The Saturday Interview

Lesley Manville: ‘Is there anybody left on the planet that thinks The Crown is a documentary?’

The Oscar-nominated star of ‘Mum’ and ‘Phantom Thread’ – and newly minted Princess Margaret in ‘The Crown’ – throws down the royal gauntlet to Adam White

Saturday 12 November 2022 06:30 GMT
‘The Crown humanises the royal family, and it shows that if you prick them they bleed like anybody else’
‘The Crown humanises the royal family, and it shows that if you prick them they bleed like anybody else’ (Shutterstock)

Lesley Manville has slammed down the portcullis. “It’s a political situation. It’s a Netflix situation. It’s not a Lesley Manville situation.” I’ve only asked the new Princess Margaret in The Crown whether she’s ever acted in something so contentious. But since stepping into the role of the Queen’s sister in season five of the blockbuster drama, and being on the front line of an increasingly surreal controversy about its relationship to the truth (“inaccurate, hurtful… crude sensationalism,” roared Dame Judi Dench), Manville has mastered the art of deflection. Even Netflix has told her she’s very good at it. “It’s a bit of a minefield, to be honest, but I think I handle it pretty well.” I’m lucky, she tells me, that I’m only chatting to her today and not her and her co-stars. “I’ve done some press with Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce, and when you get the three of us together – nobody’s crossing that line.” She hoots. “We’re quite a force to be reckoned with. I wouldn’t try it if I were you!”

I think Manville is saying that she could take me in a fight. Which is absolutely accurate. Also a bit surreal. Not nice, gentle Lesley Manville, surely? So piercingly melancholic in Mike Leigh’s Another Year. So endearingly spirited in the recent Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. So sweetly, fussily mumsy in, well, Mum – her cherished BBC sitcom. It’s only later I realise she’s practically quoting the character she played to an Oscar nomination in 2017, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. “Don’t pick a fight with me,” she warns her grumpy, dictatorial brother Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis). “You certainly won’t come out alive.” Manville is marvellous in that film, Anderson’s camera repeatedly fixing itself tightly on her face. It’s a kaleidoscope of ambiguity – cryptic, mischievous, penetrating. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by how formidable she is.

“I want to give credit to Mike Leigh, because I’ve never been typecast in my life,” the 66-year-old says proudly, spectacles on, kitchen lights beaming down on her over Zoom, brass knuckles presumably just out of shot. “I went from playing a cleaning lady in Mrs Harris to playing Princess Margaret – and that’s because of him.” Of all Leigh’s regular collaborators, Manville has worked with him the most: seven films, four plays, each character wildly different from the other. Lonely divorcées. Nouveau riche housewives. Pioneering scientists. Never royalty, though. But as intriguing as a Mike Leigh take on the monarchy could be, for now The Crown will have to do.

That said, it’s a difficult show to talk about. Not the show that Manville made, nor the one that we’re all probably streaming on Netflix right now, but the “idea” of The Crown – that ahistorical “barrel-load of nonsense”, as John Major recently called it. When I broach that (confusingly melodramatic) interpretation of The Crown, Manville lets out a sigh. She thinks it’s all very silly. “Is there anybody left on the planet that thinks The Crown is a documentary?” she asks me. It’s doubtful, I reply. “I don’t think I’ve played leading roles in documentaries, as far as I’m aware.” She puts her index finger to her chin. “But I’ll check my CV.”

She has a theory about it all. When filming finished on season five of the series last year, Manville did a few small interviews chatting about succeeding Vanessa Kirby (of seasons one and two) and Helena Bonham Carter (three and four) in the role of Margaret. The mood was very different, she says, with no journalist asking her questions about the ethics of being in the show. She breaks it down for me. “Three and a half years ago, I was asked to play Princess Margaret in the final two seasons of The Crown,” she recalls. “It was an absolute no-brainer.” She was giddy. She filmed season five. She was content. Then the Queen died. “So everyone now [has] heightened feelings. People are starting to say, well, ‘Are lines being crossed? Is The Crown going too far?’ But The Crown has always made a drama of a very world-famous family, while underlining the fact that it’s a drama. We’re not talking about anything that people don’t know, because it was written about on the front pages back then.”

Still, both she and The Crown’s head writer and showrunner Peter Morgan have been open about presenting the truth as closely as they can, while massaging it for dramatic effect. Margaret’s relationship with divorcee Peter Townsend, for example, wasn’t exactly blocked by the Queen as much as by an outdated royal law passed in 1772 that the Queen felt compelled to follow. But the show slightly eschews that in favour of a more simplistic narrative – all the better to aid dramatic tension between the sisters, clearly. But Manville says that part of the joy in playing Margaret was interpreting and dramatising the things we know to be true.

We don’t know, so we have to invent. That’s what writers do. That’s what Peter Morgan has done

“They could be perfectly lovely, delightful people, but I’ve never been out to dinner with any of them, having a good ol’ chinwag, spilling the beans,” she says. How she approached Margaret was similar to how Margaret has always been approached by Morgan. It sounds like one of those paint-by-number books. At first you have a thin, black-and-white outline, but the picture only comes to life once you fill in the colour yourself. “We don’t know, so we have to invent,” she says. “That’s what writers do. That’s what Peter Morgan has done. That’s what Shakespeare did. What actors do is interpret what a writer has written. But I think The Crown is very sympathetic to the royal family. It humanises them, and it shows that if you prick them they bleed like anybody else.”

But does it feel different – or hurt, even – when the show is criticised not by politicians or royal hangers-on, but Manville’s peers? She shrugs. “As far as I’m aware – and you will be able to correct me if I’m wrong – it’s only one peer at the moment.” That’s true, I say. Some – including Bonham Carter – have called for a disclaimer to be placed on the show, to drive home the fact that it’s a dramatisation. But Dench seems to be the only actor who’s properly gone in on the programme of late.

“They’re in a position to say something and be listened to,” Manville says. “I don’t really want to go up that avenue. I don’t want to go there. Because fair enough, it’s their opinion. And that’s fine. I don’t have enough feelings about it either way, to be honest. My responsibility to The Crown is to play Margaret, do a selection of press pieces to help the show, and…” She trails off. “I don’t want to get into a political quagmire about it all.” Plus, she adds, “once the series goes out and people start watching it, they’re just gonna go, ‘Wow, isn’t it great to have The Crown back? Isn’t it amazing!’. In two weeks, I hope, all of this [controversy] will be forgotten about.” I’m inclined to agree. British people do love a momentary whinge, after all.

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The Crown season five is set between 1991 and the summer of 1997 – and we all know what happened then. It’s a period of great strife for the royals, with the family recoiling from sights both sad (the Windsor Castle fire; Charles and Diana’s divorce) and terrifying (Fergie getting her toes sucked on the cover of The Sun). We find Margaret in a solemn state, coughing forebodingly (she died following illness and a series of strokes in 2002) and saying goodbye to a terminally ill Peter (Timothy Dalton). She continues to blame her sister for their scuppered union. “Without sun and water crops fail, Lilibet,” Margaret cries at her sister in season five. “Peter was my sun. My water. And you denied him.”

Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret in ‘The Crown’ (Netflix)

“I’m playing her at a time when she was really quite lonely,” Manville says. “She didn’t have a partner any more. She was getting older. She was making, by all accounts, a decision to be more supportive of her sister.” That’s all the stuff we know, she says. “But what was that loneliness really like? What was that time really like? It’s a wonderful space to dig into.” That’s where the speculation comes in. “We do have a great research team, so it’s not just random drama taken from nowhere without any substance or backbone. Peter does his thing with it, then I’m the conduit.”

She says it’s a total coincidence that Staunton, playing Queen Elizabeth II, is also a Mike Leigh regular. There are similarities, though. “Our ages; how long we’ve been acting. We’re both very big, established stage actresses. We’re not afraid of those big, classical roles. But I think the important thing is that you can’t have a titan of the stage and screen like Imelda and put her with somebody who’s a bit of a beginner…”

Intriguingly, Manville’s beginning mirrors where she’s ended up. Her first professional acting job was aged 16, dancing in the chorus of a long-forgotten musical about Queen Victoria called I and Albert. She was fresh from the Italia Conti stage school, with the jazz hands to prove it. “I was ‘showbiz girl’,” she says. “I had a great voice and I could dance, but I didn’t think at all about acting.” Her education was a bugbear. She’d largely dropped school to perform, but then experienced resentment and anxiety about it once she met other actors who hadn’t. “John Schlesinger directed I and Albert, and he was giving us this note to be more hostile in a scene,” she remembers. “And I didn’t know what ‘hostile’ meant. So I was just looking around, copying what everyone else was doing. I had an enormous chip on my shoulder for quite some time that I wasn’t university educated.”

That began to slip away once she started working at London’s Royal Court Theatre in her early twenties, first auditioning for Leigh at 22 and then appearing in plays by heavyweights such as Caryl Churchill and Edward Bond. “That was the beginning of my education, really. I learnt that I did actually have something to bring to the table. I could act!”

Manville has had a rolling sea of a career since then. On stage, she’s done everything from Shakespeare and Ibsen to a West End production of Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother. There’s been an Olivier, a Bafta, an OBE and a CBE. All of that before Phantom Thread took her to Hollywood at the age of 61, leading to a flurry of dubiously sourced articles claiming she’d finally “made it”. Her range is extraordinary, but the characters that stick most are the ones that seem to plumb the true depths of despair – not showily, though, but with a kind of silent, realistic tremor. Day-drinking isolation in Another Year; festering in a house she calls a “university of suffering” in Ibsen’s Ghosts; so hurt she’d happily burn down a castle out of revenge in The Crown. A journalist once wrote that she “excels at unhappiness”.

Manville as the lonely divorcee Mary in Mike Leigh’s ‘Another Year’ (Shutterstock)

“I sometimes astonish myself with the depths of grief I can call on,” she says. She just doesn’t have the personal trauma to back it up with. “I had a really happy childhood. My parents didn’t separate.” Still, she had this strange understanding of it all. She remembers being in a religious studies class in her Brighton primary school as a child, and answering her teacher’s question with almost surreal gravity. So her teacher took her aside once class was over, worried.

“She said, ‘Are you all right? Is everything OK at home? Because you’ve spoken very deeply about what I asked you, and I can’t understand how you can access that type of feeling unless something really bad is happening in your life’.” Manville shivers at the memory. “And it couldn’t have been further from the truth.” She tells me she’s absolutely had her fair share of pain – she’s not just one of the lucky ones. But that, if she had to try and say what she does when she’s acting, it’s “being confident enough and unashamed enough to rip myself open”. She cups her hands and holds them aloft, as if presenting me with her heart. “‘Right, here it is.’”

“I don’t think there was ever a performance where I’ve come off stage and thought, ‘Dammit, I really didn’t get there tonight.’ Somehow I always do. Just don’t ask me how!” She says this brightly, thrusting a finger at me down her Zoom camera. One last surreal, thrilling, glamorous threat of violence for the road.

‘The Crown’ is streaming on Netflix now

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