Eileen Atkins: ‘There are many components if you happen to’re keen to make your self look awful’ | Eileen Atkins

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 little thing 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 ladies embrace? No. As Queen Mary has already knowledgeable her granddaughter by letter, if the crown is to outlive, responsibility should come earlier than private indulgence, a credo she’s going to now categorical within the type of a curtsey so preposterously low, it’s a surprise 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: principally 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 really 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 good friend, 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, nevertheless, takes a unique method. “‘You’re 87,’ I say to myself. ‘You’ve been working for six hours. Properly completed!’”

However isn’t there somebody aside from Daldry whom she ought to be thanking at this level? For her posture, I imply? Atkins provides me a realizing smile. “Sure, thanks, Madame Yandie,” she says, sardonically. Madame Yandie was the principal of the sadly named KY Faculty 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 serious about telling the story of her life for at the least a decade. Nevertheless it was solely as soon as the pandemic hit – the play during which she was to star with Timothée Chalamet on the Outdated Vic was reduce off mid-rehearsal – that she was capable of get on with doing so. “I’m ashamed to inform you that I had an exquisite lockdown,” she says. “I completely beloved the entire thing.”

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 instantly on to the river, the water bouncing any daylight straight again on to her bookshelves – life was all of the sudden very conducive to floating round prior to now. She and her cat, Bertie, might hardly have been any extra content material. (Because the loss of life of her husband, Invoice Shepherd, in 2016, Atkins has lived right here alone.) Wasn’t she apprehensive 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’s going to all the time crawl again.”

Theatrical memoirs, particularly these by actors of a sure classic, might be fairly gruesomely tedious (“the critics have been improper, 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 method 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 could be printed. Generally I believed: who the fuck can 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, after I informed her I’d mentioned loads. However I don’t really feel it’s price saying something until it’s the reality.”

The winner of an Emmy, a Bafta and three Olivier awards, on the stage Atkins has performed every little thing from Edward Albee and Harold Pinter to Chekhov and Shakespeare. Her movies embrace The Dresser (1983), Gosford Park (2001) and Chilly Mountain (2003). Nevertheless it has, she says, been a protracted trek. “My type of profession occurs hardly in any respect, now,” she says. “Right this moment, I’d 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 end result, at the least partially, of elocution classes, provides no trace of her childhood on a council property in Tottenham, nor does it recommend how laborious it typically was for her as a younger lady to make the life that she needed. “The problem was eager to be a classical actress. My household wouldn’t let me alone. ‘We don’t know why you’re apprehensive concerning the accent,’ they used to say. ‘Have a look at Michael Caine.’ I’d 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 laborious up and her mother and father’ marriage was lower than completely happy (after his loss of life, she discovered {a photograph} of one other lady 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 which 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 informed by a Gypsy that Eileen would in the future be “an excellent dancer – one other Pavlova”, her mom duly enrolled her on the KY Faculty. 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 Pictures

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 good friend’s home, inspired to do one among 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 women all laughed, however her good friend’s father, a vicar, despatched her house with a notice 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 form of buoyancy. A sense that folks would most likely like me. It’s the identical factor, virtually, as boys from Eton have. They assume they’re finest. I didn’t assume that, however I had been out in entrance of plenty of working males, and completed a quantity, and so they had applauded me.”

Madame Yandie needed to undertake her protege, however this having proved unattainable – Atkins’s mother and father mentioned no – she opted as a substitute to assist her escape from the junior faculty the place she was so depressing by paying for her to go privately. Atkins thinks the 2 ladies – her mom and Madame Y – should have made a wierd double act, going to Parkside faculty to satisfy Miss Corridor, the headteacher she would come to adore. “This oily lady who favored 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 along 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 have to please her, as a result of if I didn’t, I’d be the form of particular person I personally wouldn’t like.” Miss Corridor was extreme and inspiring. “I’ve all the time been grateful to be informed the reality. I’m nonetheless grateful to the woman who, after I was at Stratford, mentioned all of the sudden [she adopts a posh voice], ‘Oh, I’ve by no means seen anybody earlier than whose pubic hair goes all the way 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 faculty, the place she was taught drama by one other inspirational instructor, and from there she bought a spot on the Guildhall Faculty of Music and Drama, although solely on its educating course. Life, she felt, was now starting, although this could additionally imply a parting of kinds from her mother and father: “Once I grew to become an actress, they bought scared 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 just a little theatre firm in Perranporth in Cornwall and beneath Peter Corridor on the Oxford Playhouse (Corridor sacked her after she was impolite to him). These have been the times of repertory, when actors rehearsed the following week’s play at the same time as they carried out the present week’s and lived in lodgings with hissing gasoline fires, a world she recreates fantastically 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’d have favored 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 method into the corporate, working as an understudy and typically bagging the odd line.

Within the years that adopted, wiggling her method into ever greater components, she labored with each postwar identify you may consider: actors reminiscent of Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave; administrators reminiscent of George Devine and Tony Richardson. In Stratford, she as soon as discovered Gene Kelly ready outdoors John Gielgud’s dressing room. They fell into dialog and she or he informed him she’d dissatisfied her mom by not changing 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 good actor, the higher to cadge a raise with him each evening (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 ladies 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 have 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 plenty 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 after all it’s aggressive. All of us need to shine. That’s why you want a powerful director.” Many ladies complain of the shortage of roles out there to them as soon as they attain center age. Did she undergo this? Her shoulders rise just a little. “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 lady in one thing and all of the sudden they’re not the attractive younger lady, so they are saying there aren’t any components. However there are many components, if you happen to’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 along with her good friend Jean Marsh within the Seventies, Atkins went on to jot down Vita & Virginia, a play about Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (she starred as Woolf). However no, she says, she was supplied plenty of components: “I imply, have a look at Ibsen!”

Nonetheless, performing might 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 regarded into his lens. He referred to 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 type of little factor, I’d have crumpled and cried.” Three years in the past, she was in Iceland, making a movie with Terrence Malick. “I informed 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. Appearing 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 can be movie, too, during which Derek Jacobi will play George Bernard Shaw, and she’s going to play his spouse, Charlotte: “I didn’t assume in one million years it could 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 in the long run. Her solely remorse, although you must 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 spite of everything. 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 believe I’m too subservient to the author to do that.”

Will She Do? Act Considered one of a Life on Stage is printed by Virago (£18.99). To help the Guardian and the Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com

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One thought on “Eileen Atkins: ‘There are many components if you happen to’re keen to make your self look awful’ | Eileen Atkins

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