Wife of Harry Thompson, creator of Have I Got New For You, on the day she became a wife then a widow in 7 hours

  • Harry Thompson, a non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer at 45
  • Six months later he married girlfriend of two and a half years Lisa, 33
  • He passed away just seven hours after the ceremony

Lisa Thompson.

16:34 EST, 17 April 2013


09:22 EST, 18 April 2013

When the creator of Have I Got New For You was told he had lung cancer at 45, the first thing he did was propose to his girlfriend. What happened next will move you beyond words…

Most women daydream about what their wedding day will be like. And when their big day is all over, they display their pictures proudly on the mantelpiece and in leather-bound albums.

I don’t have a wedding album; just a couple of blurry snapshots that I keep in a box, just for me.
My wedding took place sitting on a hospital bed, with the groom, Harry Thompson, gravely ill and both of us wearing the crumpled clothes we had worn the night before at a fireworks party, after which he had been abruptly admitted to hospital.

Six months before, on April 30, 2005, Harry, a writer and TV comedy producer, had been diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 45. I was just 33.

The news that Harry - a fit non-smoker - should be struck down with lung cancer was a total shock

The news that Harry – a fit non-smoker – should be struck down with lung cancer was a total shock

Though the initial diagnosis was frightening, we had stupidly thought we had a lot more time left.
But as soon as he was admitted to hospital that night, it was clear things were bleak. Amid the feelings of shock that Harry’s condition had deteriorated so suddenly and horror that time was slipping away from us, saying our vows felt like a bond of permanence that lung cancer could not erode.

Of course, our wedding was not as we’d planned. But as we sat there, I realised that all that lovely, extraneous stuff that you would normally fret about when getting married – the dress, flowers, all the arrangements – just doesn’t matter.

Last week, it was revealed that, on discovering he had terminal cancer, writer Iain Banks had asked his long-term partner, Adele, ‘if she’d do him the honour of becoming his widow’.

Despite the similarities to my situation, I didn’t feel sad. In fact, I felt like writing to Adele to congratulate her, because despite the agony of seeing your new husband suffer, love really does assuage the hideousness of such a bleak situation.

Their story took me back to early 2005, about six weeks before Harry’s diagnosis. He had suffered flu-like symptoms and felt a searing pain in his chest a couple of times in the night.

Lisa will never forget his first words the morning after he'd asked her to marry him, which weren't 'Oh Christ, I've got cancer', but 'I hope you've remembered you're engaged'

Lisa will never forget his first words the morning after he’d asked her to marry him, which weren’t ‘Oh Christ, I’ve got cancer’, but ‘I hope you’ve remembered you’re engaged’

We were worried, but not unduly. After going to his GP and having some blood tests, and then being referred to specialists, it was thought that Harry had pneumonia, then possibly TB.

Finally, after a bronchoscopy, we had the devastating news that his illness was inoperable lung cancer.

That Harry – a fit, lively non-smoker – should be struck down with this was a total shock.

Doctors didn’t have any idea how he’d contracted it – apparently, one in ten lung cancer sufferers have never smoked – though it was suggested that there could be some genetic link as his mother had suffered from breast cancer.

On the day he was diagnosed, Harry asked
me to marry him. We were living together in West London and it was not a
conventional proposal. I was stacking the fridge when he said out of
the blue that getting married would give him something to get better
for, but I also think it was a kindness to me.

Though I’d never been the type to dream of my big day, I suppose I’d thought about getting married a few times, as women do.

Harry, who’d been previously married and had two children, had mentioned it in passing when we talked about our future together.

We’d spoken about the life we’d live together, spending months of every year abroad — outside the domestic cricket season, of course.

We talked about a life spent writing in the sun together, having children together…

I will never forget his first words the morning after he’d asked me to marry him, which weren’t ‘Oh Christ, I’ve got cancer’, but ‘I hope you’ve remembered you’re engaged’. Caught in a maelstrom of emotions, I couldn’t muster a reply and simply squeezed his hand. 

Harry and I had met two and a half years previously. He was one of the biggest and most original talents in TV comedy – producing Have I Got News For You and helping Sacha Baron Cohen create his character Ali G.

I contacted him for advice about the TV industry, in which I would later work, too.

He ALWAYS joked that I had sent him a fan letter and perhaps it was, in a way. But after we’d had lunch that first time, he gripped my hands and told me that he had to see me again. I felt the same way.

Lisa contacted him for advice about the TV industry but he always joked that she had sent him a fan letter

Lisa contacted him for advice about the TV industry but he always joked that she had sent him a fan letter

There was no going back and we had a very intense, blindingly happy relationship from that moment on, even throughout his illness. Despite having undergone chemotherapy, radiotherapy and two operations to sort out an abscess on his lung, Harry remained positive to the very last minute.
I tried to be tough, but I remember leaving the hospital every night in turmoil.

Yet despite the starkness of the lung cancer statistics and its poor survival rates, we never admitted defeat – if 1 per cent of people in Harry’s position survived for more than five years, we were going to be sure he was in that 1 per cent.

Even though we knew we couldn’t stave it off for ever, we thought we had a few more years. Enough to have a married life together.

I remember a consultant chatting to me when Harry was under a general anaesthetic having a piece of rib removed so they could drain an abscess on his lung.

‘Harry’s mentioned that you’re planning on getting married,’ he said, in a kindly sort of way. ‘Well, I think August would be a nice time to do it.’

It was June. I knew what he was trying to say, but I couldn’t accept the reality of it and nor could I have told Harry – he would have felt his medical team had lost faith in him.

For me it provided confirmation of the one thing I simply couldn’t yet face. That Harry was going to die.

We told only a few people about our plans to get married and envisaged it as being more like a big party to celebrate the day that Harry finally beat lung cancer into remission.

We were confident that would happen. In fact, I still have a tatty envelope containing a couple of newspaper articles featuring wedding venues he thought were lovely.

Harry asked me to save them. I’ll never throw them away.

The lung cancer and treatment, combined with Harry’s busy work schedule, used every atom of emotional energy that we had.

'Most brides expect to spend the rest of their lives with their husband, but I had only seven hours'

‘Most brides expect to spend the rest of their lives with their husband, but I had only seven hours’

During his illness, Harry wrote most of a book, Penguins Stopped Play, about his beloved Captain Scott XI cricket team; promoted his first novel, This Thing Of Darkness, which had been long-listed for the Booker Prize, and co-wrote most of a six-part sitcom.

Amid all of this, we’d been slow to make any formal plans about a wedding ceremony.

In retrospect, it seems incredible – perhaps our hopes for his recovery hid a large dollop of denial – but we genuinely thought we had time.

We always aimed to beat the cancer – indeed, the day he died we were due to fly to the U.S. to see a specialist about a new treatment. The six months before Harry died on November 7, 2005, were a mixture of extreme highs and lows. Between the weeks spent in hospital, we decided to travel as much as possible.

Harry was an award-winning travel writer who had already seen so many countries, but he wanted to see every last bit of the world.

We went to Portugal, France, Estonia, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia and Greece, building up millions of happy memories that I will treasure always.

But if I had to choose just one memory of Harry it would be the night in Croatia when Harry turned to me and said: ‘I wouldn’t change anything if it meant not meeting you.’

Despite doing so much in such a short time during his treatment, it’s not the memories of Harry’s incredible achievements that are most dear to me, extraordinary though they were.

It was the hours we spent chatting on his bed at the Cromwell Hospital in London. We talked about anything and everything. And strange as it may sound to some, we laughed a lot.

So much about our day-to-day situation was absurd and making light of it helped.

Harry had formed an attachment to a red bucket that he’d take with him if he left the house on particularly nauseous days following a chemotherapy treatment. One day, a passerby dropped a pound coin into it. Harry found that very funny.

His sense of humour had always been of the sardonic variety and that wryness was certainly a useful buffer for him – and for me, too, when I was with him. Away from him, though, I felt rigid with pain.

Harry’s sudden turn for the worse was a great shock – he was upbeat, though frail due to his treatment. There was no indication that he might have a sudden decline.

We went to the fireworks party the night before we were due to fly to the U.S. for the new therapy and it was there he started to feel breathless.

A neighbour drove us to hospital – we thought he might just need some fluids – and the doctors decided to keep him in overnight.

By the morning, it was clear he wasn’t going to be able to  leave.  

That day, we were married by a registrar in front of Harry’s father and a friend. It was our last possible chance. Harry was in bed, I was sitting next to him and all the nurses were crying. We were crying, too.

World of grief

There are 245 million widows in the world

Though ours wasn’t a traditional white wedding, it didn’t matter to me. Every wedding is special, but ours was especially poignant because of its finality. Most brides expect to spend the rest of their lives with their husband, but I had only seven hours. In the evening, Harry died. It was just us in his hospital room. He was in my arms.

Chunks of that first year after are gone: I can’t remember due to the grief. I couldn’t have got through it without friends and family, especially Harry’s father. We’re still close and talk about the man we adored.

I consider myself so lucky to have known Harry, let alone loved and be loved by him. Now, seven-and-a-half years after his death, I am fortunate to be happy in another relationship, with two beautiful children.

Harry and I didn’t address the possibility of my meeting someone else in the future, as  we never really acknowledged the possibility that he wouldn’t get better. But I have never worried what he might think  because I know he wanted me to be happy.

I worry far more about getting the most out of my life and not wasting it – because he would have given anything for more time. I still think of Harry every day. We might lose the physical presence of our loved ones, but they nourish our hearts and minds forever.

That’s why I don’t feel pity for Iain Banks and his widow-to-be. I have only admiration for their courage and hope that they have time enough to say everything they want to say, do everything they need to do.

While ours wasn’t the wedding either of us would have wished for, it comforts me to this day that we married. Even if our marriage lasted only a day, how could you ever regret marrying someone you truly love?

The comments below have not been moderated.

JoJo, Boston, United States, you are entitled to your opinion but I think all of us will have people who like and dislike us. However, you cannot deny that this man did right by the woman he loved by marrying her. She gave him happiness and vice versa. I’m glad she found happiness again. She’s too young to not move on.


18/4/2013 15:20

Is this news or just life?


London, United Kingdom,
18/4/2013 15:12

Looking at the worst rated comments, nasty people never cease to amaze me.


18/4/2013 14:59

I feel more sorry for his two children – and oddly enough, there is hardly any mention of them at all! Harry Thompson had rather a chequered history where women were concerned (as documented by the Mail at the time) so I’m afraid it is questionable whether she would still be with him had he lived.

Dolly Diamond

18/4/2013 14:59

Don’t understand what’s the meaning of all the comments flying around about him having a wife and children. Did he abandon them or not because if he did it doesn’t sound too good to me.


down south, United Kingdom,
18/4/2013 14:43

Oh Jinty, you made me cry….well said xx


18/4/2013 14:34

After the comments I read here I have just ordered “This Thing of Darkness”. It sounds like an amazing book, and the reviews are glowing.


Bucks, United Kingdom,
18/4/2013 13:56

She snared an older man for money and when he died she sells her sob story to the papers. Have some people no shame?
– Primax , Deskbound, United Kingdom, 18/4/2013 13:03

you need to ask that question of yourself, what an ugly comment to pass.


18/4/2013 13:35

Absolutely heartbreaking. Bless you both x

Mrs Bean

18/4/2013 13:09

Wow, that story rocked me to the core. My husband is my world and the thought of losing him terrifies me. Time for a cup of tea before the boys at work realise I’m about to cry!

Karen Carter

18/4/2013 13:06

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

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