‘When my dad’s cancer spread to his jaw, they took the side of his face away’

For a moment it sounds like Boris Johnson on the other end of the phone. That familiar voice is telling me that, because he is keeping Covid rules to the letter by self-isolating, he won’t after all be able to make our interview scheduled for today.

It takes a few seconds for the penny to drop. It is Rory Bremner, impressionist extraordinaire, rather than the Prime Minister who is calling me. Just back from Italy, Bremner has been caught out by the rapidly-changing Covid restrictions and told to isolate until his PCR test result comes through.

He had volunteered to show me round the cancer centre next to London’s Charing Cross Hospital run by Maggie’s, one of the Telegraph’s Christmas charities. Now it will have to be a virtual tour.

Bremner’s involvement began around six years ago, he explains from his Cotswolds home, when he was invited to appear at a fundraising lunch Maggie’s was organising. He agreed, and liked what he heard so much that afterwards he asked to see one of their centres – the same one at Charing Cross where we had been planning to meet.

But the roots of his relationship with the charity go back over 40 years, long before it came into existence. That was when Bremner was still at school doing his A-levels and his father, Donald, was undergoing cancer treatment.

The family – he had an older brother, Nigel, and a sister from his father’s first marriage, Boo – were living in Edinburgh, so the treatment for Donald’s stomach cancer, which had also spread to his jaw, happened in the city’s Western General Hospital. “That is the same hospital where, over 20 years later, Maggie Keswick Jencks, the founder of Maggie’s, was told that her breast cancer had returned.”

Sitting in a windowless corridor there with her husband, trying to process the news, she knew that there had to be a better way of supporting those in similar situations. It was the birth of Maggie’s centres.

The plans for the very first one were on Keswick Jencks’ bedside table at the time of her death in 1995. The following year, it opened in the city.

Though Covid rules have prevented us being side-by-side to look round the Charing Cross Maggie’s, one of the 24 that have been opened since, Bremner uses his formidable skills with words and voices to guide me through a virtual tour.

“Like all Maggie’s, it is next to the main hospital. You walk in and there is the most extraordinary welcoming, supportive and calm atmosphere. Maggie’s centres are the very opposite of the frightening and austere places that hospitals can be. I’ve never been to a support centre that is anything like it,” he says.

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