Sussex and the single girl

Every interview with Greta Scacchi feels obliged to mention what a shimmering, striking, silky, stunning, sensuous, sultry, sizzling, sexy, steamy sex-bomb she is. Why do we hear rather less about the Seventies schoolgirl from Haywards Heath with a passion for Gilbert O'Sullivan?
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I am not, initially, well-disposed to meeting Ms Greta Scacchi, the actress who is rightly much appreciated for taking her clothes off, and who has been variously described as "shimmering, striking, silky, stunning, sensuous, sultry, sizzling, sexy, steamy, sex-bomb". Normally, I would not feel threatened. I can sizzle with my clothes off. Or would do if, say, I ever chose to cook sausages in the nude, an act that, now I think about it, rather grabs my fancy. ("What are you doing? I'm sizzling with my clothes off, dear, can't you tell?) But, today, I've woken with a cold. It is nasty. There are razor blades in my throat. There's a great hammering in my head. My eyes have gone all squished-up and piggy. I think I can feel the tingle of a burgeoning cold sore. (Oh, good. That's something to look forward to.) I cannot exactly match her on the "S" adjectives today. I can only do snotty, sullen, sour, sluggish, sulky, sick, sniffy, scab-bomb. In the battle of the Ss, I fear I am going to come off rather the worse.

So, in this mood of enormous disinclination, I set off to Haywards Heath in West Sussex, where she grew up and where she still lives, to meet her at a restaurant called Jeremy's. I arrive on time. She is not there. I wait 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour. I am beginning to think she is not going to come. I am beginning to hope she will not come. (Home to bed! Yippee!) But then she phones the restaurant. She is running late, I am told. Leila, her seven-year-old daughter, has an ear infection and has had to be taken to the doctor.

I wait another 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 40 minutes. I am beginning to hate Ms Scacchi quite substantially. Stupid woman. Stupid child with the earache. She doesn't know what it's like to be truly ill. Stupid name. (Is it pronounced Scacchi, as in car-key? Or Scacchi, as in tacky? The latter, I HOPE!) Stupid Haywards Heath. Stupid restaurant.

Then, there she is, in front of me, apologising madly ("I am so sorry"), complaining about parenthood, ("it brings a whole lot of stress") and then adding, naughtily: "Let's order a bottle of wine on The Independent!"

I am not keen, actually. A cold, I always think, must be allowed to follow its natural course and, to this end, I have already had six Lem-Sips, four Day Nurse capsules, one-and-a-half packets of blackcurrant Tunes and, just for good measure, a good glug from a bottle of Night Nurse. I know if I drink I'll slip into a coma. I know if I drink I won't be able to ask her anything sensible. Thankfully, I am a person of enormous self-discipline. Thankfully, I can spot danger from afar. "Yes, let's," I say. I think we ate something for lunch. I think it may have been nice. I think I asked her whether she remembered Curly Wurlys. She did.

"But they don't make them any more," she says.


"Or Toffets. When was the last time you saw a box of Toffets?"

"Gosh, now you mention it..."

This, in fact, is a conversation I can get quite interested in.

"And they've taken the coconut ones out of Revels," I add with embarrassing authority.

"No! Well, there isn't any point in getting Revels any more, is there?"


I don't hate her so much now. You can't hate someone who can mourn for the Toffet with such genuine feeling. Her name isn't that stupid. It is Scacchi, as in car-key. It's Italian. And Italians do often have funny names. Her daughter is now on antibiotics, which is a relief, as I'd been so very worried about her. Ms Scacchi seems marvellously un-actressy until she spots the photographer. "Oh no," she shrieks. She says she had not been expecting to be pictured today. She hasn't even got any lipstick on or anything. "People might not fantasise about me any more," she cries. "They'll think I'm just a scruff. A tired old scruff!"

A tired old scruff? Actually, she is, in the flesh, disappointingly plain. Piggy-eyed, with a nasty, pasty pallor to her skin and, by the look of it, something quite disgusting developing on her lower lip. Only joking! That's me! She is very beautiful, yes. She is very beautiful even when she is bare-faced and wearing trainers and baggy jeans and a fleece, in drab greens and browns and oranges. At least I think they're drab greens and browns and oranges. The Night Nurse may have brought on a strange kind of night vision. I must say I am very interested in what it is like to be this ravishing. I think it must affect your life. I think those who say these things are only skin deep must be immensely shallow. What was it like at school, for example, being gorgeous? Did all the boys make a great play for you?

"Well, I remember I used to go to the ABC Minors Club on a Saturday morning. It was a cinema club for the under-15s. You got films like George and the Talking Horse, and cartoons. The thing was to get invited by a bloke to the ABC Minors. I got invited by the Casanova of the school. I was 12, 13, and I always remember he put an arm around my shoulder. I was very tense, I couldn't concentrate on the film any more. I could hear his watch ticking in my ear..."

"Did you have Toffets?"

"No, sherbet fountains."

"Could you ever get the liquorice bit to work as a straw?"

"No, never. And the sherbet always made me suffocate... right before the end he gave me a quick kiss. I was taken by surprise. I didn't know what to do. When I got home, I wrote him a letter saying next time it would be a lot more satisfying, but I never gave it to him because, first thing Monday

morning, some girls from his form strutted up to me, saying: 'Ian McCall has chucked you.' That was the outcome of our trip to the cinema. I'd been chucked."

I love the word "chucked". It is up there with "Toffet". It takes me back to the Seventies, and my teenage-hood, as it does her, because we are the same age - 38. Together, we journey most enjoyably back to Snob and Chelsea Girl and Biba and Pans People and my crush on David Cassidy and hers on Gilbert O'Sullivan. Gilbert O'Sullivan! Egghhh! He always looked as if he was wearing an exploding beard on the wrong end of his head. "Yes. I know. Sorry. But he was my pin-up." She starts singing. "There are clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee..."

Greta? "Yes." Shut up. I've got enough of a headache as it is. "OK," she says obligingly. And then there were platform shoes, of course. "The worst rows I ever had with my mum were in Millwards, the shoe shop in Haywards Heath," she says. "Millwards was all Clarks and Start-Rite. You can imagine the choice. Square as anything. I wanted to go to Freeman Hardy and Willis but she wouldn't let me. She made me wear green woolly tights, too, while other girls were wearing sheer Chinchilla! Do you remember sheer Chinchilla?" Yes. I do.

She'd look good in sheer Chinchilla, definitely. But then she would look good in anything. Or nothing.

Ms Scacchi's sexual power. Yes, she looks nice with her kit off. But it's not just that. It's a power that transmutes into a great film presence, a presence seen in such films as White Mischief, Presumed Innocent, The Player, The Browning Version and, for James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, Heat and Dust, Jefferson in Paris and now Cotton Mary, set in India, in which she plays an unhappy colonial wife - she does give great unhappy colonial life - unable to breast-feed her baby. She looks nice with her kit off, but in Cotton Mary we see only the bosom.

She thinks she doesn't give good bosom in this instance, in fact. The film was made just after she'd had Matteo. She thinks "people will say, what's happened to Scacchi? She's ballooned".

I do not tell her that I have spent most of my adult life hoping my breasts would balloon like that.

Anyway, she says, if she has this sexual power, she can't see it. "When I look at myself in the mirror in the morning, I am just as dissatisfied with what I see as anyone else." She says sex is something she came to quite late, in fact. At what age exactly? "I'm not telling you that. Too personal."

I was 24.

"It's not true!"

Actually, you're right. I was 26.

"You're lying!"

Tragically, I'm not. No one ever asked me for a second date.

"Probably, they expected you to deliver the goods on the first date."

I did.

"Oh. Dear."

She lives, now, in a nearby cottage with Leila, her daughter from a relationship with the Italian-American actor Vincent D'Onofrio, and Matteo, her one- year-old son with Carlo Mantegazza. Carlo is, in fact, her first cousin. She'd known him all her life, then one day she fell in love with him. Yes, it did come as quite a shock. "When you have known someone for a long time, you don't think of them in that way."

I'm not sure what Carlo does. He phones her on her mobile a lot, though. He is worried, she says, about Cotton Mary's premiere at the London Film Festival the next evening. "Should he wear a tux?"

They won't be getting married, no. "My lawyers and accountants have advised against it." How... um... romantic? "The only reason for getting married is to have a whole bunch of presents and have a good party. It seems to be a thing that's not about two people. It's about everybody else. It doesn't interest me for that reason." I think, also, that she may not trust men very much. Her father was not especially trustworthy.

Greta was born in Milan to Luca Scacchi-Greco, an Italian abstract artist and art dealer - "he introduced Francis Bacon to the international market" - and Pamela, an English Bluebell dancer who had fallen in love with Italy, then with Luca. Her parents, she thinks, loved each other "madly" but were temperamentally unsuited. Huge rows, "minestrone hitting the walls". Her mother returned to England with Greta when Greta was three, to Haywards Heath, where Greta attended the local primary school and then grammar school. Luca was expected to follow, but somehow never did. He just turned up periodically with wonderful gifts. Ultimately, though, they were not enough, and her parents divorced.

Still, she could always lose herself in poetry. "I read poems out loud... When I started school I'd already taught myself to read, because my mum would read AA Milne to me, and when she was too busy I would go and look at the poems again by myself and decipher them." She knew she wanted to be an actress from the age of eight.

We finish our lunch. I think we may have talked about whether she would ever decamp to Hollywood. She won't. She says she couldn't live in a place where people hear Mozart and say: "I know that! It's the Amadeus sound- track!" We may or may not have had dessert. She gives me a lift to the station in her Mercedes, which is nice. What with the wine and medication, I'm not sure I could have found it for myself. I go home, and go to bed. I've a temperature by the evening. I can't do steamy but I am, I discover, quite good at sweaty. I think, in fact, I could get an Oscar for sweaty.

'Cotton Mary' will premiere at the Plaza, London, on 17 December, 8.30pm. All proceeds to the Disaster Emergency Committee's India Cyclone Appeal. Tickets: 0171-437 1200/ 439 4335