When Billie Whitelaw was summoned to Buckingham Palace to collect her CBE, she was so frightened that as the Queen struggled to fix the pin on to her lapel, she couldn't say a word. Bold, strong Billie Whitelaw frightened? Frankly, after a few short minutes in her presence, I couldn't help feeling that meeting Billie Whitelaw is probably much scarier than an audience with the Queen.
Her large, penetrating green eyes don't miss a trick. You know from the off that if she can't be doing with something, you'll soon find out - not unlike the born-again, downtrodden Lili, whom she plays in Born to Run, BBC1's current Sunday-night drama series.
But most awesome is her long association with the playwright Samuel Beckett. Ah yes, Billie Whitelaw was suffering for her art way before De Niro and co went on their first Method diet. For Beckett's Happy Days, she allowed herself to be buried up to her chest in mud. For Play, her face was smothered with glue and porridge. For the 1972 production of Not I, she was deprived of sight and sound and strapped into a head vice.
These are the actions of an actress who has pushed herself to the limits of emotional and physical endurance. A quick curtsy in Buckingham Palace sounds like a doddle by comparison. I wonder what's left for her to be genuinely and deeply scared of. Death? "Oh, no. Death's not one of those things that frighten the life out of me," she booms, in a voice that is pure "theatre" threaded with a tamed but residual Northern inflection. "Getting up on stage with the curtain going up frightens me more." Anything else?
"I very often wake up at two in the morning with my stomach going over. Sometimes it's difficult to work out why - it's all the things you've put to one side during the day." On these insomniac nights, she usually heads straight for the fridge and pours herself a flute of champagne.
Hers was not a childhood punctuated by the popping of corks. She was born in Coventry, and her impoverished family was evacuated during the war. When Billie was 10, her father, a Liverpudlian electrician, died at home of lung cancer. "I used to go to bed every night saying, `Please God, let Daddy be dead in the morning. It was awful listening to him crying out in pain." Afterwards, the young Billie developed a stutter, and her mother enrolled her into a drama group at the Bradford Civic Playhouse to help boost her confidence. Before long, she was a regular performer on BBC North's Children's Hour. Now 65, she says that the same stuttering Northern girl still lurks underneath. "It's something I haven't come to terms with. I'm rather ashamed of having the good life I have."
After working with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, she joined the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier, playing Desdemona to his Othello. Since then, there have been innumerable television appearances and many films. She has worked with the biggest and the best, including Marcello Mastroianni - "for pure charm, he takes a lot of beating"; Gregory Peck - "a great charmer too"; and Albert Finney, who must have been even more charming. Well, they did have a romance. "A mild affair - we'd known each other for donkey's years." More recently, she has played Reg and Ronnie's mother in The Krays, and the nanny from hell in The Omen.
Yet it is her long collaboration with Beckett that has attracted curiosity and incredulity in equal measure. Did she love him? "Without question, of course I did. We had enormous empathy. When he died, I didn't realise what an amputation it would be. Three months afterwards, my heart started to behave like a fish that was leaping around in my rib cage." So she must have had a strong idea of what made him tick? "I didn't need to," she retorts briskly. "I wasn't very interested in that. We talked and had coffee and wandered about."
These days, she doesn't do any theatre. Her last live performance was in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf 10 years ago. But it's not because she's not asked. Peter Hall, among others, has entreated her to work, but no. Fear of stage fright got the better of her. "I used to have dreadful stage fright. I was always frightened of letting everyone else down. I had an inferiority complex, which I doubtless still have. When you get real stage fright, it comes like a sledgehammer out of the blue in the middle of something that you know you've done too many times before, and there's no rhyme or reason for it. It's something quite different from being nervous. It's almost paralysing." Has she any idea what brought this about? "I'm sure a psychiatrist would be able to explain that easily to you," she says dismissively. It's hard to tell whether Billie Whitelaw simply isn't given to excessive self-analysis, or whether she's simply an expert at the polite but firm deflection of unwanted questions. "After Beckett, I said, `Why am I still doing this? All those cliches about the confidence of youth are true. When you are older, you know how far short of what it could be you are."
She remains a very attractive women. Slim, with a mane of tousled shoulder- length ash-blond hair, she is remarkably sexy. When I tell her this, she comes over all flustered. "I really should try to do some exercise. Darling, I'm so lazy," she prattles in that ill-at-ease way of someone embarrassed by compliments. She looks particularly good in Born to Run. It's a wonderfully witty script and she gives a bravura performance as the downtrodden Lily, married to a loathsome, domineering businessman. I don't expect that Billie Whitelaw has ever been a doormat. "No, I've sometimes thought I've been one, but that's only because I'm theatrical and dramatic." After Lily's husband has a heart attack, she undergoes a Shirley Valentine-type transformation, leaving him in intensive care while she jets off to Tenerife, to return a changed woman. All theatrical and dramatic, in fact.
"I can't remember when I had such fun in a role, but for me, at my age, to be rogered over the bonnet of a Jaguar ... I said to John McCardle, `I don't know how the hell to do this.' I thought it would be acutely embarrassing, but he was so gentle."
Her own marriage to the writer Robert Muller, now 70, is an extremely happy one. She twice left her first husband, the actor Peter Vaughan, but went back because she didn't want to make him miserable. "Finally, he left me - that was the joke," she comments drily. Subsequently, she met Robert and reckons that within 48 hours she knew he was "the one". "I've never been in love with Robert - I love him; I think one is in love with lovers. I looked at this man and I looked at that incredible cranium
They are, she says, totally devoted to each other. "I know my life will be with Robert until the day I die." In the one direct parallel with Lily, Whitelaw has also been a frequent visitor to the intensive-care unit. Robert suffered a heart attack in 1982 and has recently undergone triple- bypass heart surgery. "He's doing very well now; he'll outlive me," she says breezily - more breezily than you suspect she feels, but in a tone that won't brook any more enquiries. She prefers to sing his praises.
"Intellectually, he has made me very lazy, because he has a fine mind which devours books in three different languages. Socially, he's incredible. He phrases things in this Wildean witty way and it's staggering to behold."
But she is plainly no dullard herself. She is actively involved in an organisation that campaigns for victims of torture, and two years ago she wrote her autobiography - Billie Whitelaw... Who He? Yet for one who appears the mistress of fluid speech, she claims that she is hopeless socially. "I do talk a lot - far more than my husband - but I'm not good at talking to a lot of people. I either talk a lot of rubbish - which I'm sure I do a lot of the time anyway - or I stare at the soup. I'm no good at social presentation. It's what in the North they call being blunt but straight, and what my charming continental husband calls being bloody rude."
Suddenly, she breaks off. "I was going to say I must stop talking about myself, but, of course, you're interviewing me." Such minor outbursts of endearing battiness also crop up whenever you ask her to put a date to something. When, for instance, did she film Born to Run? "Oh, I don't know, sometimes it was cold, sometimes it was warm."
Some people, of course, might say that it was the ultimate sign of battiness to contemplate suicide when her son, Matthew, was taken very ill as a small child. He had meningitis and was given only two days to live. "For me, it was absolutely logical," she insists. Did she tell Robert at the time? "No, no, no, no, no." What did he say when she did tell him? "I can't remember; it was something I'd just have done. It was purely a practical step, it wasn't like a suicide, boo hoo hoo. Not `How awful, my son's going to die. How dreadful, I can't live without him.' I thought, `As he's so little I don't want him to get lost, so I'd better plan it that if he does die I can go with him.' " Nowadays, 29-year-old Matt is very much alive and kicking, and she is the proud "Nana" to 18-month-old Sam.
Home is now a cottage in the country, which she found when she was feeling a bit disgruntled one weekend and took herself off for a drive. "Even when it rains up there, the earth smells beautiful. It's every foreigner's idea of idyllic, unspoilt English countryside. The first thing I heard when I went there was insects - I hadn't heard insects buzzing for too many years. I wander round the garden and I commune with the pheasants and the rabbits and I encourage all the birds."
If truth be told, it can take quite a prod to halt her regular odes to bucolic living. She is visibly shocked when I tell her I hate birds and am jolly glad that we're sitting in a Hampstead restaurant, a stone's throw from her London pied a terre, rather than eyeball to eyeball with roving pheasants. "Nature is the only thing that makes sense to me," she explains in hushed, almost reverential tones. Apparently, if Robert's away, there is even more communing, because then she'll go for three days at a time without speaking to a soul. "I'll sit in my garden and watch the leaves fall off the trees. I've always loved the country. During my childhood, you could see Ilkley Moor from our window, and the garden was like a bit of field wired off."
When she leaves the countryside, it's normally to take her one-woman lecture tours on Beckett to the States. "I suppose I have to come clean and call it lecturing. But it sounds too grand. I chatterbox - a cross between chatting and performing. I've got nothing written down, so I never do the same thing twice." As someone who suffers from stage fright, does she carry copious notes? "No, I've got it all up here." She taps her head. "There's no way I can dry up, because I'll just think of something else to say. All I've got to do is think what Beckett and I did next."
She believes that everything else she has undertaken since Beckett has never quite measured up. "Perhaps it sounds like false modesty, but I know I could have done far more with my acting life than I have. I'm not a great planner so I'm apt to bob along like a piece of driftwood; it sounds like terrible arrogance, but I do think that I have deliberately put a brake on things I think I could do. I had a collaboration with Beckett; I was a conduit for him. But I've never really felt like a proper actress.
"I still feel like that six-year-old girl who was frightened when the bombs were raining down out of the sky in Coventry."
Or the little girl whose nerves sent her racing to the lavatory bowl to be sick when she was doing Children's Hour. That certainly isn't the impression she creates. Has she ever been told that she is, well, a bit frightening? "Yes, I was absolutely astonished," she retorts. With that, she summons a waiter and asks for the remains of the salmon to be put into a doggie bag. "I can't bear waste; it comes from being a war baby," she declares. The waiter, quite overawed, is back within seconds
`Born to Run' continues on Sundays, BBC1, 9.35pm.
Deborah Ross is on holiday.
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