersea Arts Centre’s bookshop in 1994. “I had a theatre company called Wild Iris,” she says. “We had a tiny little office at the centre. One of our directors came in one day to say someone was taking over the bookstore downstairs, and that he was tasty.” She and her colleagues rushed to see if they could spot him. “We went in and there was Howard. He was this very smiley man behind the till in a patch of sunshine.”
She wasn’t aware that Howard had already caught a glimpse of her before, when he was moving into the shop. “There was a lovely staircase that went up to the offices. I’d seen Adjoa come down those stairs and I lost my head,” he says.
Over the next few months, the pair forged a strong friendship. “We started talking to each other as though we’d known each other for ever,” says Howard. Adjoa, who has a daughter from a previous relationship, would regularly bring her little girl to spend time in the bookstore. “She loved it there and Howard would often be telling children’s stories. He also started to give me discounts on books,” she says. “That’s a way to a girl’s heart: childcare and books.”
But it wasn’t until the end of 1995 that their relationship shifted from friendship to something more. Adjoa had been travelling the country for a play called Death Catches the Hunter, and Howard came to watch her perform in London. “That was the first time I saw her on stage and it was an electrifying moment,” he says. “I thought, not only is she beautiful and smart, she’s also brilliant.” When a positive review of the show was published in the Guardian, Howard cut it out and kept it in his wallet.
Soon after, he invited Adjoa to an Arsenal football match. “One of the things we bonded over was football,” says Adjoa. “We went to Highbury together. It was really romantic.” Their bond quickly grew and, just before Christmas, Howard came to her home to suggest they give things a real go. As well as going to matches together, they also enjoyed theatre, literature and live gigs.
They had two children, in 1996 and 1997, and moved into a housing association property together in Brixton, along with Adjoa’s older daughter. “It was a self-enclosed multiracial community with beautiful arches and a central courtyard,” says Howard. “It was like a commune, where the kids grew up freely. Every night you might have four kids in your house, or someone else would have your kids.” Despite having little money, he says it was “a magical time” to be in Brixton. “We moved in just after Labour won the election and there was a lot of hope,” says Adjoa.
In 2000, Adjoa landed a big break in the hospital TV show Casualty, which meant regular travel. “I looked after the kids, which I absolutely loved,” says Howard. “I think, because we are both artists, we have this shared understanding that, at some point during a project, the art would come first,” says Howard.
As well as writing, he also trained as a scuba diving instructor and a lifeguard. In 2001, they married at St Saviours Church in Herne Hill. At the same time, Adjoa trained to become a lay reader for the church. “When my mum died six years ago, not only was Adjoa incredibly supportive, she was able to lead the service, which was hugely significant for me,” says Howard. The couple, who live in Sussex, both describe being with each other as like “being home”. They regularly give honest feedback on each other’s work, and say they bring out the best in each other. “There’s a feeling of being loved for who you are,” says Howard. “It’s a grownup love and the thing I cherish the most.”
• The Painter’s Friend, a novel by Howard Cunnell, is out now (Picador). Adjoa Andoh will direct and play Richard III at the Playhouse, Liverpool, and Rose theatre, Kingston, in the spring.
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