Nichola McAuliffe: Blithe spirit

Nichola McAuliffe acts in Coward and Wesker, TV comedies and West End musicals. Now she's published a novel, and has talked Ross Kemp into taking on the Bard. Simon Tait tries to keep up
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Nichola McAuliffe cannot be pigeonholed. This week she gave a diverting Platform performance at the National Theatre, where she was interviewed about her career. And she prepared with the former East-Enders actor Ross Kemp for their venture as Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.

After coming to national attention in the quirky Channel 4 sitcom Surgical Spirit, in which she played a domineering surgeon, she has been both an RSC and National Theatre player, one for whom Arnold Wesker wrote the one-woman show Annie Wobbler.

In her past four West End appearances she has been Maggie in Hobson's Choice, the soubrette Dorothy in Noël Coward's bitter-sweet Semi-Monde, Mrs Drudge in The Real Inspector Hound and, most recently, the wicked Baroness in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. So, a character actress, then? "As far as I'm concerned, I'm a leading actor, and if anyone has other ideas, then tough - sorry." Powerful women, then? "No, nothing to do with that - I'm not into character-specific, just the play. I'm only interested in getting the play clear, rather than 'giving my St Joan' or whatever."

No, there's no pigeonhole for her, and as of this week McAuliffe is also a published author and, with Bloomsbury's name on the spine, probably a best-selling one. "They say men think about sex every 12 seconds," she says, explaining how she came to write The Crime Tsar. "For me, it's about every 12 seconds, too - that I think about theatre. My mind goes off to frolic in the reeds of plays."

Last night she explained in her Platform talk why this dark tragedy of raunch, corruption, murder and political conniving, which gallops through the lives of senior policemen and their wives as they struggle for supreme power at the head of a new national force, is oddly familiar: it grew out of her obsession with Macbeth. She has been frolicking with the Scottish play, as she fastidiously refers to it, most of her life, but this take on it has an overlay of experiences gleaned through being married to the Daily Mirror's crime reporter, Don Mackay.

"All the characters are based on people I've met in the 17 years I've been with Don," she says. "Most of them have been very, very nice, and some helped me with research, but I've paid back a few scores, too." It was written during an eight-week tour of Alan Bennett's gentle monologue A Bed among the Lentils - "only a 45-minute show, so there was plenty of spare time."

McAuliffe was Lady Macduff in her first professional part on leaving LAMDA, and later, after she had got to know several senior coppers, "it dawned on me that they are the only equivalents of Macbeth's thanes that we have." She talked through a staging with a producer, but it wasn't working - "It was imposing something on Shakespeare, dressing it up - it wouldn't do."

She has played Lady Macbeth three or four times, but it's Macbeth himself that fascinates her. "I'm intrigued by the journey that he makes," she says, "and the journey she's incapable of making because basically she's not a very bright woman. He becomes a great poet as he discovers his conscience, and it destroys him. The torture of his soul expands him, whereas hers reduces her, because she's in- capable of accepting what it is that she has done."

The Crime Tsar went, via publishing agents, straight into a bottom drawer, because it didn't fit a category. Then a casual remark by her friend David Parfitt, the film producer, led her to approach Liz Calder, founder and publishing director of Bloomsbury. "David said, 'Whatever you do, don't send her the manuscript first. Have lunch,'" McAuliffe recalls, but it took her six months to summon the courage. "It's like someone who wants to be an actor asking Trevor Nunn to lunch." When she did, Calder accepted straight away. They talked of Harry Potter, children's books, adult books, plays and books, and it was left to Calder to say that, if McAuliffe ever wrote a book, she must let her know.

Days later, the manuscript disk was on Calder's desk; a fortnight later, she rang to say she liked it; another week later, to say Bloomsbury would publish it. As The Crime Tsar is launched, McAuliffe is putting the finishing touches to her second novel for Bloomsbury.

The Taming of the Shrew is another Shakespeare that McAuliffe has frolicked with. "I didn't ache to do it," McAuliffe says, "but then I realised that it is a great love story, one that parallels the one I was involved with - two people who, according to the societies in which they lived, shouldn't have got together." The two societies in her case are journalism and theatre.

She met Ross Kemp at a party at Mo Mowlam's house, and asked if he had ever played Petruchio. "He went white, but I told him he was born to play it, because he understood it already, with the pressures he'd been under." Kemp is married to Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun. "For me," McAuliffe says, "Ross is a very fine actor who hasn't been given the opportunity to show how good he can be until now."

Stereotyping is anathema to her, and in August Bloomsbury is bringing out a children's book by her, about a penguin that finds the Antarctic too cold and settles in the Galapagos. It is entitled Attila, Loolagax and the Eagle. "It's based on a joke I rather liked," she says, "but basically it's about pigeonholing, and how to avoid it."

'The Crime Tsar' is published by Bloomsbury at £11.99. 'The Taming of the Shrew' opens at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222) on 2 October