Afterlife of a Liver Bird plays on

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The Independent Culture
THE CONCENTRATED physical energy of Nerys Hughes' conversation is something to behold. She leans into questions like a speedway racer on a tricky corner, shoulders compliments aside and literally hunkers down to an explanation. In her concern to communicate the true meaning of the expansive Welsh term, hwyl, she manages, in the space of 10 seconds to mime a conductor bringing his orchestra to crescendo, a lark at ease on the thermals, and, most impressively, a pan of milk on the boil.

"Hwyl" she clarifies, "is that little bit of extra imagination, the spirit that lifts something a little bit out of the ordinary. It's a word that can be used for evangelical purposes."

Hughes, who this week leads an all-Welsh cast in Under Milk Wood at the National Theatre, is enormously proud of her Celtic background. The actress who will forever be a Liver Bird in the public imagination grew up in Rhyl, North Wales, spoke Welsh as her first language and, by the age of three, was lisping uplifting poems about squirrels at local Eistedd- fods. Her family ran the local ironmongery store. They were strict Methodists, going to chapel three times on Sunday, so it must have been a shock when young Nerys made her television dbut drawing lipstick round her nipples as Mae Rose Cottage in a BBC production of Under Milk Wood.

Dylan Thomas's dramatic poem has been a lodestone in Hughes's career. In various productions over the years she has graduated from Mae Rose to the pert Lily Smalls and the generously procreative Polly Garter. In Roger Michell's production at the National she will play Mrs Ogmore Pritchard, the widow who makes the afterlife a misery for her two departed husbands. Hughes, who "went all posh'' on her return from an English-speaking boarding school and refused to speak Welsh to her family, has little patience with the militant Welsh Welsh who see the English-speaking, English-writing Thomas as a second-rate national hero. "In Welsh, and in `Welsh English' it's a natural thing to have rhythm, a spring to the voice - you know, your Gerard Manley Hopkins type of thing."

Mrs Ogmore "And before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes" Pritchard is not an obviously provocative role. But Hughes says she has never known such an erotically-charged production as the National's. "Maybe it's because we're all Welsh - we're a sexy lot us Celts - but in this version Mrs Ogmore Pritchard wears her husbands out all day by bossing them around and then they have to love me all night. That's fine by me, but I'm slightly less confident about making my entrance on a flying bed."

Ever since The Liver Birds, Carla Lane's 1970s sitcom which starred Hughes as the ripely virginal Sandra in hot pants and kinky boots, Hughes has enjoyed, or perhaps more accurately, endured, a reputation for a particularly wholesome kind of sexiness. The bicycle-and-blue-serge image of her subsequent long- running role in BBC's A District Nurse didn't help.

"Actually," says Hughes, "the only thing about A District Nurse that I got cheesed off with was that all my patients kept dying. I know it was a very depressing time in the 1930s, but you'd think I might have been allowed a couple of successes."

Now in her early 50s, Hughes assesses herself with engaging frankness. "When I was younger I used to corner the market in quite sexy parts - never beautiful, mind - but sexy. In the Sixties I joined the Royal Court and that was wonderful, because they were into real-life drama and regional accents. Being Welsh really worked for me and released a whole area of expression that I hadn't really explored. Because then, you see, actresses were generally very beautiful - they were very carefully made up and beautifully presented, and I was just the opposite. When you're beautiful, you have a kind of separateness, you exist up there on the screen as a kind of dream or idyll, and I think that's marvellous. But someone like me, I've never been anybody's dream or idyll. I've always been somehow accessible. I got hundreds of letters every week, quite a lot of them from young boys. I suppose it's a mother thing with them - and I also get letters from wives telling me their problems. I'm immensely flattered by that."

Hughes' cheerful modesty may be misplaced - teenage boys do not, on the whole, have fantasies about clean sheets and cocoa - but it is unfeigned. "I'm going through a terribly middle-aged thing about looks right now, because, you know, bits of you just wear out. I look crap today [she absolutely doesn't], but if I have to look smart, I'll still pull out all the stops. Half of me loves who I am now, a Putney housewife with a lovely husband [lighting cameraman Patrick Turley] and two wonderful children who are practically grown up. My kids will always come before work, and I don't care who hears me say it. But sometimes,when you wake up in the morning and see this bloody awful sight, half of you just thinks, `Oh Shit!' ".

People, she explains, have quite the wrong idea about Methodists. "They think that because you're a Welsh Methodist, you're going to be terribly repressed. But it's not like that at all. I had such an incredibly secure and loving background. My parents did set limits - I was teetotal until I was 23 - but there was a huge amount of fun. And I know that my upbringing was the bedrock that gave me the confidence to go bouncing off into this mad profession. My parents made it possible for me to think that the world was where I was at. I've been so bloody lucky but maybe it'll all fizzle out tomorrow."

This seems unlikely. Nerys Hughes has hwyl in spades.

E Jane Dickson

! `Under Milk Wood' opens 13 April, National Theatre, SE1, 071-928 2252.