Ôtrust the au­di­ence and trust the ma­te­ri­alõ

The re­doubtable ac­tress on un­ac­cept­able man­ner­isms and turn­ing down Alan Ben­nett

Country Life Every Week - - Interview -

BEATRIX POT­TER was fond of mice, be­friend­ing the noc­tur­nal vis­i­tors to her child­hood bed­room. Ear­lier this year, in a tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary mark­ing the 150th an­niver­sary of the writer’s birth, Pa­tri­cia Rout­ledge was seen peer­ing un­der a bed as Mus mus­cu­lus nib­bled away in a blood­cur­dling close-up. Does this mean the dis­tin­guished ac­tress shares her hero­ine’s ro­dent fas­ci­na­tion? ‘Not par­tic­u­larly,’ she replies, weakly. ‘But I just got on with it. There is one scene where a mouse was in the palm of my hand and, of course, he left his call­ing card.’

Miss Rout­ledge, whose looks and mind be­lie her 87 years, shared the screen with more ob­vi­ous élan at other points in the pro­gramme with a rab­bit, a hedge­hog, a par­rot and Pot­ter’s fa­mous grey Herd­wick sheep. De­spite a di­verse pro­fes­sional ca­reer that be­gan with her play­ing Hip­polyta in A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream at the Liver­pool Play­house in 1952, she ad­mits to be­ing very ner­vous about her non-act­ing role. ‘It’s the first time I’ve ever been a pre­sen­ter, an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ex­er­cise from hid­ing be­hind a char­ac­ter. There’s a kind of naked­ness about it.’

Need­less to say, she car­ried off The Tale of Beatrix Pot­ter with style. Work­ing with pro­ducer-di­rec­tor Ian Denyer to shape the script to al­low her own voice to come through, she now looks back on the ex­pe­ri­ence as one of the hap­pi­est of her ca­reer. ‘I’m proud to say we were nom­i­nated for a Royal Tele­vi­sion So­ci­ety award, al­though, in the end, the prize went to a pas­try maker from Don­caster. Well, cook­ing a sausage is con­sid­ered an art­form now, isn’t it?’

Miss Rout­ledge’s in­ter­est in Beatrix Pot­ter first stirred when she played her on stage in 1997. ‘It sounds bit high fa­lutin’, but, such was her per­son­al­ity, she took over and I’ve been fas­ci­nated by her ever since.’

As well as the ex­quis­ite, self­il­lus­trated books, which still sell more than a mil­lion a year, and sci­en­tific en­deav­ours that in­cluded a pa­per on my­col­ogy, Miss Rout­ledge points to Pot­ter’s pi­o­neer­ing con­ser­va­tion­ism. ‘It’s due to her and one or two oth­ers, such as the Angli­can priest Canon Rawns­ley, that the Lake District is still as un­spoilt as it is to­day, and she helped plant the seeds of what be­came the Na­tional Trust.’

If Pot­ter was a Lon­doner who adopted Cum­bria, Miss Rout­ledge has done the re­verse, as a north­erner who moved south. Born in Birken­head, Cheshire, she’s lived in Chich­ester, West Sus­sex, within walk­ing dis­tance of the Fes­ti­val Theatre, for the past 20 years. ‘I’ve had a con­nec­tion with the place since 1969, when I first came to here to play op­po­site one of my idols, Alas­tair Sim.’ She’s ap­peared at the theatre in ev­ery decade since.

So fa­mil­iar and ad­mired is Miss Rout­ledge that sev­eral peo­ple wan­der up dur­ing the course of our in­ter­view in the theatre restau­rant. She’s not one for inane small talk, how­ever, or sloppy ex­pres­sions. When I lazily, but truth­fully, say how much I loved Alas­tair Sim’s ‘stuff’, she looks vis­i­bly pained— I’m not at all sur­prised her Lady Brack­nell was highly ac­claimed— but she has a nat­u­ral wit and I can see why Alan Ben­nett wrote specif­i­cally for her.

She agrees that some of her most sat­is­fy­ing per­for­mances came in his Talk­ing Heads mono­logues. Ben­nett had to do some woo­ing, how­ever. ‘Af­ter he’d asked me to ap­pear in a play I didn’t want to do, he wrote me a note say­ing “Please re­con­sider; I will walk bare­foot to Jerusalem if only you will change your mind”,’ she re­calls. ‘Well, I didn’t and I thought “That’s it now”.’ Luck­ily, it wasn’t and her A Lady of Let­ters mono­logue in 1988 was nom­i­nated for a BAFTA.

Miss Rout­ledge must be an im­mensely self-as­sured artist, I sug­gest, to turn down a drama­tist like Mr Ben­nett. ‘I just know what I want to burn my en­ergy on,’ she re­sponds. ‘It’s al­lab­sorb­ing do­ing a play of any kind, par­tic­u­larly a mono­logue. It rules your mind for a cer­tain amount of time.’

The re­straint and econ­omy of Talk­ing Heads and the likes of Miss Pym’s Day Out, made in 1992, in which she played the nov­el­ist Bar­bara Pym, seem lost on cur­rent tele­vi­sion pro­duc­ers, we agree. ‘It’s all so busy and rest­less now. What’s alarm­ing is the pre­sump­tion that we can’t con­cen­trate for very long, not even for a scene of more than 20 lines.’

The de­cline of the sit­com is also re­gret­table, with many of to­day’s per­form­ers seem­ingly un­able to de­liver a line with­out sign­post­ing the hu­mour with strange fa­cial tics. ‘Trust the au­di­ence and trust the ma­te­rial,’ ad­vises the lady who im­mor­talised the shame­less so­cial climber Hy­acinth Bucket in Keep­ing Up Ap­pear­ances (1990–95).

‘Man­ner­isms are dic­tat­ing to the au­di­ence. Un­ac­cept­able! Grow­ing up in the North in the 1930s and 1940s, mu­sic hall was still go­ing strong,’ she adds. ‘I was taken to see the greats, such as Frank Ran­dle, Nor­man Evans and Robb Wil­ton. These peo­ple had taken 30 years per­fect­ing their act. Mu­sic hall was a great test—it was one-to-one with the au­di­ence, you see.’

Miss Rout­ledge is not an easy per­son to talk to, re­fus­ing to coun­te­nance an­swer­ing ques­tions about ‘favourite things’, but I imag­ine she’s set the bar high for her­self, as much as for ev­ery­one else. ‘I don’t have pro­fes­sional am­bi­tions. Just to do good work with good peo­ple,’ says this sin­gu­lar ac­tress.

As some­one who ag­o­nised for a year in the early 1950s over ‘whether I dare take the plunge and go on the wicked stage’, Miss Rout­ledge has surely long sur­passed her ini­tial hopes and ex­pec­ta­tions. Jack Watkins

‘I donõt have pro­fes­sional am­bi­tions. Just to do good work with good peo­ple

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