Agony!: Maureen Lipman talks to John Walsh

`Why am I not taken seriously? The honest answer would be because the buggers think I'm just a personality, just a comedian, just a Jew'
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A feeling of deja vu swept over Maureen Lipman the other day, as she and the cast of Oklahoma! began rehearsals for their transfer to the Lyceum theatre in London on Friday. A new boy was joining the cast and, since it was his first-ever appearance in the West End, a television camera team had been sent to docu-dramatise his first steps on the professional boards. "It made me smile because that was how I got my first job," says Lipman, "by pretending someone was going to do a documentary on a young actress in her first job. But there was no crew, and I had to bluff my way out of it when they never turned up. It was in Watford in 1967. I was 21. And the director knew I was bluffing but he let me in anyway."

The combination of desperation and chutzpah revealed in this story is very typical of Ms Lipman. So is the underlying concern you can detect, that she needed to bluff her way into acting. Or singing. Or writing. Or being a "celebrity", or any of the other activities with which the divine Ms Lipman has beguiled audiences for 30 years. There's a constant tremor of worry in her conversation, as of someone who's afraid of being rumbled, who needs constant reassurance and approval, who is convinced that without guile and trickery and amazing luck she wouldn't have had the career that's made her a personality on radio (The Lipman Test), television (Agony, the BT ads), the stage (especially in her one-woman shows and tribute to Joyce Grenfell) and in print (her magazine columns), a household name, a CBE, a game-but-kooky national treasure.

In Oklahoma! she plays Miss Eller, the wise, seen-it-all frontierswoman who presides over the romantic traumas of the juvenile leads and sings, "Oh the Farmer and the Cowman Shid be Fray-ends". Ms Lipman took the role against the advice of friends. "They said, `It's not a lead role, it's not exactly Dolly in Hello Dolly, is it?' but it looked to me like a part I could kick the hell out of." And, more pertinently, it was a role that represented a vivid contrast to the way Ms Lipman sees herself. "Aunt Eller is canny and tough when she needs to be, she's vulnerable but she's very strong. Where I'd crumble and have a weep, she'd say, `That's what lahf's all about'."

She pauses to consider. "Trevor [Nunn, the director] gave us an eight- hour lecture, with accompanying books and photographs, on the Wild West and how incredibly grim and tough it was. I'd be the last person to survive it. But at the same time, there is some fortitude in my make-up, in my 2,000-year-old genes, which says, `You bloody well get out there and make the best of what you've got and whatever it is, you'll rise to the top'."

Well make your mind up, lady, you feel like saying. Ms Lipman contradicts herself all the time. One minute she is all little-me modesty and self- deprecation, the next she comes on like somebody running an assertiveness- training course. For every jokey allusion to her best-known screen persona - Beattie, the Jewish momma, the gossipy star of the north London chopped- liver circuit, whom she incarnated in 55 British Telecom television commercials, some years ago - there's a countervailing flourish, as if you were talking to a Big Star, someone along the lines of, say, Gloria Swanson.

She likes being recognised, but can be quite acidulous about people who say "I know you - you're Beattie" down at the mammography clinic. She's just an ordinary woman, but she admires "renaissance men" who are good at several things, like herself. It's a one-woman double-act, and damnably confusing. Her current Good Housekeeping column tells amusing tales of the perils of being a "celebrity", then criticises the newspapers for failing to report a protest by the PEN writers' organisation over human rights abuse in Burma; an accompanying photo shows Ms Lipman with her finger-on-chin comedienne smile, surrounded by costume jewellery and feather boas. We're getting mixed signals here. Is she a shrinking violet or a Venus fly-trap? Can this obviously clever woman allow herself to be serious? Where's the real Ms Lipman to be found?

At home in Muswell Hill, north London, she glides about the kitchen arranging teapot, biscuits, milk and sugar on fussy little plates and bowls, like Delia Smith preparing a recipe. Jack Rosenthal, her playwright husband, busies himself making leek and potato soup. "Soup is always the answer," says Maureen in Jewish-mother mode. Outside in the garden, a red telephone box and matching pillar box stand mysteriously on either side of a handsome gazebo. And the shed on the right? "That's a fully working observatory with an eight-inch Newtonian reflector in it," she says matter-of-factly, as if every home must have one. "It was built for our son when he was interested in astronomy." "He lost interest shortly after it went up," says her husband grimly.

In the living room, a surprisingly sparse interior, once you've discounted the flowery curtains and the snarling puma statue on the mantelpiece, she arranges herself on the sofa, looking long and graceful in her Nefertiti poloneck, and waves her hands expressively as we discuss two things much on her mind, illness and anger.

She's a firm believer in alternative medicine, in reflexology and healing and hypnotherapy - even swimming with dolphins in the Caribbean, which she tried last summer after a cancer scare, a benign tumour that affected her neck and right hand. "I think what you believe affects what you are and what you do," she says. "I think people's illnesses are very much an expression of their characters. Look at Jacqueline Du Pre and her family. If the details in the book are true, it's obvious that she might a) become a tremendous over-achiever and b) get an illness that would stop her doing it. It's like ME, which I don't believe is some kind of yuppie flu, but a condition of the age we live in. It's brought on by the stress of trying to be all things to all people. It's a way of saying, `Sorry I can't do this'."

Why did she get a tumour? "I think it's the same as having a migraine. You know, it's caused by keeping too much inside, not letting stuff out..." But she didn't seem to be repressing her creativity. Rather the reverse, actually. "No no," she says vehemently, "I'm lazy. In the midst of all this activity, I think I'm incredibly lazy. I'm too lazy to go to the gym, I watch telly, make the odd meal, I cut the odd ribbon, I do my bit to bring up the kids - but I always feel I'm not doing that much. Do you know why I do so many things?" she demands. "Because people tell me to."

Ask you to, surely, I murmur. "No. People give you a list of things to do. That's what acting is, really - it's turning up at 10 in the morning because somebody's told you to. It's the same with being given a magazine deadline. I dread being a lazy son-of-a-bitch. If I were left to my own devices, I'd just listen to Radio 4 all day and go for walks."

Something you do an unusual amount of, I venture, is talk about yourself. Five volumes of autobiography (the most recent is significantly titled You Can Read Me Like A Book), a dozen years of confessional magazine columns in Options, She and Good Housekeeping, all those one-woman shows. What is this urge to explain yourself all the time?

She thinks about it. "I think it's to do with being Jewish. It's that thing of saying, `Hello, I'm so-and-so, this is what I am, do you accept me?' I think we have a tendency as a race to say that." But it sounds so passive, I say. I mean, you don't write five volumes of autobiography out of passivity. "But can't you see it's putting a shield around yourself?" says Ms Lipman. "It looks like communication, but really it's a protective act. You write as a defensive gesture. Doesn't everyone?"

Goodness. This flow of angst and analysis was some way removed from the face-pulling droll I had perhaps expected, the duck-faced comedienne with the Jewish intonations beloved to TV viewers. She sounds like a serious actress in mid-career torment as she discusses the integrity of the solo performance at which she excels. ("For my money, when I'm on stage doing a monologue, then I've got people working with me. I know what they look like, I know what they're saying to me, and they're not as much trouble as other actors.") Was she, by any chance, fed up with the endless requirement to be funny? Was she discovering a hunger to be more serious?

"People still ask me, you know, `What's your ambition?' and I say, I haven't got an ambition, but I would like to be taken seriously as an actress. And if they say, `Why do you think you're not taken seriously?' I say it's because I've got layered hair. All the serious actresses have straight hair. The honest answer would be, `Because the buggers think I'm just a personality, just a comedian, just a Jew.' That would be honest, but I've been nicely brought up."

Apart from the iniquities of casting directors, several things irritate her - or, at any rate, elicit some hilarious riffs of middle-class fury: "Four-wheel-drive cars in town, sleeping policemen, supermarkets, the way the traffic is slowed down for 12 hours because of one workman, with the crack in his bum showing, talking on a mobile phone with nobody else around but 24 plastic cones..."

In politics she is exercised by "all the usual array of injustices" but gets apoplectic about the Clinton and Mandelson affairs. "The invasion of people's lives on such a trivial basis - it's gone beyond a joke when you can bring down a president because he happened to let a 19-year-old, star-struck, empty-headed woman kneel down and give him a blow-job. It's beyond sick. And here's Peter Mandelson with his house - but pounds 480,000 is not very expensive for a London house. And a chair that costs pounds 1,400 is just what someone in his position should have. This schadenfreude, this dumbing-down of politics - there's a dark agenda going on and I think it's scary."

We are soon back on a more genial wave, as Ms Lipman talks about her new films, especially the extraordinary Solomon and Gaenor, to be released in April, a 1900 Romeo and Juliet story shot in Wales on a shoestring, for which she was required to speak Yiddish throughout. Ms Lipman was unfamiliar with the language except for the insults (schlemiel, meshuggeneh) that take up so much of it, and took to it easily. "You start speaking this language and it's just like Welsh," she says. "Your voice is in another part of your face, and your body is different, and it was very like this I was talking."

She sounds to me like Enoch Powell pretending to be a very old woman, but I don't say so. You don't interrupt the modern mistress of monologue when she's embarked on a new enthusiasm. Nor do you think of crossing this intelligent, driven and oddly unfulfilled woman who, after 30 years of making people laugh, is trying to assert a different self. She'd love to be wise, serious, dramatic and right, and nobody will let her. "I had a blazing row with the person organising a speaking engagement the other day," she says. "They were implying I couldn't possibly be a socialist, and that I got all my opinions from my pinko husband. I suppose if someone's paying you for your services, they don't expect you to be opinionated. That's when the anger comes. Because I'm not prepared to be the nodding mascot in the back of the Volvo."