Michael Winner, Gazza and me

Jenny Seagrove is one of the few actresses in the West End who is keeping her kit on. And judging by her devotion to Everton Football Club, the only strip she is currently interested in is a blue and white one. Brian Viner talks to her about the major players in her life
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Where I come from, on Merseyside, fans of Everton Football Club come in most shapes and sizes, but not, as a rule, the shape and size of Miss Jenny Seagrove. If Audrey Hepburn had not cornered the word gamine, it would do for her. She is slim, lovely and beautifully spoken, absolutely none of which can be said of Mugsy Rimmer, with whom I used to stand on the terraces at Goodison Park. This is why, although gratifying, it is also rather unsettling to hear her talking authoritatively about the balance of the Everton midfield. She has even been known to enthuse so loudly in the course of a match that the Everton manager, Walter Smith, a working-class Glaswegian not unaccustomed to noise, felt obliged to move from an adjacent seat.

Where I come from, on Merseyside, fans of Everton Football Club come in most shapes and sizes, but not, as a rule, the shape and size of Miss Jenny Seagrove. If Audrey Hepburn had not cornered the word gamine, it would do for her. She is slim, lovely and beautifully spoken, absolutely none of which can be said of Mugsy Rimmer, with whom I used to stand on the terraces at Goodison Park. This is why, although gratifying, it is also rather unsettling to hear her talking authoritatively about the balance of the Everton midfield. She has even been known to enthuse so loudly in the course of a match that the Everton manager, Walter Smith, a working-class Glaswegian not unaccustomed to noise, felt obliged to move from an adjacent seat.

This improbable devotion to Everton FC is a product of Seagrove's devotion to Bill Kenwright, the club's vice-chairman and majority shareholder. They share a magnificent house in west London and have the Everton midfielder, Paul Gascoigne, round for tea. In fact, Seagrove tells me that on one recent occasion, when Kenwright and Smith absented themselves to discuss club business, she and Gazza were left in the (exceedingly grand) drawing room talking footie. Frankly, this is an image which, in the game's vernacular, does my head in.

So let us turn to a more likely scenario. This week, Seagrove opened at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in Brief Encounter. She plays the thoroughly middle-class, thoroughly married Laura, who meets a doctor (played by Christopher Cazenove) in a station buffet and falls madly in love with him. The play is produced by Kenwright, who doubles, when he is not worrying about his beloved Everton, as British theatre's most prolific impresario. It is, of course, based on David Lean's iconic 1946 film with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, which in turn was based on Noël Coward's play, Still Life.

Oddly, Seagrove has never seen the film. Indeed, she did not really want to do the play. "Bill asked me to do it at Windsor, which I did reluctantly," she says. "I said, 'I certainly won't do it for the West End. I don't want to be typecast as an English rose'. But I loved it. And I'm quite proud of the fact that we don't take our clothes off. There is immense desire, and the audience needs to feel that all we want to do is go to bed, but we can't. Now that's very sexy. There is plenty of erotic heat. But no nudity."

She must be the only well-known actress in the West End currently keeping her kit on, I venture. "Yes, it is getting silly. But Felicity Kendal and Frankie De La Tour and Jessica Lange (all in Kenwright productions) aren't getting undressed." She laughs. "It's Bill's autumn season."

According to one of Seagrove's close friends, she is far happier and more settled with Kenwright than she has seemed in previous relationships, the most celebrated of which was with the film director, Michael Winner. Before that, though, there was a tempestuous marriage to the Indian actor, Madhav Sharma, described by the judge in an acrimonious and very public divorce case as "a Svengali" figure. It pains her to dredge it all up again, but she is aware that her starring role in one of 20th-century fiction's greatest love stories does rather beg comparison with her own romantic past.

She heaves a heavy sigh, and says "it takes two to get into a muddle". She is pleased, she adds, that Sharma's career is prospering - he had a prominent role in the acclaimed film, East is East, as the father of the two ugly daughters. "He was highly intelligent and very charismatic," she recalls. "I was in my early twenties and he was considerably older. And I was emotionally young for my age because I was anorexic and that retards you. I'd been anorexic since my late teens. I don't want to go into the internal things that triggered it, but part of it was not wanting to grow up, wanting to stay a little girl. Also, you get attention when a lot of weight drops off you, and all actors are attention-seekers. Then I became bulimic. It is very hard to stay anorexic in a relationship, because you eat out such a lot, and it's boring and embarrassing just to order a tomato, so you eat as much as everyone else, then slip off to the toilet."

She married Sharma against the wishes of her parents, middle-class expatriates who had sent her to boarding-school in England when she was nine. "I've never been terribly good at saying no," she explains. "And I thought 'nobody else will ever love me like this person does'. But it was constricting, and it held back my career. He used to say to me that I was like a rose, which one day would open for someone else to pluck."

Arguably, he was bang on with the imagery. Seagrove, who recently started her own production company, would probably not challenge the assertion that only now, in her early forties, is she fully flowering. She certainly took years to recover from the breakdown of her marriage and traumatic divorce, some of the details of which, she now merrily admits, "would make a hugely hilarious black comedy". Such as? "Such as trying to get custody of the dog, this poor spaniel, who I absolutely adored. The hand-over was like something out of John Le Carré. My lawyer and my ex-husband's lawyer met in a car park late at night, and drove to a cul-de-sac in Surrey where my mother was living. Papers were exchanged and my ex-husband gave the dog a hugely emotional farewell, whereupon it trotted into the house with nary a backward glance."

As if on cue, Seagrove's current dog, another adored spaniel, trots over and settles at her feet. "And then I got into another interesting relationship, with Mr Winner," she continues, unbid. She was 29, he was 51. But even more startlingly, as far as the gossip columns were concerned, she was beautiful, and he, er, wasn't. "Women are less motivated by looks than men," she says by way of (inadequate) explanation. "As for the age difference, I have gone out with younger men, but I tend to go for extremely charismatic men, and they tend to be older, although having said that, Michael Winner behaves like a three-year-old. That's what's attractive about him. I remember him once wearing a yellow and black shirt and doing an extraordinary bee impersonation. I was on the floor laughing, and I thought 'anyone who can do that is worth getting to know a bit better'."

So he's not the buffoon in private that he sometimes appears in public? She smiles, enigmatically. "He's a baby. He's sweet. He has a huge capacity to be sensitive and kind. He is emotionally under-developed. He can be very caring and a good friend. He can also be a pig, rude and completely unpleasant."

There is a brief silence. I want to ask a rude question but Seagrove's sweet smile is putting me off. Eventually, I muster the impertinence. Kenwright, like Winner, is a wealthy man. Is the woman who made her name in the TV mini-series A Woman of Substance, attracted to men of substance? The smile stays just as sweet. "I don't think so. It's just that I'm attracted to the energy often inherent in those men. But my ex-husband didn't have two pennies to rub together. And I did not rely on Mr Winner for my welfare."

Fair enough. Which leaves time for more impertinence, the clichéd question faced by all childless women in their forties. Any regrets? Any intentions? Another big sigh. "I have never had a huge urge to have children," she says. "There have been urges, but I was with the wrong man at the right time and now the right man at the wrong time. It's not too late. But I do think that you've got to be there if you're going to have kids, and I don't want to give up work. Also, I have a duty to support Bill, to help him take Everton to the top. Like all people who find religion late, I am now a fanatic." There was never a more unlikely one.

'Brief Encounter' continues at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (020-7494 5045)

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