Anne Reid: Forbidden fruit

Old woman, young man, steamy sex. This taboo-busting scenario has made 'The Mother' one of the most talked-about British films for years. It's also set to turn Anne Reid into a major star at the age of 68. She tells Peter Stanford how she made the long journey from 'Coronation Street' to screen siren - and why a woman's libido lasts longer than her knees
Click to follow

The date and time of my interview with Anne Reid has been changed so many times, I am beginning to suspect her of being a prima donna. When the day of our appointment finally dawns, I am left sitting and waiting in the hallway of her publicist's office in London's Bloomsbury. "Be with you in a minute," Reid's people mouth as they pass, obviously sensing my irritation.

Her behaviour seems absurd, even in our celebrity-obsessed age. It is not, I reflect tetchily, as if Reid is a household name, let alone a Hollywood one. Granted, she has had a long and distinguished career in television and theatre and possesses the sort of face that you immediately recognise without quite being able to put a name to it. But Reid's has been at best a supporting role to the doyennes of the British stage and screen - the likes of Maggie Smith, Julie Walters and Judi Dench. So why all the fuss?

Well, because at the tender age of 68, Reid has overnight become an acclaimed film star. She's been transported from playing roles such as Ken Barlow's wife in Coronation Street and one of Victoria Wood's Dinnerladies to the prize-winners' stage at the Cannes Film Festival. This transformation has taken place because of The Mother, a Hanif Kureishi-scripted, Roger (Notting Hill) Michell-directed account of May, a downtrodden grannie who rediscovers life by having a passionate and explicitly portrayed affair with her son's friend, who is also sleeping with her daughter. In a world with few taboos left, The Mother has found one - elderly women's libido. Not that there is any hint in the film of the soap-opera frothiness of a nipped and tucked Joan Collins with her toy boy husbands, or of the polemics of Germaine Greer praising adolescent boys with "sperm that runs like tap water". Instead, The Mother sets the extraordinary in a very ordinary context to great effect. At the screening I attended, many of the thirtysomething chaps in the audience shuffled uncomfortably in their seats. That could, I saw them thinking, be their best friend taking their mum from behind.

The door swings open one more time and I am called into a vast, white, high-ceilinged room that is sparsely furnished. Over by the fireplace, perched nervously on a low purple sofa as if she isn't planning on staying, is a tiny middle-aged woman in black trousers and a jumper. As Reid rises uncertainly to greet me, I know instantly that my preconceptions about her are completely wrong.

"Have you seen the film?" she asks nervously before I've even sat down. When I tell her that I have and that I loved it, she visibly relaxes. "Oh I'm so glad," she says. "I've been dreading this interview so much because you're the first person I've met who hasn't got anything to do with the production who has seen it." But it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, I point out, and won a prize. "Oh yes, but they like anything with subtitles."

There is a softness about Reid's face that makes it difficult to place in any age range. Whatever context you put it in, it adapts. In the film, when she and her lover slip upstairs with a bottle of wine to her son's spare room, it is radiant and girlish. Today, it is more motherly. She worries that I don't have coffee. "I'm a terrible cook," she confides apropos of nothing to fill a silence.

She hardly moves as she talks. There's no affectation, no obvious defences to get past. The main problem is to stop her doing herself down. "It was odd having to be on set every day of the film," she confides at one stage. "Usually I go in, do my six lines, and go home." For such remarks, she slips into that slightly arch, half mundane, half absurd banter that she uses to deliver Victoria Wood's dialogue, but most of the time Reid's voice is slower and posher than most of the characters she plays. It is also very laid back, so much so that it is almost as if she is on medication. It takes me a while to realise that it is because she is watching herself and all the fuss around her with wry amusement.

"This is the biggest thing I've ever done in my life," she says. "It's funny how you toil away and then out of the blue... When I was young, I used to write letters to try and get things, and didn't, and someone else would get them. If I was 40, I would be so excited now because I'd think, 'My God, what's this going to do for me?' I still feel in my head like I'm 40, but I'm not. So I'm trying not to get caught up. It was a wonderful part that just fell out of the sky. I'm just glad that I've done it."

Roger Michell describes Reid as the only possible choice for the part of May. "She has this incredible series of ambiguities about her: she looks about 23 and about 63; she looks quite severe and terribly kind and warm; she's quite strong and Northern and quite sensitive." In the end, his producer, Kevin Loader, says it was the sheer ordinariness of Reid that plucked her out of obscurity and put her centre stage. "The key thing about the casting of May was that it had to be somebody you wouldn't necessarily look twice at in the street. We knew we were not going to cast a former sex symbol to play this part because it negates the point of the story."

So they went down a list of actresses in search of the right one. Then, in January 2002, Michell went to see Reid playing the mother in Peter Gill's The York Realist at the Royal Court theatre in London and knew * that he'd found her. "Sometimes you just feel that the minute someone sits down they are the person you have been looking for, and almost before she opened her mouth, I thought 'Yes, Anne is who we want.'"

"If I'd have realised he was out there," Reid says, "I'd have stayed in the dressing- room." A couple of months later, the call came. "When I read the script, I really thought this was me, that I could do it, but then I thought, 'You haven't got a cat in hell's chance.' I live in the real world. How would they get the money for a movie if the lead was going to be played by somebody like me?"

Reid had learnt by bitter experience to know her place. In 1995 she starred to great acclaim in Kay Mellor's A Passionate Woman at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. When it transferred to London's West End, she was replaced by Stephanie Cole. "They were very nice, but explained she was more of a name."

Perhaps if it had been 30 years earlier, Reid might have got the nod. That was when she was at the height of her television fame. For nine years she was Valerie Barlow, the first wife of Coronation Street's long-running serial monogamist. "Oh God, do we have to dig that out?" she asks, already knowing the answer. "People still come up to me and say, 'We haven't seen you on the box for a long time,' and I know what they're referring to - Coronation Street. It makes me think my life has been a waste of time."

It was, she concedes, a good start for a young actress, but then Reid still appears unsure if she's made the right choices. She was born in Newcastle, but her father was a foreign correspondent and she was sent away to boarding school. It was a solidly middle-class upbringing and, as she puts it, "ink was in my blood". Her brother Colin went on to be a Daily Mail columnist and the two tried their hand at jointly writing for television. "We had a couple of ideas that were accepted. One was about journalists. But when it came to actually sitting down and writing the whole thing, I chickened out." She still has books full of ideas she has jotted down.

Writing is one not-quite-discarded career option, but her first passion was ballet. "I loved it. And one day the teacher said, 'Anne, get in line.' And I said, 'But I am, Miss.' And she said, 'Well, there's still a lot of you sticking out.' I just didn't have the build." After that she dabbled with music. She still plays the piano and sings. "I wonder now if I wouldn't have been better going to music college instead of Rada. I'm too much of an all-rounder, OK at lots of things, but no good at any one."

That self-deprecation is kicking in again. "At Rada I played everybody's mother, or the character parts. I was once a Roman centurion because there were not enough parts for girls. I was never juvenile lead material." But what about Valerie Barlow? Wasn't she a bit of a pin-up in her time before her character went up in flames in her front-room hairdressing salon? "Oh no. You're too young to remember. She wasn't like that at all."

After she left the Street, Reid got married. It was a good life. Her husband was head of drama at Granada Television and she was, she says, "besotted" with their son Mark. "I still am. He is 32 now and a film editor and he'll kill me for saying it." She has recently sold her house in the Potteries and moved into a small flat in Knightsbridge - partly to cut down on the travelling but also to be near him.

As a young mother she lost interest in acting. And then her husband developed cancer and died when Mark was just nine. The character she plays in The Mother is born again after the death of her husband and Reid can see the parallels. "My experience was very different from May in the film, but I know what it is like suddenly to be faced with yourself and ask 'Who am I?' and 'Where do I go from here?' I was much younger, of course, but what I lived through gave me the kernel."

After 15 years away from acting, Reid returned to the stage. "February the 22nd, 1986, in Bolton. I've never been so terrified. It was a production of Billy Liar and I, of course, played the mother." She slowly rebuilt her career through rep theatre and also with occasional television appearances. There were high points - appearing in Wild Oats with James Bolam at the National Theatre - but her main ambition until recently was, she says, to keep working. And then along came The Mother. If the film is the story of May being reborn, then the casting of Reid is something of an epiphany for the actress. "It made such a change to be the first choice. Or at least I am told that I was the first choice. They don't write parts for women of my age and when they do, Judi Dench gets them all."

She's delighted that the film has already attracted so much attention, but she's also surprised. "The sexual urge doesn't just leave you, you know." She looks me in the eye. I smile, slightly embarrassed, but she's tougher than she looks and she's not letting it go. "You just wait, and when you get to my age, I hope you will remember this film. I say it's God's joke. He takes away your hearing, your eye-sight and makes your knees go, and yet you still want sex. It's not fair."

Kureishi has never been a coy writer when it comes to portraying sexuality (think of the gay kiss he scripted between the actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke in "My Beautiful Laundrette") and The Mother spares no blushes. Wasn't Reid nervous? "When I read the script and saw the nude scenes, I thought, 'I'm not in bad shape, so why not?' But I nearly had a fit when I finally saw the scene where you see me from behind on the bed with all these rolls of fat. I'm sure I'm not as fat as that really."

Her only concern when filming, she says, was that she'd get ill and hold the whole thing up. "Then the night before we began shooting the bedroom scenes, I got myself in a terrible state. I ended up all alone in my flat drinking a bottle of champagne and thinking, 'Why in God's name did you agree to do it?' So I rang my son and told him I couldn't do it. He was wonderful. He just said, 'Go for it. You can do it. If you're inhibited, it won't work.' And that calmed me down. I thought, 'Oh, right, that's what I'll do then.' It was as if he had given me his permission."

And the scenes with Darren, played by Daniel Craig, are entirely credible. Such is the power of Reid's performance that she takes the dowdy, almost-invisible old woman in elastic-waisted slacks at the start of the film, and makes her desirable to a well-chiselled 30-year-old. "She falls in love with him. At least that's how I saw it. He's just being kind to her."

So what next now she's belatedly discovered the joy of landing the lead role and carried it off with such aplomb? "Well I'd love to think that I might get to work in America, have small parts in films. But I'm very cautious." At the end of the month she finishes shooting a new TV series, Life Begins, with Caroline Quentin. Inevitably she plays the mother. "And after that I'm planning to corner the market in lined, old actresses. Now that Thora Hird's gone, there's a vacancy. She could do comedy. That's what really keeps you going. If you're funny they don't notice how old you are." *

'The Mother' opens on 14 November