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Interview

Frances de la Tour: ‘There could be another poll tax situation where people come out in the street’

The Harry Potter and ‘Hugo’ star talks to Jessie Thompson about the new series of ITV crime drama ‘Professor T’, reflecting on the ‘abusive’ Hector in ‘The History Boys’, working with Peter Brook, and her support for JK Rowling

Thursday 15 September 2022 06:30 BST
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‘I think at a certain age you just go, well, I can’t do that anymore,’ says Frances de la Tour about theatre acting
‘I think at a certain age you just go, well, I can’t do that anymore,’ says Frances de la Tour about theatre acting (PA)

I’m writing a letter to Richard Curtis on behalf of Frances de la Tour. Release the director’s cut of Love Actually – for the sake of the nation. The silken-voiced Harry Potter and Seventies sitcom star was originally among the crème de la crème British thesps starring in the 2003 film, playing Anne Reid’s dying, bed-ridden partner – but both actors ended up on the cutting room floor. “Oh yes, we had a lovely scene,” she says. “And I think it was the only gay scene,” she remembers. “It’s odd that they cut it. Maybe it was too dark to bring into it. Because it ended up being quite a light and fluffy film, didn’t it?” It could have made the affectionately derided Christmas film into something quite different – more progressive, less cloyingly twee. But, still, Curtis has manners. “At least he wrote to me and said we’re terribly sorry but it’s got to be cut.”

You might argue, though, that an actor as unusual as De la Tour has no place in cheesy films where “love” gets a capital L. The 78-year-old three-time Olivier winner has an edge – an unhurried, imperial air. There was no surprise when the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? found her ancestors to be aristocrats. Listen to her voice – crisp, deep, laconic – and it may seem a little incongruous to imagine her in any other profession. She began her career at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Sixties; in recent years, she’s had roles in franchise films such as Enola Holmes and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and worked with Martin Scorsese on his big-hearted family picture Hugo. There have also been TV comedies Vicious and Big School, and she’s been feted for the three Alan Bennett plays she’s performed in. She admits she’s now working less “because of my age”. I call her at home on her landline, and she’s amiable – but you sense she wouldn’t suffer fools, in fact anyone she took against, gladly or otherwise.

We’re talking because De la Tour is reprising her role in ITV’s Professor T, a British remake of a Belgian crime drama about a Cambridge criminologist with OCD (played here by Ben Miller). It’s characterised by tonal shifts like handbrake turns: dark one minute, comically surreal the next. As his mother Adelaide, De la Tour was an immediate fan favourite, wearing fluffy hats and giving bubble baths to her chihuahua. Their relationship – fraught, but with more tender depths – takes the show to unexpected places. “They are obviously very, very dependent on each other. I mean they’re useless, in a way, together because they’re so different,” but “there’s a deep love there.” A scene in which they danced together on a rooftop was borne out of a moment of spontaneity with the director. “There are these moments that show their closeness. And then she comes out with something ridiculous. And he comes out with something off-kilter. And they’re completely at odds with each other.”

The resurgence of quality TV drama is “welcome”, De la Tour says. “[TV] used to be frowned on years and years ago – that it could never compete with cinema. But it has done. When I was younger, it wasn’t the case.” She notes that there were some popular comedies; one happened to be Rising Damp, about a terrible landlord and his unfortunate tenants. De la Tour played sophisticated spinster Miss Ruth Jones, and it remains one of her best-known roles. The show ran for four series between 1974 and 1978 and had an audience of between 15 and 20 million a week. In previous interviews, she’s seemed exasperated when it comes up. Only because, she tells me now: “There’s so much work there. I’m not angry about it. It’s just annoying. Because it’s just one thing, after so many.”

A new generation has fixated on a different role: De la Tour’s performance as giantess and Hagrid squeeze Madame Maxime in the Harry Potter films. Parents come up to her in the park and ask her to say hello to their children; she doesn’t mind. “It’s nice to see their little faces light up because they are children. It’s nice that I can give them a smile. And they always say, ‘Oh, you’re not very tall, are you, in real life?’ And I go, ‘No, I’m not. I just played a giant, I’m not actually a giant’,” she chuckles. “And their eyes get bigger and bigger, it’s very sweet.”

Frances de la Tour as Madame Maxime in the Harry Potter series (Alamy)

Of course, the Harry Potter film franchise has been blighted by controversy because of JK Rowling’s much-publicised comments about transgender people. Is it right that younger cast members have distanced themselves from the author? “Well, I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. It’s their view, you know what I mean? They’re perfectly entitled to their view,” De la Tour says. “I just hope it hasn’t hurt her work. Because she’s a wonderful writer and she’s produced a great volume of writing that is loved all over the world. So I think she needs support,” she says. “But I think a lot of that is misunderstanding. I don’t think, at all, she was against any rights of people, men or women. I didn’t feel she was against anybody having the right to be what they want to be.”

But it is De la Tour’s respected stage work that has been the biggest passion of her career. “That’s where I started. That’s what I dreamt of being. That’s what I trained for,” she explains. “So I think that’s where the source of my energy for wanting to be an actor is rooted.” Many have a particular fondness for her performance as the kind but cutting teacher Mrs Lintott in The History Boys, which first opened at the National Theatre almost 20 years ago, went to Broadway and was later made into a film. It launched the careers of James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett, and won De la Tour a Tony. “Can’t believe it,” she says, straight away, on mention of the play. “Because it really does feel like yesterday. Some of the work one does feels like a century ago. And then other things you think, oh, that was only a few years ago, because it’s still so alive in my mind. And I think in all of the boys’ – well, they were boys, young men. All those actors, they were like 21 or 22, well, now they’re nearly 40!”

De la Tour with the film cast of ‘The History Boys’, including the late Richard Griffiths, Russell Tovey (far right), Dominic Cooper (front centre) and James Corden, back row, second from left (Fox Searchlight/Kobal/Shutterstock)

One barnstorming speech, in which Mrs Lintott spoke of “how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude”, had the audience clapping every night – on Broadway in particular, where “it used to get a huge whoopla”. (Another continental difference: “We could use very firm expletives in England but on Broadway, you couldn’t as much.”) Being the only woman in the cast was “oh, rather wonderful. I felt very honoured really, and very loved. And they sent me up rotten as well, which was great. So I sent them up rotten.” In Bennett’s diaries, he described one moment of backstage back-and-forth when he saw “Russell Tovey in the wings murmuring to Ms de la Tour, ‘Frankie, if I weren’t gay would you shag me?’ She looked him up and down before saying dubiously, ‘I might’.”

Brilliant though the play is on the value of serious thought and engagement in culture, rather than hotshottery and shallow provocations, it’s difficult to know if it would have become so beloved were it staged today. Hector, the genial general studies teacher (played by the late Richard Griffiths), is notoriously gropey. “It had a slight danger line in it because he was abusive – there’s no other word for it, really. And it was treated with jollity, and kind of seriousness as well, but it wasn’t over-seriously dealt with.” But she concludes: “I think it tackled the question and it tackled it well.”

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With Peter Brook, I was working with the best director in the world

Frances de la Tour

The death of director Peter Brook earlier this year has given her cause to reflect on another one of her defining theatre roles. She played Helena in Brook’s radical, carnivalesque Midsummer Night’s Dream, now considered one of the greatest modern Shakespeare productions. Her voice warms at the memory. “It was the best moment of my young life, really.” She’d been doing “bits and bobs” at the RSC, working her way up to a bigger part, “and then the Dream came up. And it was like a dream. Because I was working with the best director in the world. I was 25 or 26. And it was an amazing thing to do.” It went all over the world, including her first stint on Broadway. Working with Brook has been “hard to match”.

“There was no ego in the man at all. It’s just about the work. And he was incredibly affectionate with us. And respectful. I think he really did appreciate actors and what they do, and a lot of people don’t. Hence we’re called names, like luvvies, and things like that. That would never, never, never pass his lips, once.

Although she’s now working less, she has a busy life as a grandmother – she has two children and four grandchildren. She’s not on any social media, so ignore a Twitter account that declares “What is really fun is Love Island!” under her name. (“They ought to get off, is all I can say.”) She describes herself as a life-long socialist. “I see no reason to change my views on that. I think we’ve been proved right, quite honestly, with what’s happening with so many nationalist governments all over the world. Low practices in high places.” The political situation in the UK is, she says bluntly, “a disaster” and the knock-on effects of the war in Ukraine can’t be solely blamed. “Care for the economy and distribution of wealth has not been forthcoming, long before the war. The war has sort of accelerated everything and made it much worse.”

Frances de la Tour with Ben Miller in ‘Professor T' (ITV)

As to whether there’s anything that can give us hope: “I don’t think these words like ‘hope’ come into it. It’s about looking at what’s going on, and what one can do about it. In the end, it is down to the people. For the economy, for starters, there could be another poll tax situation where people do come out in the street and say, ‘Well, actually, enough really is enough. We can’t pay our bills. What are you going to do about it?’ In the end, it is all of us, what we think individually, and how that becomes a collective.”

It’s obvious politics and theatre are two of the chief preoccupations of De la Tour’s life; she speaks of them with the same clarity and conviction. But, with firmness and some regret, she says she won’t be returning to the stage. “I can’t now. I think at a certain age you just go, well, I think I can’t do that anymore.” In television, “all those things people might find a bit over the top” – like being driven everywhere – “are actually really important because it means older actors can continue working until they drop dead, basically”. She isn’t sure people understand what hard work theatre is: preparation begins from the moment you wake up, use of your voice is limited during the day, “and if you’re bringing up children at the same time, which I was, it’s extremely taxing. But,” she says, with feeling, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

‘Professor T’ returns to ITV on 16 September

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