Fas­ci­nat­ing, funny mem­oir of a long life spent in the­atre

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BOOKS - By VIC­TO­RIA LAM­BERT

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

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