Films: How to play a feisty saint in the hell of a women's prison camp

PAULINE COLLINS tries to appear in films that are uplifting. In her latest film, `Paradise Road', in which she plays a survivor of Japanese prison camps, she realises this aim. She talks to Carol Allen about making goodness seem as appealing as evil and, right, Janie Lawrence talks to Lavinia Warner about the years she spent tracking down the sufferers of wartime atrocities
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There still aren't many strong roles for actresses. But Pauline Collins is cornering the market. She played a Jewish mother arrested by the Nazis in wartime Budapest in My Mother's Courage and in the new year, she will act in The Ambassador, a television series about Britain's ambassador to Dublin.

This week she stars as a Protestant spinster missionary in Paradise Road.

Written and directed by Bruce Beresford, and based on the reminiscences of survivors, it is the story of a very mixed group of women - British, Australian, Dutch and Malay - who were held captive by the Japanese in the Second World War.

"Many of them were from the leisured colonial classes," Collins explains. "They were women who had never done anything for themselves. They'd been used to having servants and being told what to do by their husbands. I think the extraordinary thing about these women and why it must have been very difficult for those who survived to resume their lives is that, in spite of being prisoners, they took charge of their own lives for the first time. And in those days, of course, they didn't have counselling for a traumatic experience like the camps. They just went back and got on with it. A lot of them told me that they were ashamed of the experience in a way. They felt it was something they shouldn't talk about."

Collins herself plays a middle-aged missionary, Margaret Driberg, known in the film as Margaret Drummond, who had the remarkable talent of being able to recall and write down whole symphonic works. In defiance of their captors, Driberg and a violinist, Adrienne Pargiter, played by Glenn Close, organised the women into an a cappella orchestra to raise morale and focus on something other than the terrible conditions in which they were living. Driberg was also in other ways, according to those who remember her, an exceptional woman.

"There's always a danger with people who are very good that they become a bit po-faced or holier-than-thou, so I just wanted to make sure that she wasn't. Some of the survivors talked about her quirky sense of humour and I thought that was important. She was obviously a feisty woman but with this shining goodness, simplicity and total belief in the goodness of God and men. I think goodness is a very powerful thing but often evil is made more attractive in films and it's quite a challenge to make goodness an appealing thing too.

"Perhaps it sounds kind of mawkish but, in spite of the terrible things which happen in the story, it's about a triumph of the human spirit. I try to choose films which are uplifting rather than those which are bad for the spirit, because I think there's an awful lot of desperation and sadness in the world as it is."

One disappointment for Collins, who has a creditable soprano voice and once sang in the chorus of a West End musical in her youth, is that the women's on-screen singing voices were over-dubbed by the Malle Babbe Choir, which specialises in this particular form of vocal music.

Prior to going to Australia last year for Paradise Road, Collins was in the Czech Republic shooting My Mother's Courage, a drama with touches of bizarre comedy based on George Tabori's play about his mother. Another true-life story, it tells how Elsa Tabori, a quiet and self-effacing woman, was picked up by the Nazis one morning, bundled into a cattle truck bound for Auschwitz and somehow found the chutzpah to talk her way out of it and get home in time to be scolded by her family for being late for dinner.

"It was a kind of training for me for Paradise Road," Collins remembers. "Another extraordinary story of a woman whose life is turned upside down by the war but who is determined to hang on to who she is. That's why in the camps they celebrated things like birthdays. If you hang on to your central essence, even in the most terrible situations, and keep some kind of norm going, you can survive."

Despite the seriousness with which she approaches her work, Collins is a down-to-earth and very un-actressy woman, with a salty sense of humour, a famously stable marriage to the actor John Alderton and an immense pride in her now-adult children. Though plump and pretty, with the light voice of a much younger woman, she demonstrates a total lack of vanity about her appearance and age. When complimented on her now blonde and smartly styled hair, she jokingly points out the grey coming through at the roots. The change of hair colour goes back to Paradise Road.

"I wanted to go totally grey for the part. The first time, it came out a kind of light green; we had another go and it came out dusty blonde, so we settled for that. Then when I came back from Australia, I was called to see the producer of The Ambassador, who offered me the series and said he liked the hair that colour, so I'm stuck with it for a bit."

Although there have been suggestions that the role of Harriet Smith is based on Britain's real-life ambassador to Dublin, Veronica Sutherland, Collins is quick to point out that the character and the storylines were under way long before Sutherland got the job. She also resists any attempts to create political controversy around the subject.

"It's more concerned with humanitarian than political areas. She's a grammar-school ambassador, she's come up the hard way but because she's female and not top-drawer, she has to contend with the old-boy network. She doesn't always make the choices they would make, which brings her into conflict with them. She has problems with her elder son, she's a widow and a working mother, having to juggle the two roles. Probably because she's a woman, she gets involved with - some might say interferes in - areas which would not necessarily concern her, the more humanitarian ones, and that's the thrust of the series really."

With three projects on screen inside three months, Collins would appear to be defying the received wisdom that an actress's career is over once she hits her half-century - Collins did that seven years ago.

"I think there's a really grey area for actresses in their fifties. What are we? In our forties, women are seen as still champing at the bit somewhat, whereas in our fifties we appear to be almost invisible. It seems to me that once you get really fluffy and cute, in your mid-sixties, there's a lot more about."

`Paradise Road' opens today.

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