Like millions of TV viewers, Jan and Alex Walker sat companionably in the living room of their neat four-bedroom house, watching the affair between a Catholic priest and the heroine of the eponymously titled series, Fleabag, unfold.
But only those who know them well would have guessed just how strongly this storyline resonated with the married couple who have raised two daughters and are now doting grandparents to 18-month-old Frankie.
The Walkers, who will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in November, once faced the very same dilemma as Fleabag and her ‘hot priest’ after falling in love back in 1988.
Jan and Alex Walker will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in November. They once faced the very same dilemma as Fleabag and her ‘hot priest’ after falling in love back in 1988
Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) with her Catholic ‘hot priest’ (played by Andrew Scott)
But, unlike the characters in the BBC series, they chose what they call ‘the difficult path’. Alex chose Jan over God, and it led to them spending the rest of their lives together.
‘Alex had heard about this storyline so suggested we watch Fleabag — and, while it’s a great show, it opened up some painful old wounds,’ says Jan, her eyes filling with tears as she gives her first newspaper interview.
‘I felt horrendously guilty about falling in love with a priest and taking Alex away from his parishioners, who also loved him dearly. We hurt people, including our parents, but we fell in love by accident, never with any malicious intent.’
Jan, a 57-year-old PA, vividly recalls her first encounter with Alex back in 1986, when, after teaching an aerobics class in her local church hall in Kendal, Cumbria, she called at the presbytery to settle the hire fee.
Alex, who had been ordained six years earlier but was new to the parish, opened the door and … call it what you will — a thunderbolt, Cupid’s arrow, an aligning of the planets or divine intervention — their lives were thrown wildly off course.
Jan, then 24, was taken aback by the dark, good looks of this 31-year-old priest, made all the more attractive by his warm smile. Her feelings were also tinged with guilt and confusion.
‘I felt an instant attraction to Alex but couldn’t tell anybody how I felt, least of all him,’ she says. ‘A good Catholic girl, I thought that having such inappropriate thoughts about a man of God would guarantee my place in Hell. For a long time, it was just my guilty secret.’
Over the next three years, they socialised regularly — hiking, playing squash and even going to the cinema — but always, until the latter stages, as part of a wider group made up of some of the younger parishioners.
However, one evening after Alex had confided his concerns about his mother’s ill health, Jan invited him to her flat with the offer of dinner and a listening ear.
When Alex became upset, Jan reached out to comfort him and, overcome by passion, against both of their better judgments, the embrace led to a kiss.
The mutual attraction was evident to both of them, but they were terrified of the consequences of giving vent to it. In fact, so determined were they to prevent their love blossoming that Jan offered to move away.
Alex wouldn’t hear of it, however, and insisted she should stay close to her family while he put in a request for a posting to Peru.
In the meantime, they had to stay out of each other’s way. For six months, they made a gallant effort, avoiding situations where they might find themselves alone together.
‘But it was so hard staying apart,’ says Jan. ‘Kendal is not a big place and Alex would drive past as I was crossing the road and we would end up looking into each other’s eyes and my heart and stomach would flip.
Alex Walker left the priesthood (pictured) to marry Jan. Alex agrees that choosing Jan over the priesthood has enabled him to experience the sort of joy he believed he had forsaken when, aged 13, he happily enrolled at Underley Hall boarding school, a junior seminary for boys
‘Was it a turn-on that he was this special guy on the altar, not just an average man on the street? No, because I would look at him and feel butterflies in my stomach and then think, ‘He’s a priest — you cannot think of him like that’.’
However, their feelings were so overpowering that resistance became futile, and after one of them — neither recalls which — made contact, Alex visited Jan at her flat and their relationship was consummated.
‘Alex has always had a lovely gentle way about him, which is what made him such a great priest, and he held my hand and said: ‘It’s not going to be easy, but I don’t want to be without you and I know that you don’t want to be without me,’ recalls Jan.
‘That first time we made love was beautiful but also very emotional. There were tears — not because I didn’t want to do it: it was clear we loved each other very much and felt a strong bond.
‘I’d had a couple of relationships in which I’d not been treated too well, so I was generally wary of men but I trusted Alex completely.
‘However, there was also guilt because we knew we were doing something we shouldn’t. I didn’t want the night to end and, of course, afterwards there was remorse.
‘We were both scared, really scared. Our main fear was of hurting other people. Of course, the Catholic guilt crept in, too: I couldn’t help wondering if God had been watching us.’
Alex Walker was a Catholic priest who fell in love with, Jan, now his wife of 30 years
This anxiety was echoed by the fictional Irish priest, played by Andrew Scott. In the midst of a steamy scene with Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, also the series’ author) which had begun in the confessional box, a painting fell off the wall, something he saw as a message from God, putting paid to their passion.
Alex, too, was in turmoil after consummating his relationship with Jan.
‘I know it sounds pious, but intercourse can be an expression of genuine love and for us it was something precious and sacred,’ he says. ‘It was also exhilarating and I was wholly in the moment, but afterwards I felt guilty for giving in to temptation.
‘It didn’t feel hypocritical because, personally, I’d never had an issue with couples in committed relationships, who intend to marry, having sex. But I wanted to be faithful, truthful and honest to God, as I’d promised I would when I was ordained. I just couldn’t because I was deeply in love with someone else.
‘God isn’t vindictive, he just wants us to be at peace, so I wasn’t frightened of incurring his wrath.’
Alex decided to ask God for guidance. ‘During my prayers one night, I said: ‘God, I ask you to minister to me while I’m sleeping and give me a clear indication of what the right thing is for me to do,’ recalls Alex.
‘And in the morning I woke with an overwhelming feeling of calm, knowing that I needed to follow my heart and be with Jan.
‘I called her and said: ‘I love you, I want to be with you, I want to marry you’ — and she started screaming, a mixture of excitement and fear of hurting people we cared about.’
Alex spoke to the parish priest, his immediate boss, who, it turned out, already had his suspicions and encouraged him to follow his heart. A leaving date was agreed for a few weeks hence, although Alex was, to his dismay, instructed not to tell his parishioners about his reason for leaving.
Without an explanation, he thought they would conclude that he’d had a breakdown, or developed a drink problem, but his greatest fear was that they might assume he had lost his faith.
To give his and Jan’s family time to get used to the news, Alex moved back in with his parents in Blackpool for several months. They bridged the 55-mile distance between them by meeting at different places en route.
And while Jan’s father and Alex’s mother gave them their immediate blessing, it took her mother — who feared being judged by other members of their congregation — and his father longer to come around to their relationship.
Alex was ordered to see a psychotherapist to ensure he had made his decision with a sound mind before the bishop would consider granting him dispensation to marry in church.
However, when this was still not immediately forthcoming, eager to be together, the smitten couple tied the knot at Blackpool register office on November 4, 1989.
Although Alex had found paid work with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, money was tight. He had received wages of just £500 a year as a priest and left the church with £56 in his bank account, so friends rallied round to help make their day special. Between them they made Jan’s dress, the cake and bouquets, and one even drove Jan to the ceremony in his black Hackney cab.
Afterwards, they enjoyed a meal with family and friends at a hotel overlooking the sea.
‘It was the most beautiful, intimate wedding we’ve ever been to,’ says Jan. ‘Afterwards, we finally felt free to do everyday things that other couples take for granted, like walking around the supermarket holding hands.’
A year later, daughter Lucy, now 28 and a mother to Frankie, was born, followed by Sophie, now 26.
‘I’ll never forget seeing Alex holding our daughters for the first time with a look on his face that said ‘Wow, this is my baby’,’ recalls Jan. ‘It’s a very special moment for any new parent but it’s one he never imagined he would have.’
Alex agrees that choosing Jan over the priesthood has enabled him to experience the sort of joy he believed he had forsaken when, aged 13, he happily enrolled at Underley Hall boarding school, a junior seminary for boys.
Lucy and Sophie were around five years old when their parents first explained that their daddy used to be a priest. They were unfazed, and it was only when they reached their teenage years that they became embarrassed about friends finding out that their father had once done something ‘so geeky’.
Alex went on to get a job as a welfare rights officer with Lancashire County Council, and as the couple raised their family in a beautiful town house in Lancaster, only those closest to them knew of their unconventional history.
However, behind closed doors, there were reminders everywhere. In a case beneath their bed lies Alex’s neatly pressed alb, the white outer-garment he wore as a priest, together with stoles in green, purple red and white, lovingly handmade by a parishioner.
His personal copy of the three volume breviary, the official prayer book of the Catholic Church, takes pride of place in Alex’s study.
Far from wishing that her husband would forget about these trappings of his former life, Jan, like Alex, would love nothing more than for the Catholic Church to allow married priests to be ordained, so that he could once again answer his calling.
‘He is such a charismatic person that people are drawn to him and he’s always willing to help,’ says Jan. ‘Friends whose relatives are dying will ask Alex to go to the hospice to sit with them, because he is such a wonderful, calming presence. It’s a crying shame when he has so much to give that he’s no longer allowed to minister.’
Alex, who runs a support group for those considering leaving the priesthood, lives in hope that under Pope Francis, priests may one day be granted the right to marry.
However, since Alex was diagnosed in January with advanced prostate cancer, for which he is undergoing chemotherapy and hormone treatment, the couple have become acutely aware that time may not be on their side.
‘I still look at Alex’s lovely face and feel so grateful that he made the decision to marry me because we have been so happy together,’ Jan says, tearing up again.
‘Even after all these years, I can’t believe how lucky I am that he chose me over the priesthood.’