Breaking the class ceiling
About to appear in a new series of Doc Martin, Dame Eileen Atkins has come a long way from the London council estate where she grew up.
In her 80th year, the co-creator of Upstairs, Downstairs speaks her mind on cosmetic surgery, surviving cancer… and snogging Leonardo DiCaprio
Words Daphne Lockyer
When interviewing Dame Eileen Atkins it’s a good idea to switch on your tape recorder before even entering the house – or, in this case, the pretty Cornish bungalow where she is billeted during the filming of the new series of Doc Martin. As soon as she ushers you
into the kitchen, where she’s brewing an enormous pot of tea, the conversation is already better, funnier and more indiscreet than you’d get from a lorryload of younger actors – all under strict instructions from their publicists to say absolutely nothing interesting at all.
Eileen, on the other hand, is old school, unencumbered by personal management, more than able to look after herself in interviews and, therefore, pretty thrilling to talk to. Indeed, before we’ve even sat down to admire the stunning view over
the bay at Port Isaac, she’s already broached sex and the over-60s, HRT, face-lifts and actresses, such as her good friend Siân Phillips, who once told her not to waste her money on ‘non surgical’ procedures.
‘Siân said she’d spent thousands of pounds on those machines that pass electric currents through your face and came to the conclusion that you either “cut and lift the whole bloody lot, or don’t do anything at all”,’ she recalls, flamboyantly enacting said procedure. ‘Personally, I’ve always thought it was better to do nothing. But then I’ve never really been that obsessed by my own looks. They were good enough for what I needed but not so much to be a burden.
‘Besides,’ she adds, ‘to me, it just looks funny when women have those taut little faces but from the neck down they’re totally decrepit. I can recall seeing darling Coral Browne once getting an award and her face looked fantastic. But then when she went to stand up
I thought, ‘Oh help, the poor thing’s not going to make it!’
Peals of naughty laughter from Eileen who, having
just reached 79, neither looks nor feels her age. There are laughter lines, a hollowing around the eyes and a few niggling health issues: a cyst on her right eye that may need an operation, a leg that’s dodgy after she pulled
a muscle during a long walk. ‘But boringly, when you’re old, you can’t have a minor ailment. You think, “I just walked a bit too far,” whereas the on-set medic thinks, “Get her to a doctor. It could be a deep vein thrombosis!”’
For all that, her dress sense (skinny black jeans and
a T-shirt) and her gangly frame, the way she flops
down on the sofa, legs outstretched, arm behind head, remind me more of a teenage boy than a senior citizen.
‘Inside I’m about 13... 15 tops,’ she laughs. ‘But, seriously, Sinéad Cusack recently said to me, “Eileen, how do you feel?” And I said, “Well, I feel exactly as
I did when I was 35”. The problem is, you also tend to act that age and you have to watch that. I can’t bear,
for example, to hear old ladies – or old men – talking about sex. After 60, I think you should shut up about it and when someone starts I think, “Oh no! They’re going to talk about sex!” But I’m just as bad myself. I’ll hear something coming out of my mouth and I think, “Eileen, you’re nearly 80, you can’t say things like that!”’
Now here, of course, speaks the woman who famously, at the age of 70, turned down the advances of heart-throb Colin Farrell when he tried to
seduce her when they were working together on the film Ask the Dust.
‘Madly, some might think, I told him I was too old and too married. He was 28 – and if I’d been, say, in my forties, I’d have jumped at the chance and no one would have blamed me. Not even my husband Bill,’ she beams. A decade on, of course, she’s still turning screen idols away. She recently declined a part that would involve a full-on snog with Leonardo DiCaprio (Joanna Lumley took the part instead) in The Wolf of Wall Street. ‘On that occasion I would have said yes, but I had
other commitments. It was a shame because I’d have absolutely loved it.’
Eileen is certainly still working with the vigour of a woman in her prime. ‘I can’t believe how the past 12 months have panned out,’ she
says. The roles have ranged from the sublime (her recent award-winning part in the Samuel Beckett play, All That Fall, directed by Trevor Nunn) to the ridiculous (the new US movie Beautiful Creatures with Jeremy Irons). ‘The movie was silly. We all just did it for the money.’
Right now, of course, we’re here to discuss her role in ITV’s Doc Martin in which she returns as Ruth, the curmudgeonly doctor’s equally cranky aunt. ‘All the humour comes from the total abruptness they share, the fact they can barely
even speak to each other about anything. It’s funny, but without cheap laughs, and Martin is magnificent. Everything rests on him and he manages to make
a character that never shows emotion hugely likeable.’
It’s a four-month calm before a veritable storm of work. Later this year, she’ll be taking All That Fall
to New York with her co-star Michael Gambon, and her one-woman Ellen Terry show is one of the acts that
will open the new theatre at the Globe in the New Year.Before all that, however, there’s the as-yet unnamed Woody Allen movie, in which she’s appearing with Colin Firth. ‘The last time we worked together I played his mother, now I play his aunt,’ she says. She leaves for filming in the South of France as soon as she’s wrapped on Doc Martin, but has been sworn to secrecy about
the project. ‘It’s so cloak and dagger they wouldn’t even risk putting the scripts in the post. A man on a motorbike drove them down here, stood there while I read them and drove them back to London.’
What she will say is that the film is a classic Woody Allen comedy that poses a wonderfully truthful question about life. ‘And I’m delighted to find myself in a movie with Colin, and Woody Allen, who’s an absolute icon.
I once had to produce a list of my 30 favourite films and three of them were his – Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters.’ Not that meeting him daunts her. ‘He must hate it when people fawn,’ she says. ‘I’m much more likely to say to him, “You’re 78, I’m 79. So shut up. I’m older than you!”’
Never a pushover, she had
a spectacular falling out last year with the writer Heidi Thomas – who had written so brilliantly for her in her BAFTA-winning role in Cranford – but couldn’t replicate that success on the BBC’s revival of Upstairs, Downstairs.
Bring the topic up now and Eileen visibly shudders. ‘Now we’re entering the misery period of my life,’ she says before taking a good 20 minutes to explain the ins and outs of what went wrong. In short, Eileen, who created the original Seventies show with her friend, Jean Marsh, wanted to play the cook rather than Lady Holland. ‘I’m from the working class myself,’ she says. And indeed, she was raised on a London council estate, the daughter of a barmaid and a gas-meter reader. She felt, too, that the ‘downstairs’ characters would have much more fun. ‘And while Heidi writes brilliantly for lower- and middle-class characters, she’s hopeless for the upper class. Lady Holland seemed totally leaden to me.
‘Upstairs, Downstairs was our baby – Jean’s and mine – yet we weren’t expected to have any say at all in the show. I felt hated and that’s never happened to me on any job before.’ It’s a good moment for Eileen’s husband Bill Shepherd to appear, instantly lightening the mood. There’s some banter about him, like Eileen, not looking his age, which is 70, so he’s ten years her junior.
‘Oh, go away,’ she tells him with mock sternness.
‘Stop showing off. You’re nothing special at all for 70!’ As he bows out to go and have a shower, she shouts
after him: ‘And put some youth oil on while you’re there.’
Eileen and Bill, a cognitive behaviour therapist, have been sparring happily since they met in a lift 36 years ago. ‘I asked Bill what floor he was going to and he said, “Whichever floor you’re going to”. And two weeks
later we were married.
‘All these years down the line, I do appreciate how lucky I am because so many of my friends are now
alone and have lost their partners and, in my case,
if I didn’t have Bill I wouldn’t have anyone, because although I’ve been married twice (the first time to the actor Julian Glover), I’ve never had children. It’s
lovely to have someone in old age. Someone that you
are completely comfortable with.’
Bill nursed her through the ravages of breast cancer 18 years
ago. ‘But please don’t say I “beat” cancer or I “won the battle”, because it’s not a question of winning or losing. It’s just the luck of the draw. I’ve friends who didn’t make
it, who fought just as hard as me.’
The latter includes Linda McCartney, whose cancer was diagnosed in the same week as Eileen’s. A mutual friend had put them in touch and they talked
a lot on the phone, but Linda never revealed that she knew she was dying because she didn’t want to bring Eileen down. ‘She was kind and thoughtful to the very end.’
Years after her own recovery, she was able to give support to another breast-cancer sufferer, her friend Dame Maggie Smith. ‘Maggie used to say that it cheered her up
to see me because I’d come out the other side.’
Her experience, she says, left her pondering her own mortality.
‘And getting older will do that too. All I know is that dying frightens me much less than being kept unwantedly alive without any quality to my life. I know that it’s a complicated issue; I’m not an idiot. But as
a society I think we need to address how we can support the wishes of someone who, having been told their outlook, simply says, “I’m sorry but I want to go now”.
I think that’s basic decency.’
That day still seems a long way off for Eileen and for others of her venerable friends in the business. Recently, she says, she attended the ‘fabulous’ 80th birthday bash of actor Keith Baxter. ‘Everyone was there, including Maggie and Judi Dench and Albert Finney and the four of us ended up on a table together.
‘I looked at the bunch of us. Judi can’t see much, Maggie and I don’t hear too well and Albert was drunk. But I thought we all looked rather lovely and we were all roaring with laughter. It was absolutely bloody perfect,’ she concludes. And she is absolutely bloody right.
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