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
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