Geraldine James: A talent to surprise

Geraldine James, who stars in a new BBC Trollope adaptation, won't be pigeonholed. Her career is a study in transformation
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The Independent Online

Waiting for Geraldine James is an unsettling affair. What do you expect from an actress whose face and tumbling Titian curls are so familiar, but whose personality remains hidden behind myriad memorable roles? Will she be hard-faced Rose, the prostitute in Band of Gold? Terrifying Lady Maud of Blott on the Landscape? Memsahib Sarah of The Jewel in the Crown? Or even Gloria, the grasping lag's wife, opposite Pete Postlethwaite in The Sins?

Waiting for Geraldine James is an unsettling affair. What do you expect from an actress whose face and tumbling Titian curls are so familiar, but whose personality remains hidden behind myriad memorable roles? Will she be hard-faced Rose, the prostitute in Band of Gold? Terrifying Lady Maud of Blott on the Landscape? Memsahib Sarah of The Jewel in the Crown? Or even Gloria, the grasping lag's wife, opposite Pete Postlethwaite in The Sins?

When she bundles through the revolving door of the Carlton Tower Hotel, dressed all in black, bar a dramatic saffron embroidered pashmina, she is none of those. Instead, I meet a brisk, upper-middle-class woman of 53, who happens to be a very successful actress but could just as easily be a businesswoman or the netball teacher that her father longed her to be. She speaks with icily clear Southern pronunciation, calling a forehead a "forrid", and a house a "hice". At first she is unsmiling and, frankly, a bit scary. But 10 minutes later she is laughing and warm as she warns me of the perils of motherhood.

When she pours our tea, I feel as if I'm with my mother. Yet later, when the photographer arrives, she is the nervous ingénue, applying make-up and allowing that glorious red hair to fall on to her shoulders. There are as many facets to this actress's personality as there are characters on her CV.

I ask how she managed to avoid being pigeonholed as the aristocratic Englishwoman. After all, her looks - chiselled jaw, curling lip and magnificent cheekbones - make her a shoo-in for every posh period-drama role going. "When The Jewel in the Crown came out I was asked to play that character again and again and again. So instead I did Lady Maud, who absolutely terrified everybody.

"People thought I'd gone insane, but it really helped to fight the stereotype thing. People would say, 'Oh, she can't do that role, she's just a middle-class girl from Maidenhead, but oh, she did that working-class Yorkshire thing and oh yes, she did Blott on the Landscape."

She credits her husband, Jo Blatchley, an actor and a director at Rada, for guiding her in these brave choices - even though, with hindsight, she believes her refusal to sit comfortably in casting directors' pigeonholes stopped her becoming a star. "If you follow the same path and play the same roles, you become a star," she says. "People identify you with one character and feel they know you. But actors aim toward some sort of transformation, and I'm happy to keep doing that."

Her chameleon-like quality means that the general public rarely recognise her. Some connect her face with a character. "I still get people shouting: 'Oi, Rose, are you working?' " she says, referring to the prostitute she played in Band of Gold. Others simply feel she's familiar and insist they've met her before. Rather than longing for the clamour of fame, she feels happy to have avoided the intrusion it brings, and lives in comfortable and anonymous circumstances in Battersea, south London.

Soon, James will be adding another character to her armoury of multiple personalities. She plays Lady Rowley, wife of the governor of the Mandarin Islands, in a BBC adaptation of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right. Lady Rowley is mother to two of the central characters, Emily Trevelyan, whose marriage to a jealous man forms the backbone of the story, and Nora Rowley, who must decide whether to marry for love or for money. "It's the only time I've ever played someone who doesn't say very much. I'm usually the talkative one. Lady Rowley quietly cajoles her blustering husband into saying exactly what she wants him to say."

A spectacular line-up of actors, from Geoffrey Palmer and Anna Massey to the newcomer Oliver Dimsdale as the jealous husband Louis Trevelyan, combines with the writing prowess of the ubiquitous Andrew Davies to make a very slick production of a little-known story.

"Trollope had always seemed a rather heavy dude to read," James says. "When you look at how he writes, it seems very antiquated, with chunky sentences. But I wanted to work with Andrew Davies very much and I think he's done a wonderful job. When you hear Emily and Louis's marital conversations, they could be a modern-day couple talking across the breakfast table."

Trollope's work centres on the pernicious effect of jealousy in relationships; indeed, Davies describes the book as "Trollope's take on the Othello story". But James doesn't identify with the envy at the story's heart. "I probably should feel jealous in my own relationship, but I don't. My husband works with lots of young actors at Rada and he's very popular, especially with the young actresses. But we have a very loving and trusting relationship, so that's all right."

What about jealousy between her and her peers? Last year's release of The Mother (starring Anne Reid) and Calendar Girls (starring every great English actress of a certain age, including James) proved that this country is blessed with a plethora of talented older actresses. "There are so many of us. Calendar Girls made that screamingly clear. But there was never any overt rivalry on the set, although I suppose some must have existed." In fact, James's only complaint about the film came when the others took their clothes off. "I tried to take my clothes off, too. I remember doing some trial photos with a Polaroid at home to see what I'd look like. Calendar Girls was so tastefully done that I'd have loved to do it. But they weren't having it. I was the baddie and that was that."

James grew up in Maidenhead with her cardiologist father and housewife mother. Her parents had an unhappy and loveless marriage, and James found escape in the plays put on by her boarding school, Down House. Becoming an actress was no easy prospect for a well-educated young lady. "I had to rebel and go against quite a strong family idea. They stopped me having any money; they were horrible to me. This was the Sixties. Flower power and miniskirts were all very well, but we were still expected to settle down and marry some nice boy from the Home Counties."

Instead, she met Blatchley at drama school. She is disarmingly frank about their marriage. "We've had our ups and our downs, our ons and our offs. When we started going out together, he was a very successful actor and I was just starting off. Then I started to do a lot quite quickly, and that completely changed our relationship."

She decided to give up acting if she hadn't made it by 30. At 30, the offers began to pour in - a role as Emma Hamilton in a mini-series about Admiral Nelson, The Jewel in the Crown and Gandhi all followed.

"I was brought up very traditionally to think the man should be the breadwinner. My concerns were all about fulfilling an image that has been dreamt up for you. My parents were stuck in the idea of what a marriage should be, and they divorced. So I've tried to take the word 'should' out of my vocabulary. Jo and I have a marriage based on friendship, which means hopefully you can survive. I'm so glad we have."

James held another ambition in her youth, one that made its impact felt only when middle age approached. "My fantasy was to have a home in the country with six children, all with different fathers. The fathers would come down occasionally and provide for us. I thought that was a marvellous solution - just me and all my kids." In fact, she had her first child, Eleanor, at 35 - "They called me an elder prima gravida. I sounded like an elephant" - then waited a few years before she tried for her second. "It was too late. My GP said, 'Forget it and you'll get pregnant.' I forgot it and a whole year went by. I had to go and have some counselling because it was taking over my whole life. I'd wander around Mothercare, looking at the baby things. I remember filming Band of Gold and calling Jo to say I was ovulating and he had to get the next train up. It put an awful strain on things."

In the end, she was diagnosed as having endometriosis. These days she says the hurt has passed and she has new concerns. At 53 she is more aware of her own mortality. "I sound like a neurotic old bag," she admits. "But I've lost so many friends to cancer. At 50 I thought I'd have an MOT. The doctor wanted to know why I was worrying." She explained her family history - her father died of bowel cancer and her mother and sister had both fought off the disease. "He put me on to a specialist and I read the notes he passed on. They said, 'This woman is a cancer-phobe.' I know they're terribly busy, but isn't it better to check these things out early on?"

Her work continues apace with preparations for a role in the new ITV drama Jane Hall's Big Bad Bus Ride. She hopes it will make another notch on her bedpost of interesting characters. The transformation still remains the important thing to this actor's actor. She felt thrilled recently when asked to do a voiceover. "What accent do they want?" she asked. "Just your usual Yorkshire accent," came the reply.

"That was a lovely moment," she says with a smile.

'He Knew He Was Right' is on BBC1 on 18 April at 9pm