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John Humphrys: ‘I’m hugely argumentative by instinct’

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Media captionJohn Humphrys: “I don’t feel any need to get back in front of a microphone or indeed a camera”

After 32 years of co-presenting BBC Radio 4’s Today, John Humphrys knew exactly how he wanted his final programme to sound.

“I had told the big boss that I wanted to leave without any fuss at all,” he explains. “At five minutes to nine on the morning of my last programme, I would say, ‘That’s it from us, oh and by the way, this is my last programme. And since I’m leaving, here are a few thoughts.’

“They vetoed that, because it just wouldn’t work. And they persuaded me.”

As a result, his last ever edition of the BBC’s flagship radio news programme ended up being quite an event.

Humphrys spoke to former Prime Minister David Cameron for his final 08:10 interview – the most prestigious slot of the programme. Tony Blair and Dame Edna Everage made appearances too, and for his closing item Humphrys was joined by several former co-hosts, including James Naughtie, Sarah Montague and Sue McGregor.

“I was actually, in spite of my reputation, rather moved by it,” he says (despite thinking it was “slightly over-the-top”).

The timing of Humphrys’ departure is somewhat surprising, considering it came six weeks before the Brexit deadline. But he says he was “absolutely not in the slightest” bit tempted to hang on, adding that “there would always be another reason for staying a little bit longer”.

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Humphrys presenting Today with (clockwise from top left) Sue McGregor, Brian Redhead, Mishal Husain and James Naughtie

There’s a recurring theme in the articles that were written about Humphrys around the time of his exit. Words like “Rottweiler” and “grumpy” crop up a lot.

“With all the boss class he was irascible, impatient and magnificently argumentative,” wrote former editor Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times. “For the past 20 years or more, senior figures wanted him out. They considered his approach too macho.”

In The New Statesman, another former editor, Roger Mosey, said Humphrys “excelled at the big gladiatorial combats; in his prime, there was nobody better at asking the questions listeners wanted to hear”.

Now that both Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman have left the BBC, there’s a suggestion that their combative style of interviewing may have had its day. Indeed, Radio 4 PM presenter Evan Davis has criticised those types of interviews as “worn out” and “not a particular public service”.

Humphrys discusses this at length in his memoirs, which are published this week. “I don’t want the audience to think we presenters and the politicians we interview are best mates, or even friends,” he writes in A Day Like Today. “Evan often uses their first names on air. I have always refused to do that and I wish they did not use ours.”

His own impatience during interviews, he now explains to BBC News, is largely down to the politicians who he says “refuse to engage on any level at all” – exchanges he finds “unrewarding and rather pointless”.

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HarperCollins

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Humphrys pictured with British forces at their military base in Basra, Iraq, in 2003

“It’s when you ask them a perfectly reasonable question, and they employ one of these gambits to avoid answering it, and you can see they’ve had media training or they’ve been told by their spin doctor not to answer it. The audience sees through it. I got more complaints about politicians who simply refused to answer the question than anything else.”

But he also points out that changes in interviewing styles over the years do not necessarily mean presenters nowadays are any less effective than they used to be.

“Justin [Webb] is every bit as tough as I was,” Humphrys says of one of Today’s remaining hosts. “He may have a slightly more emollient approach and he might get into an interview rather more gently than I did, but you realise if you’re listening that he knows what’s going on, he does his homework, and you wait for the killer question, and it will come.”

Humphrys and Webb’s warm relationship was evidenced by the fact that Webb was chosen to co-host the 76-year-old’s final programme. But he also acknowledged Humphrys’ occasional bad temper, writing in the Radio Times that Humphrys wouldn’t hesitate to “shout” and “throw things” if he was unhappy.

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Reuters

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Humphrys interviewed former Prime Minister David Cameron for his last 08:10 interview

“Untrue. Justin will hear from my lawyer,” Humphrys replies jokingly (we think) when this is put to him. “Look,” he continues, “I get worked up before and sometimes even during the programme – I was wholly engaged and I couldn’t do it by half.

“I am hugely argumentative by instinct, I’m fairly combative – not physically – and if I see something of which I disapprove, if I don’t like the running order or brief, I will say so. And with some people, I’m able to have perfectly rational and sensible conversations. With other people, for whatever reason, personality clashes or whatever, I will occasionally lose my temper. I’m always sorry when I do.”

How many times has he threatened to resign?

“Hang on a minute, how long have we got?” He jokingly pretends to count on both hands. “I’m afraid, rather childishly, I have threatened to resign once or twice – quite a few times probably.”

He does not recall many specific examples, but Charlotte Edwardes of The Times reported in 2016 that one such occasion was when Humphrys found out he wouldn’t be presenting on the morning of the EU referendum result. (In the end, he did present that programme, with Montague.)

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As a young reporter, Humphrys reported on the Liverpool dock strikes

Humphrys’ memoirs include his reflections on how journalism, and the BBC, have changed since he began presenting Today in 1987.

One of the most significant developments of recent years has been the annual publication of BBC stars’ salaries after pressure from the government. That has led to all kinds of issues for the corporation, not least the gender pay discrepancies which emerged.

Some presenters, such as Graham Norton, took issue with the list’s publication, but Humphrys says he’s “always been happy with it”.

“And I’ve always been puzzled by the BBC’s hitherto refusal to do so. I’ve never been ashamed of how much I earned. There was a time when I was earning a very large amount indeed.” In 2016/17, Humphrys earned between £600,000-£650,000 before he took a pay cut to around £290,000. “But the licence payer has a right to know.”

However, since the BBC began revealing salaries, it has lost some of its biggest names to the commercial sector, including Chris Evans, Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair. Although not the only factor in their exits, director general Tony Hall referred to the lists as a “poacher’s charter”.

“Well, let it [be one],” Humphrys replies. “Look, if someone wants to employ Eddie Mair, what’s to stop them ringing him up and saying, ‘How much you earning Eddie? Oh, well we can double that’. It’s a market, and if they want to take him from the BBC, fine.”

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Several past and present Today presenters and editors joined Humphrys for his final programme

His relationship with Mair, incidentally, is shown in the book to have been strained.

Humphrys recalls an occasion when the former PM presenter fronted an item about the leaking of an off-air conversation between Humphrys and BBC North America editor Jon Sopel, in which they appeared to make light of the gender gap revealed by the star salaries list. Humphrys admits he “went ballistic” about how Mair tackled the events on air, without allowing him a right of reply.

He does, however, express regret and “takes full responsibility” for his conversation with Sopel itself. “I naively believed that the people you work with are not sitting there listening furtively to your conversations that you think are little private chats at four o’clock in the morning, when you’re both taking the mickey out of each other. But I do find the reaction to be preposterous.”

Humphrys adds that he “has a vague suspicion” of who leaked the recording, but declines to name names.

‘Absolute tosh’

Notably, Humphrys is not on Twitter, something practically unthinkable for a journalist in 2019. The social media platform is a crucial tool for reporters.

Considering the pasting Humphrys gave George Entwistle in 2012 over the former director general’s failure to stay across news headlines and spot the Newsnight scandal sooner, is it not hypocritical for Humphrys himself to have refused to join such a platform?

“It’s a very good question, but let me throw it back to you,” he says. “If Donald Trump tweets something important, is it going to be in the newspapers and on every single outlet immediately? Yes. Do I read all of those newspapers? Yes. So the idea that by not spending eight hours of my day reading every idiotic and sometimes bizarre or offensive tweet I am somehow missing something is absolute tosh.”

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Humphrys’ interview with George Entwistle contributed to the BBC director general’s resignation

Safe to say, he will not be spending his radio retirement learning how to use social media. Instead, Humphrys is keen to have a few months off, although he will continue to present Mastermind on BBC Two.

The most important question, of course, is whether he’d consider doing Strictly Come Dancing now he’s free from the constraints of being a serious news presenter.

“I have been asked twice over the years, and the answer each time was no. The answer remains no,” he says. “Look, poor old John Sergeant made a fool of himself. He’s a great mate of mine and, moreover, he turned making a fool of himself into a very successful career. So good on him, but not for me.

“And anyway, I’ve got two left feet.”

John Humphrys: A life in journalism

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Humphrys presented the Nine O’Clock News with Julia Somerville before joining Today

  • Humphrys’ career began in newspapers in Wales. After leaving school, he spent two years working on the Penarth Times, then worked for the Merthyr Express and the Western Mail.
  • He moved into broadcasting in his 20s, and while working for the Welsh commercial TV channel TWW he was the first reporter on site of the Aberfan disaster in October 1966.
  • He joined the BBC later that year, first as a regional reporter, during which time he covered the Liverpool dock strikes, and then as a foreign correspondent, which saw him cover the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.
  • Since 1981, he has largely remained in the studio. He presented the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News before joining Today in 1987. It was there that he developed his reputation as one of the corporation’s most ferocious interviewers and he became the presenter most feared by politicians.



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Liam Payne on alcohol: ‘My family were very worried’

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“It was very erratic behaviour on my part – I was partying too hard,” says Liam Payne

In the offices of Liam Payne’s management company, just north of Soho in central London, there’s a bottle of Bacardi inscribed with his name.

It was sent as a gift, after the singer immortalised the drink in his hit single Strip That Down. According to the lyrics, which he co-wrote with Ed Sheeran, he mixes it with Coke and “sips it lightly”.

There’s just one small snag, says Payne: “I don’t think I’ve ever drunk Bacardi”.

“When I was younger, I went straight in on the whisky,” the star says. “I tend to pick my poison early, then I stick with it until it bores me.”

In fact, shortly after Strip That Down was released in 2017, Payne gave up drinking altogether after his lifestyle became “a cause for concern”.

“There were a couple of very dark years of me going through extreme peril with different mental health things,” says the 26-year-old. “I just didn’t know where I was going to end up.”

‘Reset button’

His drinking started to get out of hand while he was on tour with One Direction – the hotel mini-bar becoming a source of solace as he came down from the adrenalin high of playing for 80,000 screaming fans.

But even when the band went on hiatus, the habit continued. “It was very erratic behaviour on my part – I was partying too hard,” says the star, who’d always been cast as the “sensible” member of 1D.

“It was a tough little time. My family were very worried.”

Eventually, there came a point “where I realised I needed to hit the reset button and take a break,” he says.

“I was coming off the back-end of a break-up, so I was dealing with all sorts of emotions that I hadn’t dealt with in a long time because I was always covering them up – heartbreak, nerves, all sorts of things.

“I’d gotten too used to this rhythm of life; of using alcohol and different things to mask my feelings, or get me through. So I just needed to prove to myself that [drinking] wasn’t the issue for me.”

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The star dated Cheryl Cole from 2016 to 2018, during which time they had a son, Bear Payne

He doesn’t say it explicitly, but the switch to sobriety coincided with the birth of his first son, Bear, with fellow pop star Cheryl Cole in early 2017.

The star had always wanted to be a father, but says he struggled to adapt to his new role.

“I’d built it up in my head so much that by the time Bear was born, it was impossible for me to ever match the feeling I thought I’d feel – which is crazy,” he says.

His solution was to become a cook. “Thinking logically, I was going, ‘Right, if I’m feeding her and she feeds him, then I’m taking care of the family’. Because that’s what dads do.”

‘Success gets the better of you’

After months of rumours, Cheryl and Liam confirmed their split in July 2018, but they continue to share the responsibility of raising their son, who turns three in March.

It means he has to jet “in and out of the country as much as possible”, but he seems content to divide his time between super-stardom and domesticity.

Is that why it took two years to translate the success of Strip That Down into a debut album?

Actually, no. It was that song’s phenomenal, and unexpected, performance (it’s still the biggest-selling solo song by any of the former One Directioners) that threw Payne’s plans into disarray.

“Strip That Down was such an amazing thing to happen – but sometimes success gets the better of you,” he says.

“It took the best part of nine months to get to number one in America – and for that whole period, people wouldn’t put any other songs on the radio. So it was a really weird time. We got stuck with one song for so long that it really prolonged the process of making the album”.

It was especially strange for someone who was used to writing and recording entire albums in six weeks or less.

“Writing for One Direction was a different process because you knew what the kids wanted,” says the star, who co-wrote about 50% of the band’s last two albums.

“I love those songs – don’t get me wrong – but I knew why I was writing them and I knew what I was writing them for.”

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One Direction were the most successful act to emerge from X Factor, despite coming third in the competition

Ultimately, Payne realised that getting more time to work on his debut album was “a luxury” and he allowed himself to “sit back and enjoy the process for once”.

Recording sessions took place around the world, with A-listers like Ed Sheeran, Ryan Tedder and Charlie Puth. In total, the album credits a staggering 72 composers – and Payne likens the writing process to “speed dating”.

“Sometimes it was difficult because I’d get one or two days in the studio with someone that I don’t know and I didn’t really want to share an awful lot of private stuff with them,” he says. “It’s almost like the first day of school every day.”

His experiences in One Direction helped him be more assertive during sessions; and he turns out to be a studio geek, marvelling at piano sound on Selena Gomez’s Lose You To Love Me, (“they’ve recorded it so close, you can hear the hammer hitting the strings”) and the textural painting in Billie Eilish’s Everything I Wanted (“when she sings ‘I’m underwater‘and they tweak her vocal so it sounds like she’s disappearing, it’s like Disneyland”).

But as the album came together, he gravitated towards the albums he grew up with – Usher’s 8701, Justin Timberlake’s Justified and Chris Brown’s self-titled debut – shaping his solo career around a sleek, efficient brand of R&B.

There’s a thread of sadness running through the album – “Heart meet break, lips meet drink / Rock meet bottom, to the bottom I sink,” he sings at one point – informed by his recurring bouts of depression, and his high-profile split from Cheryl.

“I’m an absolute expert on heartbreak, it would seem,” he says. “I think, for me, it was easier to write from a sad place, because the feelings were a little bit more raw. Happiness is hard to fathom, I think.”

‘My sexuality is not your fetish’

But it’s one of the album’s more explicit songs that generated headlines – and for all the wrong reasons.

Both Ways is a late-night slow jam that details a sexual encounter with two women. “My girl, she like it both ways,” Payne sings over a ringing trap beat. “She like the way it all taste / Couple more, we’ll call it foreplay / No, no, I don’t discriminate.”

Within hours of its release last week, the track was being criticised for reinforcing harmful stereotypes that bisexual women’s sexualities exist for the gratification of men – a fetishisation that can have violent, real-world consequences.

“I’m sick and tired of people thinking my sexuality is made for threesomes,” one person wrote in a tweet, adding: “Bisexual women are NOT for your sexual fantasies.” Another Twitter user simply declared: “My sexuality is not your fetish.”

So far, Payne hasn’t responded – but when we spoke last month, before the furore erupted, he said Both Ways was his “favourite song” on the record.

In his explanation, the lyrics are about being open to new experiences and different sexualities, as we emerge into a new “world of ‘love is love’ and people becoming much more understanding about the way love is – and rightly so”.

Payne indicated that the song had originated with one of his co-writers, adding: “I don’t know who in the studio had actually been in this situation, because I certainly haven’t, but it was an interesting song to write.”

Whether or not he addresses the criticism, the song is a blot on his copybook; and a rare mis-step for a singer who’s always strived to be on the right side of public opinion.

For a self-confessed perfectionist, its bound to sting; but several times during our discussion, Payne says he’s trying to learn from his mistakes, rather than punish himself for making them in the first place.

“My life is super-complicated,” he says. “I’ve got a two-and-a-half year old son, an ex-missus and all sorts of different things kicking off, so I have to drill these messages into my head.”

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The star says he’s planning his first solo tour for 2020

All things considered, would he prefer not to have auditioned for the X Factor all those years ago?

“I wouldn’t change it,” he says decisively. “I know it’s where I’m supposed to be in the world now.

“I was very confused about fame when it all happened; and learning to be a person outside of your job was difficult. But now I feel like I get it. I’m a lucky boy.”

Liam Payne’s debut album, LP1, is out now on Capitol Records.

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Peter Handke receives Nobel Literature prize

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Peter Handke at the Nobel Prize ceremonyImage copyright
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Peter Handke was applauded by the attendees at Tuesday’s ceremony in Stockholm

Austrian author Peter Handke has received his Nobel prize for Literature at a ceremony in Sweden.

The choice of Handke was controversial because of his support for the Serbian side in the 1990s Yugoslav war.

The ambassadors of countries including Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo and Turkey boycotted the ceremony in protest.

Olga Tokarczuk, who is considered the leading Polish novelist of her generation, also collected her belated 2018 literature prize.

Handke, 76, was recognised for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”, the Academy said when the award was announced in October.

But a 58,000-strong petition called for the award to be revoked.

And as dignitaries arrived in limousines for the awards ceremony, about a dozen protesters waved placards with slogans such as “No Nobel for Fake News”, reported Reuters news agency.

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Olga Tokarczuk, pictured with Peter Handke, received the literature prize for 2018

“The problem with Handke is his refusal to admit genocide on the Bosnian population in the 1990s,” said Adnan Mahmutović, one of the organisers of Tuesday’s demonstration in Stockholm.

“As a serious, established writer who has a lot of clout in European literature, Handke has been used in the narrative of genocide denial in the Balkans,” said Mahmutovic, who fled to Sweden as a refugee from the war in Bosnia in 1993.

Protest resignation

The choice of Handke came as the Academy struggled to recover from a sexual assault scandal that resulted in the 2018 prize being postponed and awarded this year to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk while Handke was named the recipient for 2019.

The assault controversy involved the husband of a former member, the poet and writer Katarina Frostenson.

French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, who ran a cultural project with funding from the Swedish Academy, was accused by 18 women of sexual assault.

Several of the alleged incidents reportedly happened in properties belonging to the Academy. Mr Arnault denies the allegations.

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The Nobel Literature Prize winner receives a medal, a diploma and £740,000 in prize money

One external member of the Nobel literature committee resigned earlier this month over the choice of Handke.

Gun-Britt Sundstrom said the choice of Handke had been interpreted as if literature stood above politics and she did not agree.

Another external committee member, Kristoffer Leandoer, said he had left because Academy reforms following the sexual assault scandal were taking too long.

In a 1996 book, Handke cast doubt on the Bosnia Serb massacre of men and boys at Srebrenica and accused Bosnian Muslims of staging attacks.

In a TV interview in 1999, he compared Serbia’s fate to that of Jews during the Holocaust – although he later apologised for that “slip of the tongue”. In 2006, he spoke at the funeral of Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused of genocide and other war crimes.

However, the Academy quoted a 2006 article in which Handke said the Srebrenica massacre was the worst crime against humanity in Europe since Word War Two.

‘It’s literature’

At a press conference in Stockholm on Friday, Handke avoided questions on the Balkan wars.

“I like literature, not opinions,” he said.

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Alfred Nobel Museum in Stockholm holds the records for the Nobel Prize and its winners

But in an interview with German weekly Die Zeit in late November, Handke defended his writings.

“Not one word I have written about Yugoslavia can be denounced, not a single one. It’s literature,” he said.

He said that at the time “reporting about Serbia was monotone and one-sided,” Handke told Die Zeit.

‘Deserving winner’

One Nobel Committee for Literature member, Henrik Peterson, has argued that Handke is “radically unpolitical” in his writing, and his support for the Serbs has been misunderstood.

Mr Petersen is not the only committee member to defend Handke.

Rebecka Kärde said she didn’t want to “apologise for the hair-raising things that Handke has undoubtedly said and done”.

But she continued: “The Nobel committee must read the texts on Yugoslavia among another 70 works written over a period of 50 years. Which we did.”

They concluded that the author of books including Repetition, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay and Die Obstdiebin “absolutely deserves a Nobel Prize”.

She added: “When we give the award to Handke, we argue that the task of literature is other than to confirm and reproduce what society’s central view believes is morally right.”

Handke himself reacted angrily to the response to his win, telling journalists: “No-one who comes to me says that he has read any of my works, that he knows what I have written. It’s just questions like how does the world react, reactions to reactions.”

He said he would never speak to the media again, according to Austrian broadcaster ORF.

In 2014 Handke called for the Nobel Literature Prize to be abolished, saying it conferred a “false canonisation” on the laureate.

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Roxette singer Marie Fredriksson dies, aged 61

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Roxette sold more than 80 million records worldwide

Roxette singer Marie Fredriksson has died aged 61, her manager has confirmed.

The Swedish star achieved global success in the 1990s with hits like Joyride, The Look and It Must Have Been Love, from the film Pretty Woman.

A statement said the singer had died on Monday, 9 December “following a 17-year long battle with cancer”.

“You were the most wonderful friend for over 40 years,” her bandmate Per Gessle said. “Things will never be the same.”

Fredriksson was first diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2002, after collapsing in her kitchen following a workout.

The tumour cost her the vision in her right eye – but after three years of treatment, she returned to public life and toured successfully again with Roxette from 2008 to 2016.

However, the cancer eventually returned: Fredriksson’s family said she had died following a recurrence of “her previous illness” earlier this week.

‘Magical live performances’

“Thank you, Marie, thanks for everything,” said Gessle in a heartfelt statement.

“You were an outstanding musician, a master of the voice, an amazing performer. Thanks for painting my black and white songs in the most beautiful colours. You were the most wonderful friend for over 40 years.

“I’m proud, honoured and happy to have been able to share so much of your time, talent, warmth, generosity and sense of humour. All my love goes out to you and your family.”

“Marie leaves us a grand musical legacy,” added her manager Marie Dimberg.

“Her amazing voice – both strong and sensitive – and her magical live performances will be remembered by all of us who were lucky enough to witness them. But we also remember a wonderful person with a huge appetite for life, and woman with a very big heart who cared for everybody she met.”

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Hailing from Halmstad, Sweden, Roxette first met in the late 1970s, when Fredriksson was a member of the pop outfit Strul & Ma Mas Barn and Gessle was playing with Gyllene Tider, one of Sweden’s biggest groups.

They teamed up in 1986, becoming huge stars in their homeland with the single Neverending Love, followed by a hit album, Pearls of Passion.

Despite their popularity in Scandinavia, Capitol Records declined to release their records in the US.

It wasn’t until an American student studying in Sweden brought a copy of their second album home to Minneapolis, and persuaded a local radio DJ to play The Look, that they achieved international fame.

That song became the first of four US number ones for the band, while its parent album, Look Sharp!, went platinum.

They achieved their biggest success when their 1987 Christmas single, It Must Have Been Love, was re-written for inclusion on the Pretty Woman soundtrack in 1990. It topped the charts in more than 10 countries, and gave the band their biggest UK hit, reaching number three.

‘Full of fear’

Roxette continued to tour and release albums throughout the 1990s – eventually selling more than 80m records worldwide.

Known for breezy pop hits like Dressed For Success and power ballads such as Listen To Your Heart, they cheekily summarised their songwriting philosophy in the title to their 1995 greatest hits album, Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus.

After a brief hiatus, during which Gessle reunited with Gyllene Tider, the duo scored further hit albums with 1999’s Have a Nice Day, and 2001’s Room Service.

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The singer retired from touring in 2015

Fredriksson’s devastating cancer diagnosis came the following year. She spent three years receiving treatment, and later wrote about the “fear” she’d experienced in a solo record, called The Change.

Suddenly the change was here,” she sang, “Cold as ice and full of fear / There was nothing I could do / I saw slow motion pictures / Of me and you.”

In 2005, Fredriksson told Sweden’s Aftonbladet newspaper her treatment had been successful, saying: “It’s been three really hard years [but] I’m healthy.”

The singer took up painting during her treatment, but surprised Roxette fans by making a return to the stage with Gessle in Amsterdam in 2008.

The band later mounted a comeback tour that sold out venues across Europe, and released several new albums but, by 2016, Fredriksson’s health was failing and doctors advised her to stop touring.

‘Beautiful colours’

In her autobiography, the singer wrote about the impact cancer had on her life.

“At last, it feels like I have reconciled myself to having a radiation injury to live with. That this is how it turned out,” she said in The Love Of Life.

“I have lost many years through the disease. And it is also a sadness to age. But every day I think I’m grateful to be sitting here. And that I can still sing.”

In her final single, 2018’s Sing Me A Song, the star appeared to address her mortality, singing: “The love I had and gave / Makes it hard to say goodbye” over an elegant, mournful jazz backing.

Fredriksson is survived by her husband Mikael Bolyos and their two children.

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