Just how dangerous is Francesca Annis?
Friday 21 November 1997
The "F" word was always going to be a problem, but Francesca Annis breezes into the room with an aura of nervous energy, making an effort to warm to the situation. "Now, where would you like me ... here?" she says, pointing to an easy chair in the discreet South Kensington hotel. "Perhaps over there?" she enquires, throwing a glance at a sofa at the far end of the lounge. Her "minder" from Channel 5 is trying hard not to "mind", playing it cool in the background. Ms Annis settles down for another game of verbal cat-and-mouse. Appropriately she is dressed from top to toe in black. The ink is barely dry on Ralph Fiennes' "quickie" divorce papers from the actress Alex Kingston, late of Moll Flanders, now of ER.
She is 52; Fiennes, a youthful 34. Marriage is out. She has no interest in that institution. Irritatingly for both of them, their glittering careers have been overshadowed by this traumatic chain of personal events.
But the producer of Annis's latest television foray, Deadly Summer, a dreamy black comedy of feminist dimensions set in rural Burgundy, believes she knows a class act when she sees one. Julia Ouston cast Annis (alongside Bob Peck, Pauline Quirke and Nicholas Farrell) because, she says, "We wanted someone who wasn't known for comedy, somebody with natural class. And Francesca is just so funny!"
Never mind the "F" word, it's the "C" word that now seems to upset her. "I don't know about class," she says, unable to accept the compliment for what it was. "Everyone has class, one class or another. Everything is about class in England, whether it's upper, lower or middle. Why should that be?"
Why, indeed? Annis has perfected a bizarre way of responding to questions as though she were addressing one of her subjects. Perhaps it's the roles she has played, or the influence of those she has been close to. Early in her career she had a minor part as the handmaiden Iris in the tantrum- strewn epic Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. As Annis pushed her way past the autograph-hunters who mobbed the film's two stars, she was occasionally asked if she was famous too. The fans usually told her to do her signature in any case but to "keep it small".
Much later, Roman Polanski was so mesmerised by her screen-test that he cast her as his Lady M opposite the Macbeth of the rising star Jon Finch. The film received a tepid response but Annis had arrived. She was a player, and both Finch and Hollywood liked what they saw.
While they lived together, studios attempted to lure her to California with all kinds of carrots. She was going through her feminist hippie phase and rejected their hard cash in order to retain her anti-materialist integrity. One producer was brazen enough to chuck in a mansion in Bel Air in its own grounds "under certain conditions". She told him what to do with his tennis court. Her longest spell on the West Coast was eight months. She has no regrets: "I never pursued being `famous'. When I was involved in the women's movement, I made choices and turned down a lot of opportunities. So yes, I could have been more famous. That doesn't bother me. I turned down Vogue covers as well. Exposure makes you famous, not just good work. Famous is being plastered everywhere.
"For me, it was right not staying in Hollywood. I didn't want to exploit my sexuality - that's what Hollywood was about then. But, more importantly, I have always been offered work in England. I am very European. My roots are here."
That said, Annis was never the girl-next-door type, She was stunning as Ophelia in an American tour of Hamlet and made a breathtaking Juliet with the Royal Shakespeare Company. And then, with age, she entered her "dark" phase. In the West End she portrayed Mrs Erlynne in Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan with cold abandon.
But it was on television that she almost cornered the market as the Numero Uno Dangerous Lady. There was her frivolous music-hall siren Lillie Langtry who captivated Edward VII in the award-winning serial Lillie, and her dynamic, Machiavellian Kitty O'Shea opposite Trevor Eve in Parnell and the Englishwoman. Lately, slipping into middle-aged seductress mode, she was to be found sharing a bed with Neil Pearson in the police drama Between the Lines. By coincidence she has just finished making a sequel to Reckless in which she has an adulterous affair with the new small-screen icon Robson Green.
I raise the subject of the older woman and the younger man. There is 18 years between her and Fiennes. She would have one believe that this is more or less irrelevant. Really? "There is a good line in Reckless, when I say to Robson Green, `What's attractive about older women?' and he says, `I am not interested in older women, I am interested in you.' That says it all for me."
So what is it about Annis that makes TV executives, at least, believe she can make younger men go wobbly at the knees? She does look 10 years younger as her wavy, auburn hair flops about her shoulders. Her figure is perfect. "I think it is to do with me being dark," says. "But I would hate people to think of me as dangerous. I am about as dangerous," she grins, glancing down to the coffee table between us, "as that biscuit ... could it be that one might be a good actress?"
Clearly, she is displeased with her image as the Scarlet Woman. "Everyone is so judgmental today about who is right and wrong and you [the public] don't know the truth. In the end, they [the press] create a false image of a situation. It is certainly not better to get it out into the open. I don't find any need to `put the record straight'. It doesn't, anyway. They will move on to somebody else eventually."
Deadly Summer is a departure for her. It affords her the rare opportunity to be ordinary. As middle-aged fairly upmarket Celia Harcourt she is stuck with a pompous failure of a husband in Don (Bob Peck) and a promiscuous uncaring daughter in Katie (Sarah Smart). She is a soul in emotional limbo. Their downmarket friends Linda and boorish Jim Topping (Quirke and Farrell) are also in marital Armageddon. Late in the day ghoulish justice is seen to be done when the males of the species get their come-uppance.
The writers Bony Stringle and Jackie Robb provide a breezy, fun ride in the mould of Frayn or Ayckbourn. But Annis is probably more at home in something like Reckless. The television company's blurb for that show - "Is theirs the sort of love which survives all kinds of adversity?" - could almost have been written to describe her involvement with Fiennes.
According to those who know and have worked with her, Annis is much misunderstood, much maligned. As one of her peers at the National Theatre put it: "On the outside Francesca may appear prim and proper. But she is a minx and hysterical at times, in a funny sense. She can be quite a chameleon. She really does enjoy passion and excitement."
But is she happy? "I don't know what this concept of happiness is," she says mysteriously, as if she has just crept into a rehearsal of a piece by Beckett. "People have been talking about it since the war. Everything is fine. So, no, I am not ... unhappy."
`Deadly Summer' is on Channel 5 on Sunday 30 November.
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