Vanessa Redgrave: Nothing like a dame

Vanessa Redgrave is as famous for her radical politics as for her acting. So why did she agree to play a pillar of the Establishment ? the wife of Winston Churchill? Brian Viner finds out

Wednesday 10 July 2002 00:00 BST

Vanessa Redgrave is running late. She had an appointment at three, which she forgot about because she got all wrapped up worrying about South Korea. Not about human rights abuses there, but about their capacity to score a golden goal against Italy in extra time in the recent World Cup. Reassuringly, it seems she is quite a footie fan. Anyway, because she has fallen behind schedule, I am asked to wait in a sitting-room, which gives me the opportunity – there is no polite way of putting this – to snoop.

Redgrave lives in a ground-floor flat, in a mansion block currently shrouded in scaffolding, on a busy road in west London. It is not quite the grandeur I had anticipated. She shares the flat with her mother, the actress Rachel Kempson, Lady Redgrave, who, according to the numerous birthday cards on display, has just turned 92.

On a table there are some striking black-and-white photographs of Redgrave, I would guess taken in the Seventies, with her daughters, Joely and Natasha Richardson, and her former husband, the late Tony Richardson. The bookshelves are laden with predictable titles; biographies of Trotsky, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Virginia Woolf. Of Too Frisky! the Jim Davidson Joke Book there is no sign. There are lots of videos: among others Brief Encounter, Othello, The Lavender Hill Mob.

Finally, a young South African, whom I take to be an au pair of some sort, ushers me through to the small back garden to meet Redgrave. She looks her 65 years, yet her beauty is somehow undiminished. She has inherited her mother's fine bone structure. Pale blue eyes glitter behind oval tortoiseshell glasses.

The reason for my visit is Friday's transmission, on BBC2, of The Gathering Storm, an absorbing drama written by Hugh Whitemore about Winston Churchill in the years leading up to the Second World War, and his relationship with his wife, Clementine. Albert Finney is startlingly good as Churchill; Redgrave is similarly fine, in a more understated way, as Clemmie.

"I said I'd do it, and then heard that Albie had come on board," she says. "That was a great day. We first worked together at Stratford years and years ago, in a fantastic season. We both played lovers in A Midsummer Night's dream; Charles Laughton was Bottom. Albie was understudying Olivier's Coriolanus, I was understudying Mary Ure's Desdemona, Paul Robeson was playing Othello..."

As elegant as Redgrave is, it is her voice – soft, slow, precise – that transfixes. She adds that on agreeing to play Clemmie, she contacted Mary Soames, the Churchills' daughter. "She was delightful. An absolutely charming woman, bright as a button and more, a lot more.

"She told me some invaluable things. She said 'please, please don't let the hair people make your hair look impeccable, because my mother always did hers herself'. Which tells one something about the person, don't you think? She also told me that her mother read every newspaper, every day. Churchill had a full set for him, from The Times to the Daily Worker, she had a full set, and there was a full set for whoever was staying in the house. Clementine always wore gloves to read the papers, because the print comes off. I thought, what a sensible idea. After all, the print still comes off."

Redgrave gives a thoaty chuckle, and lights up a Silk Cut.

"I read a lot of their letters to each other. What isn't in the film is that they wrote to each other all the time, even when they lived in the same house. What also interested me was that she was worried stiff about their economic situation. He had to write x-number of words per week for them to be able to pay their bills. Obviously I've got to work x-amount of hours to pay my bills, which has caused me a lot of worry from time to time, but he was having to work around the clock."

Mary Soames approved of Redgrave's portrayal of her mother. "Which was a big relief. My own parents were not nearly as famous, but I know how I would feel to see some drastic parody of them."

Her father was, of course, the distinguished actor Michael Redgrave, and loath as she is to draw comparisons between the Churchills and her own family, I venture that they are both dynasties, albeit one political and the other theatrical. Indeed, on 30 January, 1937, at the Old Vic following a performance of Hamlet, in which Michael Redgrave played Laertes to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, it is said that Olivier interrupted his own curtain call to tell the audience, with characteristic bombast: "Tonight, a great actress was born. Laertes has a daughter."

Redgrave sighs. "It always amazes me but it did actually happen," she says.

So what of this business of dynasties? Was her career determined by nature or nurture? "I think it's a combination of both," she says. "Without the nurture, the surroundings, that particular molecule of the gene might not have the chance to develop. But take the case of Al Pacino. He told me that it was seeing a performance of The Seagull in the Bronx, when he was 12, that gave him the incentive to become an actor.

"Edith Evans once said something to me that I will never forget. It was during that remarkable season at Stratford with Albie, and because I was my dad's daughter, she talked to me a lot about her philosophical points of view. She said it was her belief that we'd got it all wrong thinking that genius is exceptional, that genius was meant to be the normal state of human beings, and what is it that stops us? I thought that was great."

Redgraves's own genius has frequently been obscured, or at any rate sidelined, by her political activism. Notably, at the 1977 Academy Awards, when in receiving her Best Supporting Actress award for Julia, she criticised the "Zionist hoodlums" who had been picketing cinemas, and threatening worse, in protest at her support for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. After the ceremony, all hell broke loose. Many Hollywood producers refused to employ her. A quarter-century on, does she regret any of that?

"I don't regret what I said [in fairness, the full text of her tirade is significant: the so-called hoodlums' behaviour, she added, was 'an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression']. But one regrets enormously that people would not wish to employ me because of my support for the Palestinians."

I wonder, does she ever reflect that her brilliant acting career has been in some ways undermined by her career in controversy? The pale blue eyes seem to grow paler. "It is outside my control and my concern," she says, flatly.

Finally, she has her Oscar, and countless other acting awards, but is it true that she declined a damehood? She smiles. "My difficulty is in receiving anything that says British Empire, because I am a Unicef special representative at the service of children from any country. If there were no mention of the British Empire, I would be as honoured as anybody. If I were asked to be a baroness, for example, I would see that in a different light." Just think, she and Margaret Thatcher could go out baronessing together. Perhaps wisely, I let this thought flit away, on the gentle Chiswick breeze.

'The Gathering Storm' is on BBC2 on Friday at 9pm

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