Wendy Craig is bemused: "Apparently I'm a fashion icon." The day we meet to talk about her dÃ©but with the Royal Shakespeare Company, this newspaper's style commentators have declared: "A new generation of designers are raiding their mum's wardrobes to resurrect the look perfected by Wendy Craig in the Seventies." Mumsy is the new sexy according to the piece, which resurrects a still of her as dissatisfied housewife Ria Parkinson in the sitcom Butterflies.
It must be odd to become an icon on the basis of a few beige blouses. She laughs off a 20-year-old mugshot of herself pasted on to the front page beside the headline "Why fashion adores the frump". It's all to do with repressed sexuality, apparently, smouldering beneath box pleats and pussy bows. Well, the character in Butterflies was always on the verge of an affair, and I recall an episode in which she said "ovaries", but the whole thing seems pretty far-fetched. Until a quick trawl of the Internet for Wendy Craig sites reveals a surprising erotic subculture.
On the Net are lovingly maintained databases by American Wendy Craig aficionados documenting every episode of a sitcom career from Not in Front of the Children in 1967 to Butterflies, which ended in 1983. There are also a number of Wendy Craig exclusive picture sites on which there's not a blouse to be seen. I didn't check all the pictures (other library users were raising eyebrows), but you can be certain none of them is of the real Wendy. She may have started her London career in intimate revue, but none of these ladies resembles someone who could have been voted ITV personality of the year by the Variety Club. They are counterfeit Craigs, trading on her reputation as a sex symbol.
Yet a word of warning for anyone with a fetish for taupe tops heading for Stratford-upon-Avon. It is true that Wendy Craig makes her RSC dÃ©but on stage as a mature lady caught in an amorous entanglement. Yet there's nothing dowdy about the frocks that the designer Ashley Martin-Davis has created for her as Mrs Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy The Rivals. In voluminous panniers and train, Craig's Mrs Malaprop promises to be, as her character would put it, the pineapple of elegance.
In The Rivals, Sheridan raised the comic type of the meddling aunt to new heights. Mrs Malaprop's eccentricity of speech has given her name to verbal misapplication, making her one of the most celebrated comic roles in English drama. For the director, Lindsay Posner, to choose Craig for the part was an unpredictable piece of casting, bringing her to the classical stage for the first time. "I still can't quite believe it's happening," she admits.
Fairy godmothers usually make other people's wishes come true, but this time it is the other way round. It all happened in Rhyl, between performances of Robin Hood and Babes in the Wood. "I was playing the fairy godmother - I'm always the fairy godmother - and we'd just done a matinÃ©e. I was lying on the floor in the dressing room." It doesn't sound like an appropriate environment for a star, but Craig is uncomplaining. "It was a lovely dressing room, looking out over the sea. There was a sofa but the bottom had fallen out of it." So there's the fairy godmother, flat on the floor, getting a bit of rest: "And this note was passed under the door saying 'ring your agent'. And she told me the RSC had offered me Mrs Malaprop. I said, 'Oh yeah, pull the other one.'"
It was a long-held ambition to get back to the theatre where her career began. But now that Craig is about to open, she admits to being daunted: "I range from utter terror to exhilaration." The original 1775 cast of The Rivals was pelted with apples during an overlong first night, but Craig's track record in theatre, particularly in comedy, suggests the idiosyncratic piece of casting is actually a smart move by the RSC.
In the late 1950s, the young Craig was part of the legendary early years of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre. "There was no glamour - all the girls in one dressing room, all the boys in another - and it wasn't much of a room to start with." There were successes - John Osborne and Anthony Creighton's Epitaph for George Dillon took her to Broadway. There were controversies - Ann Jellicoe's The Sport of My Mad Mother was loathed by the press and noisily supported by its fans with almost 18th-century intensity. She's proud to have been part of those exhilarating years: "We were very young - we thought it was all ahead of its time."
She enjoyed a golden age of British film-making, too, appearing in Room at the Top, and The Servant with Dirk Bogarde. It all seems to lead logically to a season with a big classical company, but there has been a near-40-year gap between those days and this Stratford season.
"I was asked to go to the RSC when I was a young actress, after the Royal Court. My children were small and at school, and I thought, 'How am I going to manage?' It wasn't a hard choice; I'd have had to leave the children for months on end. But I was told by the RSC, rather unkindly, that I would never be asked again."
So she brought up her family instead, and the writer Richard Waring came up with a sitcom about a woman doing just that. So in Not in Front of the Children, Jennifer (Craig) was married and had ups and downs with three children. Then for Thames TV came And Mother Makes Three, in which Sally (Craig) had no husband and two children. Then Sally married David, who had a daughter (And Mother Makes Five) before five years of Butterflies. That's three and a half TV families, 16 years of awards, national popularity and inadvertent iconic status.
Craig knows that typecasting and a certain snobbery may have affected her career, but doesn't complain. "It's my responsibility, too. I need not have taken those jobs, but they fitted into my way of life. My nights were free. I could put the children to bed. I was just like every other working mum and I enjoyed it."
The truth is that although she is daunted by arriving at Stratford, she is more famous than the rest of the RSC put together. No one else has websites devoted to them (savoury or unsavoury), no one else was voted funniest woman on television by readers of TV Times three years running. Best of all, she's bringing years of comedy acting experience to Mrs Malaprop. "She's not just a funny lady who comes on and shouts," insists Craig, who has worked hard on the character with Posner - "He's absolutely meticulous." Her Mrs Malaprop is based on real sympathy. "I find her quite touching. I get the feeling she's not quite the same class as the others - she's a little bit self-educated. So she pretends to be very confident."
Craig has worked hard for this new phase in her career. "Even when I was laid off, I kept up singing practice, voice work; I wanted to be ready for it. I thought, 'Maybe there'll come a time when I need to have the necessary equipment.' " Even the tough business of making herself heard in panto helped. With the children safely grown up, she's in Stratford at last. There's a nice symmetry to it. All it needs now is for the Royal Court to ask her back, now that the dressing-rooms have been redone.
'The Rivals' previews from 23 March, 01789 403403Reuse content