On a cold winter’s day, I’m greeted at the door of Maggie’s cancer centre in West London by actress Hermione Norris. It is warm inside, very warm, and deliberately so. Chemotherapy often makes people very sensitive to the cold, so the centre keeps the heating on high: just one of hundreds of little touches used to make cancer patients feel comfortable.
I’m here for a tour of the centre alongside Norris, 54, star of Cold Feet and Spooks, who is an ambassador of Maggie’s – one of the charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal.
She was brought on board in the early-Noughties after a plea from her friend Judy Naake, an entrepreneur who sold her St Tropez fake tan beauty business for £70m in 2005.
“She is a gorgeous, feisty, dynamic diamond of a woman,” explains Norris, “She had been diagnosed with cancer and was instrumental in setting up Maggie’s in Nottingham.”
Since then, Norris has been a firm supporter of the charity, paying particular attention to the centre in Manchester, which was close by when she was filming Cold Feet. Norris says she often struggles to explain the value of these centres to others, until they see one for themselves. “I don’t think you can come here and not really feel it – the uniqueness of the environment that has been so thoughtfully designed”, she says.
The 27 Maggie’s centres across the UK don’t provide medical treatment, but offer nearly everything else that a cancer patient could need, including help with mental health, financial worries and dealing with the side effects of treatment. Each centre is attached to a hospital and is also open for patients and their families to simply drop in for a cup of tea and a chat while waiting for treatments.
Norris tells me that in a big city it’s easy to see the value of an oasis like this. “I just got caught in a bust-up in a cafe [before arriving here]”, she laughs, saying that that would hardly be an ideal start to a day of hospital appointments for a patient. “If you’re going in for treatment you would want to come here to just sit quietly and gather yourself before going in.”
Smart design tricks mean that the West London centre feels much more like a home than a centre for cancer patients: there is no reception desk, strip lighting, whitewashed walls or uniform for staff. “One of the things that really struck me is that they don’t use that really strong disinfectant, so it doesn’t smell clinical,” says Norris.
The charity focuses on the design of their buildings, and employs visionary architects to build bright yet cosy spaces for their centres. The west London centre is the work of the recently-deceased Richard Rogers, the architect behind the Millennium Dome and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Unlike the busy hubbub and chaos of the hospital, here everything feels completely relaxed. A member of staff points out that there is a rule with the interior design: no clocks. The thinking is that no one who comes in here should feel any pressure to leave.
“It’s just a peaceful sanctuary for people to gather themselves in really difficult circumstances,” says Norris. “Everything, you know, [even] that chair, all of it is really mindfully put there to receive people.”