Dame Eileen Atkins interview: From Baby Eileen to a tough old bird

At 11 she was dancing in clubs. Nearing 80, she has a one-woman show at Shakespeare’s Globe. And in between, unlikely liaisons. This delightfully indiscreet Dame has tales to tell

“I was nearly going to be very naughty then, but I’ve just stopped myself!” is the one sentence you don’t want to hear from Eileen Indiscreet Atkins. This is the woman, sorry, the dame, who 10 years ago memorably let slip how Colin Farrell attempted to seduce her 69-year-old self. And who, seconds after telling me she won’t “name any names but finds people with exact features boring” accidentally adds “like Keira…”. And, perhaps especially, who rings the next morning in a tizz in case her comments about how people “do seem to be somewhat wilting little flowers these days” had somehow sounded like she’d sanctioned paedophilia. We had been discussing last week’s sex-charge trials and her lifetime of being “touched up”, notably as “Baby Eileen”, dancing sexy numbers at working men’s clubs – until her grammar school teachers put a stop to it. And, no, rest assured, I didn’t misconstrue her remarks.

I was, however, curious how you top knocking back the hot Mr Farrell to ease yourself into your eighth decade, when the big eight-zero is about to come knocking. “There’ve been lovely people all along the way to make me feel terrific, and who knows…” she trails off with a sly glint in her pale blue eyes. “No! It was absurd when I was 69 and it’s disgusting when I’m 79 to even think…” Again, that telling pause. “I hate it when old women – or old men – talk about sex. I really do hate it. It’s very hard not to. But I try to only talk about it with my friends.”

This is the wonderfully unrepressed Dame Eileen at her very best. And as for what precisely she stopped herself being “very naughty” about, well, might it have concerned a certain Leonardo DiCaprio? After all, it could have been her, not Joanna Lumley, kissing the Hollywood hunk during filming for The Wolf of Wall Street. But the part, which she was offered first, clashed with one on stage “for no money” in Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall at Jermyn Street. “I didn’t even question it. I was always mad about the theatre,” her captivatingly theatrical voice lengthening the “mad”.

That one anecdote just about sums up Atkins, who was born in 1934, like her friends Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, both also dames, of course. It also explains why, unlike her peers, she is neither instantly recognised nor headhunted for big box-office leads. Not for her the endless TV dramas: “I wouldn’t want to do something boring on the telly, week after week,” even if that does mean sacrificing a few guaranteed “bums on seats” when she pops up in one of her more esoteric stage roles. “Yes, you’re full [if you’re known for a TV part], but you’re full of people wanting to see you play the part on television.”

This means that everyone booking to see her be Ellen Terry at the Globe’s new indoor theatre on London’s South Bank will be there because they love her, or Terry, Dame Ellen Terry, in fact, a Victorian actress who was renowned for her Shakespearean roles. The single-person show, which she worries people will either see as a “vanity project” or conclude she “couldn’t get any other work”, is a mixture of Atkins taking various Shakespearean parts, including, briefly, King Lear, and reading excerpts from Terry’s Four Lectures on Shakespeare, which Terry wrote with Sir Henry Irving in the 1910s.

Incidentally, the Lear is an aberration: she can’t abide women playing men or vice versa, and steers clear of all gender-bending productions, even those “by that wretched genius” Mark Rylance, whom she concedes is the one director who can pull off such things. “It’s drag; it’s not Shakespeare. It’s not real at all.” She later adds: “I’m happy to say Ellen Terry never wanted to play Hamlet.”

The project evolved, as Atkins reckons these things tend to, by chance, when she needed something to perform at the 2011 Charleston Festival, which she supports each year. One thing led to another and she found herself standing in the candlelight at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last Sunday at her most “terrifying opening” yet.

“I’ve never been so frightened. I seriously thought of leaving the building,” she recalls, the reason being that she had been incredibly late learning her lines; so late that once she finally knuckled down, “Christmas was cancelled; New Year was cancelled; everything was cancelled,” until she knew them.

The reason she was late to the task endears me to her immediately: she was doing the Beckett in New York and was simply too busy having “the most fabulous time” with five of her best friends. “At my age, you don’t have many really good friends left. I have five, all in New York.”

She tells me all this within minutes of my arrival at her beautiful Thames-side house, which she is in a panic to straighten up, claiming “everything is in a mess because it was such a terrifying opening”. Which it isn’t; the Victorian terrace, which is wall-to-wall paintings, books and comfy sofas, is spotless. She is particularly bothered about the smell from her cats’ litter tray and from the water in the jug holding her first-night flowers. One of her cats, Groucho, makes a repeated appearance, variously demanding his indoor toilet, food and strokes. “I’m afraid I love that cat to distraction, so I spoil him. He’s so ugly; I love him because of his ugliness,” she interjects in between trips to the kitchen to top up his bowl.

But if she thinks that theatre audiences adore her for a similar reason – she does not consider herself good looking – she is bonkers. Not only because she is very attractive, all long limbs and high cheekbones, but because it is so easy to be smitten by her. Her ready appeal explains the success she found early on – from the age of seven early on – when her mother used to punt her around the working men’s clubs, “gigs you’d call them now”, of east London. She remembers it well. Too well, perhaps, although she says she wasn’t “in any way badly” affected by the experience.

“I’ve certainly never had any difficulty with sex because someone touched me up,” she immediately adds. “But I’m a tough old bird. People do seem to be somewhat wilting little flowers these days.”

She says that listening to the day’s headlines about Dave Lee Travis had brought back her own memories. “Someone was saying, ‘He came up behind me and put his arms around me.’ I did think, ‘That happened to me, several times in several places.’ I didn’t like it, but I wouldn’t dream of…” she stops herself. “It’s changed. It’s a different way of thinking. Yes, it does seem shocking now that a woman can be used as just a …” she pauses for a deep breath. “It was so accepted and people who didn’t live then must find it very difficult.”

Her stints as a child dancer ended when she started falling asleep during lessons at Latymer’s, the grammar school where she was taken under her drama teacher’s wing. “I was probably very savvy and knew if I fell asleep someone would tell my parents they must stop. Also, I was then 12, so beginning not to be paedophile-fare. Because, let’s face it, children going, ‘Da, da, da, dah’,” she cups her chin, making puppy dog eyes to the ceiling: “It was all about paedophilia.”

She knows she owes her career to that drama teacher in more ways than just the obvious, recounting a conversation she overheard between him and a visiting actor. “I heard him say, ‘I don’t know what to do about her. I think she’s very talented but she’s not pretty. Do you think that’s going to be a real bar to her getting on?’ There was this loooooong pause and I was poised, wanting to hear the answer. Then, this man – God I have to be grateful to him for the rest of my life – said, ‘No, no, no, she’s not pretty but, by God, she’s sexy’. I thought, that’s alright, I’m sexy!”

And, by God, which is one of her favourite phrases, that young schoolgirl went on to do all right for herself. Mr Farrell is doubtless still kicking himself.

‘Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins’ runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 23 February

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