Late bloomer

Interview: Julia Kaminski talks to GERALDINE JAMES
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Rose strides towards me along the street on impossibly long, black- stockinged legs. At least, it looks like Rose, the reformed hooker in Band of Gold - shaggy curls, incy-wincy skirt, spiky heels - but the woman who offers me a makeshift seat on the pavement ("In the shade, if you don't mind, I can't go near the sun") sounds rather more like Sarah Layton, the awfully nice colonel's daughter in Jewel in the Crown. In fact, Geraldine James is neither Nice Sarah nor Flawed Rose, although she can identify with both. "It's a very short step from Rose to me," she explains over lunch later. "In fact, sometimes I think there's no step at all."

James, in Manchester to film an autumn sequel to the Bradford prostitutes' drama Band of Gold, is taller and skinnier than you'd expect, especially if you're watching the current repeats of Jewel, set in 1940s India, in which her Sarah is a solidly built, plain girl with a strong line in very proper dresses and suppressed sexuality.

"When we were filming Jewel, in the mid-Eighties, it was only 40 years after the setting of the series, and I could sort of feel Sarah across the time gap. So much had happened to women, and here we all were, going `Yes, Sarah Layton, hey, we're with you-o-o', whereas at the time she felt completely isolated, mad, and wrong, and bad, but she couldn't speak up for herself because she was in that world that said `Tup! Not a word'. You're female, you don't question things. They think she's being difficult if she doesn't smile and want to play tennis every afternoon."

If there's one thing that James does not share with Sarah Layton, it is diffidence. She talks 20 to the dozen, a breathless stream, without full-stops or commas. "Sarah has flashes of humour, but most of the time that's completely repressed, and it was fascinating to play it. When I saw the repeats, I was startled - I didn't remember that I was so uptight and anally retentive, but I think I based it on Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter."

Did she look like Sarah then? "She was meant to be spectacularly plain, but I think the make-up person went a little far!"

India, where she also filmed Gandhi, was a rich experience for James. The people were "absolutely fantastic".

"One waiter in the hotel where we were staying took us all to his mum's for dinner one night. We went to weddings. We went to Simla, which is this extraordinary place up in the mountains, very British, with the Gaiety Theatre or something like that with all these photos from the Forties of these English people doing plays as if they'd been in Woking."

"But I was very frightened, too," she recalls. "I was very insecure as an actress. There was Sarah in her time, with me, Geraldine, in the Eighties, going `You're all right', but I was thinking `I can't do this, I'm no good, I'm hopeless'. Now, 15 years later, I wish I'd had that extra iota of confidence that I now have, so I could have gone, `I can play this part'."

This is a recurring theme: her lack of faith in herself, even now at 46. Why did she continue to act if, even in her thirties, she felt she couldn't do it?

"But I still think I can't do it," she wails. "The only reason I think it less - and this is absolutely, genuinely true - is I'm doing it and I now have a backlog of work. I can feel a little quieter in my soul. And it also matters less than when I was in my thirties. And nobody can tell me I'm not going to be an actress, because I have been an actress. I can go before my maker and say `I was an actor,'" - this in an emphatic voice, presumably one kept specially for addressing one's maker - "and I can say `I've brought a few videos'.

"I have taken risks in my life, like playing Rose. I honestly thought when that series came out that I would be laughed out of the country."

Fears that she was miscast dogged her at the beginning, in the same way that Sarah had felt out of place in the world of the Raj.

"I thought people would go `This is ridiculous, this girl is middle-class, how can she possibly play this creature, who does she think she is? I mean, listen to her'." Scorn drips from these words convincingly. "I honestly thought people would think that, and instead they went `Yeah, gosh,' and so a little bit of me went `Phew! I've got away with it again'." Surely she doesn't feel like this every time? "I do. I think `This time I won't be able to do it, this time I'm going to miss the diving board and go off in the shallow end and there won't be any water in it anyway. I'm going to completely land on my face'."

To James, the crucial thing about Band of Gold is that it must be believable, and must not glamorise prostitution. The first series divided police opinion in the Bradford area, where it is set, between those who felt it increased public awareness, and those who felt it encouraged kerb-crawling and possibly even tempted young women into prostitution, believing it to be glamorous.

"This programme must be authentic. It isn't Dynasty, it's about life on the streets, and if people can see it and believe us and think `That's what these women are like,' they may change their attitudes. Many people dismiss and loathe prostitutes, they think they're the scum of the earth. If we can say they're human beings, and understand what may have led them towards this life and be a little less judgemental; and please can we also talk about the gentlemen who need to use these women's services...

"It has completely changed my own views. I think in some awful way I had a romanticised view of it. I thought it would be easier to play than it is. Within about a week we were wearing these costumes - you have a bit of you that you're selling yourself on, my bit was my legs and my tits [goodness me, that Nice Sarah would never say "tits"], so they had to be fairly well exposed, and that's fine when you're acting, but when they go `Lunch!' you're still exhibiting yourself and we found that you just get looked at. That was very startling, to realise what it would be like, for me," she emphasises, "not to be in control of how I present myself."

Researching Rose brought James into contact with prostitutes in Bradford's Lumb Lane red-light area where she heard all the gruesome details of life on the streets.

"We see them at home making a cup of tea and saying `Christ, it's tough out there' and we realise what it would be like to work in those clothes, in winter, getting into hot cars for 10 minutes and getting thrown out again having made 10 quid, stuffing it into your bra and wandering on to the next street corner. Somebody turns up who is deeply repellent physically, and smells, and wants you to do appalling things, and you're so cold you do it. It ain't a glamorous life by any means.

"You are completely vulnerable; if he whips a knife out... no wonder the girls fear for their lives. They have such low self-esteem. In my experience, almost all of these women have been abused. So they already think of themselves as complete rubbish. The fact that they go off with a man who starts hitting them around somehow fits in with their lives."

James is most scathing of the pimps who lure young schoolgirls into the game. Having a 12-year-old daughter, Eleanor, brings it sharply into focus for her. "That whole pimp thing is so disgusting. They'll seduce very young girls literally by giving them sweets. Buying them nice clothes. Encouraging them, developing their sexuality when they're far too young."

Did it strike a chord when her character Rose discovered, in the second series, that her estranged daughter was a hooker? "I could imagine what it was like for Rose. But I don't relate it to Eleanor very much. I did get very alarmed on one location when we were filming outside a junior school, and somebody said `This is where pimps will identify their likely candidates, and start working on them.' Now if they're strong, secure children with loving families, then they're not going to be taken in by that - I hope."

Does Eleanor feel insecure, with her mother away so often? "Well, it does get tougher for her as she gets older, because she's more aware. When she was a baby, I didn't work until she was about 15 months old, and by the time I went back to work I was going up the wall. I realised, there's a bit of me that is nourished by acting, which is kept at bay when I'm at home being a mum. It's phenomenal to do both, but I can't choose."

The actress in James was born at boarding school in Berkshire, where she felt miscast. "Very early on there were the girls who were good at singing, at the arts, or mathematics or languages, and I wasn't good at anything. I didn't shine. So I became the clown in order to have an identity and at the age of 13 they put me into acting. I had a fabulous teacher, my headmistress's husband, who taught Shakespeare for A-level, and then I found this person called William Shakespeare and a play called King Lear. The teacher took us to see it at Stratford and I remember Eric Porter, Alan Howard, Michael Williams and being completely blown away by it. I worked with Eric Porter on Jewel in the Crown and I remember sitting opposite him and I couldn't believe that he was there, Eric Porter, who had been my major inspiration, with these incredibly long, beautiful hands, and I remember being mesmerised by these hands and just wanting to say to him `I'm here today because of you'. He was wonderful."

As Jewel in the Crown draws to its conclusion at the end of August, Nice Sarah will disappear, to be replaced by Rose, as Gold (the third series of Band of Gold) is screened in October. In the meantime, Geraldine will retire to her "little house" in Sussex with Eleanor and her husband Jo Blatchley, a film producer and director at Rada. AfterGold, James will reappear on screen in a new series of Kavanagh QC, scheduled for next January. "My opposing character to Rose is my wonderful QC in Kavanagh, Helena Harker. She has a very extraordinary, lateral-thinking mind, she does these great loops in her head. I read it and get mentally exhausted and to play somebody who has that mental agility... it's great. I like her very much."

It's some time since she appeared on stage, and she's itching to return. "I want to do theatre; I really, really want to do some more, because I miss it. It's been difficult because there have been things I've had to do personally, that have meant it's quite hard to commit to a long time in the theatre, but next year I will. I'll find something and do it. You feel you're really stretching yourself in the theatre.

"I don't like doing what I've already done. But there's a lot of different kinds of characters that I'd like to play. More comedy, more classical theatre, more European theatre, more movies. I'd love to play a character close to myself in a film... because then it's about revealing, rather than about putting on a character. I try to only do jobs I don't know how to do. I did Moll Flanders although I thought it was not remotely interesting, but Morgan Freeman was going to be in it, and I thought `Christ, I would love to work with Morgan Freeman'. I didn't particularly want to do Portia in The Merchant of Venice until I saw Dustin Hoffman was in it."

Some "extraordinary, exotic" people came to see The Merchant of Venice, she says. "Robert De Niro came to see it in London, and he'd just got off the plane, and Dustin was in a terrible state because De Niro was in, and I thought I was being rather marvellous, which is a dangerous thing to ever think. I knew where he was sitting and I just glanced up to see if I was being appreciated by the great De Niro and he was" - she throws back her head, closes her eyes and opens her mouth - "sound asleep."