Fascinating, funny memoir of a long life spent in theatre
In a voice as mellifluous as Highland heather honey, Phyllida Law leans forward and confides: “It has been an awfully long road.” One of our longest-serving actresses, Law has been working almost non-stop for more than 60 years. Yet those eyes — as big, blue and bright as gulls’ eggs — are so mischievous, it’s not impossible to imagine, despite the gloriously coiffed white hair, Law is still an ingenue in the wings waiting to take over the lead role, as she first did after joining the Bristol Old Vic in 1952.
“All actors are shadows, but most of the ones I grew up with are dead now, of course.” She looks cheered at the idea. “Oh, it is really awful, but I use the phrase all the time now. I’ll frequently be in the middle of some riveting or witty account of a performance, and then you find yourself slinging it in.”
She adds, half protestingly: “It’s true,” fabulously elongating the word so every delicious letter gets equal attention.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Dead Now Of Course, is the title of 85-year-old Law’s latest book — a fascinating and funny memoir of a long life spent in the theatre and which even now has only just slowed down a tad.
“I did some radio the other day,” she confirms. “I think that’s all I would be up for. But I’m quite surprised I’m still being asked. Age can create this impossible situation in the brain for actors. They know the script back to front, but the words don’t always come out as they are meant to.
“Of course, some elderly actors can just go on. I remember one who worked into his nineties. He’d be all done up and ready to go on, and just ask to be prompted his first line and he was off.” She stops and looks at me, her eyes conveying all she need to: the poor man is … dead now, of course.
Law, on the other hand, is looking spritely. “I do feel well. I am very lucky. I’ve given my car away. I miss it, but not in a horrible way.”
But she has, of course, considered her own demise. “I’d like a humanist ceremony, I think. My best friend, Mildew, went in a cardboard coffin alone. I’d quite like that. It’s frightfully expensive, you know. You pay a lot to die.
“I’d like a bit of jazz, no readings. But I’ve got to have my funeral in the afternoon, curtain up 2.30pm, so people can get to the theatre afterwards, party here another day.”
“People” would include her daughters, actors Emma and Sophie Thompson, Emma’s husband actor Greg Wise, and her four grandchildren. They are a notably close-knit unit, all living in north London near to Law whose home, where we meet, is a fabulous melange of theatrical ephemera and old wooden toys, its windows looking out on to a garden full of blossoms.
Slightly unnerving primitive art hangs on the walls. Law points up to a particularly frightening portrait of a baby in Victorian christening dress and says, with satisfaction: “That one Greg hates, so I’ve put it down for him in my will.”
The décor is a hangover from when Law ran an antiques shop in Islington in the 60s with her hus- band Eric Thompson, the actor and TV producer known as Tom, who was noted for creating The Magic Roundabout, and who died young, in 1982, aged 53.
The couple had met at the Old Vic in London when Law was offered a job as part of the company after her time in Bristol; Thompson was in dressing room 11, Law in dressing room 10.
“The chaps got seven pounds a week, and the women got six pounds. But I earned an extra quid a week helping backstage and in wardrobe. We all took on work to make ends meet, working in the paint dock, waitressing. Tom painted scenery at Sadler’s Wells.”
She climbed the ladder in stages, playing Ronnie Barker’s wife in a Greek tragedy, and touring the West Country with Joan Plowright, who she recalls made rag rugs in the back of the bus.
“I didn’t have that feeling of ‘I want to be a star’. We just took it as it came. I wanted to belong to this world. It was such fun.”
Law does not recall falling in love at first sight with Tom (although she was happy to borrow strands of his hair to make her false eyelashes with): “We got to work on things together. I have a feeling we had a good snog in the back of the bus once.
“And he did say ‘Will you marry me?’ one night by the Christmas tree when he was drunk, but I didn’t respond. I just thought it was bad behaviour. But there was something about him.”
The couple finally tied the knot in Bristol in 1957 during a run of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Tom just said, can we get married on May 25, as my family were all driving down from Scotland to a holiday in France, so it would fit in.
“We got married in the morning — 15 shillings on a dress, 35 shillings on the ring — and then did the matinee and the evening show.”
Did they encourage their daughters to act? “Oh, I wasn’t for putting them on the stage, and I don’t think they want to be attached to you like that when you’re young.
“Sophie was always up a tree somewhere. In fact, I thought Emma, with her brain, would run the NHS. Although with Sophie, there was no question she would end up in the business somehow.”
What are her favourite of their performances over the years? “Oh, when Sophie sang in her most recent musical” — she was nominated for an Olivier for her portrayal of Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls last year. Law leans closer and, like all proud mothers the world over, adds: “Don’t tell her I said so, but she’s extraordinary.”
For Emma, she thinks back a little further, and recalls her daughter’s first gig as a stand-up comic working with Ben Elton after graduating from the University of Cambridge. “She came into this room with 25 quid in her hand in cash and said: ‘I did this all by myself.’” Law also admits that Emma’s airport scene in Love Actually — “the famous bit” — is pretty unforgettable.
“But I can’t say ‘You must be very proud of her’ because that is too selfregarding on my part. They are both my colleagues in a way. They didn’t follow in our footsteps, they rushed past us, trampling on us.”
Law laughs easily and loudly, except for when she recalls losing her husband.
“Clearly, it was awful. I was rather feeble about it. I think the girls would say, I’m not inclined to talk about what I feel. Looking back, I didn’t do it right. I was very contained.” Did she ever consider remarriage? “Well, I never got another offer. Which is out-rage-ous, now I consider it. Not one offer to even turn down. Isn’t that hurtful?” Her whole face is lit up with joyous mock outrage.
So what theatrical offers would she be open to? Having lived through what was surely a golden age of British acting, who could tempt her back to the boards?
“Oh, I’d be scared of Mark Rylance,” she says, fooling no one. “And Mackenzie Crook — he’s rather special. But I’d be frightened of working with him.” I’m not sure it shouldn’t be the other way around.
Phyllida Law may claim she likes nothing more than spending her time “up a glen talking to sheep, no acting required”, but I think she’s still part way through the performance of her delightfully charmed life.
I didn’t have that feeling of ‘I want to be a star…’. We just took it as it came. I wanted to belong to this world.” Phyllida Law, actor
Dead Now Of Course by Phyllida Law is published by Harper Collins, £12.99