Never a crossword… until I met a professional
Crosswords have had a big impact on my life. For reasons I shall explain, the form that impact has taken has been one of total abstinence. I have partaken freely of, and engaged extensively with: Codewords, Wordsearches, Join the Dots and Spot the Differences. Most Puzzler games – yes. The crossword – no. We are yet to become friends.
My grandmother was an avid crossword-er-er (now a word), and on film sets I have seen many actresses, specifically older actresses, immersed in the things. So I think I always felt crosswords were for very clever older people with literary minds. I was intimidated by them and I didn’t want them to show me up so I avoided them: that was their impact.
It turns out, though, that my fear might have been unnecessary all along, and my crossword-ering days might be about to begin – all thanks to the actress Julia McKenzie. I met Julia on the set of Gangsta Granny, a television adaptation of David Walliams’s children’s book. She was sitting in a chair between scenes, crossword spread out before her. I went to sit next to her and discovered that, to my slight horror, she wasn’t just doing the crossword; she was doing the cryptic crossword.
“Oh I won’t disturb you, you are doing the cryptic. Must be very difficult.” I made to retreat.
“Not really, dear,” she replied. “You see, there are some basic rules and rhythms to a cryptic. Once you know those, you are off. It’s not just the lateral mind game that people tend to think it is.”
She started talking me through the murky world of cryptic clues and eventually I began to see a pattern. It was fun, not intimidating, so I took the chance to quiz her further. Did a lot of actors do crosswords? “If you visit any film set, there will always be the crossword tribe dotted around. I used to think it was to keep your mind active while resting the behind – but over the years I have come to realise that doing a crossword is just a ploy to avoid listening to other actors’ old stories about their days in Worthing rep.”
I thought to myself I would quite like to hear about Worthing rep – anything to quiz that generation of super theatrical stars – but I got her point. No one likes a bore. She went on.
“There are quite strict – though unwritten – rules of behaviour, of course. Number one (on pain of death) is never to fill in a clue on another actor’s puzzle while they are working on a scene. That could get you into an awful lot of trouble. And, of course, anyone rubbernecking or cribbing is persona non grata.”
Did she have any exclusive morsels of crossword-based showbiz goss? Any diva fits? “Not really. But I can tell you that John Gielgud is reputed to have finished his in record time every day – until someone found his puzzle in a waste paper basket and it was all complete hogwash.”
Did everyone in the Crossword Club chip in and work on their puzzles together?
“Oh, definitely. We used to sit like gipsies on our trailer steps during the filming of Cranford, with Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Barbara Flynn and Deborah Findlay all knitting or crosswording. Rather WI! That was the only time we huddled. Nowadays there doesn’t seem to be so much of this crosswording. Perhaps the dreaded iPhone has replaced it. Or perhaps it’s that younger actors have better things to do.”
I think it’s precisely the dreaded iPhone that creates these supposedly “better things to do”. We are always available. We can always be working. We can isolate.
So, in this crossword centenary, whatever our profession, let’s put down our smartphones, pick up a crossword and read a clue out to our colleagues. Let’s have a break and a chat.
Codebreaker: actress Julia McKenzie revealed the secrets of solving the most cryptic of puzzles to Miranda