TELEVISION / One way to treat a Lady. . .: Joely Richardson believes TV actors should try to keep their clothes on. So what's she doing in the BBC 'Lady Chatterley'? Elisabeth Dunn investigates

Elisabeth Dunn
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:48

TRAVELLERS on the rural bus services of Oxfordshire last summer had their journeys enlivened by a little lyrical entertainment. Behind the wall of a country estate skirting the road, Ken Russell was shooting his interpretation of Lady Chatterley's Lover, starring Joely Richardson and Sean Bean.

The scene, the famous, flower-bedecked marriage of 'John Thomas' and 'Lady Jane' (as Mellors and Constance nickname their private parts), called for rain: 'It was raining a bit anyway,' Joely Richardson says. 'But we'd had to have these fire engines with huge hoses spurting warm water over us. They made a long runway out of astroturf so that the camera could follow us, and it was like a race. First Sean, then me, running down the astroturf with music blaring and the crew crouched in the hedge in black plastic bags waiting to rush out and cover us the moment Ken said 'Cut'.

'It was one of the most fun things I've done and sort of ludicrous. Every now and again a bus would go past and you'd see all these heads peering out of the top deck at these lunatics running about naked.'

This was fine. As Richardson says, it emphasised the essential innocence of Lady Chatterley, whose character has been so cruelly besmirched by ungenerous hacks describing her as a bored, upper-class housewife who likes a bit of rough. For Richardson, part of the responsibility of having your name above the titles is to correct this kind of misconception.

As the recent star-studded opening of the Planet Hollywood burger bar in London proved, artists are diversifying into PR management. Ms Richardson required a faxed sample of the sort of article we had in mind and, when she saw it, decided that a little more lineage would be appropriate: 'I think if you speak to the press and have an idea of what you want to put across,' she explains, 'you should have some sort of control. I'm not looking for someone to say I'm beautiful or wonderful - but please get the facts right.'

One should not, for instance, run away with the idea that Richardson threw a wobbly over some of the sex scenes. Not at all. She thought they were very thoughtfully and carefully done. Reports circulating to the contrary are Chinese whispers. What's more, the body you see (and you see quite a lot of it) is the Richardson body, four months after the birth of her daughter. It is not an image-enhancing body double.

There were, in fact, doubles for both Richardson's Constance and Bean's Mellors, employed largely to stand in at those moments when the principals had already worked their permitted Equity hours. This was also an element of modesty insurance: 'Men are completely protected,' Richardson says. 'You are not allowed to show any part of a man's sexual organs on television, but you're allowed to show every single part of a woman. Well, if there had been something Ken wanted . . . Ken has been known to . . . well. I didn't want him not to be happy if there was going to be anything I didn't feel comfortable with. So there was a body double on the set, being paid but not working. There is one shot of her hand picking up a scarf.

'Ironically, I find it really offensive if there is gratuitous sex on television. Most of the time, it doesn't matter if people have their clothes on or off and for the most part it would be better if they kept them on. But I think this is one of the exceptions. There's a scene where Connie goes in to see her husband. She's naked because it leads on from something they were saying earlier. There was no way you could have got round the shock of the naked woman walking through the room in a veil. You couldn't compromise. Of course the idea gave me a moment's pause. I was worried about being so big, but it was great that Ken cast a woman who was large and not in peak physical condition rather than the hundred other ways he could have cast it. It's very dangerous - he has a hit-and-miss quality which is risky but far more exciting than not taking risks at all.'

Richardson believes she was perfect casting. Certainly, her fragile, detached, almost vacant presence and tiny, frightened voice match Lawrence's distracted Lady Chatterley. As a critic of her Lady Windermere at the Bristol Old Vic observed: 'She maintains such perverse serenity that one doubts her own belief in the character.' While her life may not bear any resemblance to Lawrence's heroine, she empathises a lot: 'I'm a completely modern woman - I'm married (to Tim Bevan - whose production company, Working Title, made My Beautiful Laundrette) and I have a baby and I'm not in her situation at all. But she's very lost at the beginning. She feels incredibly isolated - as does Mellors - and I think a lot of people go through periods when they feel like that, imprisoned in a world full of nothingness.'

Joely Richardson is 28. The daughter of the late Tony Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, she spent her early childhood in America, moving to Chiswick with her mother, sister and brother to go to the Lycee and later St Paul's Girls School, where she acquired a taste for competitive sport. Those were the days when the Redgraves were in full revolutionary flow and something of a blur in the life of the young Joely: 'We certainly didn't have a film-star life. People were always surprised that the house didn't have a swimming pool and a marble staircase and gold taps. As children, we didn't really understand what my mother's politics were and didn't understand why she was away so much. I think that was the reason why we tended not to want anything to do with it.'

At 14, pining for America, Joely went to boarding school, first in Florida and then, until she was 18, in California. 'I was a bit wilful as a teenager. Going to school in America was absolutely what I wanted to do. I rebelled against the idea of acting for ages and I used to get very irritated by people saying: 'Ah, with your family, you're going to be an actress.' But my father always used to encourage us to put on entertainments for the grown-ups and I really loved doing that. So when I was about 16, I thought: I can either ignore all that and let it go or I can take the bull by the horns.'

She returned to Chiswick and Rada; she joined the RSC for a year (where she first met Sean Bean). She appeared in David Hare's Wetherby with her mother, though they never met on the set. She worked with Hare again on Heading Home and, memorably, with Peter Greenaway on Drowning by Numbers. More recently she spent seven months in Hollywood making a musical with Nick Nolte.

'I think the family does help to start with,' she says. 'You get seen. They introduce you and maybe you'll get a job that doesn't carry an awful lot of weight. After that, I think it can be a hindrance because you have to banish comparisons. With all due respect, I think interviewers carry a lot of baggage about my family which isn't really relevant.'

'Lady Chatterley's Lover': BBC1, Sun 6 June.

(Photographs omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments