theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Geraldine James is one of our most treasured actresses. In 1978, she made a remarkable impression playing a young deaf girl in Dummy, a television drama directed by Franc Roddam in which she worked with the late Mark Drewry. Move forward six years and the entire country found itself transfixed by the dramatization of The Raj Quartet, Paul Scott’s magnificent novels about the last gasp of the British in India. The books were turned into thirteen episodes of engrossing television by Ken Taylor under the title of the first novel, The Jewel In The Crown, with James playing the part of Sarah Layton opposite Charles Dance as Guy Perron.
The actress has remained a major presence, whether on television — Blott on the Landscape (1985), Stanley and the Women (1991), Band of Gold (1995), State of Play (2003), He Knew He Was Right (2004), Little Britain (2004) — or in theatre where she has recently appeared in Daisy, Give Me Your Answer Do (Hampstead, 1998), The Faith Healer with Ken Stott and Ian McDiarmid (Almeida, 2001), and the Oxford Stage Company [now Headlong] tour of The Cherry Orchard (2003). Although she was not a stranger to Chekhov, this was her first Madame Ranevskaya. “That’s the nice thing about getting old, really — you move into a different tranche of parts.”
Last year also saw her in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list with an OBE. “I thought somebody was playing a joke. Yeah, I was really pleased because I’m not very establishment; you know, I’m not an RSC type, I’m not an establishment actress in a way — I’ve gone my own way, rather, so it was rather nice to get that sort of nod from that area.”
Now, she is coming to the end of an OSC tour of David Storey’s Home, and has, she tells me, been relishing the break from domesticity. “One of the things I like about these short, provincial tours is that it’s quite nice living out of a suitcase and not having all the sort of bills and telephone and laundry that you have at home. Makes a nice change.” Home, in particular, has slotted in ideally with her daughter Eleanor’s autumn term studying social anthropology and comparative religion at Manchester University where, according to her proud mother, she is “having a wonderful time… loving it”. The tour of Home, meanwhile, started the week following the start of the university term, and finishes this evening, a week before the end of university term, “so it fits in very well with my life, which always helps”. Eleanor’s father is the actor-turned-theatre director Jo Blatchley, now working at RADA, to whom James has been happily married for over twenty years and whom she has previously credited with inspiring her to make brave choices in her work.
Home originally premièred at the Royal Court in 1970, before transferring to the West End and Broadway with four exquisite performances from John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Dandy Nicholls and Mona Washbourne, winning Storey both the Evening Standard and the New York Critics awards for Best Play. Home has lost none of its edge, drawing us into the world of four “weird and wonderful” characters in late middle age who while away the hours on a garden terrace talking about life and their own past histories. The opening scene features two somewhat eccentric gentleman, Harry and Jack, and it is not apparent until they are joined by Marjorie and Kathleen in the second scene that the setting reveals itself as a some kind of home for the mentally unstable.
In his review of this OSC production for R&V, Kevin Quarmby describes Home as “such an unusual play, such a timeless play [that] its profound though simple humour crosses all boundaries and speaks to all generations”. Director Sean Holmes has gathered a quintet of “superb” actors — James (Kathleen) is joined by David Calder (Harry), Sandra Voe (Marjorie), Christopher Godwin (Jack) and David Hinton (Alfred) — in a production that is, says Quarmby, a “theatrical gem” from “outstanding actors who bring comedy and pathos without condescension or sensationalism”.
Home has been a new experience for the actress. “I’ve never done David Storey and I do think he’s an amazing writer,” she says, admitting that she hadn’t even realized there were women in the play. “I was intrigued to know whether they wanted me to play the Richardson or the Gielgud part when they asked me! Because of those two playing it originally, it’s very much thought of as the men’s play but it’s actually not because there are two really good parts, the women. When I read it, I just found it terribly funny; I hadn’t done anything like this and that’s always very appealing to me. And I really do like doing theatre out of London so that was all very appealing. And it’s a nice short job.”
It was school that acted as the catalyst to a life in theatre, since James, who was brought up in Berkshire, was sent to Downe House — “a frightfully posh girls’ school” — at the age of eleven where she felt “incredibly out-of-place”. Like so many who find themselves outsiders, it was acting the fool that gave her the wherewithal to fit in. “I discovered the clown in myself, and a girl who I was at school with came to see the show last night and she said — because this is a comedy — and she said, ‘It’s funny — looking at you now, all these years later, you were just like that in the classroom when you were mucking about in the back row.’ I was very naughty at school and they just decided to put me into plays and one thing led to another and I became, you know, ‘the actress’ and I played all the main parts and as it was a girls’ school, so they were often men’s parts so I played Richard II and Malvolio and that’s how I got into it. And I couldn’t do anything else. I could play netball and I could swim and I could act, and that was it, I couldn’t do anything.”
It is rare that parents, faced with an offspring’s choice to go on the stage, react with equanimity. Geraldine James’s parents were no exception; in fact, they proved an impossible nut to crack. “It was terrible. I didn’t break through it, I just went off and did it on my own.” Her father, a cardiologist, had told her that teaching netball should be her vocation. “That was my destination,” she says with understated irony.” She has said in the past that she and her father did eventually begin to understand each other, hindsight enabling empathy for the other point of view — she had been frightened of him as a child.
Eschewing netball, she hightailed it to London “thinking I was going to waltz through RADA” and ended up at the Drama Centre, supporting herself with a variety of jobs that included singing in a band. The Drama Centre, which had been founded by a splinter group of tutors and students from Central School of Speech and Drama in 1963 and was then based in Chalk Farm, proved the making of her. “Oh my god, I wouldn’t be in this profession if it wasn’t for that school… It was a brilliant training in my day, absolutely brilliant. They put you in touch with the real you, or they did with me — they do, as a training — and definitely made me the actor that I since have become, for better or worse. I loved it, I absolutely loved it.”
Her first job was a four-month tour of primary schools in the North East with four other actors — “driving the van, doing stage management, setting up in a school hall, doing two plays in the morning for 5-7 year olds and then for 7-9 year olds, and then having school lunch, and in the afternoon doing the plays for the 9-11 year olds”. Exhausting work for only £18.
Rep followed at places such as Chester, Exeter and Coventry. “I went to the dizzy heights of earning something like £20 a week or £21 a week at Chester doing three-weekly rep, with Matthew Kelly as my stage manager. And did loads of plays in rep, going from play to play to play and playing all these different parts, which was fantastic grounding. Then I came down to London and my first telly was an episode of The Sweeney, playing a girlfriend of the Dennis Waterman character.” The Sweeney became just the first in a long line of jobs in which she worked with the late John Thaw, including Inspector Morse, Stanley and the Women (“a very bizarre piece”) and Kavanagh QC.
She is curious that I should bring up the subject of another early television job, Dummy , from 1977. It is not a production listed on her résumé nor on the Internet Movie Database although there are details on the BFI site — and is aghast when I relay the sad news that her fellow actor in the production, Mark Drewry, with whom I trained at Webber Douglas, never came out of his coma following a tragic road accident over two years ago while rehearsing The Glee Club for the Bush Theatre, and that he died in October.
“Whenever I think of Dummy, I always think of him. He was fabulous in it and he was such a sweet man. And it was a very, very difficult part for me because it was my first big part. I just adored him and I was so appalled to hear what had happened.” The subject silences us both for some minutes before we are able to move on.
One of her favourite occasions, when younger parts were the norm, was playing Imogen in Cymbeline for Peter Hall at the National Theatre in 1988, alongside one of her Jewel in the Crown co-stars, Tim Pigott-Smith, as Iachimo. “I took over from somebody else and I only had about three weeks to prepare it in, and it was a fantastic experience and I loved and still love working with Peter Hall, so that was great.” She also vividly recalls “a sort of musical version, almost” of Lysistrata with Hall at the Old Vic, and Portia in the director’s acclaimed production of The Merchant of Venice with Dustin Hoffman as Shylock at the end of the 1980s. “It was incredible and went to Broadway so that was probably the single most amazing theatre thing I’ve done.”
Her first West End experience in 1979 did not prove quite so magical, although the project had sounded promising. It was a new version by David Richmond of Bram Stoker’s classic called The Passion of Dracula. “That was my agent. I’d done a lot of telly — no, I hadn’t done a lot of telly — but I’d done a year of telly and he said you must do a play, you must get into the theatre now. And Julian [Belfrage] was, of course, your father’s agent. And he said, ‘I’ve got Richard [Vernon] doing this play and I want you to go up for this.’ And it was Roy Dotrice and it promised so well that play, and George Chakiris was an absolute angel — he was so sweet. And then I got knocked back by the director — he took all my confidence just as we opened. It wasn’t a very happy experience. I was very friendly with Richard and Beth Morris was lovely. I mean, everyone was lovely — Tom Marshall — it was a really nice cast — Roy Dotrice was great and the lovely, lovely Jimmy Villiers. They’re mainly all dead. George Chakiris is still alive, isn’t he. But it was, you know, six months doing that play, not a terribly exciting time, it didn’t go very well and you slightly lose heart because we thought it was going to be marvellous, and that was tough doing that.”
The Passion of Dracula apart, James has managed an excellent mix of enjoyable theatre and television throughout her career. She describes herself as lucky but emphasizes that she turns down quite a number of small screen projects. “I do say, ‘No, I’m turning that down because I want to do some theatre now.’ I’ve turned down a ridiculous amount of work, according to my friends. I am lucky but I think you have to make that decision to just do things you really want to do, wherever you can, to keep yourself alive in it.”
One of the playwrights she has a longing to assay is the Bard. “I’d love to do Shakespeare. I’d love to work with the RSC some time because that’s the reason I came into the business and I had a sort of school reunion and I went back to my school and they’d put some stuff up about all of our era and there was a letter that I’d written to the school magazine when I was at Drama Centre saying, ‘Here I am actually training to be an actress so that I can fulfill my life-long desire of joining the RSC’. And I read it last year and I thought, oh, I’ve never done that so that’s something that I’d love to do some time.”
It then transpires that she has just begun work on something rather particular. “I’m doing something that’s quite nice that I just started today. They’re doing an adaptation of the book, The Raj Quartet, for the radio. And they’re doing nine episodes for Radio 4 and I’m playing the part of the part I played before’s mother [Mildred Layton, the part played on television by Judy Parfitt], which is amazing! So I’ve been working this afternoon with Lia Williams who’s playing ‘me’.” She is enthused by the whole idea. “I’m so pleased they asked me to do it. It’s got a fantastic cast so that’s very exciting. Brilliant scripts — Jeremy Mortimer and Sally Evans are directing them, and it’s going to be great, I think. I was really pleased to be asked.”
And on that note, I leave her to take a nap before the evening performance of Home in Cambridge, wondering if I was right to infer from something she had started to say earlier that there might be further life for the production. Deservedly so, if it comes to pass.
Sarah Vernon © 27 November 2004
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