Cutting-edge television actress
Friday 02 February 2007
Anna Cropper, actress: born Brierfield, Lancashire 13 May 1938; married William Roache (marriage dissolved 1974; one son, one daughter); died Tangmere, West Sussex 22 January 2007.
The actress Anna Cropper was a commanding presence in challenging television plays of the 1960s and 1970s, most shockingly as the young schizophrenic, Kate Winter, in the writer David Mercer's In Two Minds. The 1967 "Wednesday Play" was based on the experiences of Mercer, who had suffered a nervous breakdown himself, and the producer, Tony Garnett, who knew about the trauma of mental instability from someone close to him.
In the hands of the director Ken Loach, who had already made the groundbreaking Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home for the revered BBC series of contemporary dramas, In Two Minds looked like a documentary - Loach and Garnett were trying to roll back the barriers and blur the distinction between fact and fiction.
The play opens with a close-up of Cropper talking directly to the viewer about Kate's relationship with her mother, the camera representing the doctor who is interviewing the troubled young woman:
She doesn't want me to be myself. She objects to everything I do. She dislikes my friends. She thinks I drink. She criticises me all the time. There's nothing I can do, is there? I have to live here, don't I?
Over the following 75 minutes, we see events shot from the unseen doctor's perspective - only hearing his voice - as he interviews Kate, her family and friends, with Cropper displaying a rollercoaster of emotions, from breaking down on pondering her dilemma to giving a beaming smile, eyes sparkling, while recalling an ex-boyfriend. At times, she talks as if "Kate" is another person and, when she is taken back to hospital, we see her given electric-shock treatment. The actress provided Loach with the rawness and vulnerability he has always sought in trying to get performances that look real.
Mercer's aim was to represent the new wave of psychiatrists, led by R.D. Laing, who contended that what was regarded by the old school as "schizophrenia", a condition with which people were born, was sometimes simply the result of parents' imposing a personality on their child - in this case, a domineering, repressive mother - and could be treated.
The BBC had anticipated a furore and later in the evening of the first broadcast scheduled a televised debate between psychiatrists, one that spilled over into Britain's newspapers. Certainly, Cropper's naturalistic performance did much to make her character's despair - and the issue - very real and Mercer won the Writers' Guild Award for the Best Television Play of 1967.
Born in Brierfield, Lancashire, in 1938, Cropper was the daughter of a dentist, Jack, and a keen actress and director in amateur dramatics, Margaret, from whom she gained a love of theatre. She trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, in London, and, after repertory experience in Nottingham, was soon making her mark in television plays at the cutting edge of the revolution that was taking place in the arts.
Cropper made her small-screen début as Chrysalis in The Insect Play ("Twentieth Century Theatre", 1960), an adaptation of the Czech playwrights Josef and Karel Capek's 1921 work about oppression. She also acted Lucy in Sheridan's The Rivals ("The Sunday-Night Play", 1962), another live broadcast.
Later came the eerie Robin Redbreast ("Play for Today", 1970), written specially for her by John Bowen. Cropper was cast as a television script editor, ditched by her lover, rebuilding her life in a remote cottage, then becoming pregnant by the handsome Rob (Andrew Bradford) and believing she would be sacrificed by the sinister villagers, only to discover that Rob is the target of their pagan threat.
Similarly spooky was The Exorcism (1972), written and directed by Don Taylor for BBC2's "Dead of Night" series, with Cropper and Edward Petherbridge as an affluent couple moving, at Christmas, into the cottage they have renovated at great cost and discovering that it is haunted. The play, not simply a ghost story but a metaphor for the bourgeoisie's privileged existence, was subsequently staged at the Comedy Theatre in 1975, with Cropper reprising her role.
Evoking the same shock power as she had with In Two Minds, Cropper acted the bored housewife in Dennis Potter's Schmoedipus ("Play for Today", 1974) who fantasises the arrival of her long-lost illegitimate son (Tim Curry), demanding the close relationship he has never had with her and walking a tightrope between maternalism and sexuality.
Cropper's other dramatic parts on television included that of a general's daughter helping a special services agent to investigate a barrister's murder in the espionage thriller serial The Mind of the Enemy (1965), a detective leading a murder hunt in Both Hands Free ("Dial M for Murder", 1974), Mary Hodgson, nurse to the Llewelyn-Davies children, J. M. Barrie's influences for Peter Pan, in The Lost Boys (1978), Nicky Paynton in The Jewel in the Crown (1984) and Gwen Cellan-Davies in Andrew Davies's adaptation of Kingsley Amis's novel The Old Devils (1992).
Over the years, she also popped up in soapy roles. While married to William Roache, who plays Ken Barlow in Coronation Street, she appeared in three episodes of the serial as Joan Akers (1962), a disturbed woman who, after the trauma of her own baby's death, kidnapped Harry and Concepta Hewitt's new-born son, Christopher. The drama brought the serial its biggest audiences since its inception two years earlier - more than 20 million viewers.
Later, she played Mrs Laker in the daytime marriage-guidance counsellors serial Couples (1975-76), Nan Wheeler, who nursed farmer Tad Ryland's sick wife, Bella, in Emmerdale (1976) and the matriarch Margaret Castle in the family saga Castles (1995).
Cropper was frequently in demand to act in BBC radio plays and she appeared on the West End stage in How's the World Treating You? (Wyndham's Theatre, 1966), Little Boxes (Duchess Theatre, 1968) and Separate Tables (as Miss Cooper, Apollo Theatre, 1976).
After her final screen appearance. in an episode of Midsomer Murders (1999), Cropper spent an increasing amount of time at her holiday home in Turkey. Her son with William Roache, from whom she was divorced in 1974, is the actor Linus Roache.
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