Home Entertainment Eileen Atkins: ‘There are plenty of parts if you’re willing to make yourself look lousy’

Eileen Atkins: ‘There are plenty of parts if you’re willing to make yourself look lousy’

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Think again, only for a second, to the primary collection of The Crown. It’s 1952. The king, George VI, is useless and the brand new queen, Elizabeth, has flown house to Britain from Africa. At Sandringham, the place her father’s physique rests, every part is identical and but irredeemably modified: a paradoxical state signified most powerfully by the arrival of the king’s mom, Queen Mary. In a hall lined with servants, the previous queen, in black crepe and a mourning veil, advances slowly in direction of the brand new queen. Will these grieving girls embrace? No. As Queen Mary has already knowledgeable her granddaughter by letter, if the crown is to outlive, obligation should come earlier than private indulgence, a credo she is going to now specific within the type of a curtsey so preposterously low, it’s a marvel she doesn’t topple over.

On the reminiscence of this scene, Dame Eileen Atkins leaps from her couch and bobs her jeans-clad knees, wobbling solely very barely. Six years on, she doesn’t bear in mind a lot about enjoying Queen Mary: largely it was simply “mendacity about in mattress and smoking”. However she’ll always remember that curtsey: “It was Stephen Daldry [the director] who made me do it. That lengthy bloody stroll. I like Stephen. He’s a magician. I’d do something for him. However I used to be very proud that at no matter age I used to be then, I might stroll with a straight again and do such a deep curtsey.” Her pal, the actor Siân Phillips, believes that the trick with previous age is solely not to consider it: “She doesn’t inform anybody how previous she is.” Atkins, nonetheless, takes a unique strategy. “‘You’re 87,’ I say to myself. ‘You’ve been working for six hours. Properly accomplished!’”

However isn’t there somebody apart from Daldry whom she ought to be thanking at this level? For her posture, I imply? Atkins provides me a figuring out smile. “Sure, thanks, Madame Yandie,” she says, sardonically. Madame Yandie was the principal of the sadly named KY College of Dance in Wooden Inexperienced, north London, which Atkins attended as a lady, and the rationale I do know all about her is that her former pupil has given her a short however starring function within the memoir that she wrote (“in Biro, in mattress”) throughout lockdown final yr. One of the crucial beloved and admired actors of her era, Atkins had, it appears, been interested by telling the story of her life for not less than a decade. Nevertheless it was solely as soon as the pandemic hit – the play by which she was to star with Timothée Chalamet on the Outdated Vic was reduce off mid-rehearsal – that she was in a position to get on with doing so. “I’m ashamed to inform you that I had a beautiful lockdown,” she says. “I completely beloved the entire thing.”

As Queen Mary in the first season of The Crown
As Queen Mary within the first season of The Crown. {Photograph}: Netflix

At her home by the Thames at Chiswick – its entrance home windows look immediately on to the river, the water bouncing any daylight straight again on to her bookshelves – life was all of a sudden very conducive to floating round up to now. She and her cat, Bertie, might hardly have been any extra content material. (Because the dying of her husband, Invoice Shepherd, in 2016, Atkins has lived right here alone.) Wasn’t she nervous about her beloved theatre? “No, as a result of I’m satisfied that it doesn’t matter what occurs, folks will all the time need it. They get such a bizarre thrill from seeing folks within the flesh. I don’t fairly perceive it myself, however it is going to all the time crawl again.”

Theatrical memoirs, particularly these by actors of a sure classic, could be fairly gruesomely tedious (“the critics had been incorrect, I really feel, to explain my Malvolio as extremely colored”). However Atkins’s is bliss: so humorous and atmospheric and true. It’s not solely that she has a manner of bringing her extra antic characters vividly to life (that goes for Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness in addition to the pretentious Madame Yandie). She’s trustworthy about herself, too, as content material to narrate her humiliations as her triumphs (the ebook ends in 1965, when she finally takes the West Finish by storm in Frank Marcus’s lesbian melodrama The Killing of Sister George). Is she nervous about its publication? “Properly, I’m thrilled that you loved it,” she says. “I suppose I by no means imagined that it will be revealed. Generally I believed: who the fuck will likely be on this? However I can’t assist feeling that Maggie [Smith] and Judi [Dench] are going to be a bit ashamed of me. ‘Oh, what have you ever mentioned?’ Maggie requested me, once I instructed her I’d mentioned so much. However I don’t really feel it’s value saying something except it’s the reality.”

The winner of an Emmy, a Bafta and three Olivier awards, on the stage Atkins has performed every part from Edward Albee and Harold Pinter to Chekhov and Shakespeare. Her movies embody The Dresser (1983), Gosford Park (2001) and Chilly Mountain (2003). Nevertheless it has, she says, been an extended trek. “My sort of profession occurs hardly in any respect, now,” she says. “Right now, I might go into EastEnders or one thing after which get caught… I’m not placing EastEnders down. I’m simply saying that’s the way in which it’s.” Her wealthy, elegant voice, the consequence, not less than partially, of elocution classes, provides no trace of her childhood on a council property in Tottenham, nor does it counsel how arduous it typically was for her as a younger girl to make the life that she needed. “The problem was desirous to be a classical actress. My household wouldn’t let me alone. ‘We don’t know why you’re nervous concerning the accent,’ they used to say. ‘Have a look at Michael Caine.’ I might inform them that Michael Caine was not a classical actor, however they didn’t need to hear it.”

Atkins’s mom was a dressmaker and her father learn electrical energy meters. The household was all the time arduous up and her mother and father’ marriage was lower than completely happy (after his dying, she discovered {a photograph} of one other girl stitched into the liner of her father’s swimsuit). However maybe their distance from one another had sure advantages for his or her daughter. She bought consideration that may in any other case have gone elsewhere, which was how Yandie got here into her life, and her style for efficiency was sparked. Having been instructed by a Gypsy that Eileen would at some point be “a fantastic dancer – one other Pavlova”, her mom duly enrolled her on the KY College. Inside a yr, she had been reworked into Tottenham’s very personal Shirley Temple. “Child Eileen: Soubrette and Dancer” learn the playing cards her mother and father had printed on the recommendation of Madame Y.

Eileen Atkins, photographed in London in 1968
Eileen Atkins, photographed in London in 1968. {Photograph}: Harold Clements/Getty Photographs

Child Eileen, who had blond curls and an affectedly cute voice, carried out at working males’s golf equipment for 15 shillings a pop – and sure, this was a bit creepy, as she knew even on the time. Her repertoire included a “French” music that started “I bought ze wink… zat makes fellows assume” and a modified Cole Porter quantity about naughty married males. At a celebration at a pal’s home, inspired to do one in every of her turns, she launched into Carmen Miranda’s I Yi Yi Yi Yi (I Like You Very A lot), wiggling her bum exaggeratedly. The little ladies all laughed, however her pal’s father, a vicar, despatched her house with a word expressing his disgust. On the time, Atkins felt ashamed, however she sees now that she additionally gained one thing from working the golf equipment: “A kind of buoyancy. A sense that folks would in all probability like me. It’s the identical factor, virtually, as boys from Eton have. They assume they’re greatest. I didn’t assume that, however I had been out in entrance of lots of working males, and accomplished a quantity, they usually had applauded me.”

Madame Yandie needed to undertake her protege, however this having proved inconceivable – Atkins’s mother and father mentioned no – she opted as an alternative to assist her escape from the junior college the place she was so depressing by paying for her to go privately. Atkins thinks the 2 girls – her mom and Madame Y – should have made an odd double act, going to Parkside college to satisfy Miss Corridor, the headteacher she would come to adore. “This oily girl who appreciated to say that one ought to all the time pro-nou-nce the be-gin-ning and the e-nd of ev-er-y phrase and my mom together with her thick cockney.” Miss Corridor, although, proved to be the primary of a number of saviours in Atkins’s formative years: “I knew that I need to please her, as a result of if I didn’t, I might be the kind of particular person I actually wouldn’t like.” Miss Corridor was extreme and inspiring. “I’ve all the time been grateful to be instructed the reality. I’m nonetheless grateful to the woman who, once I was at Stratford, mentioned all of a sudden [she adopts a posh voice], ‘Oh, I’ve by no means seen anybody earlier than whose pubic hair goes right down to their knees!’” She laughs, heartily. “The woman from Stratford rang me yesterday, to inform me somebody is useless.”

From Parkside, she gained a scholarship to grammar college, the place she was taught drama by one other inspirational instructor, and from there she bought a spot on the Guildhall College of Music and Drama, although solely on its instructing course. Life, she felt, was now starting, although this is able to additionally imply a parting of types from her mother and father: “After I turned an actress, they bought terrified of me. And I did look down my nostril at them. I can’t inform you how horrible I used to be.” Her ebook describes her stints, after her commencement, at a little bit theatre firm in Perranporth in Cornwall and below Peter Corridor on the Oxford Playhouse (Corridor sacked her after she was impolite to him). These had been the times of repertory, when actors rehearsed the subsequent week’s play at the same time as they carried out the present week’s and lived in lodgings with hissing fuel fires, a world she recreates superbly on the web page.

Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, with Penelope Wilton, in her own play Vita and  Virginia at London’s Ambassadors theatre in 1993
Atkins, left, as Virginia Woolf, with Penelope Wilton, in her personal play Vita & Virginia at London’s Ambassadors theatre in 1993. {Photograph}: Alastair Muir/Shutterstock

However then, one other saviour: Julian Glover, whom she met once they each acting at Butlin’s in Skegness. Glover, now well-known as one of many stars of Sport of Thrones, was from a middle-class, reasonably bohemian household and Atkins fell for all of them, in addition to for him. She was simply 22 once they married in 1957. “Oh, it was great!” she says. “Going into their house for the primary time – that was the place I might have appreciated to have been introduced up.” (They divorced in 1966, however he and his spouse, Isla Blair, are amongst her closest mates.) Glover was to hitch the RSC in Stratford and someway she, too, wangled her manner into the corporate, working as an understudy and typically bagging the odd line.

Within the years that adopted, wiggling her manner into ever greater elements, she labored with each postwar identify you may consider: actors akin to Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave; administrators akin to George Devine and Tony Richardson. In Stratford, she as soon as discovered Gene Kelly ready exterior John Gielgud’s dressing room. They fell into dialog and she or he instructed him she’d disenchanted her mom by not turning into a faucet dancer. “I guess you may nonetheless do it,” mentioned Kelly and collectively they did three time steps. Within the West Finish with Laurence Olivier, she pretended she lived close to the nice actor, the higher to cadge a elevate with him each night time (she hoped to hitch his new Nationwide Theatre). This went on till his chauffeur rumbled her. As soon as, she and Glenda Jackson auditioned collectively for Peter Brook. “Are you prepared?” requested the director. The 2 girls nodded. “Then would you each take your garments off.” Fatally, Atkins hesitated. By the point she’d requested him to repeat himself, her rival’s had been on the ground. Jackson bought the half.

Eileen Atkins
{Photograph}: Pål Hansen/The Observer

How a lot competitors is there between actors and the way a lot solidarity? “There may be lots of solidarity, as a result of it’s scary to exit in entrance of actual folks, and you could possibly make an absolute idiot of your self. However in fact it’s aggressive. All of us need to shine. That’s why you want a robust director.” Many ladies complain of the dearth of roles out there to them as soon as they attain center age. Did she undergo this? Her shoulders rise a little bit. “Oh, I’m afraid I’m about to say one thing fairly merciless. Most of these actresses are too useless. They’ve been the attractive younger girl in one thing and all of a sudden they’re not the attractive younger girl, so they are saying there aren’t any elements. However there are many elements, should you’re keen to make your self look awful.” Folks inform her that such a drought didn’t have an effect on her as a result of she was writing for herself; having devised Upstairs, Downstairs for tv together with her pal Jean Marsh within the Seventies, Atkins went on to put in writing Vita & Virginia, a play about Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (she starred as Woolf). However no, she says, she was provided plenty of elements: “I imply, take a look at Ibsen!”

However, performing could be merciless. Her first movie, in 1968, was Inadmissible Proof, tailored from John Osborne’s play and directed by Anthony Web page. “On my first day, I stood there and the cameraman appeared into his lens. He known as Tony over, who then shouted, in entrance of the entire studio, ‘For God’s sake, take her away and shave her!’ I’ve down on my face, you see – and if I’d been a sort of little factor, I might have crumpled and cried.” Three years in the past, she was in Iceland, making a movie with Terrence Malick. “I instructed them to pluck any hairs, however the subsequent factor I knew there was an electrical razor all spherical there.” How terrible. “Sure, brutal.”

However nothing actually places her off. Performing is her ardour. Does she know what she’ll be doing subsequent? “I’m afraid that I do,” she says, sounding the alternative of afraid. There’ll, she tells me, be one other collection of the long-running Doc Martin for ITV, and there will likely be movie, too, by which Derek Jacobi will play George Bernard Shaw, and she is going to play his spouse, Charlotte: “I didn’t assume in one million years it will go. Nevertheless it’s about Hollywood wanting the rights to [his play] Pygmalion [which became, of course, My Fair Lady], and now all these American stars are piling in.”

She feels fortunate and fulfilled. She discovered what she needed to do early on in life and all of it labored out very nicely ultimately. Her solely remorse, although you need to prod her to get her to confess to it, is that she by no means performed Beatrice in A lot Ado About Nothing. Couldn’t she nonetheless have go, if she actually needed to? Ian McKellen has simply performed Hamlet, in any case. However I do know already what she’ll say. One of many issues I’ve come to relish about her within the two hours we’ve spent collectively is her lack of vainness, her great pragmatism and ever-droll grip on actuality. “Properly, Vanessa [Redgrave] performed Beatrice too previous,” she says, reasonably crisply. There follows a well-timed pause. “However I feel I’m too subservient to the author to do that.”

Will She Do? Act One in all a Life on Stage is revealed by Virago (£18.99). To assist the Guardian and the Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com

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