The art of getting lost

Penelope Wilton claims that she took to the stage 'because I'm so uninteresting. I wanted to disappear into other people.' From childhood on there was never any doubt about what she would choose as a career. But how did she manage to become one of our finest actresses?
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The Independent Online

Having just that morning heard the brilliant news that the great soap Crossroads might be coming back, I arrive to meet the actress Penelope Wilton in a state of enormous excitement. "Get your CV in now, girl," I tell her. "Before Maggie Smith beats you to it!" "I will, I will," she exclaims. "Forget all that gloomy, boring old Chekhov rubbish. You could be the Meg Mortimer of the new millennium, dispatching Benny to mend the shower head in chalet 13." "Was Benny the one in the wheelchair?" she asks.

"Penelope," I gasp. "I'm surprised at you. That was Sandy!" "Oh." I'm not sure Penelope knows her Crossroads as well as her Chekhov, frankly. Still, I think I've brought her round, which is marvellous. I love Crossroads. I love Penelope Wilton. I've always had a thing about her. I could watch her in anything. I could watch her recite the menu from Pizza Hut. Yes, OK, it's a crush, if you like. But I'm not into any of that lesbian stuff! Sorry, but it's just not natural, is it? I mean, if it was, God would have created Martina and Eve, wouldn't he?

Still, she is my absolute favourite actress. She's never showy. She never seems to hit a false note. Her performances just always seem to be so watchably true, somehow. She was even wholly believable as the put-upon wife in the otherwise rather limp TV sitcom, Ever Decreasing Circles. Even though she's done Rattigan and Osborne and Bennett and Ayckbourn and Pinter and everything, it was this that got her known. She thought it funny. "While it was on, my sister and I were going around Budgens, where everyone recognised me. 'Oh, Penelope,' said my sister, 'they've obviously all seen your Raynevskaya!'''

We laugh. We laugh quite a lot. Can you cook, Penelope? "Oh yes, but I still serve mince. My other sister says I am the only person left who still serves mince." She is delicious company. But I'm still not a lesbian! OK? Honestly, I don't have anything against those who are, although they could do something to improve their footwear. But, if it had been meant, God would not only have created Martina and Eve, he'd have had them win the Wimbledon doubles' championship, wouldn't he?

Anyway, she will be opening in London this week in, yes, Chekhov, as Madame Arkadina in Adrian Noble's brilliantly reviewed RSC production of The Seagull. She has done Chekhov before, of course, most notably as Madame Raynevskaya in Noble's highly praised 1995 production of The Cherry Orchard. I tell her I recently went to see the film version of The Cherry Orchard, with Charlotte Rampling, and found the whole thing just went on and on and on and on and on. I wanted to shout,:"Look, just say goodbye to your bloody orchard and go cheer yourself up with a new handbag or something."

She says so many directors get Chekhov wrong: "As David Hare once said, too many think it's going to be alright so long as you just flounce about in white dresses with fucking parasols!" But? "It's actually incredibly muscular and gutsy. I've done Long Day's Journey Into Night and that was a doddle compared to The Seagull." Still, nothing could ever beat Crossroads, unless it was Chekhov checking into Crossroads, which would be quite something. "I'd like two chalets, please. One for me and one for my Uncle Vanya."

We meet at the Kensington Hotel, around the corner from where she lives with her second husband, the actor Ian Holm. (I am quite a fan of Mr Holm, too, actually. I wonder, would he be up for Adam Chance?) She is very pretty, with long dark hair and a marvellously expressive face. She says "my mother used to say to me she could tell what I was watching on telly, just by watching my face".

Today she is wearing black trousers and a little pink cardi from Benetton. She says she does rather better than Ian on the fashion front because he will insist on wearing terrible tracksuits, ones which give him "an old man's bum". Her daughter, Alice, from her first marriage to the actor Daniel Massey, is home from university for the Easter break at the moment. Alice is studying French and Spanish at Manchester and is not especially optimistic about the outcome. "She said to me this morning that, realistically, we are looking at a 2:2. So I said to her: 'Could you realistically look at a 2:1, perhaps?'''

She would, she says later, have adored more children, but she isn't very good at hanging on to babies. A son, before Alice, was born very premature, with the cord round it's neck. Alice herself was premature, weighing just 2lb at birth. "And I tried to have a child with Ian, but lost it early on." How upsetting, I say. Yes, she says, it could be, "but you can't wish for things you can't have, so what would be the point?' She says, later, that she is "no stranger to self-doubt". She even says that she probably became an actress because "I'm so uninteresting, I wanted to disappear into other people".

Still, she is quite a stranger to self-pity, I think. Her mother, Alice, was an actress who tap-danced and did panto until she married Penelope's father, Clifford, a barrister. "She used to tour and he'd follow her around, leaving her Balkan Sobranie cigarettes at the stagedoor." Alice gave up the theatre after she married, but remained deliciously theatrical. "She was wonderful. Wonderful! If people came to dinner, she'd wait until everyone was sitting in the front room, then make her entrance. She was also terribly funny, always doing silly voices."

Her parents had a very happy marriage, even though Penelope suspects Alice was quite a bit friskier than Clifford. "She liked to take my sisters and I to Paris, to see sexy films, whereas he liked fishing, and those British holidays where you sit huddled behind windcheaters, pointing to the sky and saying, 'I'm sure it's going to brighten up this afternoon'.''

Once, when she was 14, she was pottering about in her parents' bedroom when she noticed that, squeezed between a book on salmon fishing and another on trout fishing on her father's bedside table, was one called Sex And The Older Woman. "So I asked my mother about it and she said, 'Oh yes, I bought that for your father'."

I don't think anyone doubted Penelope would grow up to act. She was at it from the word go, first with conjuring tricks, then doing plays with her two siters - importing huge rhubarb leaves from the garden to provide the necessary scenery. Any formal education, however, was lacking. Her parents just didn't believe in such things for girls. "I think they hoped that we'd all one day marry nice solicitors from the Borders."

She went to a succession of convents, which she adored - "I loved the nuns. Miss Barafatty. Mother St Joseph. And I loved all the drama and incense" - but never really learned anything. They were, she says, the sorts of places "that majored in needlework". She would like, she says, to have gone on to university, "to do English, if I'd been able to spell". She has a terrible problem, she says, with "whether" and "weather". "I always have to look them up, to see which one to use."

Instead, she went to drama school in London and then, at 25, married Daniel. The marriage didn't work, they divorced, and then, sadly, Daniel died of cancer. Still, they remained excellent friends to the end. "We couldn't manage being married, but always liked each other." He went on to marry Penelope's younger sister, Linda, who nursed him as he was dying. Your ex-husband married your sister? "Yes?" Were you surprised? "Well, Linda had a child the same age as Alice, so our families saw a lot of each other. When Linda told me she and Daniel were in love, I did think it odd for a time, but now I think I rather expected it."

Alice, she says, misses her father dreadfully. They are very alike, "right back to the way they throw their heads back when they laugh". She is extremely happy with Ian and, yes, happens to be a big fan of his, too. She always has been, she says. "I first saw him when I was 17 and had just learnt to drive, so I drove myself to Stratford to see him in Henry VI Parts I and II. I remember thinking he was absolutely wonderful."

Famously, he went on to develop terrible stage fright, which meant giving up the theatre for 16 years. It was Penelope, actually, who got him going again. "He said the only thing that would get him back was a new Pinter play with a part he could play. Well, I was performing at the Almeida when I heard that Pinter had written a new play, Moonlight, with a part in it that Ian could play. I told him about it, but he said: 'No, no, no, no.' So I said: 'Just look at it. It's not important if you don't do it. You have nothing to prove.' He did do it, and then went on to astound everyone with his King Lear. After that, he said he didn't know what all the fuss had been about."

She's not sure what's coming after The Seagull. She is up for the part of Bridget Jones's mother in the film adaptation of the book, "although I haven't heard anything yet." And Crossroads? "Oh, yes, then there is Crossroads, of course." She would make a terrific Meg and, perhaps, Chekhov will check in one day. "Chalet for one, sir? Yes, that's fine, although I can't do anything for The Three Sisters unless they are willing to share. They are? Benny, get their bags! Chop-chop!"