Only the most dedicated fans would remember Sunfighter, the six-piece Seventies pop band which had precisely four minutes and 14 seconds of TV fame. In cream-coloured flares and with blow-dried hair, they made it on to Top Of The Pops with their single Drag Race Queen which was judged by presenter Noel Edmonds to be ‘quite nice’.It was Sunfighter’s only hit and, shortly afterwards, the band split up. More than 30 years on, most of the band members are presumably quietly living out their middle age, perhaps enjoying an occasional royalty cheque.
One of them, however, the band’s guitarist John Hardman, went on to be a half-decent session musician who ran his own recording studio and taught music. He also happened to father a little girl called Sarah, who grew up to claim her own slice of pop stardom – as part of the phenomenon that is Girls Aloud.In the seven years since they were created by the reality TV show Pop Stars: The Rivals they have evolved into the most fashionable and glamorous group in the country and last month they became part of pop’s establishment when they scooped their first Brit Award.It was an achievement that made John, 54, bristle with pride – though he wasn’t in the audience to share the moment with his daughter.Sarah, 27, has attributed her ‘musical genes’ to her father, but she hasn’t spoken to him for eight years. In fact, so estranged does she feel that she even changed her name from Hardman to Harding – leaving John heartbroken.
Sitting in his five-bedroom rectory home on the Welsh-Shropshire border, John says: ‘You could say I was the first person to spot her talent and encourage her to pursue her music.‘She told me from the time she was a little girl and would see me working in the music studio that she wanted to be a pop singer. We even did a pub gig together when she was 16.’He is desperate for a reconciliation – not to bask in her reflected glory but just to have a ‘connection’ with the daughter he loves… but has lost.The way Sarah sees it is that he walked out on her mother Marie for another – younger – woman and so far she has resisted his attempts at reconciliation.John sees it differently. He was a young man who made a mistake in a different age and who married Sarah’s mother Marie out of loyalty rather than love when she became pregnant. He says any meaningful relationship with Marie had withered long before he met the woman who would become his second wife, Kate.
I wasn’t looking to settle down but I wanted to do the right thing,’ says John. ‘I wanted my child to have parents who were married. I know I’ve made some mistakes but I think we would have got over them by now, had Sarah not become such a big celebrity. Fame can distort one’s perceptions and drive a wedge between people.’He adds: ‘She was old enough when the marriage ended to know what happened but I think she’s loyal to her mother. She must have felt she had to pick a side. But I didn’t divorce her, I divorced her mother. I can’t seem to get that message through to her.‘She seems to think that I just abandoned her after her mother and I divorced. But that’s just not the case. Nothing could be further from the truth. My marriage was over long before I met my current wife Kate.‘I have always looked after Sarah and I have always been there for her. I want to be a part of her life. But the only times that I’ve seen her over the past eight years, has been either on television or in newspapers.‘I’ve tried so many times to make contact – even before she became famous. I’ve written, emailed, telephoned, asked others to intercede on my behalf and still she refuses to see me. I once turned up at her London home, only to be turned away by her boyfriend and management people.’
There is perhaps some justification in John’s view that he and his first wife were simply incompatible and although they both struggled to make the marriage work, the relationship appears to have been doomed from the start.John, a GP’s son from Berkshire, had grown up with dreams of being a star like his heroes Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. But punk music was taking over and bands like his, with a pop-rock style, became unfashionable. Struggling with the prospect of never hitting the big-time after Sunfighter’s contract with EMI crumbled, the group disbanded and John embarked on a career as a session musician. He met Marie, an estate agent’s personal assistant, in 1978. She was 11 years older than John and had already been married twice.He says: ‘A lot of people thought it odd that I was dating Marie, because of her age and that she was married at the time. She was a very secretive and quite controlling person. My family did not always get on with her.’ Having divorced her second husband, Marie married John in the summer of 1981.
Marie, who’d been brought up in Manchester, felt uncomfortable in the South and hankered to move back up North. It became a constant source of tension between the couple. But in November 1981, John became a father and, much to his surprise, loved his new role right from the day Sarah was born at Heatherwood Hospital in Ascot, in Berkshire.‘Sarah’s birth was one of the most memorable moments of my life,’ he says. ‘I was in the delivery room and I was the first person to hold her. I looked at the tiny bundle in my arms, my heart bursting with happiness. Suddenly she opened her eyes and looked at me. I felt an immediate bond.‘It was a powerful feeling of responsibility. I knew then that my days as a session musician were over. I was 29-years-old and it was suddenly very important for me to be a good father and provider, the way my dad had been for my two brothers and me. I loved having my daughter and I wanted to provide a good stable environment for her and it was difficult to do as an artist trying to make it in the music business.‘I wasn’t earning a lot of money. Her arrival persuaded me to give up touring and start to earn a proper regular income. It was a decision I never regretted.’ At least not until recently.
John, who had a degree from Reading University in estate management, opened a music studio in Wraysbury in Berkshire. He taught guitar and keyboard. He recalls: ‘I was the main breadwinner. I thought the marriage was fine. Perhaps I just convinced myself that it was. I didn’t want to see the problems, I just went along with things. I felt Marie always got her own way and never allowed me to get too close to her emotionally.‘We weren’t well off and my hours were very long. I was teaching mostly in the evenings after running the studio during the day. I believe Marie would tell Sarah that I was not there for them because Sarah would say that to me when she got older.‘Marie spoiled Sarah rotten. I often felt like an outsider when I came home. I can’t help but feel that she created a rift between us. Sarah was also a hyperactive child and didn’t sleep through the night. She cried a lot and needed constant attention. At one point we went to see a marriage counsellor because our relationship was so strained.’The marriage disintegrated and in 1987 Marie sued for a divorce. Marie took Sarah, who was then six, and went to Manchester to stay with her parents. But she went back to John after a month and withdrew the divorce petition. The couple tried to give the marriage another go for the sake of their daughter.But John says: ‘My biggest mistake ever was to agree to stay in the marriage. Things really hadn’t improved. By then, I was aware of my unhappiness. But in the early days I just didn’t see it. I wanted to spend time with Sarah. I wanted to be with her until she had grown up. I suppose that’s really why I stayed. Yet I read newspaper stories claiming that I had left her at 16. Marie and I didn’t formally separate until 1999 when Sarah was almost 18 and really an adult.’
John denies he was unfaithful and says he provided for Marie and Sarah even after his wife moved back North. In 1996 he helped finance a house in Stockport and began making 300-mile round trips every week to see his only child. ‘I paid a lot of the bills until Sarah was almost 18 and I thought, despite the fact I was no longer with her mother, that we had a very loving relationship,’ he says.In 1998, a year before he officially separated from Marie, John met and fell in love with Kate, a 19-year-old drama student. He says: ‘It’s rubbish to say I ran off with someone else. My marriage was over long before I met Kate.‘She has always understood my need to keep contact with Sarah. I made regular visits to Stockport up to the year 2000. I clearly remember the last time that we were together as father and daughter. I drove up and we went to Chiquito’s restaurant in Salford Quay,’ he says. ‘It was a great day. We laughed and joked a lot. I asked about her music, what was going on and even tried to help by putting her in contact with a manager I knew.’It seemed to John that despite the distance and the messiness, the extended family could rub along together. But when a double tragedy struck later that year, the unspoken resentments came boiling to the surface and the civilised arrangements broke down.John’s 20-year-old niece Katie was killed in a car crash. The entire family, including Sarah, were devastated and attended the funeral. As they struggled to come to terms with her death, John’s father Patrick, to whom he had always been very close, became seriously ill with a heart condition. He was 84 and had to be taken into a care home.‘It was very emotional. I was in pieces over it,’ says John, ‘and I don’t think I was handling it very well at all. Sarah had asked to go to see her grandfather in the nursing home. She wanted me to take her but I couldn’t at the time. I think she was upset and felt I should have dropped everything and done it when she wanted to. That September my father died. My family did not want Marie at the funeral. She had been blocking my bid for a divorce and we thought she was just waiting to claim from any inheritance, so I didn’t tell Sarah.‘It was stupid but I wasn’t thinking straight. Sarah found out and her mother came to the funeral uninvited with a letter Sarah had written disowning me. Marie handed it to me over the graveside. I won’t go into it because even now it pains me to recall the words.‘She was very angry. She said she never wanted to speak to me after that. She said I had kept her from her grandfather, that I’d broken up the family, that I was no good. I suppose this was the time when I lost my daughter. I think a lot of this was being stirred up by her mother.’Despite repeated desperate telephone calls and several letters Sarah would not relent. For two years, there was no contact between father and daughter and the next time he saw her was when he was watching TV and he spotted a familiar face in a band auditioning for ‘Popstars’. It was a surreal experience as his now 20-year-old daughter had changed her name.‘I saw this young girl who resembled Sarah and even sounded like her,’ he says. ‘It took a while before I realised it was her. She looked like a pop star. Her voice was brilliant and I was so proud.’After the show John tried again to reach Sarah but she refused to speak to him. ‘I just wanted to say well done. She’s always had the drive to go for what she wanted and she worked hard. She totally deserves everything she’s getting. Every musician aspires to the big time and I had tasted it briefly. But my little girl is now living my dream and that makes me very happy.’His attempts to make contact have now become a rather lonely annual pilgrimage. In 2003 he arrived at Marie’s house in Stockport just after Christmas but Sarah had already left. The next year he tried to get a letter to her via a student at the university where Girls Aloud were performing – that also failed. Another visit to Marie’s house in 2005 also failed.In 2007, having lived with Kate for eight years, he decided to risk marriage once more. He sent an invitation to his wedding to Sarah Hardman. It was returned unopened with a line through the surname. John sent more letters last year, through Sarah’s management company. Again no response.Yet he continues to hope. ‘Some people seem to think that the only reason I have tried to make contact is because she’s famous. I don’t want her money. I want nothing but a connection with my daughter,’ he says.Last January, Kate gave birth to a son, Oscar, and John now hopes this addition to the family might provide one last chance at reconciliation.‘All I want is for one meeting with my daughter,’ says John. ‘If she then decides that she wants nothing more to do with me, then I’ll walk away and leave her, however hard it would be.‘At the end of the day I’m her dad and I love my daughter. I feel excluded from her life, I just want to see her and have a reasonable relationship. I would like her to know Kate and her baby brother. I sometimes think I should just give up trying to reach her but it’s so hard when it’s your flesh and blood out there.’The Mail on Sunday tried to contact Sarah’s mother but she was not available for comment.