Focus: Me and my stereotype

Mrs Robinson, Mr Darcy, Sybil Fawlty... a handful of characters tower over the actors who created them - and who may well fancy an identity of their own, says Arabella Weir (she of the famous bum)

The indisputably talented actress Anne Bancroft, who died last week, apparently resented the way that her generation-defining portrayal of Mrs Robinson in the film The Graduate overshadowed her other screen triumphs. I can see her point. After all, she had won an Oscar for Best Actress five years before for her performance as Helen Keller's teacher in The Miracle Worker.

On the other hand, I'm inclined to shrug and say "them's the breaks", at least in the nebulous, heady world of showbusiness. The overwhelming majority of actors and performers spend their professional lives scrabbling around to make a living wage, hoping that someone somewhere will spot the spark of talent we believe we emit, the unquantifiable quality that singles us out from the other pathetic wannabes. And if we finally do make it, it is very likely to be by dint of one particular role.

Standing out from the crowd as a performer was never about meritocracy. It's about exuding something in a wafer-thin moment of time that also, by magical coincidence, captures other people's imagination. It doesn't matter how much good work we regard ourselves as having put into repertory theatres, television or even movies. If it happens at all, it'll be one epic turn that plops us right into people's laps. And, like as not, it'll be a part that ends up defining us for life in the minds of the world that has finally noticed us, a world that is then not able to allow us out of that box - ever.

It would be churlish of me, not to say ludicrously poncy, to suggest that this is down to small-mindedness or a lack of imagination. It's just the way it is, and I don't think it's attributable to anything other than the ephemeral nature of success.

For crying out loud, I challenge you to bring to mind the title of just one of Colin Firth's efforts before he snake-hipped his way into the nation's bosom with his wet shirt in Pride and Prejudice. And let's be honest, she can do all the masterful renditions of important historical women she likes, but who among us can look at Prunella Scales without pursing our lips disapprovingly, shuddering our shoulders officiously and shouting snippily, "Basil!"?

For all his tremendous brilliance, I freely admit that I still can't see Derek Jacobi without going into a silly head twitch accompanied by a saliva-soaked stutter of "yes, G... g... g... grandmother". Dismally juvenile, I know, but it was as the Romans' supposed nincompoop, Emperor Claudius, that the actor catapulted himself into my consciousness and that of my entire generation (no mean feat), and there he remained skewered for ever.

At school in the mid-1970s, for month after month, not a day went past when my friends and I didn't liven up our lessons with some - to us - side-splittingly funny, stuttering, slavering and dragging of a gammy leg. Claudius was the Vicky "yeah-but-no-but" Pollard of our day.

I know whereof I speak: my bum has resolutely resisted all attempts to shake it off since, of my own volition, I first invited television viewers, and subsequently book readers, to examine it with the, as I thought, unanswerable plea, Does My Bum Look Big in This? After 10 years, I've come to accept that there was little point in being precious about that very question being the aide-memoire people use in an attempt to fathom who the devil I am. Anyway, given that my bum has more than paid for its own upkeep, why bite the arse that feeds you?

It's just as well I'm not grand. Last week, as I returned from a half-term break in Spain with my children, aged seven and six, a bloke came up to me in the airport, tapped me on the shoulder and said, without so much as a formal introduction, "You're the bum girl, aren't you?" Try explaining that to two small kids. I'm pretty sure the woman checking our passports thought I was a prostitute who did a nice turn in specialised extras.

But there are loads of us out there - actors, performers, even some writers - who have been fortunate enough to enter people's lives and who have been more than happy to have the spoils that go with such recognition.

It ill becomes us to come over all Garbo when the stinky downsides hove into view. But I admit to biting the head off a builder who, fancying himself as being a cut above, called out from a scaffold, "Oi, love. The answer's 'Yes.'"

Do you see what he'd done there? Sooooo clever. But I shouldn't have been haughty with him because all he was doing is what anybody who likes someone's work does, or wants to do, which is let them know they are appreciated, that they've pleased you in some way.

But I guess if my bum, like Bancroft's Mrs Robinson, ends up eclipsing everything else I do in the future then maybe I will end up regretting I ever outed it. Or, like a lot of media folk, I'll just end up talking out of it.

'Audiences want you the way they first discovered you...'

David Threlfall

Frank Gallagher in 'Shameless'

"People say I'm famous these days, that Frank Gallagher is iconic, and that's good. But it's not like I've suddenly appeared out of, I don't know, the ether. I've been around the block, you know. I've had all kinds of nominations. Not that I've won anything, mind, but still."

Alison Steadman

Beverly in 'Abigail's Party'

"In the wake of Abigail's Party, everything I was offered was Beverly with knobs on - swanning around in cocktail dresses in Chigwell. I was asked to advertise various products as Beverly. When I turned up and did something different, they'd say, 'What's that? You're not doing the voice. If we ask for Frank Sinatra, we don't expect him to sing opera.' I ended up rejecting all those offers to rehash Beverly - it would have cheapened her."

Colin Firth

Mr Darcy and Mark Darcy

"I've got this word 'Darcy' that follows me around. It doesn't really touch my life until I talk to journalists, when it becomes the only thing on the agenda. I might as well have some fun with it and join in the process."

Ricky Gervais

David Brent in 'The Office'

"My own ego and fear of my next career move were secondary to how good the character could be. I could have put a wig on. I could have talked in a Northern accent. But I think it's to my credit that I gave it all the realism I could, at the risk of burdening the rest of my acting career for the sake of a stand-alone piece of work. I do not regret it at all."

Kevin Spacey

After 'Seven' and 'The Usual Suspects'

"Audiences want you the way they discovered you. I recognised that a dark impression had been made, that if I didn't want to be pigeonholed then it was my responsibility to do something about it. So that's what I'm starting to do. It takes a while to be able to make a shift and start playing different things."

Michael Caine

Harry Palmer, Alfie

"When people say, 'Not a lot of people know that' to me I never answer, I walk away. And they never realise how close they come to being strangled. Anything I do is made a joke of with it. If I won the Oscar they'd say, 'Not a lot of people know he's won it.' It gets on your nerves. You walk along a street and 25 people shout that out to you for all your life. I hate it because I never even said it..."

Julie Andrews

Mary Poppins

"I don't want to be thought of as wholesome. Does Mary Poppins have an orgasm? Does she go to the bathroom? I assure you she does."

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