Sunday Times, 08 May 2016
Lesley Manville just changed a mortice lock. She won the 2014 best actress Olivier for Ibsen’s Ghosts. She is a central figure in Mike Leigh’s film, TV and theatre repertory. She was married to Gary Oldman, and they have a son, Alfie. She is the star of Mum, a superb new BBC sitcom. She turned 60 earlier this year, and is looking forward to her bus pass. Neither a needle nor a scalpel has been anywhere near her face. She is one of our greatest actors and — I love this — she has never employed a publicist. But keep that mortice lock in mind: it matters.
“Nice shiny shoes!” she exclaims as I enter the hipsterishly dark room in the Hospital Club, in London, where she has been seated. I claim no credit for the shoes; they happen to be new. But the observation, like the mortice lock, signals her care for domestic detail.
She is small, slender and deceptively fragile in appearance. She wears black boots, a brown jacket, a cream blouse with puffed sleeves and a lace collar, and what I take to be a long brown skirt, which, when she stands, turns out to be culottes. Her face has a certain sharpness, suggestive of watchfulness, and her voice is clear, bell-like and neutrally accented, except for an overtone of working-class southeastern.
Everything seems finished, worked out. Manville is clearly comfortable in her own skin and what she surrounds it with. Her dressing rooms, I read, are like homes from home. Mum, in which she plays Cathy, a recently widowed mother, is written by Stefan Golaszewski, who wrote the triumphant BBC3 series Him & Her, and directed by Richard Laxton, who also did Him & Her, but who met Manville while directing Abi Morgan’s recent BBC1 series, River.
Mum is a gem, with Mike Leighish overtones in the dialogue and characterisation. “It’s a gentle drama about an epic story,” she says.
“Well, when you have a death, the emotions are epic. Because Richard wanted to shoot it and wanted to observe all the characters in it through Cathy, she had to have a wryness and a spark and an intelligence and a humour, otherwise she’d be observing the madness of the characters around her in a way that would be negative for the story being told. Cathy is centred and calm and good and wholesome and funny.”
“I’m more judgmental than she is.”
Cathy is surrounded by far less intelligent and self-aware characters. There’s a couple, a hapless husband and a coldly aspiring wife. There’s her twittish son and his magnificent dumb-blonde girlfriend, Kelly (Lisa McGrillis). There’s one moment in the first episode that captures the point of the show. Cathy’s son comes into the kitchen to announce that her husband’s hearse has arrived, and Cathy says: “Yes.” It’s the way she says it.
“My instinct was to take that down and look sad, but Richard said — and this became the key to playing Cathy for the whole series — just do it so that it’s all right, she’s making it all right for everyone else. She would do the right thing. To take it down would be the selfish choice, so, in the end, she looks up and goes, ‘Yeah’, and makes it all right for her son. That’s real altruism. I imagine that she deals with her own pain very privately.” This is, as I say, a gem.
Anyway, it is time to go back to a key moment in Manville’s real life. This was when, in the early 1970s, she turned down Arlene Phillips’s invitation to join a raunchy new dance group she was forming called Hot Gossip. Brought up in Brighton by her parents — Jean, who gave up ballet dancing when she married, and Ron, a taxi driver — Manville was exposed to a certain showy chutzpah. Jean and Ron were part of the “groovy gin-and-tonic set”.
“There’s a fantastic bit of footage shot on 8mm of them in a sort of dark basement nightclub, my mum in a fabulous cocktail dress. My father was charismatic — he sang, and he would love to get up and sing a few Frank Sinatra songs.” She got two things from Ron: the urge to perform and the will not to put things off, to seize the day and get things done (like the mortice lock). From her mum, she got the dancing.
Anyway, bright though she obviously was, she dropped out of school around the time of her O-levels to go to Italia Conti. It was there that Phillips spotted her and made the offer. She turned it down because of Ron.“It was going to be raunchy, all stockings and suspenders, and it would be on TV. I just thought my dad would be embarrassed, and I didn’t want to embarrass him. My parents weren’t prudes, they were part of the Swinging Sixties in Brighton. I think it was me. I never did anything naughty at school, I was never in trouble. I always stuck to the rules. I wasn’t an anarchist in any way, and I thought this was going to be saucy and naughty and avant-garde — and it wasn’t me.”
So, at 16, not raunchy and not remotely avant-garde, she found herself working on a Blue Peterish show for Westward TV. This involved living in a cheap hotel in Plymouth and eating on her own in cheap restaurants. “Nobody looked after me, nobody asked if I was all right, nobody asked me round to their house for dinner. I was 16!”
This, I point out, was exactly the kind of early-1970s callousness that Jimmy Savile exploited. She looks shocked. “I never thought of that. I suppose it was.”
One way or another, she found acting jobs, usually playing herself — nice girl-next-door types. Then two things happened to her: Mike Leigh and the Royal Court. Leigh, apparently reluctantly, took her on because there was no money to cast from outside the RSC, where they both then were. It turned out she had a talent for his improvising method.
“He got me playing a character that was really not like me, and that nobody had asked me to play before — this rather tarty, a bit gross, in-your-face girl. I loved it, and I loved the liberation of improvising.” She went on, much later, to play her most heartbreaking role for Leigh as the bag of nerves Mary in 2010’s Another Year, a washed-up woman too needy for her comfortable friends.
When she was 23, she got to the Royal Court and, for the first time, suffered a pang of regret that she had abandoned her education. “I was spending my days with Hanif Kureishi, Max Stafford-Clark and Caryl Churchill, and I thought, ‘F***, I don’t know enough.’”
“If you can do, you don’t have to know,” I say.
“That’s what Max and Caryl taught me. They said what I knew was valid, and they wanted what I knew.”
She was on her way, busy in the big league. In 1987, she married a suitably big-league star, Gary Oldman; in 1988, Alfie was born, and three months later Oldman left her. Loaded with work and, suddenly, single motherhood, she fell back on the wisdom of Ron — just get it done.
“I’ve had to do it, I’ve had to make packed lunches and do the school run and go to swimming lessons, and I did it with minimum help. Minimum help! I never had live-in. I compromised my private life, my social life, hugely when I had a young child. I used to finish the job and not go out for a drink, and just get home.”
She married again — the actor Joe Dixon — in 2000, but four years later they, too, split up. She is matter-of-fact about these two failures and talks enthusiastically, though also mischievously, about her continuing good relationship with Oldman. “He’s been through a few wives since me. He was quite taken aback when I got an OBE. He was lost for words — ‘F****** hell, you got an OBE! F****** hell!’ And I thought, yes!”
Ghosts was the next big change in her life, a blistering performance as a mother whose life is crippled by her philandering husband’s misdemeanours. It showed she could take on the big parts, holding a great play together. She has just been in another classical blockbuster, Long Day’s Journey into Night, with the same director, Richard Eyre, at Bristol Old Vic. Again, rave reviews.
And that part I loved about never having had a publicist? She agrees with me that public relations can do a lot of damage to young actors in particular. “Definitely. I have very good friends among young actors, and they are always coming to me for advice, and I am always saying, ‘You don’t need a publicist, it’s all about the work. You don’t want to be on all these front covers because you are beautiful. What happens when you are not beautiful?’ I’ve never employed a publicist in my life, and I never will.”
She also has strong feelings about growing old and the cult of youth. She makes the good point that the world is getting older, yet show business still pursues youth; and the even better point that the dramas of getting older are much more dramatic than those of youth — the decisions taken tend to be final. And she is positively angry about cosmetic interventions.
“Sticking a needle in my forehead! We know how old people really are, so don’t they feel a bit ridiculous when they’re 55 and nothing in their face is moving? I just can’t get my head round it. What is this clinging on to youth? I like my wisdom and everything that’s coming to me with being my age. Why would I want to look 25? I’ve got good friends like Joan Bakewell and Anna Ford, proper women who have aged and embraced age. I adore spending time with them.”
The mortice lock says it all. She changed it herself, as Ron would have, and it is a feminine symbol, encompassing domesticity and security as well as sexuality. She suggests, ironically, that her epitaph should be “She plumbed the depths of agony”, which, on stage, she does. In life, however, she is all security, composure and getting on with things — not the tortured Helene Alving from Ghosts, but the saintly Cathy from Mum.