HOW WE MET: PAM GEMS AND DENISE BLACK
Sunday 08 June 1997
PAM GEMS: It was the beginning of the Eighties and Paul Sand (who I've always admired) had been working with the Actors' Touring Company. When I asked how the tour had gone, Paul said: "I've met the most wonderful woman." He showed me a picture of the cast and there was a little waif- like woman at the end and I thought: "Oh, that'll be the one," because Paul is one of those men who always fall for a sob-story and who has waif- like girls hanging around.
When he eventually introduced me to Denise, I was completely bouleversed: because here was this dark, vivid, very funny woman. It was a lovely surprise, though, because I felt that Paul had met someone who was worthy of him. From the beginning I was knocked out by her.
I think the reason for our friendship is partly that we both trained as psychologists, did degree courses and then reneged into the theatre away from the remedial; that's always been a guilt we share - one that's inevitable, I suppose, if you're on the left politically and were educated by the state. And we both come from the south of England and share a Southerner's sense of humour. But really the basis of our friendship is that when I met her I smelt a fine dramatic actress. Of course we're both married women, as well; and although there's a generational difference, the fact that one of my children is handicapped means that I have the same problems as she has: how do you have a career and a marriage and children? But the main thing we have in common is the work.
There's another thing we share: I had an internal operation when I was 30, which wrecked my health. Denise has a problem with her forearm and she suffers a lot of pain. I come from an arthritic family and I recognise that kind of terseness which comes from being in pain; it gives a wonderful edge to her acting. It makes her a very modern actress - my kind of actress.
In fact I was so impressed with her potential - when we met she'd only just begun her career - that I fought very hard with the director Sue Dunderdale to have Denise play the lead role in my play Pasionaria (about the Basque politician Dolores Ibarruri) when it was put on in Newcastle. This was about the time of the end of the miners' strike, and the play was not well received by the critics: it was probably too far to the left. But Denise got very good no- tices. She gave a dazzling performance.
That was when I met her parents, just briefly. At the end of Pasionaria they came up to see it. We had to do a reception for the aldermen and their wives and this rather grand lady in a hat came up and I thought she was one of the aldermen's wives when in fact it was Denise's mum. So I made a complete prat of myself.
One of the problems about English theatre is class: we are a very class- ridden country. There are some actors, such as Warren Mitchell, who can transcend their class, but a lot of them don't. Denise is beyond the parochialism of so much English acting. She's a category of one, not one of a category.
We comment a lot on each other's work and on other people's. You expect more from your friends. Your closest friends are your closest rivals. They spur you on; they're the grit in your oyster. It's part of the function of friendship, this challenging, rivalrous thing; and you expect them to be great for you, not to disappoint you. Denise doesn't disappoint. She just needs major roles, in my opinion.
Of course we're different. Writers are paranoid and imploded; actors are gregarious. But I do see in her something of myself when I was in my twenties and thirties; that desire to put the world right, knowing that you know everything that should be done. Well I still think I know what should be done, but I haven't the capacity to do it. Denise actually has the capacity to do it - she could be like Glenda Jackson. A lot of our conversations are political.
She's not so noisy as she used to be. She's had two children and I think she's more complex than she was, which I think feeds into the work. When I first met her, she had so much energy, she didn't quite know what to do with it. It was like having a huge labrador puppy around. Great fun.
You have to have an egocentricity to be an actor or you couldn't have the bottle to go out on that stage. Actors are all holy idiots. Denise has that quality; but because she's intelligent she has a quickness: she knows at once if my eyelids are drooping or my liver's off. That's the real test of friendship, whether people can modify. It's not a profession where people necessarily do that. Denise does.
DENISE BLACK: I'd just finished a year of touring, and Paul and I desperately needed some time together. We were invited to spend a couple of weeks at Pam's place in Spain. I hardly knew her at that period. I knew of her - of course.
So there we were in Spain, south of Marbella. Pam's an incredibly warm- hearted person; but once you've done the social niceties and had the chat and the gossip, there's loads and loads of room to spread your wings. You can drift off and go for a walk. Her house was full of books; so it was long, quiet days - a reflective time. That's how I met Pam.
One of the first things I realised was that she's a brilliant gardener. In the middle of her house in Spain there was a little courtyard with flowers everywhere. They were huge and they had exotic shapes. I thought somebody else must do all the gardening, but it was Pam. My first rhododendrons have just flowered: rhododendrons and camellias were something I fell in love with in Pam's garden.
I'd never met a playwright of her standing, I didn't know theatre people; in my circle we were all slap-on-a- community-show kind of folk. I was quite embarrassed about my aspirations to be an actress, because I was right at the beginning of my career then and I didn't know what was possible. Pam gave me the most extraordinary support, something I couldn't have ever hoped for. She told me I had the talent; in a way, she gave me my career. Every time I'm on a downer, I think: "Pam thinks you can do it. Shape up."
Pasionaria was a huge challenge for me. I had oceans of lines and had to age from 14 to 42. Pam took a back seat in rehearsals, as a playwright must. It wasn't until the end of the rehearsal process that she chipped in with a few ideas. Often writers aren't welcome in rehearsal; it's all credit to Pam that she was absolutely wonderful to have around in that situation. She backed the director, Sue, to the hilt but she shed light on areas that were still a little sticky for me.
Like all good friends she gives you support, but also challenges you. If you try a line out on her she can always tell you if you're bullshitting. When I'd been in Coronation Street a while she said: "You're doing very well, darling; but you don't quite own the screen yet." I knew what she meant. When the camera's on you, there should be no embarrassment about being looked at.
Pam really likes actors; a lot of people don't. She asked me to go the Olivier Awards in her place because she couldn't go herself. None of us knew she'd won, of course, so I thought it would just be a slap-up do. As I took my seat a stage manager came up and said: "You have prepared a speech, haven't you, in case Ms Gems wins?" I glanced at his notes and there were the nominees' names, with Pam's highlighted. So I knew; but I somehow didn't know know. When I heard her name called out I went through the whole gamut of emotions, which embarrassed me, really, because I thought: "You haven't written the bloody piece; you can't take any credit."
We both like the feeling of an extended family. My children are good friends with her grandchildren. I'd set myself the goal of having a kid by 30, because I was still very hungry for life. Pam said: "You're not waiting for the right time, are you?" I said: "I suppose I want to feel a bit more secure ... " She said: "Oh, that's all nonsense. It's never the right time to have children. Do it and then busk it for the rest of your life." That was bang on. She also told me that giving birth was like having the most enormous shit of your life. That was good advice too.
She's unique: one of the kindest, most intelligent, witty, naughty women I know. I think the world of her. I feel very calm around Pam. My children, who are eight and six now, sense that too. If they come with me to Pam's, they'll hang around for a bit to see if there are any chocolates going or there's any action; but quickly they'll get bored because Pam and I will settle down for a chinwag; and they'll just find their own space. It makes them independent.
You don't have to compartmentalise yourself for Pam. You don't have to come and bring your intelligent side or your motherhood or your politics. You can just be who you are.
`Marlene', which features Sian Phillips in Gems`s one-woman tribute to Marlene Dietrich, is currently showing at the Lyric Theatre, W1 (0171 494 5045).
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