AN­OTHER JEWEL IN HER CROWN

As she hosts a re­union for the se­ries that made her, Geral­dine James ex­plains how her uplift­ing new drama Anne With An E puts a mod­ern twist on a clas­sic tale

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - NEWS - Jane Slade

Geral­dine James isn’t sleep­ing well. She’s anx­ious about what to feed the 25 or so ac­tors who’ l l de­scend on her Sus­sex home for her Jewel In The Crown re­union party at the end of this month.

‘I don’t suf­fer de­pres­sion be­cause I don’t worry about what’s past. But anx­i­ety is about the fu­ture and I do worry about that. I do fret a bit,’ she ad­mits. ‘Such as what I’m go­ing to give peo­ple for lunch.’

She is plan­ning the cel­e­bra­tion for the main cast mem­bers of the 1984 TV se­ries, in­clud­ing Charles Dance and Art Ma­lik, to re­mem­ber those of their num­ber who have passed away in re­cent years.

The se­ries re­mains very im­por­tant to Geral­dine, now 68, as it launched her ca re er, and since then she’s barely stopped work­ing.

‘I’m not one of those ac­tors who can com­plain that work’s thinned out since I’ve got older,’ she says. ‘There are some ex­cit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties – at the mo­ment I cer­tainly can’t fret about work dry­ing up!’

In March, for in­stance, she re­turned from Canada after seven months film­ing a sec­ond se­ries of pe­riod drama Anne With An E, which has just ar­rived on Net­flix. She’s spent the time since mak­ing up for those lost months with her hus­band of 32 years, ac­tor/direc­tor Jo Blatch­ley, daugh­ter Eleanor, 33, and the new love of her life, her seven-month-old grand­son Ferdie.

‘I hon­estly can’t be­lieve how lucky I am,’ she says, sweep­ing strands of her long blonde hair off her vir­tu­ally un­lined face. Slim, with sky-blue eyes and high cheek­bones, it’s hard to imag­ine Charles Dance didn’t fancy her when he played her love in­ter­est in The Jewel In The Crown. But more on that later...

Geral­dine has signed up for at least two more se­ries of Anne With An E, based on Lucy Maud Mont­gomery’s 1908 novel Anne Of Green Gables, in which Geral­dine stars as the but­toned-up spin­ster Mar­illa Cuth­bert.

There are eight books about Cana­dian or­phan Anne, who is adopted by Mar­illa and her brother in the 1890s on their farm, Green Gables, so there’s plenty of ma­te­rial to mine.

‘It’s a show for the #MeToo gen­er­a­tion,’ says Geral­dine. ‘Anne is a young girl who dis­cov­ers she’s able to speak up for her­self, stand up for her­self and be her­self. As an or­phan, Anne was treated very badly early on but dis­cov­ers through her imag­i­na­tion, spirit and love of life that she has a huge im­pact on oth­ers, es­pe­cially peo­ple like Mar­illa. Anne cracks open the shell Mar­illa has wrapped her­self in and shows her life can be full of won­der and laugh­ter.’

The sec­ond ten-part se­ries has a broader can­vas than the first, fo­cus­ing on is­sues Anne en­coun­ters, such as bul­ly­ing, racism and sex­u­al­ity. ‘I was bul­lied in my first year at school; it was one of those ter­ri­fy­ing, gloomy, all-girl board­ing schools and girls can be re­ally mean – the flash­back scenes of Anne in the or­phan­age re­ally res­onated with me.

‘But I’ m noth­ing like Mar­illa, though I do un­der­stand her and I know women who are hid­den and closed off, rather like her.’

In Geral­dine’s fam­ily, emo­tions were spilled out rather than reined in. ‘My own mother drank for much of our child­hood,’ she says. ‘It was her way of cop­ing and showed just how un­happy she must have been.

‘Al­co­hol in fam­i­lies is of­ten kept se­cret. There’s a sense of shame. When I was young we didn’t talk about it – things are more open now. I’m a pa­tron of NA­COA ( The Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion For Chil­dren Of Al­co­holics), which gives sup­port and help to chil­dren. I wish it had been around when I was lit­tle.’

Geral­dine’s fa­ther was a car­di­ol­o­gist and her mother was a nurse, and theirs was not a happy mar­riage, which didn’t make for a happy time for Geral­dine and her two sib­lings.

‘It was a tough child­hood, but we were all very close and lived in a won­der­ful house and had lots of friends – it was only our pri­vate mo­ments that were sad. I re­mem­ber get­ting out of bed at night and sit­ting on the stairs lis­ten­ing to my par­ents ar­gu­ing and wish­ing I had the courage to ask them to stop.’

Ev­ery­thing changed when her par­ents di­vorced and at her board-

‘I can’t com­plain about work dry­ing up’

ing school in Berk­shire she dis­cov­ered she could make peo­ple laugh when she was cast as the Art­ful Dodger in a pro­duc­tion of Oliver! when she was 12. After leav­ing school at 18 she went to live with her mother in Put­ney, south Lon­don, where next door a beau­ti­ful French women called Florence lived with her baby daugh­ter, whom Geral­dine would some­times babysit.

‘It turns out the baby was Dav­ina McCall!’ she re­veals. ‘I only re­alised this years later when I read some­where that Dav­ina’s mother was called Flo, was French and had lived in Put­ney. I saw Dav­ina re­cently and in­tro­duced my­self say­ing, “Hello, I’m Geral­dine,” and she im­me­di­ately said, “You used to babysit me, my fa­ther told me!”’

The teenage Geral­dine left Put­ney to at­tend the Drama Cen­tre in north Lon­don, where Colin Firth, Pierce Bros­nan, Pene­lope Wil­ton and Si­mon Cal­low also learned their craft. But Geral­dine cred­its her late agent Ju­lian Bel­frage for her act­ing suc­cess. ‘He never let me play the same role twice.’

The most fa­mous of the var­ied char­ac­ters she played in the 80s and 90s was strong-minded Sarah Lay­ton in The Jewel In The Crown on ITV, about the fi­nal days of the Bri­tish Raj in In­dia. Geral­dine then played Lady Maud Lynch­wood in Tom Sharpe’s Blott On The Land­scape (a 1985 BBC com­edy se­ries about an MP who hates his wife) and Rose Gar­rity in Kay Mel­lor’s gritty pros­ti­tu­tion drama Band Of Gold, broad­cast be­tween 1995-1997.

‘TV pro­duc­tions had the free­dom then to use un­known ac­tors, to take risks,’ says Geral­dine. ‘ It doesn’t re­ally hap­pen any more so it’s be­come very dif­fi­cult for young ac­tors to be given the chances I had.’

Although she got used to long spells film­ing over­seas for Jewel In The Crown, Geral­dine says she’s found her months away from her fam­ily in the freez­ing climes of Canada for Anne With An E a real strug­gle. ‘I was ter­ri­bly home­sick,’ she re­veals. Dur­ing film­ing, her daugh­ter gave birth to Ferdie. ‘I was able to re­turn for that, which was in­cred­i­ble; and for Christ­mas Jo and the fam­ily all came for a visit. But it was very tough on both Jo and me. He hated me be­ing away so much.’

The sub­zero tem­per­a­tures in Canada didn’t help ei­ther. ‘When the per­son dress­ing you tells you at 6am, when it’s -25°C, that you’re go­ing to have to wear ther­mal undies made of thick rub­ber – like a wet­suit – un­der all your clothes and your corset, you know you’re in for a tough day! But it was an in­cred­i­ble time and I mostly loved it.’

Now she must plan her Jewel In The Crown gar­den party, where the guests will be re­mem­ber­ing Tim Pig­ott-Smith, who played one of the lead roles, Ron­ald Mer­rick, and who died un­ex­pect­edly last year; Christo­pher Mo­ra­han, the pro­ducer/direc­tor who died in 2017 too; and Les­lie Gran­tham, who played a soldier and passed away last month.

Geral­dine forged a close friend­ship with her co-star Charles Dance, who played in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer Guy Per­ron, an ad­mirer of Sarah’s, and Charles has since said that he and Geral­dine be­came friends be­cause they never fan­cied each other. ‘We al­ways had a strong con­nec­tion that wasn’t sex­ual, which was very nice,’ she con­firms. ‘He was mar­ried and I was with Jo. We still get on very well and see quite a lot of each other when we’re not work­ing at op­po­site ends of the earth.

‘ We spent more than 18 months film­ing and that bonds you. It also made a huge dif­fer­ence to all of our ca­reers.’

Such was the se­ries’ suc­cess in the US that peo­ple still hold Jewel In The Crown par­ties there. ‘They eat curry, dress up and watch all 14 episodes in a week­end,’ laughs Geral­dine.

For her own party, she’ll prob­a­bly dig out some saris she bought while film­ing in In­dia to dec­o­rate the ta­bles. ‘I have suit­cases of them. They’re beau­ti­ful but some have be­come rather moth-eaten.’

Mean­while she’s rev­el­ling in her lat­est role of de­voted grand­mother. ‘It re­laxes me,’ she smiles. ‘Watch­ing Ferdie crawl­ing about makes me re­alise that life re­ally is a mir­a­cle.’

Sea­sons 1 and 2 of Anne With An E are avail­able now on Net­flix.

Geral­dine as Mar­illa with Amy­beth McNulty as Anne and RH Thomp­son as Matthew in Anne With An E. Right: with Charles Dance in The Jewel In The Crown

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