THE SHADOW OF GENIUS

For Samuel Beckett, Billie Whitelaw put herself through 25 years of physical and mental hell. Her reward was an iconic status that transcends the narrow world of avant-garde theatre - and an extraordinary love
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GAZING INTO the fathomless green eyes of Billie Whitelaw as she sits under the flowering cherry tree in her Suffolk garden, one tries to picture it, but fails. It's too brutal. But one tries again anyway, like a torturer returning from his lunch.

It's this: you have to imagine her wild streel of hair tucked away inside an executioner's hood that covers most of her head and shoulders. You must think of this motherly 62-year-old body crammed into a black leotard, black tights, black pumps and black cloak. Those vast eyes are hidden behind an airline mask, with a pair of spectacles interposed to keep its scratchy surface off the retinas. The teeth are stained with a disgusting mixture of variegated fag-ash mixed with theatrical wig-glue and friar's balsam inhalant. The whole human frame is strapped on to a kind of throne, mounted on a rostrum, and the head jammed between two clamps, like a plank in a vice. Finally, to alleviate feelings of panic in the subject, a metal rod is placed in its hands. And then, deprived of sight or sound or movement of any kind, the figure is required to open its mouth and talk, with frantic urgency, for 16 minutes into total darkness.

The occasion for these arrangements was not a visit to the electric chair in Florida State Penitentiary. Rather, these were the production requirements for Not I, the 1972 play by Samuel Beckett in which Billie Whitelaw gave the most startling performance of her life, as Mouth. All that could be seen of her was a tiny, babbling, spotlit hole hovering in the darkened stage and pouring out a stream of questions, memories and denials. The role was a landmark in a 25-year-long actor-director relationship unmatched in the annals of modern theatre, and it nearly did for her. "It wrecked my neck and wrecked my spine," she says equably. "I did it to give him what he wanted, and I think he knew it. Once, when I was giving a lecture in Boston about it all, someone shouted out, in genuine curiosity and anger, 'Why in God's name did you put yourself through all that?' and I said, 'If, as an actress, I'm going to wreck my health, I'd rather do it working for a genius than do it through drink or drugs, or being eaten up and spat out by Hollywood...' "

You can listen to Billie Whitelaw calmly talking and rationalising away, but it still doesn't add up. Why should one of the country's most versatile character actresses, well-known for roles of sturdy naturalism ("A little north country pit pony" an early reviewer called her), have been so keen to embrace the furthest shores of Beckettian weirdness as to become the embodiment of his final, rags-and-whispers steps towards silence? The conundrum remains after you've finished her autobiography, Billie Whitelaw - Who He?, published this month, in which the first 30 years of her life come under the heading of "Prologue", the next 160 pages are headed "The Beckett Years", and that, bar a few final stabs at auto-psychology, is about it. Through the pages stalks an army of variously pungent, starry, resonant or malevolent names - Joan Littlewood, Coward, Welles, Hitchcock, Olivier, Pinter, Frayn, Sellers, Tynan, Boorman, Losey, Finney - but they all seem as characterful as the targets in a shooting gallery compared with the giant shadow cast by the gaunt Irish dinosaur of Modernism upon his brassy, put-upon muse.

Meeting her in the flesh, you're reminded that hers is a face you've known and seen for years: as a walk-on lovely in crap Fifties films with Terry-Thomas ("Rushing around in my bra and panties and my little squeaky voice," she remembers, squeakily); as a front-rank actress at the National Theatre, playing Desdemona to Olivier's Othello; as Albert Finney's wife in Charlie Bubbles, and Reg and Ronnie's Mum in Peter Medak's The Krays, and as the bitch-nanny from hell in the horror epic, The Omen, her biggest commercial success. So why, despite the iconic status she has achieved, has her profile stayed on a relatively low simmer when her peers - Vanessa Redgrave, say, and Maggie Smith - have had their careers thoroughly and publicly cooked for decades? "It's a strange contradiction," says Ms Whitelaw, "that I've turned down so many things in the last 20 years - often because I'm afraid of failure; I don't take kindly to failing - yet at the start I took anything that came along. But I'm not very pushy about my career. I've never sat down and said, 'Now I know what parts I want to play next season, next year it'll be Three Sisters...' I've always thought, whatever comes along I'll play it. I'm no good at organising my life. I just go where the bubble takes me. I was offered roles, I took them. I got pregnant, so I had a baby. I met Beckett, so... Really my whole life has happened by accident."

This supine stuff is a recurring theme in her conversation. "My biggest besetting sin is laziness," she confides. "When I've got nothing to do, I will simply wander about this garden and these fields with mugs of tea or cans of beer or very tall gin-and-tonics, sometimes at five in the morning." It goes with a parallel confession, from this strikingly intelligent and fluent woman, that she is a chronic rattletrap. In her book (which was dictated over two years to her editor John Curtis), she harps on about her virtual illiteracy and her tendency to "chatter on" - to Beckett, to her husband; even her popular lectures to American student audiences are described as "chatterboxing". Why? She knows why. "My mother used to get angry at the way I'd go on. But it's really because there was no formal structure to my life when I was young. Because everything ground to a halt when I was seven."

She was born in Coventry in 1932, to a father who smelt of beer and porridge and a mother who played the violin and sang a music hall number called "Alice Blue Gown". Both Liverpudlians, they had tremendous rows. The family was working-class, going on poor. Home is remembered as a place of bread and dripping, an ever-playing radio, a benign Uncle Leon and holidays in Liverpool with a quartet of maiden aunts dressed in Edwardian threads and bristling with nascent moustaches.

The cataclysm that hit the seven-year-old Billie was, of course, the war, which fell on Coventry - with its ripe targets of Rootes and Armstrong- Siddeley factories - like Bomber Harris on Dresden. She was evacuated to Warwickshire, where she regularly wet the bed and was told that Adolf Hitler would come in person to take away naughty girls; then to Liverpool; then to Bradford, where the family finally re-grouped. It was a toss-up whether the bleakness and embarrassment of evacuation was worse than the Coventry blitzkrieg. Recently a film director smugly told her, "When you think of the war, it's all in black and white, isn't it?" To which she replied: "Like hell it is. It's bright orange and reds. It's the roar of flames and the smell of burning."

Marginally worse than either experience was the death, shortly after the family's return to Bradford, of her father from cancer. "I think in snapshots, and the picture in my mind of my father coming home from hospital on a stretcher, looking terrible, with his teeth too big for his mouth, holding on to the stretcher and his dignity as they tried to get him up the stairs - that sears my heart still." Her father was installed in the front bedroom, and as he deteriorated, Billie was told she could no longer go in to see him. At night, hearing his groans through the wall, she would pray, "Please God, let Daddy be dead by the morning." When he died, she remembers the house thereafter as permanently dark, and a constant terror of being left alone.

She took to acting while not yet in her teens, a BBC radio star at 11, playing "Bunkle", a hyperactive juvenile gang-leader ("Come on fellers..."), at ten-and-sixpence a go. It was not, by all accounts, a happy time. Before every Children's Hour broadcast, she would lock herself in the loo and pray, arms clamped round the lavatory bowl, to be delivered from the next hour of hell. But she met Beryl Bainbridge on the programme (and later starred in the film of her The Dressmaker) and Gracie Fields; she was moth- ered by Violet Carson, soon to play the hair-netted termagant Ena Sharples of Coronation Street; then taken up by Joan Littlewood and Ewan McColl and mucked in with the Theatre Workshop bunch, who used to sing "We're poor little lambs who've lost our way" as a self-parodying grace before every communal meal.

Entering the world of Fifties sophistication was a trial for a Coventry waif whose childhood had ended with her first gas-mask and the tactful silence of adoptive aunts and uncles in evacuee cottages. Ms Whitelaw remembers attending a cocktail party on her first foray to London, when she was 23. "There were lots of actors and variety people and 'stars' there and I hated it. Everyone seemed to be saying more or less the same thing and laughing rather loudly and drifting about, and I thought, 'Why doesn't anyone talk to me?' I couldn't seem to get any real reaction out of anyone - they weren't being rude, that was the way one behaved in those days - and I thought it was stupid. So I found a tray of glasses and started to smash them on the marble floor, one by one, to see how long it would be before someone said, 'What the fucking hell d'you think you're doing?' But they were all too polite. The host came up, smiling, and I smacked him across the face. Nothing happened, so I did it again and again until he finally slapped me back. 'Well done,' I said, 'that's the first genuine thing I've seen you do.' " Who was the host? "Oh, I can't say... can I? He's forgiven me since. It was Bob Monkhouse." It was the indefatigably smiling Monkhouse who introduced Billie to her partner of the past 30 years, Robert Muller, a novelist, dramatist and fearsome drama critic whose company she used to avoid. They live today in rural bliss outside Glensford in Suffolk. Robert is a wise and ironically-disposed professorial consort, who makes you tea and checks for stray facts as Billie rushes about busily in her XL T-shirt and white jeans. They're an odd but complementary pair, with whom you would happily pass a longer afternoon; you're reminded of the philosophy don and his moonstruck chanteuse in Stoppard's Jumpers.

As we talk in her garden, the plate of smoked salmon sandwiches between us is attacked by a wasp. "You silly thing," said Ms Whitelaw sternly, "you're not supposed to like lemon..." I flap my hands in townie disarray. "It won't sting you," she says. "Look - " and she lets the wasp climb on to her little finger. She allows it to graze briefly on a corner of salmon, then waves it through the air and puffs it away as though blowing a kiss. This Francesca-of-Assisi routine is characteristic: the garden features a virtual forest of bird-tables, and a chortling brook (electrically operated, like a coal-effect fire) by a little pond where pheasants come a-visiting, spied on by Ms Whitelaw from the window of the gorgeous 1860 municipal railway carriage that was left in the garden by a previous owner, the writer Craig Brown.

Her earth-motherliness is apparent at several points in her autobiography. When Matthew, her and Robert's son, was recovering, aged five, from meningitis, beset by screaming traumas of hospitals and "the hurts" (his 12 daily injections), she used to run a tepid bath, lay his trembling body across hers and splash water over both of them. Variations of this form of therapy came in handy elsewhere. "Once, when Patrick Magee was in an awful state of drink and couldn't go on stage, I thought, I must do something, so I pulled off my top and undid my bra and put his head between my breasts and rocked him until he quietened down. It seemed to work." Was she quite sure he wasn't, you know, faking it, just on the off-chance? "Oh..." - she waves me away, like a wasp.

Was it, you wonder, this quality of unprompted generosity that came to fixate Samuel Beckett, or the habit she has of recalling her traumatic childhood through a series of static tableaux? (Her mother, for instance, she always remembers standing at a window for hours in her purple dressing- gown, cigarette in hand, arm extended at an oblique angle, staring out over Ilkley Moor and daydreaming about the life of aristocratic ease that should have been her birthright). She and Beckett first met in 1963, when she was asked to appear in his drama Play, as a filler for a gap in the season left by a non-contribution from John Osborne. George Devine, a friend of Beckett's, was impresario and director, but the Irish playwright lurked in the Old Vic's rehearsal rooms, occasionally suggesting a tiny change, in an ellipsis, from three dots to two, but otherwise keeping out of the way. On stage, along with her co-actors, Robert Stephens and Rosemary Harris, Whitelaw sat immovably in an urn, each telling in brief bursts his or her side of a menage a trois. Each speech is bullied into being by a harsh interrogatory light that shines on each character in turn. Billie had no clue what the play was about, but was intrigued by the emotional state of mind - driven, fractured, doomed to endless repetition - represented on stage. In an interview in 1977 she told James Knowlson that she had found the light a character in its own right: "It was an instrument of torture... My doctor came to see what we were doing and when I told him I wasn't sleeping very well, he said, if you did that night after night, you would go completely out of your mind." Given that experience, and the masks and clamps of Not I in 1972, does she ever wonder if Beckett had taken a perverse pleasure in seeing his actors suffer? "No, no, no," she says vehemently. "He was the kindest, most compassionate human being in all the world. He wanted to see if he could create a dramatic situation with the minimum amount of human anatomy showing..." Their burgeoning relationship was tested to the limit during Not I, when Whitelaw, with a son who seemed to be dying at home, became disoriented in the darkness of the rehearsal stage and broke down. "Billie," Beckett cried, "what have I done to you?"

In Deirdre Bair's biography of Beckett, he cradles the actress to his breast (having failed to realise her son was ill) and keens to her. This romantic moment is, it turns out, fanciful. "It's just wrong. He used to come to my house, and the first thing he'd say was [softly cooing Irish accent]: 'How's little Matthew?' He used to bring him presents. Once he brought him a Meccano set - I remember him saying 'I think Matthew might enjoy this' - and it was a great big complicated set for 14-year-olds, although Matthew was only seven..." Beckett fans will dote on this detail, as on every other detail about the most private of post-war writers. Even learning from Ms Whitelaw's book that the great man used to eat liver dishes gives a satisfying frisson. But what they will most envy is the extraordinary closeness of their rehearsal technique. As Billie tells it, actress and director would focus their eyes intently on each other and declaim whatever play they were embarked on - Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby - in a slow, whispered duet, their hands raised as if mutually conducting a solo concert. When they were doing Footfalls, with its all-important step-and-turn staging, Beckett and Whitelaw would pace the steps together in a restaurant, oblivious to other diners: an elderly minimalist Astaire with a compliant, if baffled, Rogers.

OK, one inevitably asks: did it happen? Did you fall in love with him? "Oh of course - no, not fell in love, but I loved him without question. I mean, one has been in and out of love for most of one's life, but for this man I'd have walked over red-hot coals." Did he ever embrace you? "Oh yes..." - her voice, as so often when talking about her hero, falls to a rapt Beckettian whisper - " 'Dear Billy,' he'd say, 'Oh, dear Billy.' No we didn't have an affair, if that's what you're asking. It was just a very special relationship. That expression [she indicates the back cover of her book, where a lined and craggy Sam is pictured half-smiling towards his cigarette-waving protege] is the one I remember best: that caring side..." I wonder if Beckett's relentlessly gnomic utterances ever annoyed her - like the time when, during Happy Days (in which Whitelaw was buried to the waist, then the neck, in a sand dune), she asked him where precisely, points-of-the-compass-precisely, she should be looking, and was told "Inward." What did the north country pit pony make of that? "He was right," she says shortly. "It was one of the best pieces of direction I ever had."

There's devotion for you. In some respects, it's easy to see what Beckett saw in Billie Whitelaw. After decades of pursuing his vision of a foolish and meaningless universe, one overlaid by the need to talk, to write and create a series of represented universes, each more hopeless and threadbare than the last, using only second-hand words and thoughts as if the accumulated wisdom of mankind were no more than foolish, self-cancelling prattle, he suddenly ran into a woman who embodied all the chatty optimism of Winnie in Happy Days, but who had lived through several kinds of hell from demolished Coventry to the near-death of her son ("When I read Not I," she says, "I recognised her emotional state from mine at the time of Matthew's illness, when for 10 seconds stark terror went straight through my eyes"), and to whom it fell quite naturally to act in tableaux vivants of wide-eyed, suffering humanity. Alongside which is the eerie way in which, without having ever read his prose work, Whitelaw occasionally speaks like a Beckett character. She gave up stage acting, she says, because of on-stage feelings of "rolling back" through everything she'd learnt, of "unweaving" just as Beckett's characters "tease the oakum" of their lives to become particles of nothingness. Even their eyeball-to-eyeball rehearsals suggest a variation on the scene in Beckett's Murphy in which the eponymous visionary stares into the unacknowledging eyes of a mental patient called Mr Endon (from the Greek for "nothing").

We talk about things that have happened in her life since Beckett's death in 1989: about the movie in which she impersonated the mother of the Kray twins ("I just played a mother who loved her boys to death. I love my boy, but I'm not blind. Violet Kray had all the feelings I had, but she was blind..."), her current work for Helen Bamber's Victims of Torture organisation ("In a church in Eversholt Street I met 15 men who'd survived the time when Pinochet put thousands of people in a Chile football stadium and systematically tortured and killed them over two weeks, and I try and be a voice, a conduit for such people. Being an actress has never really made sense to me before, except for getting your picture in the paper") and the trappings and enjoyments of fame (such as an atelier in the south of France). But none of it seems to matter much, beside the big subject of her life as an actress and human being.

What did she lose when Sam Beckett died? She thinks. "It's seldom you have a relationship which covers such a vast canvas. You have your friends, your husband, your children and your work - well, Sam was all of those to me. It wasn't just a writer or a director who'd died, it was everything."

You leave her side frustrated that we can't ever know what Beckett himself must have thought; of how his irreducibly bleak and despairing vision, reified more and more starkly on stage by this cheerfully willing maternal dynamo, must have found itself compromised by tiny bat-squeaks of optimism, as he gazed, hour after hour, year after year, into her eyes; into the heart of light. !

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