'I left school and learnt shorthand'

Secretaries never stayed long with this particular Disney executive. "I could see why," Blethyn recalls. "He was a bit dour." One day he was particularly grumpy. "Excuse me sir," she asked, "are you all right?" He replied that no, he wasn't all right. He had just driven off Waterloo Bridge on his scooter. Fair enough, thought Blethyn. You would be a bit dour after that, wouldn't you? She broke down in hysterical laughter. So, after a while, did he.

The job included distributing films about safety in the kitchen, mainly to schools. More tricky was shipping movies to ships.

"I left school at 15 and learnt shorthand and typing at a 'commercial college' for two years. Being a secretary was considered a very good job in those days." She worked in a bank, a swimming costume factory, the Road Research Laboratory, British Rail and Debenhams, Guildford. Without any idea how to operate one, she manned a switchboard. "I'm not used to this model - could you run over it for me?" she asked on arrival. At another interview, being so soothed by the lilting voice of the employer, she fell sleep.

"Acting never entered my head. Then I was asked to fill in for someone at the Euston Players, the British Rail am-dram group. I still remember my line: 'It's a real dirty old night. Evans the Post [it was set in Wales] says the mist's right down to the pass! Quite thick he said it was'." Other productions followed and at 27 she used her secretarial earnings to fund her drama school course.

What did she get out of the 10 years of take-a-letter Ms Blethyn? "Wages." The shorthand is handy, too, for jotting down messages to yourself which other people can't read. Furthermore, "Being an actor, it's quite useful if you've come in contact with a variety of people: different offices, different jobs. Having worked in all those places is like a store cupboard for me." With 10 years' experience on the shelves, the store cupboard is not going to be emptied for a while yet.

Pride and Prejudice will be released in September