Anne Reid's slow-burn success: The Our Zoo star on the surgeon's knife, bedding Daniel Craig and having a late-blooming career

A tryst with Daniel Craig in the film The Mother saved Anne Reid from a lifetime of ‘skirt and jumper’ roles – and that was just the start. The star of Last Tango in Halifax and the BBC’s new series Our Zoo, talks flirting, surgery and always being the white sheep
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Anne Reid is feeling tired this morning, which is not necessarily a drawback because she declares that she talks a lot when fatigued. It keeps her awake. "Goodie", I say, to which she replies: "I can only tell you the truth, darling. If you can find any scandal in my life please let me know."

We're in a central London hotel, minutes from Reid's flat in Fitzrovia. Having been filming the latest series of BBC1's Bafta-winning drama Last Tango in Halifax in Manchester and Yorkshire since the early summer, the actress has been taking a few days off to entertain friends from Australia, whisking them off by Eurostar to Paris. "We walked and walked and walked, shopped and shopped and shopped, went to the Deux Magots, and I bought a teapot." Reid likes shopping. More remarkably, given such an itinerary, she is only nine months from her 80th birthday.

"In my head I'm still about 43," she says in that familiar and warmly enveloping Tyneside-meets-North Riding accent. "People look at me and they clearly think 'she's old' – and I am always shocked whenever I catch sight of myself in the mirror – but I'm still waiting to grow up, frankly. And I have to stop myself from flirting because it looks rather ridiculous."

Actually Reid, along with her Last Tango in Halifax co-star Derek Jacobi, has been steadily disproving the notion that septuagenarians can't be flirtatious. Sally Wainwright's romantic drama about pensioners rekindling first love has proved every bit as ground-breaking as Reid's role in the 2003 movie The Mother, in which she seduced the decades-younger Daniel Craig (more of which in a minute). "I do hope so, darling," she says. "I do hope so. The problem is the writers, you see, they've never been 70 or 80."

The last ten years, from The Mother to Last Tango in Halifax, have seen a remarkable late blossoming for an actor generally hitherto confined to "skirt-and-jumper roles," as she describes them. At an age when most actors are slowing down, if they haven't stopped altogether, Reid's career seems to be gathering momentum.

For nine years during the 1960s she found prominence – if not satisfaction – playing Ken Barlow's wife in Coronation Street, before dropping out of the industry for a dozen more in order to raise her son, Mark. She returned to work in the mid-1980s, partly under the aegis of Victoria Wood (an association that culminated in a role in Woods' hit sitcom Dinnerladies). But along with parts in Casualty, Peak Practice and Midsomer Murders it was hardly a CV that prepared the world for the then 68-year-old Reid's role in Hanif Kureishi's graphic drama, The Mother, about a northern grandmother who seduces her daughter's lover, played by a 35-year-old, pre-Bond Daniel Craig.

"You say 'yes' to these things and suddenly it's going to happen; I was terrified," says Reid, who, the night before her and Craig's sex scenes, downed a few stiff drinks, stripped off in front of a mirror and burst into tears. She then rang her son, a successful film editor, who told her that it wouldn't work if she was inhibited. Reid remembers commenting: "I hope this isn't going to look like Tom Cruise and Thora Hird." "You feel terribly exposed," she says now. "I mean in front of the crew, even before you start thinking about the audience. But it actually wasn't so bad when it came to it."

Anne Reid in new BBC television drama, Our Zoo (BBC)

The Mother changed critical and industry perceptions of Reid over night, although the film wasn't to everybody's taste. "Some people have said to me that they didn't like it, that they couldn't watch an older woman getting into bed with this younger man. They'll watch Clint Eastwood getting into bed with a 20-year-old any time. Nobody questions that."

Her latest role is far more conventional, playing the disapproving 1920s grandmother of Lee Ingleby's George Mottershead, the founder of Chester Zoo. BBC1's Our Zoo is different enough to be interesting; although Reid is back in a supporting role, it did give her time to ponder the old showbiz maxim about working with animals. "The penguin was a bit temperamental," she chuckles. "I had the monkey on my arm for one afternoon, but that was enough for me. I'm not crazy about animals… I don't have dogs or cats or anything like that. Because my parents travelled about so much we didn't have a home so there were never any animals."

Reid comes from a family of journalists – a breed she likes "as long as they don't write anything horrible about you". Her father was the Middle East correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, and all three of her brothers went into the profession – the late Colin Reid becoming a much-loved humorous columnist on the Daily Mail. "I was the only white sheep of the family," she says. "Actually I think if I'd gone into a normal type of job, they would all have thought I was extremely weird. But actors and journalists are similar really."

Born in Redcar, she was sent to boarding school in North Wales at ten, packing her own trunk because her parents had already decamped for India, whither her father had been posted by the Telegraph. "I never felt abandoned and whenever we met up we got on terribly well," she says. And the places they met up were invariably exotic, especially in terms of the late 1940s – cities like Beirut, Delhi and Cairo.

The Mother changed critical and industry perceptions of Reid over night (Rex Features)

Back in drab post-war London, Reid enrolled at Rada aged 16, working several years after graduation as a stage manager in rep, before being cast as Valerie Barlow in Coronation Street in 1961, a hefty stint about which she doesn't seem remotely nostalgic. "I suppose it was a good time," is the best she can muster. "I seem to remember we danced and drank a lot in the Sixties. I was never on drugs.

"The money was nice, you see. An actor's life is hard and when I finished I was on £200 a week [eight times the average weekly wage, or roughly the equivalent of £200,000 a year now]." Is she still in touch with William Roache, who played her screen husband Ken Barlow? Perhaps she was called as a character witness at his trial earlier this year, in which Roache was acquitted of rape and indecent assault? "I really don't want to talk about that," she says… the only time Reid shuts down a line of questioning. "I'm not in touch with him."

Valerie Barlow was finally written out of the soap in 1971, rather ignominiously by way of a faulty plug on a hairdryer, by which time Reid had acquired a husband, Peter Eckersley, the Coronation Street producer turned Granada's head of drama responsible for bringing Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown to ITV. After only a decade together Eckersley died, at the age of 45, in 1981, and unlike Celia in Last Tango in Halifax, Reid has never considered remarriage.

"My husband was wonderful and clever, and he was difficult and volatile, but quite honestly I've never met anybody who I felt the same about or who I respected as much," she says. "So it would very much have been just marrying for the sake of having company. And I'm very independent… really, really, seriously independent. At the same time I'm very sociable."

Reid's circle of friends contains few actors (former Dinnerladies co-star Thelma Barlow being one) but plenty of musicians, something that perhaps reflects her first love. "I think if my parents had been here [when she was growing up in the UK] I might have been encouraged to go and do music. I would have loved to have gone to the Royal Academy of Music."

Reid says of her role in The Mother: 'People will watch Clint Eastwood getting into bed with a 20-year-old any time. Nobody questions that.' (Matthew Stylianou)

In October she's visiting New York to attend the birthday party of her heroine, Broadway singer Barbara Cook, and in November Reid is appearing in cabaret at the St James Theatre in London, performing a tribute to Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the lyricists who wrote the book for Singin' in the Rain, Band Wagon and On the Town. Needless to say, she is far more glamorous and cosmopolitan than her screen characters. Unlike Celia in Last Tango, she is politically liberal. "Celia is very narrow," Reid says. "She's very anti-gay; I've said to all my gay friends 'Am I going too far?' and they say 'No, no, you're not going far enough'."

Reid says she only buys her clothes in Paris and New York (the woollen jacket she is wearing is from the French capital) she doesn't cook, preferring to dine out with friends, and enjoys the odd tipple ("I had a few G&Ts last night, if you're really probing"). It sounds an admirably civilised, guilt-free existence; and she a veritable merry widow. Not that Reid is entirely without regrets.

"I haven't played the parts I would like to have played because I've always played supporting roles," she says. "When I was young all the famous people – Dora Bryan, Thora Hird, Sid James – were character actors, and I thought it better to be a supporting actress because you work more. And there are loads of parts I would love to have done but I can't now because I'm too old… musicals, especially, and I'd like to have done some Alan Ayckbourn plays, which I would have thought I was ideal for."

Given the Stateside success of Last Tango in Halifax (a US remake is in the works, with Diane Keaton in Reid's role), what about an oft-quoted desire to appear in a Hollywood movie? "That's not going to happen now, darling, is it? Not unless I get the chin done."

Cosmetic surgery is obviously something she has considered and rejected. "I'm too frightened. I'd love to get it done if it would look good, but on 99 per cent of people it just looks weird – not younger, just weird. And it hasn't stopped me working. I don't think a facelift helps you get work."

Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi in Sally Wainwright's Bafta award-winning Last Tango in Halifax (BBC)

Her international outlook meant that Reid was far more impressed when The Mother was nominated for a European Film Award (in the year that Charlotte Rampling won for Swimming Pool) than by her Bafta nomination. "At the awards Claude Chabrol kissed my hand and I met Wim Wenders, who said to me 'you must come and meet Jeanne'; and we walked up to this table and there was a lady talking animatedly and he said 'Jeanne, this is Anne Reid'. It was Jeanne Moreau – bear in mind she is one of my idols; she threw her arms around me and 'said 'oh my God you were wonderful… wonderful'. I'd love to work in another country. My daddy used to say you mustn't be in the park pond, you need to be in the ocean."

Awarded an MBE in 2010, and the same age as Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench, Reid professes to be indifferent to further official honours. "Of course it would be nice, but I don't know that it really matters. I think acting is so much a matter of opinion, and there are some dames and some knights who I don't think are any good, quite frankly. You can knight Timothy Spall if you want because I think he's wonderful.

"There is a snobbishness in the business. If I had spent nine years at the RSC playing little parts instead of nine years in Coronation Street people's perception in the business would be quite different. It's all rubbish; either you can act or you can't."

But for now Reid is happy to just work. "Touch wood I'm fairly healthy," she says. "We get one thing in our family and then we die; we're not creaking gates. I said to my son that I'd love to die on the stage; I said 'think of the publicity… you'd be in every newspaper in the country the following day'…" Spoken like a true journalist's daughter.

'Our Zoo' continues on Wednesday nights on BBC1 and is available to view on BBC iPlayer; 'Last Tango in Halifax' returns to in November. Photography shot on location at Quo Vadis, London W1