sat 22/06/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Eileen Atkins | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Eileen Atkins

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Eileen Atkins

Fame has come late for this DBE, as has a role in Upstairs, Downstairs

Maud, Lady Holland may be upstairs, but Dame Eileen Atkins is much more downstairs

Eileen Atkins (b 1934) acquired long-overdue fame with her performance in the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. Her desiccated spinster was the indisputed star turn until death did us part. It’s taken a while. Aside from half a century’s commitment to the classics and new plays, unlike the other more celebrated DBEs she has had a parallel career as a writer. There have been two plays about Virginia Woolf, as well as a screenplay of Mrs Dalloway.

With Jean Marsh she also created Upstairs, Downstairs which is returning to British television in an updated revival. This time round Dame Eileen has consented to take the role of Maud, Lady Holland.

Atkins is actually far more downstairs than up. She grew up in a Tottenham council house. As a seven-year-old she was sent out to sing and tap in working men’s clubs by her parents to swell the family coffers. At 12 she was given elocution lessons to improve her chances in panto. It proved to be her passport out of Tottenham and into drama school.

That was a long lifetime ago, but Atkins needn’t worry excessively about time’s winged chariot. On the cusp of her 70th birthday a much younger film star made a pass at her on set, which story she retells here. She still has the carefree swagger of a much younger woman, and dresses like one too; the hair is glossy and deftly highlighted too. She talks to theartsdesk about a lifetime in acting and writing.

updowncastJASPER REES: You are a DBE and assumed by most to be from the right side of the tracks, but that is very far from the reality of your upbringing.

EILEEN ATKINS: I come from a council house. My father left school at 12 and went into service. I love it when people assume things about you. I love putting on a posh voice, I love getting away with that because it’s what acting should be. You shouldn’t be any class, and the most important thing is to be as many things as you can be, and that’s the interesting thing about the job, to me. I can’t imagine wanting to get up and play yourself all the time. It’s finding all these other people.

How would you describe the sound of your voice?

Most people hate their voice, more even than one’s looks. I won’t even do our telephone message. It sounds so snide. Whatever is wrong with me I always presume that everybody is the same. You hear of great beauties worrying about that. Of course you worry about your looks. In fact somebody really forced me to go and see a movie that I had done when I was 36, an old TV being shown at the NFT. I thought I acted in it appallingly – it was The Lady from the Sea – but all I could do was sit there and think, Susan Sarandon, eat your heart out, I was gorgeous. I thought I acted it appallingly but I was so pleased with the way I looked. I suppose there are some people who think they have beautiful voices and look gorgeous. I don’t know any. If there’s one thing I truly hate it’s the actresses who – you know when you’re supposed to look dirty and scruffy? – look dirty and scruffy cutely. Just that smudge on the nose or a tendril coming down in a very pretty way rather than really looking awful if you're supposed to. I dismiss them!

Like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.

Ah well, you forgive Audrey Hepburn anything. It would be wonderful if Eliza really looked awful at the beginning and he took her on only for the voice. I have a big theory that your accent changes your looks. I think Twiggy is the only person who has knocked that theory of mine to smithereens. I think she’s gorgeous but mostly if you talk like that for some years after about 30 your face has changed a bit: the posh ones who aren’t really pretty but they look better because they’re always holding themselves like that. Twiggy still looks gorgeous even with that lovely true Cockney accent.

In drama schools you are not allowed to get rid of your accent because they say you are losing your soul. Are you supposed to have the same lino you had when you were young?

In recent times you have often been cast as rather frightening older ladies.

I tend to think everybody is malignant basically. I think there are very few people without a bit of malignancy in them.

Is that what old age holds?

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had two old parents who’ve died magnificently, mid-fury. I say to people in rehearsal, “Now don’t make me angry because I might die.” My mother was leaving hospital and went into a fury about something and dropped dead. My father went into a fury that the dustman hadn’t put the dustbins back and went to heave them back into place and fell dead. But he was 86 and she was 94. Those are wonderful deaths. Unfortunately we keep people going for too long. I was rather appalled that my mother didn’t know, she was alive one minute, dead the next, and they brought out the bloody machine and pumped her heart. I wanted to say, “Leave her alone! Let her go!” She was frightened of dying, it had come upon her suddenly, stealthily taken her. Her brain was still great when she went.

Did you have to escape from anywhere to become an actress?

I had to get out of my childhood, I had to get out of Tottenham. Massive job getting out of Tottenham and a council estate and wanting to be an actress. In these days if I went to drama school I’d still be talking like that. It’s the most stupid fucking thing there is. In drama schools you are not allowed to get rid of your accent because if you do they say you are losing your soul. Quite frankly, are you supposed to have the same lino you had when you were young? Are you supposed to eat the same food you had? Are you supposed to do exactly what your parents do for the rest of your life, including having the accent? This rage against received pronunciation is just absurd. I don’t care what the received pronunciation is. Even my accent today is a bit funny to the young ones probably. On the train I can’t understand any of the announcements. One is Indian, one is in Jamaican, one is in Irish, one is in Cockney. It’s very jolly to hear all these but when we have official announcements can we all agree on an accent we are all going to have to understand? We all stopped at one point the other day and they were telling us to get out and nobody moved. I turned to the man next to me and said, “Did he tell us to get out?”

cranfordES_468x341Did you come to a decision to change your accent when you got to drama school?

I came to it long before I got to drama school. I wouldn’t have got into drama school in those days with the accent I had in those days. I was working in men’s clubs. I danced in working men’s club from seven to 15, badly needed money for the family. My mother realised when I was in panto at 12 at Clapham and Kilburn that somebody told her I had a Cockney accent. She didn’t know. She was appalled. They said, “We won’t be able to give her any more lines.” She sent me with a note to grammar school saying, “Could somebody give her lessons?” One teacher said, “Yes, it was 7 and 6." She said, “That’s too much.” Then a wonderful insane teacher saved me. He was teaching us what we called divinity. He had taken a fancy to me and he said, “If you come to me whenever I say after school, any time, I’ll teach you for nothing.” And he did. I used to do sometimes four times after school. It was very clandestine. I used to meet him on the bus every morning so I could walk to school with him and then we’d split before we got to school. I think he was after me because in the end he married someone even younger than me but it never entered my head that there was anything sexual in it. Without him I would have been working in a fish shop in Tottenham and would never have done any acting. He did everything for me.

I didn’t go for Hedda Gabler till it was too late and I was rotten. I’m afraid I got it into my head that she was a bloody boring and rather stupid woman

You have to be told and learn an accent. If you have an ear you start to pick up. I find it very affected when somebody keeps a very, very strong regional accent. Several years ago now I was in a movie with a lot of young people in it. There was a brilliant girl from Newcastle. She would not do anything else and I thought she was brilliant. I took her aside and said, “When you go to interviews do you go in with the Newcastle accent?” I said, “Well, don’t. It’s why you’re not getting the leads.” She was playing the servants. It’s still true, and I don’t care what anybody says, they might be able to do it but you’ve got to go into the interview. I’ve never heard of that girl again and she was truly talented. She came from a working-class estate. It’s a mixture of lacking confidence and a massive brick on your shoulder. It’s very hard. My family used to get very angry when I said this. “Michael Caine did all right with a Cockney accent. Why do you have to be posh?” And I used to have to say, “Michael Caine doesn’t want to play Hamlet.” If you want to do the classics you’ve got to have some kind of… I was once hauled over the coals in a newspaper. Some woman said, “Isn’t she being silly, so hoity toity? Why should King Lear not be Welsh?” I hold from writing back to people because my husband makes me hold. You want to say, “Yes, it’s fine if King Lear is Welsh but that means everybody’s got to have a Welsh accent unless you think that King Lear sent his girls to posh boarding schools.” If you’re a family then you’ve all got to have the same accent. You’ve got to decide. With a classic it’s best to have received pronunciation. Of course, it’ll change all the time. It’s a huge area.

You talk about the classics but in your career you have had an equal commitment to new writing.

I was always very keen on doing new work. I didn’t go for Hedda Gabler till it was too late and I was rotten. I tried something new and it didn’t work. I’m afraid I got it into my head that she was a bloody boring and rather stupid woman. Don’t let’s go into Hedda Gabler. I thought there was something silly about her and that didn’t work. And also I’d left it too late.

A few years ago there was a fundraising evening starring all the actress Dames.

There was me and Joan and Judi. I said, “Please don’t let’s all whinge on stage and be grand.” I wanted us to be in jeans showing our bums with baseball caps and the whole thing. But one member wasn’t up for that. So we had to toe the line. I was in Birmingham doing The Birthday Party and I thought it would be fabulous to do a rap. I thought, I can’t, I’m opening in a play. I can’t mess about with this. I rang up my great friend Jean Marsh and said, “You’re good at doing this.” We send silly verses to each other on first nights. It was fantastic. I can remember the two choruses.

We da dames,
We da bitches,
We done gone from rap to riches
We strutted our stuff at the RSC
The National Theatre and the BBC.

Then we all had two lines. I can remember mine and Judi Dench’s.

I don’t brag about my vagina
Because Virginia Woolf be a damn sight finer.

Then all together.

We da dames in showbiz
We da max, we da whizz
We the total dernier cris
We the motherfucking DBEs.

Brought the house down.

Did you have a feeling of being in a generation?

I thought I was very unlucky to be born in the same year as Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and Annette Crosbie. Four of us in one year! Usually you are lucky to find four good actors in a decade. There’s a massive number of us.

When I first got the script [of The Hours] I threw it from one end of my apartment in New York to the other

Did the presence of so many competitors make it difficult to find work with the National and the RSC when they were created in the 1960s?

I didn’t get any goodness out of either company because nobody asked me to go there. Actually Olivier did want me right at the beginning. I auditioned for Olivier, Peter O’Toole, John Dexter and Bill Gaskill for Ophelia, and at the end of it Olivier told me I’d as good as got it. So did Peter. Then nothing happened and we didn’t hear. I found out 30 years later at lunch at Larry’s house. He got a bit pissed and said to Bill Gaskill, “Tell her why she didn’t get Ophelia.” And he just said to me, “John and I didn’t think you were sexy. Larry and Peter did.” And Larry said, “And tell her what I told you. What would you know about what was sexy?” I’ve got a good gay following now though. I’ve managed to turn it a bit there. I went to a party where an American woman suddenly came up to me and said, “You’re awfully well known in America, do you know that?” I said, “I do tend to work rather more there than here now.” I did get a big gay following after a TV called The Lost Language of Cranes where I had a gay husband and a gay son. Then I‘ve got a big gay woman’s following from doing A Room of One’s Own and Vita and Virginia.

'No woman could possibly be an actress!' Watch a clip of A Room of One's Own

What led you down that path?

When I was young I looked like her. I don’t any more. It’s not simply that. I was sent a film script about her when I was very young which never got done so I started to read about her. I was very late starting to read her. Mid-thirties. Then I did do a little documentary thing, which was very good, about writers. And then it really started because people are always asking actors to do poetry readings on Sunday nights and I hate poetry readings. A lot of actors stand up and emote. I don’t like it. I like poetry being read quietly to yourself. I thought, I wish there was something you could do. I wonder if I could find some letters. And then I came across the letters. I thought, I’ll turn it into a Sunday night thing. That’s how it started. I went to Patrick Garland and said, “I won’t get the rights to do these things.” It was his idea to do A Room of One’s Own. He said, “If you’ll do that for me as a Sunday-night reading, I’ll introduce you to the estate.” I still don’t call Vita and Virginia a play. It was a flop in London. We were packed on Sunday afternoons and matinees which made me know it was for an older audience but then when I did it with Vanessa in New York it was just a smash hit. We were packed the whole time.

51J455eS6HL._SL500_AA300_Was it difficult to hand over the baton in The Hours, which you were in?

Is there a room I can go away in and throw things? It was agonising for me! I had just done my own film script of Vita and Virginia - may I say, a true portrait? And it was all so ironic because Michael Cunningham [author of the novel The Hours] has said publicly that he got interested in Virginia Woolf because he came to see me in A Room of One’s Own. He came home, re-read Virginia Woolf and wrote The Hours. Just when I get my script ready, I’m handed the book, the next thing I know there is a film script. Of course the portrait of Virginia in the movie is almost completely… it’s not that it’s wrong but it’s only one side of Virginia. It’s her depression. That was serving the novel, I understand that, this perpetual thing about being dreary. Always the first thing people said to me was, “I had no idea she was so funny.” It came as a real thrill to me that I made people go back and read it and see how witty she was and funny and passionate. Just not sexually passionate. When I first got the script [of The Hours] I threw it from one end of my apartment in New York to the other. I thought, right, OK, you’ve had your temper. It’s going to be done anyway, so grit your teeth, take the day’s filming in it, meet Stephen Daldry, have a day with Meryl Streep and fuck everybody. And that’s what I did.

Did you have a sense that people were treating you with kid gloves on set?

I found out afterwards that a couple of people were a bit nervous. Anybody could have done my part. Meryl was very sweet to me after. She actually said, “I’m sorry I might have seemed a bit cold at first but I was actually very frightened.” I said, “But you weren’t even playing Virginia Woolf.”

Would it have been harder to be in the Virginia section?

Oh yes, that would have been hell. I would have wanted to say, “Please, Vanessa could not have afforded a taxi. Can we please get rid of the taxi?” As it was I never said anything to anybody.

KidmanNoseWhat about Nicole Kidman’s nose?

It was my fault she had a nose. We were the first day of the shoot and I was sitting in the make-up chair and I said, “What are you going to do about Nicole Kidman’s nose?” They said, “Like what?” I said, “You can’t have a turned-up snub nose for Virginia Woolf.” The designer took me to Robert Fox and Scott Rudin and said, “Look, Eileen is saying the same thing. She must have a nose.” But of course, not that nose. It’s the wrong nose.

Have you ever talked about it with David Hare, who wrote the screenplay?

No. No. It’s over and it’s done and it was a success and that’s fine but I just wish somebody would do my script. We get right up to the last and then somebody says, “Well, it’s already been done in The Hours.” I’m waiting and hoping. My husband tells me to be hopeful. He’s the producer. It was Mike Nichols for three years, it was HBO for three years, and now my husband’s got it. I wrote it for telly. It was Mike Nichols who said, “This is a movie.” The British are so against Virginia Woolf. She’s adored in America. Probably they adore her too much and won’t appreciate her at all. The British hate an intellectual and she was bloody clever. And a woman intellectual, bloody bluestocking! I’m sorry but it is still there.

And what are your thoughts on her sexuality?

To my mind she was frigid. Probably because she was fiddled about with by her half-brother. It didn’t affect Vanessa. She was 13 when her mother died. Fiddled about with in quite a big way because she, I think, was more scared than Vanessa and more of a nervous disposition and therefore probably let him go further. They both suffered it because they knew nobody would believe them. They had nobody to go to. Then their stepmother died within a couple of years. There was a lot to make her frigid. I don’t think she was sexually orientated really towards women. I think that she wanted to be mothered and the mothering with Vita just went that far. They only actually did it about twice and evidently Leonard had attempted to have sex with her about two or three times as well and it just wasn’t a success and they stopped. I think she just found sex almost impossible.

When did you acquire your DBE?

The year after Vanessa turned it down. I think I was 66.

Alec Guinness would always whip people’s feet off the stage which I’ve often longed to do because people are so amazingly rude, especially now

Was it a bolt from the blue?

It sounds so conceited, doesn’t it? Everybody who gets one of these honours who says, “I just didn’t expect it at all, I was thrilled, it came out of nowhere.” And I always think, “You bastard, I’ve sat in a room with you.” Everybody lies about it. Anybody who’s got that far to actually get them at some time has been in a conversation where it’s come up without any doubt whatsoever. Of course at times the odd person has said to me, “You haven’t got anything, have you? You’ve got the CBE but you haven’t got anything else.” Of course when you see your peers getting them - of course though Maggie and Judi got theirs so young - you get passed and think, “I see for some reason I’m not getting it.” It certainly didn’t worry me in the least. I have to say I didn’t lose a night’s sleep about it. The CBE came as a surprise. They both came out of the blue. One or two people had said to me, “You really should be.” I said, “Oh please, don’t even bother.” Then when it did come it came as a terrific surprise. I have to say there’s a long time when you‘re not supposed to tell anyone. I did think, I don’t know, Vanessa last year turned it down, I wonder how much it does mean these days and do you want it? I went through agony and didn’t even tell my husband all that time. I’m known as a blabbermouth. He was just so thrilled. He was so pleased for me. I kept saying to him, “I’m not pleased, I don’t know what to do.” They finally rang me and a very posh lady said, “You haven’t answered. We were wondering if you’ve got it.” I said, “The thing is I don’t know what to do.” She said, “Oh, please say yes.” There is something so sweetly pottily British. Then I thought, “Well, hell, in every country there is an honour of some sort and if they give it to you take it graciously.” And then once I’d taken it I bloody loved it. Ian McKellen said to me, “Watch it, you can go into a 'Oh well, I’ve done it all now.'" And I know what he means. You can almost stop looking for work if you’re not careful.

He then got Gandalf.

He’s done exactly what he wanted. I couldn’t live like that. I’d love the money, I’d love not to be worried about my old age, which I am continuously.

So why do you work in theatres where the pay is famously poor?

I know. I’ve always said I wouldn’t do it. I always think, “Fuck, why do we have to subsidise the theatre?” But I’d rather be working.

pressroom-actress-eileen-2-1367You won an Olivier Award for Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Honour at the National. When I came to see it Corin Redgrave shouted at someone in the first minute to turn off their phone, somehow managing to stay in character. Do you have a position on ticking off the audience?

Richard Griffiths was doing it all the time in The History Boys in America. I was very much on the edge of talking to the audience when I was young. I was with Alec Guinness once when he did it and it finished me because I knew he’d lost the audience totally. It was in Exit the King. He didn’t intervene but he did do something so stupid. Someone was unwrapping sweet papers and he had a lovely speech about the death of his cat and he got so angry that in the middle of the speech he suddenly said very pointedly to the audience, “And this little cat used to undo sweetie papers very loudly and noisily while I was speaking.” It ruined the whole thing, but I’ve often wanted to do that. And he would always kick and whip people’s feet off the stage which I’ve often longed to do as an actor because people are so amazingly rude, especially now. The thing I always want to do is when people are sitting reading their programmes you think, “We’re doing the play up here, read the programme afterwards. We’re now doing the play for which you’ve paid your money. Will you lift your eyes and look at the stage?” I used to eyeball people. But you see it spoils it. I didn’t like Corin doing that. He did it three times altogether.

Is there a single role that you’ve coveted but not played?

I try not to think like that. You’re always better at the jobs averagely that you don’t think you’re right for. I don’t know why. The two that I wanted to play more than anything were Rosalind and Viola and Viola I’ve played three times. Twice here and once in America. Rosalind I played twice, once very badly here. It was a terrible disappointment. I wasn’t good. I went to America and got it right. I would have liked to have played Beatrice. But averagely no. I don’t think about it. Some people say to me, “You haven’t done a Madame Ranevskaya.” I haven’t done a Ranevskaya. I’ve done plenty of other interesting things. I haven’t been fooling around.

Do you describe yourself as an actor or actress?

Actress. I can understand if you’re a lawyer. People have to know your sex in our business. I can understand wanting a single name if you’re in a career where people might say, “I don’t want a woman,” until you’re landed with one. In this I think it’s absolutely ridiculous.

thesea460When you played the redoubtable Mrs Rafi in Edward Bond’s The Sea (pictured left) did you think twice about stepping into famous shoes?

I tend to think if Coral [Browne] can do it I could probably do it. But on the other hand Judi had a big success in it and I’d always rather not do something that Judi’s had a big success in. You never like comparison. They really are odious. I honestly read it and my agent said, "Ask Judi about it." I got in a car with Judi at five o’clock in the morning somewhere. I said, “Oh Judi, I’ve got to ask you about a play I’ve been offered.” She said, “Not Mrs Rafi! It’s my favourite part. I could have played it for two years. You have to say yes.” Fifty years ago we played sisters when we were both 23, in Arnold Bennett’s Hilda Lessways. It was lovely 50 years later to be together again in Cranford.

Cranford was a joy from beginning to end. At the reading I thought, they’re going to have to be pretty bloody awful to fuck this up

It was a huge success and introduced you to a generation who might not have known your work.

I’m thrilled, because I thought it was smashing, the whole thing. We went through a strange period. We had three big readings with every single person there and I did think, this is a bloody wonderful company. And those women, I thought, these women are fabulous. I got a bit upset at first because everybody was laughing at Imelda [Staunton] and Julia [McKenzie] and I thought, ooh my part’s not as funny as everybody else’s. And then one of the very young boys came up to me and said that he liked my character. I said, “Why do you like her?” He said, “I’d like an auntie like that or a godmother, just somebody who would tell me exactly what was right to do.” It was strange. I thought, oh, they like a bit of discipline. It made me begin to like the character. I just took it because I wanted to be with all those women. When I heard the cast list I thought, this is fantastic, and I thought that Heidi [Thomas] did a brilliant adaptation, I mean really brilliant. Really, she’s so good. I’ve done three things of hers now and she’s just terrific.

She also did the script for the BBC version of Ballet Shoes.

I did that because they hadn’t cast the ballet teacher. I myself had done an adaptation that I’d had an argument with Granada about. I won’t go into the argument. When I heard Heidi had done one I said, “Did they ask you to do this and that to that lovely book?” She said, “Yes they did,” but Heidi being more patient than me slowly talked them round to doing the book. They wanted to put boys into it. What the hell! I was a little bit jealous that she’d done it.

'All my pupils curtsey': Eileen Atkins plays Russian in the trailer for Ballet Shoes

Was it The Hours all over again?

Not quite because at least I got paid for my script. I thought, you shouldn’t have been so hot-headed. Maybe if you’d had more patience you would have convinced them. But Cranford was a joy from beginning to end. At the reading I thought, they’re going to have to be pretty bloody awful to fuck this up. And then when you get to filming and it’s stretched it’s very difficult, much harder than theatre, to know if things are working. You don’t know what the editing is going to do. We did lose our director after six weeks. We all started to get a bit edgy and no one was telling anyone they were unhappy and everyone was keeping quiet about it. Thank God for Sue [Birtwistle, the producer] because she just made up her mind and changed. We’d done nearly all the exteriors with the other director. Richard Eyre directed two days - Simon [Curtis] was doing something and there was a gap. I think he was just a different kind of director. What happened was he didn’t get the jokes of Cranford. He didn’t really understand why it was funny. I’ll tell you the note he gave to me, and it was the only one he gave again and again. I don’t want to down this bloke because it was really rather rotten for him and he probably might turn out to be able to do wonderful deeply left-wing odd little films where nobody is a professional, which I gather he’s done. But his one note to me I did not know what he was talking about, and in the end I had to say to Sue, “What is he talking about?” It was, “You see, Eileen, if I went to a dinner somewhere and I saw that everybody round the table was a Conservative I would not sit down at that table. Now I want you to persuade me to sit down at that table.” And that was his note. Now you’re not an actor but I hope even not as an actor you can see it’s not a great help. It’s not helpful. Also it made me think, oh, my part is some horrible old Tory. It’s nothing to do with being a Tory.

Every person basically is sad in this world. I mean everybody is really… We’re all idiots and we all really know nothing

He was asking you to find her likeable side.

I suppose that’s what it was. I just think it was a very silly way to say it.

But we did want to sit down with you.

Oh good. I’m very glad you did. When you watch it – Judi and I both said the same thing – all you’re thinking about is, oh fuck, how many lines have I got on my face? Judi and I had a very funny moment where we had to make an entrance with a very screwed-up face and it was the last scene we were shooting together. And she suddenly said to me, “Come on, come on, admit it to me now, have you had a face job?” And I said, “Judi, would my face look like this if I had a face job? It would be all beautiful.” And then I said, “Well, all right then, come on, have you?” And she said, “No. But I think about it every day.” It was very jolly. All the women were so lovely. Well, the men were very nice too. We got on very well and we found it highly enjoyable.

How did you arrive at your character?

She’s cold. I wanted that dead straight hair. I chose the least becoming bonnet which is called a jockey cap. Whereas all the others had pushy-out ones I chose that coal shovel sort of hat, because that’s what you want them to think. And then, “Just a minute, hang on a minute, I’ll show you she’s not quite what you think.” I don’t know how you come to parts. I can’t really talk about parts. Thank God Judi’s the same. I really do it by osmosis. I don’t think intellectually about parts. Beryl Reid said, “Give me the right shoes and I’ll do it.” The outside things are usually the last things I get into. You only get it right by repeating it endlessly to yourself until you’re not thinking at all about the lines. And endlessly observing people. And knowing that every person basically is sad in this world. I mean everybody is really… We’re all idiots and we all really know nothing.

It was a terrible wrench for viewers to have you taken away from them after two episodes.

It was marvellous because then you see what it was about in real life. I wept buckets throughout.

Have you noticed a change on street level?

Yeah, I’m recognised a bit now. Yeah, a bit. A bit, yeah.

Do you mind my asking?

No, I don’t mind at all. I understand exactly what you mean. I understand exactly where I am in the scheme of things. I may have got the posh title and all that but I’m not known by the public averagely, and I’m not pop-u-lar in any way. I rather like the line I had in Cranford for that very reason. “His taste is so popular.” And I tend to think that. Well, why should they know me? Their taste is so pop-u-lar. But I’ve become a bit popular. People come up endlessly now. And I had a moment of thinking, God, I understand now why people like Frankie de la Tour get furious when she’s played Cleopatra and then people come up and say, “Oh I love Rising Damp.” It is infuriating. I‘d done I thought a rather spectacular eight-minute reading at one of these carol concerts at Richmond and a woman came up and said, “Oh we thought you were wonderful in Cranford.” And I thought, hang on a minute, what about the reading I’ve just done? Isn’t that a bit more important?

The fact is it’s not.

I don’t think it’s enjoyable to be recognised all the time. That must be hell. I can’t imagine anything worse. People will say, “Sour grapes, that’s why she’s saying it,” but I can’t imagine anything worse than being a massive film star.

If a role landed in your lap the way The Queen landed in Helen Mirren’s…

Oh, I would take it like a shot.

Would you take all the attendant bollocks?

I’m too old now to bother with all that. Helen’s just in the age group that she can still doll up. But honestly at my age. Though I have to say I have huge admiration for Judi. She’s got the energy for it all. At the end of the day we’d finish filming and someone would come in, do her hair, put on a frock and she’d be at Elton John’s celebration or something like that. I have great admiration for people who can do it. All I’ve ever wanted is enough public acknowledgement to get me the next good part but I don’t like all the stuff that goes with that. Actually I’ll give you a complete example that it did make a difference. The Daily Mail immediately wanted an interview. They’ve practically squashed me underfoot before. When we were trying to do some publicity for Upstairs, Downstairs or House of Eliott, it was like “Get out the way, Eileen Atkins, we only want to talk to Jean Marsh.” And suddenly they were on their knees to me.

I presume you said no.

Of course I did. I wouldn’t touch the Daily Mail. I’m rather stunned by how many people read it. I try desperately not to tell people I’m an actress. If taxi drivers pick you up from obvious theatrical places, like the National, they’ll say, “Oh, I was driving so and so the other day, what do you do?” They usually think I work backstage. I hate having to say it because then they have to say, “Well, what will I have seen you in?” Well, they’ll hardly have been to see Harold Pinter. I have to say I think I’ve led a charmed life.

Could you not say I created Upstairs, Downstairs?

That’s what I usually say and they say, “Oh, you’re a writer.”

Not long ago there was a Bafta celebration of the series. I didn’t see you on stage.

I wasn’t even asked. I didn’t want to go. So I’m not going to say to my agent, “I haven’t been asked.” But I did find it odd that I wasn’t even asked to go and sit in the audience, one of the co-creators.

The Upstairs, Downstairs cast reunion

What are you like in rehearsal?

I like to work for five or six hours straight through. Preferably five. I can’t bear it when everybody stops for tea and coffee. I’m one of the slowest people in the world. I wish I had the facility that other actors have to be able to switch into dialect. I was often nearly sacked. I was sacked from one show and then Alec Guinness stopped me being sacked because he could see that somewhere in there I was working towards something. But a lot of directors want to see something immediately. They only don’t sack me now, I think, because they think, well, she must be going to do something some time, because she has done quite well.

How often have you not nailed it?

My first As You Like It was a disaster. We had a director who was having a nervous breakdown and committed suicide three months later. We hadn’t even had a run-through. I was a bit wobbly in Heartbreak House, though I did very well, though not as well as I should have done. Honour was beautifully directed by Roger Michell. I was nervous. But I was on top of it by the time the first night came. But, oh God, I hate first nights. I hate them with a passion. Why do we have to have everybody there on that one night? So you stand or fall on that one night. It’s not the system in America. Why do we have to have it here? Is it the critics who are bolshie or the management? Some actors it gives a real kick start to their performance. In America I’m just much more relaxed. If I start to go wrong one night when I think the critics might be in, I say to myself, forget it because there might be nobody in tonight. You don’t know. If you do it on a first night here you go, oh no! Oh, I shouldn’t have done that one then! And then you’re one step off until you pull yourself back on again. Not good...

I had terrible rows with my family because by then adolescence was upon me and I didn’t want to go on stage with short things and frilly knickers

Did your early exposure to performance steel you against standing up in front of an audience?

Well, I’ve never had a problem about standing up in front of people. I don’t know. It seems easy to say yes because you had been standing up in front of an audience but there are so many wonderful actors who’ve never had anything like that and nevertheless get up as easy as anything and do it anyway that I don’t think it’s anything to do with that. I’m so against child actors being trained. You don’t know if children can act or not. I mean some children are brilliant when they’re children. But what children do in acting is nothing to do with what acting is when you grow up. They’re two different things. Some children have a natural aptitude to do it. But it’s been shown time and time and time again.

What did you do as a child performer?

I sang and I can’t sing a note. I sang and danced.

What did you sing?

Well, this was my trouble. My big thing was to toe-tap because I was such a show-off. You sing a number and then tap or I used to toe-tap. When I did The Stage Door Canteen for example I sang “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandee” and toe-tapped on a drum. That was thought extremely clever.

Did you enjoy it?


At all, ever?

Part of it. I enjoyed being good. I enjoyed the company of the other girls. I’m very gregarious. I enjoyed being there and us all being girls together, and being good at it. I enjoyed being the best. I always knew when I did the clubs there was something wrong and as I grew older I knew it was because men were titillated. From the age of seven I did clubs. I begged to stop at 12. I had terrible rows with my family because by then adolescence was upon me and I didn’t want to go on stage with short things and frilly knickers. And I knew by then that that’s what child performing in that way was about. I wouldn’t even go and see the film of Bugsy Malone because I knew that half the audience would be paedophiles. For some reason I was living with a man at the time who was going to do the real story of Bugsy Malone so he wanted to go and check it out.

You won your argument.

I won it when I was about 13 or 14 and I got school teachers to come in on my side. I was out a couple of times a week dancing until nine or 10 o’clock at night and of course I was exhausted the next morning. I wouldn’t think they’d do it. But it was a bit horrid. Also the adult performers really hated having a child actor on the bill because you knew everybody was going to go, “Aaaah.”

Did you forgive your parents?

Yes I did. I forgave them for that quite early on. I just didn’t get on with my family. I find it very odd at Christmas when everybody goes on about family family family. My husband has no family, I have one brother left and we’re not very close. He lives in Malvern. I know it is from my youth. I can see that family life is probably a very good thing but I don’t want to have anything to do with them. Once I moved away it was such a relief to be away from home.

They wanted me to be in something that everybody watched. My mother was furious with me for not being in Upstairs, Downstairs


Did your parents know?

I’m afraid they probably did. Somebody I once shared a dressing room with, an actress, said to me when my parents had left the room, “My God, your mother looks at you as if she’d accidentally hatched a snake.” And I think that's pretty true. I mean, poor woman. I feel sorry for her as well now. What all parents do, you have a baby hoping it’ll do better than you and you put a lot of things in that didn’t happen to you. So you want more for it. But what she wanted more of was not what I grew up wanting. She wanted me to be a chorus girl. She thought that was it. Her mind couldn’t think beyond that.

atkinsupstairsWhat did she make of your career?

She came to see everything. I can remember her coming to As You Like It and she just didn’t get it. The best one was when I was doing some Strindberg in Croydon and we came out of some dump in Croydon and my father looked up and there was Cicely Courtneidge in something like High-Button Boots and he said, “You see, when you’re in something like that, girl, we’ll know you’ve made it.” And I thought, you’ve seen all these heavy plays and you still think my aim is to be in shit like that? I’m not interested in musicals. I’m only just in the last 10 or 20 years able to enjoy the odd musical. I loved Hairspray. But I averagely think, that’s not it - for me, for me. It’s hard for anyone who moves away.

Did they like seeing you in television?

Mmm. But they wanted me to be in something that everybody watched. My mother was furious with me for not being in Upstairs, Downstairs. When Upstairs, Downstairs happened I think Jean and I were 35 or 36. Now when you’re in your thirties that is the time if you’ve done well at all, if you’ve got enough of a name, to play the big classical roles or the big new roles. So my focus was totally on that kind of thing. And in those days to be in a series… I know they all think I’m a terrible snob. It’s been thrown at me by various people. I don’t want to play one part for five years. For me the most interesting thing is what I’m doing today. But if you’re doing the same part in TV you’re just that part. You’re nearly always cast because you’re like the part. So there’s nothing to find in yourself. What they want is you on the screen. That’s all they want. Angela Baddeley kept thanking me and thanking me. I thought, all the marvellous work you’ve done in your life, the Chekhov, the Shakespeare, and you’re thanking me for Upstairs, Downstairs? That’s what I used to think when she said it to me. But I can see now it was a very nice thing to do in your old age. But in your thirties?

A very nice age-defying thing is reported to have happened to you courtesy of Colin Farrell…

I was about to be 70. I was working with him on a movie when he made a pass at me. He was utterly adorable and he made a pass at me and he wasn’t drunk. And I would never have told a soul at all, ever, because it was too enchanting and too lovely and a fantastic cheer-up three weeks before my 70th birthday. And then I went onto a silly chat show, an afternoon female chat show, and they were all being a bit “Ooh Eileen Atkins is coming on, we must stop talking about what we’re talking about,” and I said, “Oh no no, come on, it was interesting what you were talking about, sex without strings, let’s go on talking about that,” because the audience clearly wanted that, they didn’t want to go serious. So they said, “Well, what do you mean?” I said, “Well, actually I’ve been immensely cheered up. I was offered sex without strings just a few weeks before my 70th birthday” – and this was nearly a year later – “by one of the most gorgeous-looking little film stars going,” forgetting that these days people can just go straight up to the internet and see when’s her birthday, what was she doing three weeks before that, and by the time I got home everyone knew it was Colin Farrell. He was such a fucking little darling. I rang up to apologise to him and he wasn’t there and I left a very rude limerick – I said, “as you’re Irish”. It’s amazingly rude. I mean I kept saying no.

Dame Eileen tells the story to Jonathan Ross

d10He rang up roaring with laughter and then turned up on the first night of Doubt [on Broadway] (pictured left) which we opened on Valentine’s Day, and he walked into my dressing room with two dozen roses and then kissed me and then said to everybody, “I have to talk to this woman in private.” He was just so darling about it, so gentlemanly. They tried to get me on TV shows. I wouldn’t go on. I just clammed up shut because I didn’t want to embarrass him. I felt he would look an idiot making a pass at someone so old and everybody would think he was drunk. And they got Ben Chaplin on instead of me and said to poor Ben, who was plugging a play at the National, and Ben was so gentlemanly too. These young men are so nice. Ben said to them apparently, “Well, I don’t find it surprising at all that Colin made a pass at her. I’ve thought of it myself.” Which was just darling of him. My husband loved it all. I don’t know what there was to be angry about. I mean the point is I kept saying to him, “Colin you are 28, I am nearly 70, do you not see that this is wrong?” It was lovely and we’re still friends. But there comes a point when you are past it and I think not to know that… God I wish with all my heart… Thirty years younger I’d have taken the chance. If I’d been 40 and he’d been 28...

Colin Farrell tells his version to Jonathan Ross

I had to get out of my childhood, I had to get out of Tottenham

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