ELEANOR BRON first came to the attention of the general public (as opposed to the minority that had always appreciated her wit, sharp intelligence and strong-featured beauty) aged 27, in 1965, at the very height of Beatlemania, when she was chosen to star with the Fab Four in a film called Help]

It was an unlikely piece of casting. In the era of the wide-eyed swinging blonde, she was more the Joan Sutherland type: a tall, handsome woman with black hair and eyes. 'A television intellectual thrust upon the four mop-headed millionaires,' one columnist called her. 'I think it's marvellous. Super,' said Miss Bron in response.

She's a good deal more articulate nowadays, though equally guarded with journalists. Twenty-five years ago she told an interviewer that privacy meant a great deal to her. Interviewing her today is still like poking your finger into a sea anemone: the timid creature flinches and withdraws into its soft pink interior.

She has always made a big thing of this need for privacy, which can be a disadvantage to an acting career, as she is the first to acknowledge. In The Pillow Book of Eleanor Bron, 'the nearest I shall ever get to autobiography', she wrote, 'A simple desire for privacy (is) not compatible, in the view of many people, with working in the public eye as an actress. Privacy would be no problem at all if it were a self-contained thing. The difficulty is that if you reveal your own affairs, of whatever nature, you are likely to be encroaching on someone else's life.'

This is mischievous indeed. It is tantamount to saying, yes, I have affairs, sometimes with men who would much rather our relationship were not made public. Yet in the main, she has kept their secrets and her affairs have remained her own. She does not know whether this has hampered her career; the reason, she thinks, is more probably a lack of that ruthless single-mindedness that actresses need if they are to succeed in getting to the top. She also, I noted, has a vein of moral scrupulousness that, however sincere, may come across as priggish.

'I won't do commercials because it's not what I came into the business to do. It worries and frightens me when I hear of the ludicrous sums people get given for commercials.' When most members of your profession can survive only by extolling the merits of beer or instant coffee, such a remark may not endear you to your fellows.

Well then, let us start at the beginning. Ms Bron was born to parents who were both the children of immigrants and had left school at the age of 14. By 1938, however, her father had set up a successful business as a music publisher and theirs was a comfortably middle-class north London home. She and her two older brothers were evacuated during the war, along with their mother, to her father's cousins in California. 'I remember going to kindergarten there and having to sing the American national anthem. We used to do it with hand extended until someone realised it looked like a Hitler salute so they changed it, and after that we sang with hand on heart. We stayed there for three and a half years and came back just in time for the doodlebugs. My father met us at the station; it was very dark and he could just see my mother at the back of the train so he lifted down all these children to get at her and, of course, several were his. I certainly didn't recognise him.

'My parents were wonderful. We would all sit round and listen to Saturday Theatre. We did things as a family, and it all seemed to centre around the radio, which may be why I'm so passionate about the radio still.

'Because we were a Jewish family, Friday nights were always very special - not that we were very orthodox - and home life was a great mixture of conflicts and treats and lovely birthdays. They knew how to have a good time, that generation; my mother and my aunts enjoyed what they called 'a good laugh'.

'She had an incredible intuition about people - I think women still on the whole do it better. You accumulate a lot of little unconscious observations which all add up to something, whereas men tend to deal in the exchange of information, facts. She died three years ago. We're still a close family, yes. We miss my mother rather, I think; she was . . .' but her voice trails away to silence.

'My parents were untouched by Freud and thought we were always tearing ourselves to pieces; but it also blocked a kind of understanding that might have made things easier. I don't know if that's what made me so introspective, but I did work out a whole lot of things that it might have been better to talk about, and though I tried to be honest with my mother, it was a disaster when I did. Towards the end of her life she would hold out her hand . . .' - here Ms Bron stretches her own hand across the cafe table-top towards me, palm down, restrained yet pleading - '. . . and say, 'Tell me, Eleanor, what do you think of life?' I long to have that sort of conversation with my father now, while there's still time.

'I'm always being told I think about myself too much - I'm always examining what I do or have done or said. It's a waste of time and it prevents you from doing other things. I probably became an actress because I'm like that.

'I wanted to act or write from school on. It seems to come out of no background at all, though my mother was a vivacious, outgoing person who would have loved to be an actress. I went to the North London Collegiate School for Girls, where I always took the lead in school plays and got them away from Shakespeare and on to Chekhov. I wanted to go to drama school but I was deflected to university.'

At Cambridge, where she read French and German, Ms Bron fell in with that brilliant young group of iconoclasts who starred at the Footlights (the Cambridge revue society) and went on to launch and adorn the Establishment, London's satirical night- club that flourished in the early Sixties. Many of them have figured large in her life ever since, people such as Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and David Frost, along with others from the Sixties, such as Nick Garland and Ned Sherrin. She regrets those with whom she has lost contact. It was a brilliant generation and it came along at the right time.

By the early Sixties, Britain had had 13 years of Tory government and was ready for a bit of irreverence. The television programme That Was The Week That Was took the country by storm and made its young stars famous. Its successor, laboriously entitled Not So Much a Programme, More A Way of Life, featured Ms Bron as a daft deb called Lady Pamela Stitty; but it was not the ideal springboard, she now thinks, for a career as a serious actress.

I was curious to know why, with her looks and brains and talent, she has never quite made it into the topmost rank.

'I don't know. Hard to say, really. If you start out associated with comedy and also the handicap of satirical comedy, it's not a line that's very easy to cross. If serious actresses like Glenda Jackson and Judi Dench do comedy, it's a delight; but it's far harder to cross the other way, into serious acting.

'I don't think I had in myself the freedom to be able to act and be unconstrained. Also, there's a level where, with a certain amount of talent and an enormous amount of determination and a thick skin, you can get somewhere: by being very focused and single-minded. I've never been a very single-minded person. I think some people knew who they were, and I think I never, really . . . well, why should I . . ?'

Her voice trails away again and the wavering, fragile sea anemone tentacles retract as she shrinks from my intrusive questions, leaving me to wonder, why should she what? Tell me? Be single-minded? Succeed? It is left unclear. She goes back on to firmer ground. 'I've always chosen things that would interest me rather than those that would advance me. I'm not hard up; I lead a comfortable life; but then again, I don't need a great deal.'

She has certainly not dressed like A Famous Actress for this interview. She is wearing a long, rather Bohemian knitted cardigan in shades of red and orange, over a woven black woollen shirt: a surprising choice, since it is a warm midsummer day. We are (to protect that privacy again) sitting in the back room of a very ordinary cafe in Marylebone High Street. Ms Bron drinks four cups of espresso coffee, one after another. She doesn't smoke; never has.

Her thick mane of once-black hair is now almost white in front, where she wears it in a fringe, graduating at the back to iron grey. She uses a little make- up, an artfully applied turquoise line around her huge eyes, but her skin is still youthfully firm. Ms Bron at 55 is looking good. When she left the cafe at the end of our interview a man at an adjacent table said breathlessly, 'Doesn't she look wonderful?' She does - which makes it all the more puzzling that the best roles still elude her. Despite an electrifying Duchess of Malfi in 1985, and a subtle and profound Hedda Gabler, she is not at the pinnacle of her profession.

'I suspect it's partly in me and partly in other people. I needed a lot more help than I either got or was willing to accept. The things I would have liked to do - like the National Theatre and the RSC - were not offered to me.

'Ken Tynan once phoned me up and said he just had to talk to me and I thought he was going to ask me to go to the National and in fact he wanted me to be in Oh] Calcutta]' (A nude and very rude revue produced in 1969).

Her next role will be that of Gertrude in a production of Hamlet directed by Steven Unwin, which comes to the Donmar Warehouse in the autumn. 'I'm beginning to feel that Hamlet is responsible for a lot of trouble in England because he gave the thinking man a bad name,' she says. I laugh, but she insists, 'It's true: he's synonymous with everything bad about thinking . . . being educated and having scruples, which now have a very lowly place in our society. People are alarmed by intelligence,' - does she realise she's talking about herself? - 'whereas the most benign and best people I know are extremely intelligent.'

Always left-wing, her political convictions have not altered with middle age. 'I care very much about politics; I think about it a good deal. I am totally bewildered by the fact that I was brought up in a society that seemed to be getting better all the time.' (An echo of the Beatles here?) 'I had a free education right up to university, which my parents never did; I benefited from the NHS when I had to have a major operation on my spine soon after leaving university, and all the things I acquired - the standards, achievements, how to think . . . the elite things which henceforth were going to be for everyone - are being diluted. Soon they'll only be there for a small minority of people. The last 14 years have taught me that you can't take things for granted, and how wonderful it was when everyone seemed to be striving for a better life for all. Now, only money buys privacy, clean air, education, health and justice.

'It is very difficult that all this has coincided with my middle age, so I wonder, am I carping? But the young people I know are also critical. It's very irritating to feel yourself being staid and reactionary and think the old ways were best; yet I certainly don't think things now are all right. As Arthur Miller said, you can't relax; you just have to go on fighting. I was brought up to believe that it was my duty to take advantage of the rights that they, our predecessors, fought for. You can revert very quickly to the morality of the jungle. I find it terrifying, the amount of violence in us all; that primitive need to survive, if necessary by force. So it's all a question of civilisation, and to do with the fact that close communities don't exist any more.'

Rashly, I thought that in the previous 90 minutes we had established a rapport. I ventured to ask her about love. She flinched; the anemone shrank from inspection. In a vivid gesture she put her forefinger and thumb together as though squashing an insect. 'Love and I are like this.' she said. I waited. 'I know it; I've experienced it; it's a constant, a sine qua non.' she said. She gazed out of the murky window. I waited. 'I think I've passed beyond that.' she said. 'Look - it's time to go; I have to be somewhere else.'

I reminded her that her agent had assured me of two uninterrupted hours of Ms Bron's time. She fiddled with her spectacles and put her cardigan on. I told her that if there were anything she wished to withdraw or unsay she should tell me now and I would cross it out, but once we had parted, I considered the interview to be mine. 'I don't want to steal your words,' I said. 'That's your trade, if I may say so,' Ms Bron murmured with a wry smile, and swept out.

Marina Cantecuzino's new book 'Till Break of Day', (Heinemann pounds 8.99), an account of working at the London Lighthouse as a volunteer, is recommended to readers who would like to find out more about the organisation after reading last week's interview with its founder, Christopher Spence.

(Photograph omitted)