theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
For anyone familiar with the ‘daffy’ characters on television by which Wendy Craig is best known – Jennifer Corner in Not in Front of the Children or Ria in Butterflies, for instance – it will come as a surprise to learn that the last few years have wrought an interesting change in the stage roles she is now offered. I spoke to the actress over the phone at her hotel in Bath where she was appearing at the Theatre Royal in the final leg of a tour as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, along with Frank Middlemass as Dr Chasuble and Josephine Tewson as Miss Prism.
“I have to say I am really having fun,” she tells me. “It’s a wonderful play, beautifully constructed, such a funny play, and I always think you have fun when the audience are having fun, don’t you, because when you’re making them laugh, and at the curtain call you see their faces smiling at you, you think oh, good, that was fun and they’ve had fun.”
When she was younger, she never thought of herself in the part. “I suppose it’s always a part you sort of aspire to as you get older. I mean, when I was a young woman I never thought I’d play Lady Bracknell,” she says, giving an infectious laugh. “But lately I’ve been playing these rather powerful females and I was asked, actually, three or four years ago to play her and couldn’t for various reasons. I’d been asked three times and the fourth time I thought look, I’ve got to say yes now or I’ll never get asked again. And it just so happened that I was free to do it and I accepted it and it’s been a wonderful experience.”
The business is full of surprises and it was only when she heard a few years ago that Maria Aitken was directing Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue at Chichester Festival Theatre that things changed. “There was the part of the mother in that, Mrs Whittaker, very strong, bit of an old gorgon, really, and I read the script and I thought I’d love to have a go at a part like that and I rang her and said, ‘Will you think of me when you’re casting because I’d really like to play Mrs Whittaker.’ And she said, ‘It’s funny you should ask, you’re down on the list.’ A week later, Aitken offered her the part. “So that was the first of these really strong, rather frightening women that I’ve played.”
Mrs Whittaker led in turn to Mrs Malaprop for the Royal Shakespeare Company after her agent brought the RSC’s casting director down to Chichester. “It’s quite exciting and a real change of scene for me — who played a lot of rather gentle, daffy women — to be playing somebody powerful, strong and rather scary. Years ago I’d never have thought anyone would ever ask me to play Mrs Malaprop but they did.”
And it was playing Sheridan’s glorious character in The Rivals that made her think it was just possible she might be able to play Lady Bracknell. Speaking as herself, she sounds as if she’s still in her twinkling twenties. She has been working on her lower register for these latest roles, work which has quite clearly been paying dividends. The acclaim which greeted her RSC debut was fulsome: ‘As Mrs Malaprop, Wendy Craig sounds — so stylishly absurd in the swoops and attacks of her delivery — as if she had listened thoroughly to the Edith Evans recording, and had learnt from it without ever being inhibited by it. A “weather-beaten she-dragon”, well coated in powder, rouge, corsets and hoops, she knows how to sail massively into a room, how to stand anchored, and how to incline head, hands, and shoulders to and fro with deadly dollops of exaggerated gentility. The lines … dance out of her confused mouth as freshly as if never spoken before.’ (Financial Times) ‘Wendy Craig treats Mrs Malaprop not as a conscious grotesque, but as a woman whose verbal slips stem, perversely, from an overwhelming passion for language. This is a seriously good performance…’ (Guardian)
Her desire to be an actress has been with her since she was a wee mite. “It was something I always wanted to do. I was taken to see pantomime when I was a little girl, about three, and I just fell in love with the theatre then — I thought it was absolutely magical and seemed to me to be part of my life. I thought oh, I see, this is what I’m meant to be doing, and went home and re-enacted the pantomime for my parents while they were getting me ready for bed. I think they were a bit nonplussed, quite honestly. And I never wavered from that moment, that’s all I ever wanted to do.” She was fortunate to have parents who chose not to dissuade her. “Well, I think they realised that I was so passionate about it and so faithful to the idea of it that they thought it’s best to support her because otherwise she’s going to do it anyway.”
Brought up on a farm in North Riding, Yorkshire, she went straight from the farm and the local grammar school to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama, which she found a ‘magical experience’. “At last I was preparing to do what I wanted to do and I was mixing with other people who loved the theatre and loved acting. And for the first time I was going to West End plays and it was just so exciting.”
Even more exciting was being picked by J B Priestley for the part of Monica Twigg in what was one of his last few plays, Mr Kettle and Mrs Moon. “I had an agent then and J B Priestley was auditioning for this play and I went along to the auditions, sent by my agent. And because he wanted a genuine Northern girl, and I was a genuine Northern girl — although they’d spent three years knocking the accent out of me at Central I still had it and could still produce it — he saw that I was the genuine article and gave me the role. It was a lovely role. It was quite a small role but a very funny, very showy role and that’s really what got me started in the West End.”
She went from Priestley to farce, appearing with Robertson Hare of the famous Aldwych farces in Man Alive, and onwards and upwards. Indeed, Kenneth Tynan described her as ‘one of the six best young actresses in the Western world’. “I think he said that while I was at the Royal Court,” she says. She appeared in three plays at Sloane Square, a hotbed of new writing in the 1950s, including N F Simpson’s A Resounding Tinkle (1957) and Ann Jellicoe’s The Sport of My Mad Mother (1958). “And then I got involved with television and films — it all snowballed from there.”
The early Sixties saw her making incursions into film, notably in The Servant (1963) in which she played Susan opposite Dirk Bogarde and James Fox, and for which she was nominated for a British Academy Award. It would have been a little absurd not to tell her at this point that I was the daughter of another actor with whom she worked on that film — Richard Vernon — especially as they were to work together two decades later on a popular television series. Craig is touching in her fondness and admiration for him, which of course fills me with delight. “I loved your dad; he was a great actor, too. He was playing James Fox’s father,” she reminds me, “a very posh gentleman.” She then reveals the insecurity she felt when filming. “I know we visited this very posh house and I felt rather out of it. I didn’t belong, I wasn’t the right class — I knew I wasn’t and felt very uncomfortable in the house.”
From 1967 and on into the Seventies, Craig was in full daffy mother mode on the small screen with the success of Not in Front of the Children, followed by And Mother Makes Five (1974) for which she and her late husband, musician and journalist Jack Bentley, wrote several episodes. The success of these sitcoms could not have been more appropriately timed. “Well, the thing was I was occasionally doing theatre in between but at that stage I had young children and it was the perfect life for a working mum. I was in London, I didn’t have to go away on tour, I didn’t have to leave home. We rehearsed in the morning; I was back home in the afternoon when the children came home from school, and for all those years that I was doing sitcom, I was able to live at home and bring my children up — absolutely perfect from that point of view so I just kept thinking how lucky I was, really, to be able to carry on acting and have children.”
Carla Lane’s Butterflies came next (1978) in which her playing of Ria, the middle-aged woman married to Geoffrey Palmer who constantly flirts with the idea of an affair with Bruce Montague, provided the BBC and Lane with another successful sitcom. This even led to an invitation from Hamlyns to write a couple of cookery books, off-setting Craig’s image as Ria who is a hopeless cook. “Hamlyns thought it would be an absolute hoot if I wrote a cookery book and they organised this Busy Mum’s Cook Book. And it was recipes for mums — quick, easy recipes that families would like. You could get the ingredients at the local supermarket, you didn’t have to go to Fortnum & Mason for special mushrooms or anything! And it was a huge success and they asked me to do the Busy Mum’s Baking Book as well, which was all sorts of cakes, and bread, and scones, and pies and things.” Would she do something like that again? “No! That was the end of my cookery repertoire, really.”
But it is Nanny in 1981 that is closest to her heart. “I loved it so because it had been my idea. I’d written the format and it was very precious to me and I never thought it would get done and it was done. And it was that remarkable thing of being in right at the very creation of something and seeing it fulfilled, seeing those wonderful sets built, and filming in a little Cotswold town changed into how it had been in the 1930s, just from an idea I’d had on a train. It was tremendously exciting and fulfilling.”
And it was in Nanny that my father joined Craig to play the Duke of Broughton, the gentlemen whose grandchildren are entrusted to the care of Craig’s character, Barbara Gray. “Richard was absolutely divine. In fact, we always laughed because we used to say I read him to death because he died while I was reading Winnie-the-Pooh, I think it was. He sort of fell asleep in the garden and never woke up again. I always thought that was rather sweet.” Not possessing anything but the usual earth-based channels, I say how I wish the BBC would repeat the two series on BBC One or Two. “Funnily enough,” she tells me, “I heard yesterday that they’re going to put it out on video.”
Returning to the subject of her stage career, we touch on her turn in the last production of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan at the Scala (1969), before the 19th century theatre became a cinema, subsequently a venue for live music and more. Peter Pan was wonderful, she says. “And I can’t tell you how my children loved that.” Craig has two sons: Alaster (it was a conscious decision to spell the name phonetically) is now principal oboist with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, while Ross is in television on the production side as well as a writer. “They were at the Scala all the time. They just adored it. They loved the props, the crocodile, and every so often the flymen would fly them. They just adored Peter Pan, and so did I.”
Neither of her sons, it transpires, ever expressed a desire to follow in her footsteps: they took after their father. “I could see that they just weren’t interested. They used to come sometimes to the recordings of the shows. They took it for granted and weren’t particularly interested, you know.” This must have been a relief. “Yes! Alaster was obviously very musical, his father was a musician, and no, they weren’t interested.”
My mother, part of an earlier generation to Craig, used to sleep with a postcard under her pillow of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, as so many must have done, and I am not in the least surprised to learn that it is Olivier who was the strongest influence on Craig when she was younger. “I adored Laurence Olivier and I saw those films — Hamlet and Henry V and Richard III — many, many, many times and he made such an impression on me.” As regards the influence of directors, a particular name does not occur to her. “I can’t, quite honestly, off-hand, think of a director that has influenced me very much. I don’t mean that rudely — I’ve had a lot of good directors — but once a play’s on, you don’t see them again and you’re only with them for a very short time.
“Actors, I mean, I’m very, very impressed with an actress called Sue Johnston. I absolutely love her work. And of course Dame Judi I adore. I just think she’s tremendous and a lovely person too, and a huge influence in the theatre. And such fun and so funny. She doesn’t seem to take things too seriously. I think, if anything, that’s one of my faults. I take life very seriously and everything I do, I agonize over, as regards work, and it seems to me that Judi has this lovely light touch and yet still produces profound work.”
Now appearing on ITV1 as Matron in the Heartbeat spin-off, The Royal, Wendy Craig may agonize over work but her own light touch has ensured a constant parade of characters that have entered the national consciousness. Her renewed success on stage in the ‘powerful, strong and rather scary’ characters like Lady Bracknell compels one to continue watching out for her work. As the Daily Telegraph said of her Mrs Malaprop, using one of the character’s own malapropisms, ‘she is the very pineapple of perfection’.
Sarah Vernon © 2004
Originally published on R&V 05-03-04
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