Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • JOANNA McCALLUM • The Clean House [tour] • 2008

Published on the original R&V 21-04-08 

Joanna McCallum is having a grand old time touring in Sarah Ruhl’s play, The Clean House, which reaches Richmond Theatre this week. Her character, Virginia, is the sister of Lane, played by Patricia Hodge, and is, she says, obsessive about cleaning “because she doesn’t want to stop and think”. It is a stance with which most of us are familiar if we have a penchant for procrastination and a need for displacement activities. The reason for Virginia’s obsession is that she has an unfulfilled life and is too frightened to think about it.

“So when she has a moment and has actually cleaned her house by three o’clock, she has a lot of time on her hands and it worries her terribly. She feels that she has to have something to distract her from thinking about life too much. For all sorts of reasons, she is also rather jealous of her sister, Lane, who has, seemingly, a perfect life. Then life begins to unravel in front of everyone’s eyes. You think you can sort it out by being very clean but life is a bit of a mess.”

Joanna is at pains to point out that while this makes The Clean House sound rather serious, it’s actually highly entertaining, if rather tricky, perhaps, to encapsulate.

“I was in Cambridge last week and I was staying with a don and his wife, and they loved it; afterwards, I said, ‘It’s hard to describe what it’s about, isn’t it?’ They said, ‘It’s about love and life.’ It’s about our mortality, and all sorts of other things come up in it; so it’s an interesting play.”

When I was a shy fourteen-year-old, hampered by a mouthful of braces and a mother who had been using feverish activity to avoid the obvious, I had the fortune to meet Joanna’s mother. This was shortly after my own was temporarily committed to a mental hospital after slitting her wrists in the bath and it was Mrs McCallum who took it upon herself to organize us remaining Vernons in an attempt to keep us occupied and lift our spirits. “That sounds like my mother!” exclaims Joanna. Already a withdrawn adolescent, I was hugely overawed by Mrs McCallum for she wasn’t just any old mother. She was a film star.

Mrs McCallum was Googie Withers of films such as One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, The Lady Vanishes and Pink String and Sealing Wax, though she had yet to play what is, perhaps, her most famous role, Faye Boswell, the prison governess in Within These Walls. It was not her manner that I found overwhelming for she was kindness itself, albeit in a rather brusque fashion. It was that I was, and still am, a devotee of classic b&w films.

In awe, as I was, and though I suspect my teenage self was probably impossible to reach, I appreciated everything Mrs McCallum tried to do for us and have never forgotten that time.

Talking to her daughter completes a comforting circle, especially when I discover she played my father’s daughter in a film directed by Antonia Bird, A Masculine Ending. “I just adored your father [Richard Vernon]. I thought he was heavenly. It was a role where he was playing someone a bit befuddled. He was at home with us and I had children, and it was very poignant – set in Oxford with Janet McTeer and Imelda Staunton.”

Joanna also worked with Richard on an episode of the last series he ever did – Class Act with Joanna Lumley – and she says how funny and wonderful he was in the role of Lumley’s father, not easy for him at the time as he was already coping with Parkinson’s. “So we got together several times.”

While my father died eleven years ago and my mother in 2000, it is encouraging to hear that Joanna’s parents are alive and thriving back in Australia, the land of her father’s birth. John McCallum has been an actor, director, producer and writer but he is doubtless best known in this country as the executive producer of Skippy, the 1960s’ children’s series beloved of my generation.

“They were over here last year,” Joanna tells me, “and they stayed with me and saw all their friends, and they hired a car and my daughter drove and we went around the countryside to see the people who couldn’t come to London. But they are in very, very good form. Yes, they are still out every night and they are exhausting!”

It was Australia, in fact, where Joanna grew up. “I was born here, but we went out to Australia because Daddy, as an actor, was offered a wonderful job and he took it and we went to live there. He was asked to run Williamson’s. It was an extraordinary thing: the company had eleven theatres across Australia and hired more in New Zealand. So it was the biggest theatre group. J C Williamson’s, it was called. And my father went out to run it. He had shows on in all of those theatres all the time. So I grew up in an atmosphere of ballet and opera and musicals and straight plays. People were brought out from England and America, as well as Australians, and were given their chances.”

As I have said on several occasions, if you are the child of actors and follow in your parents’ footsteps, it is almost impossible to tell whether it is a profession you would have chosen had circumstances been other. As for me, so for Joanna: “That was my normal kind of thing. I was at the theatre all the time and I was at boarding school and Ma would do tours a lot. For my holidays I would go with her on tour, so I would sit in her dressing room and listen to the show going on.”

Did she ever consider a different career? “I suppose I might have had a rebellion when I was fourteen and thought I might like to illustrate children’s books; that kind of went out of the window. Then I just went to drama school. My sister, who really had the same upbringing, but is ten years younger than I am, she went to agricultural college; she married a farmer and lives in the bush.”

The contrast is fascinating. “Completely different. Our brother, who is in the middle, did the same as me – he went to LAMDA and did the stage management course but he is actually a production designer for film and television in Australia.”

Joanna herself actually trained in Australia. “I went to the one which then became rather famous after I left because Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett and those people went – the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, NIDA. I went in much earlier days.”

She says she enjoyed it to ‘a certain degree’, partly because of the pleasure of being with ‘like-minded souls’. “I enjoyed a lot of it, and some of my best friends spring from those days.”

Unusually, and something that tends to be frowned upon in the UK, NIDA students are, or were in the 70s, used as extras in a professional company, in this case, Sydney Repertory. “At night you were holding the trains and holding the spears. So in that respect, I thought [our training] was a really good thing.”

From there she joined the Melbourne Theatre Company to play Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Diana in All’s Well That Ends Well. “And I was very lucky because Tyrone Guthrie came out.”

For the uninitiated, the Anglo-Irish director Tyrone Guthrie [1900-1971] was a remarkable man. Knighted a decade before he died, he helped to found the Stratford Festival Theatre of Canada and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, USA. Peter Hall described him as “Among the great originators in British Theatre, Guthrie was a towering figure in every sense. He blazed a trail for the subsidised theatre of the sixties. He showed how to run a company and administer a theatre. And he was a brilliant and at times great director”.

“That for me,” says Joanna, “was really amazing. He was so full of enthusiasm. He was an amazingly tall man and he always wore white sandshoes and would be jumping up and down and enthusiastic about what you brought to rehearsals.” This is an initiation into theatre devoutly to be wished. “It was a wonderful start with Shakespeare, and to be directed by Guthrie.”

After a year at MTC, in which she gained a huge amount of experience and made many friends, she decided to take ‘pot luck’ in England. As soon as she arrived, she contacted an agent who said, “Look, we don’t know your work, you’ve been in Australia, we have no idea. What we will do is we will set up some interviews for you and we will see what happens.” What happened was that she was offered two jobs at once.

“I got both jobs and one of them was to go up to Sheffield to be Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The other one was to be in a new play, understudy and play the small part of a tart. It was called No Sex Please, We’re British. I thought it was the worst play I had ever read! This isn’t going to go anywhere, I thought.” Her laugh is delicately laced with irony for No Sex Please ran for years and years.

She opted for Helena and was ‘very pleased’ she did. A different choice would have taken her in another direction. “I could have been in the West End and done all that kind of stuff. [Sheffield] took me somewhere else. I ended up doing quite a lot of classical parts.”

Frank Dunlop, the founder of the Young Vic, was to be her next guiding light. “He was doing all these experimental productions and we did the Scottish play and, you know, I was twenty-two or twenty-three and I was playing and travelling around Mexico. I was given by Frank a wonderful kind of opportunity and lots of learning. I played Rosalind in As You Like It, Katherine in The Shrew. And we toured again: we went right across America. A wonderful time.”

Alec Guinness completes a triumvirate of influential men in Joanna’s career. “Again it was Shakespeare, at Chichester Festival Theatre. I had always, always admired Alec Guinness and thought he was the most wonderful actor. He was playing Shylock and I was asked to play Portia.”

This was to follow a stint at the Bristol Old Vic where, among other parts, she played Gwendoline in The Importance of Being Earnest for Adrian Noble, and it was in Bristol she met her future husband, the actor and writer Roger Davenport. There followed the birth of their daughter and a spate of television work that included the incomparable adaptation of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour in 1983.

“Molly Keane’s best friend was Peggy Ashcroft and I can’t tell you how frightening it was when they came to see the private showing of Good Behaviour together. It was a trilogy and we had filmed in Ireland and done a lot in the studio.” Through her laughter, Joanna confesses she was a “shaking bag” of nerves on meeting the two ladies. “We had lunch afterwards, and Patrick Garland [then artistic director of CFT] and Alec Guinness were talking, and Peggy Ashcroft very kindly said that she thought I was the sort of candidate to play Portia, which was wonderful. So that was quite something.”

Good Behaviour is one of those dramas keenly remembered but I have never seen it repeated. I discover why when Joanna reveals the sad news that it was one of those programmes wiped by the BBC. “They never aired it again. You would think, what with Dan Massey, Hannah Gordon, Judy Cornwall, Michael Dennison – beautiful performances. Hugh Leonard did the adaptation. A wonderful production. Bill Hayes directed.”

I had not realised that the BBC was still wiping recordings in the 1980s. “Well whatever it is, it is not around; they cannot find it. I have got it on tape but it is sad that it didn’t get a second showing.” Sad indeed.

We also share a sadness that the younger generation is not, seemingly, interested in what should be a shared theatrical history. “I did a tour of Be My Baby and I played matron. All the other characters were very young, some of them expecting babies with the babies being taken away from them. it was set in the sixties. We went to a farmhouse where we all stayed together. It was an extraordinary place that had Plays & Players and photographs, and they didn’t open one. They were not interested in anything at all. They didn’t know who Sybil Thorndike was, they didn’t know who Edith Evans was, not anyone I mentioned. I liked them all, but they were very much of now, and I don’t know a lot of people that they know now. But it is sad to lose contact [with the past].”

I sometimes think I bleat in vain when I talk about the importance of learning from the past but Joanna’s next comment about rehearsals for Be My Baby proves how valuable it is. “I would say to them, ‘That never really works’, and they would say ‘How do you know? I would say, ‘Well, that has been tried.’ It’s passing on the baton. It is knowing, and tradition.”

Joanna also knows that theatre ‘is so unfair’. The cream does not always rise to the top, as a now-dead agent with lots of starry clients once said to me. Joanna concurs. “It doesn’t make sense and is anarchic in that way. Lots of talented people and nothing happens for them – it is not fair. And there are really average people and lots happen for them.”

Luckily for Joanna, and she is the first to say it is as much down to luck as talent, she has had a fortunate career and, unlike myself, theatrical parents who have shown her a form of encouragement that has underpinned her confidence. “Well, I have to say my parents let me get on with it. They have been very sweet; they have never put things in my path, and they haven’t been embarrassed. They have been very dear and supportive in that way. They get very cross if I get a bad review! Awfully sweet.”

And so is Joanna McCallum.

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