In the kitchen of her basement flat in west London, Maureen Lipman is preparing a cafetière of coffee while sporting a pair of magnificent oversized sunglasses.
‘Sorry,’ she says, gliding around, filling the kettle and rooting out a tub of Coffee-mate. ‘I’ve lost my glasses so, until I find them, I’m wearing these rather pretentious shades.’
There’s not a whiff of pretentiousness about Maureen. The very fact that she’s invited me into her home for an interview says it all: open, welcoming and trusting, the Hull-born actress and author is also a woman completely in charge.
This year marks her half-century anniversary in show business. Her first job after drama school was in Up The Junction, a film with Dennis Waterman. She was 22 and could never have dreamt that major roles in classic films such as Educating Rita and The Pianist would follow, along with the hit sitcom Agony, Coronation Street, Ladies of Letters and, more recently, ITV2’s Plebs. There were also magazine columns and ten book deals, but Maureen’s best-known gig was as Jewish grandmother Beattie in 32 TV ads for British Telecom in the 1980s.
‘I was in my forties when I did those adverts – they were a phenomenon,' she says, wistfully.
Maureen’s 72 now. Just. We meet the day after her birthday and greetings cards cover her breakfast bar.
‘Do you like cake?’ asks Maureen, plating up two bite-size squares of orange and almond sponge – the final morsels of a birthday cake presented last night at a celebratory dinner with her fellow actors from her latest stage show The Best Man, a US presidential drama.
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Maureen rolled in at 1.30am and has only managed to get four hours’ sleep (‘I’m terrible. I’ve consulted hypnotherapists, but nothing helps’). Yet although it’s only 11.30am, she has already squeezed in a personal training session and had a visit from her former housekeeper, who had arrived unannounced, armed with birthday chocs.
‘Seeing her brought back memories. I sat down with her for ten minutes, crying,’ says Maureen, explaining that the lady worked for her when she lived in north London with her playwright husband Jack Rosenthal, prior to his death in 2004.
Contrary to her reputation as a straight-talking opinion leader – she famously tore strips off Jeremy Corbyn for failing to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour party – Maureen swears she is not the tough cookie that many imagine.
‘I’m not very thick-skinned. My emotions sit near to the surface, which is great for the job I do, but not so great for life. I’d always end up in tears if I had to go to my children’s school to say that one of them wasn’t happy because I’d think, “Do they know that I’m on telly and therefore that I feel I’m not entirely giving my child the amount of attention that I should?” I can get easily overwhelmed by things.
‘I’m happy in myself. I can walk, I can touch my toes. But I’ve got hypermobility, which isn’t great because that means stretchy skin, so I’m not going to be pleasant at 80,’ she adds, her Hull accent still thick despite years down south.
Across a coffee table decorated with a vase of fragrant purple hyacinths, Maureen looks beautiful and is dressed smartly. She’s up and down, re-filling mugs of coffee, shooing pigeons from her courtyard garden and retrieving a copy of It’s A Jungle Out There: A Lipman-Agerie, her last book, featuring paintings of famous people as animals – AngeLemur Jolie, Leonaardvark DiCaprio and Tuna Stubbs are particularly hilarious.
As well as ‘dancing, my grandchildren and my dogs’, Maureen cites art as one of life’s greatest pleasures. She paints using an iPad and recently took part in Sky Art’s Celebrity Portrait Artist of the Year (to be aired this summer) and found painting against the clock was excruciating.
‘I thought it would be a piece of cake but I started badly, just like being in an exam,’ she says. ‘My heart was banging; I could feel this pounding in my vagus nerve. I got myself into a right state. I'm not good at being bad at things.’
It’s exactly why she wouldn’t entertain appearing on Strictly. ‘I would be in the old-bag role. Felicity [Kendal], Ann Widdecombe, Edwina [Currie], they all go on for about four weeks and then are kicked out because they don’t look like Peter Crouch’s wife. Debbie [McGee] did brilliantly, but she’s a dancer! Do me a favour.’
Maureen also bemoans her abysmal organisational skills and she’s useless at figures. After Jack passed away, she had ‘big problems’ managing financial affairs until Natalie, her PA, took control. Natalie has lived with Maureen ever since and occupies her front bedroom.
Maureen still has deep love for her late husband, the man she affectionately calls ‘my Heathcliff’, but the guilt she once felt at the start of her relationship with former businessman Guido Castro is gone. She believes it somehow has Jack’s spiritual blessing and tells a goosebump-inducing story of when Natalie spotted that Guido’s gold opera binoculars, which Maureen uses for birdwatching, were engraved with the name ‘J Rosenthal’.
‘When I saw that, I went…,’ Maureen places a palm on her chest and begins to stage-pant: ‘Oh my! It must have been the binocular-maker’s name but it made me think that in some way, we’re all woven together. If the world was Coronation Street, we would be a story line.’
Maureen’s mind is brilliantly sharp. She’s well-read and, during our 80 minutes together, references Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind (‘I find that fascinating’) and psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz’s diversionary theory that paranoia stops us facing our real demons.
‘I would like to go to university now,’ she says. ‘I think I’d be as keen as mustard.’ Not that time will allow such wild ambition. Maureen has no plans to retire and will only quit the business under duress – should her mind go to pot.
She exercises her brain not with sudoku or crosswords, but by writing ‘tortuous, funny, Pam Ayres-type poetry and lyrics’. She’s currently penning a one-woman stage show to perform at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the fabulously titled Maureen Lipman Is ‘Up For It’, which according to brochure blurb will be ‘an evening of rave, rollick and rant’.
So what’s really pushing Maureen’s buttons at the moment?
‘Toilets, particularly why they’re trying to baffle us,’ she replies. ‘The loo is enormous and the cubicle is the size of a poached egg. You can get in but the only way to get out is to climb back onto the toilet. The latest thing is they’ve hidden the flush! It’s behind the lid of the toilet. Why would you do that?!’
Maureen is an expert at turning life’s minor peculiarities into belly-aching humour. She scribbles mental notes wherever she goes. ‘I notice a lot and look at people a lot. It can be quite tedious if you’re not the sort who does. Guido never understands why I’m craning out of a window to see a woman and going, “Now why is she with him?!”’
There are other rants. Maureen talks furiously of an anaesthetist who told a pal going through cancer treatment that he ‘didn’t exist on the computer system’ and is riled by a neighbour who tampers with her windscreen wipers whenever she parks slightly across his boundary. She also dislikes the red-carpet pressure on women in showbusiness.
‘It’s a ridiculous culture,’ she says. ‘You’ve got to wear something new, that you’ve borrowed, that doesn’t make any statement about your style.’
She puts her ability to speak honestly down to her childhood as the third-born to Jewish parents, Maurice and Zelma.
‘Being the youngest, you’re always battling for position,’ she says. ‘My father was quite an opinionated man, but I didn’t become particularly opinionated until I was married. Poor Jack! I took up various causes. I didn’t like Margaret Thatcher, so I went on marches and got very piqued by Burma. I’ve been on the top of a bus with 24 monks in saffron robes and Miriam Karlin, driving through London crying “de-mo-cra-cy!” I hate injustice.’
One of the things Maureen most admires in herself is her ability to be a friend, but recently has lost five especially close to her. ‘They’ve dropped like flies, it was a staggering bunch,’ she sighs, and conversation turns to her neighbour Victoria Wood, who died in 2016.
‘Victoria was tough,’ says Maureen. ‘She knew exactly what she wanted to do and did it. Most of us just wait for the phone to ring – she didn’t.’
Maureen’s own health is tickety-boo. Save for the odd migraine and ‘unpredictable’ blood pressure, she swears by a daily ghastly-sounding concoction for keeping her robust.
‘I have hot water, half a lemon, cider vinegar, cayenne pepper, turmeric mixed with olive oil and ginger. I’m sure no health expert would think it’s good, but I sit outside with my morning drink and I like it!’
Good for Maureen – being entertaining, captivating and doing things her way are in her DNA.
She said what?
Maureen Lipman's most opinionated quotes
On accolades (1999)
‘Awards are like piles. Sooner or later, every bum gets one.’
Channel 4’s Jewish Mum of the Year programme (1999)
‘We have had My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we’ve had My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and now this. How about My Big Fat Stupid Television Producer who Doesn’t Have a Single Unique Thought in his Head?’
On feminism (2015)
‘I didn’t become a feminist in order to wear a strippy-strappy dress and get legless outside a bar… I’m not an admirer of that.’
On being unsure how to vote (2015)
‘We need to find something to believe in and if we don’t, we’re going to end up like that superficial young man Russell Brand and not want to vote at all.’
On Jeremy Corbyn (2015)
'A man who sups with the devil but claims no one told him that the horned, red-skinned man at the table was, in fact, the actual devil.’
Maureen’s new show Up For It is at the Edinburgh Fringe 1-12 August, assemblyfestival.com, 0131 623 3030
Maureen Lipman quick Q&A
Twitter. Yes or no?
No because I would respond to all the maniacs who use it and I would get killed.
Silliest thing you’ve done recently?
Buying a large rabbit hutch on tour and travelling back by train.
Favourite recent read?
Grayson Perry’s Playing To the Gallery
. It’s provocative, funny and makes you think about your own art.
What did turning 65 mean for you?
I got a Freedom Pass, which is an incredible gift, though I feel I deserve it for working all my life. I didn’t retire or climb Kilimanjaro for sick dolphins in the Negev Desert. I just had a normal year. This year, I let my hair go grey and that felt like more of a milestone.
Train or car?
Car if I’m driving, though I love a train journey, particularly in a foreign country.
Last public protest you made?
I went with Shami Chakrabarti to see Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice, about prisons vetoing how many books prisoners have. We pushed a trolley of books into his office, which was great fun.
What do you wear around the house?
If I’ve got nowhere to go, trousers, T-shirt and cardigan.
Decade you’re most nostalgic for?
The Sixties. I have read that I had a really great time!
It’s with Lizzy, the friend I made at breathing classes, during our pregnancies. Our babies were born on the same day and I see her all the time.
Last forget what you went upstairs for?
Just now and I don’t even have an upstairs. I take turmeric in my morning drink to prevent becoming forgetful and I’m trying to convince myself that my memory’s getting better.
Music that always gets you on a dance floor?
I haven’t been on the dance floor since the old king died, dear. But I did recently go to tango classes and Piazzolla, the tango composer, will do it every time.
If your 16-year-old self could see you now, what would she say?
I told you that you could do it.
Your plan B?
According to my school exercise book, I was going to be a dress designer, an air hostess or an actress – in that order. As I can’t sew a button on and I’m frightened of flying, I opted for plan C.
When and where were you happiest?
At the Old Vic in 1970, newly in love, in a company of 50, watching, learning, occasionally being plucked out of the chorus and cycling from my home in Hampstead to the theatre in Waterloo with my crochet in my basket.
What makes you really grumpy?
Almost everything. What makes me livid is that Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is judged on different standards from anywhere else in the world.
Who did you have a teenage crush on?
A school actress called Pauline, Cliff Richard and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Bad habit you can’t break?
Looking at myself despairingly in mirrors.
Historical figure you’d like to have been?
George Eliot perhaps or Aphra Behn – but then up comes the idea of life without toilet tissue, central heating and Vegemite, and I’m just glad to be me.
School prefect or school terror?
Terror. I was never given any responsibility, though I was once made charity collector and I badgered everybody so insistently that I drove them nuts but made a fortune.
Exercise, good diet or both?
I do yoga and stretches, and I walk the dog. It’s probably not enough. I’m not fit but I’m very flexible. I’m a terrible grazer with food. I finish everything on my plate, then continue until all the crisps have gone.
When did you last stand naked in front of someone?
I try not to.
Drink too much?
I don’t drink spirits but by the end of the second glass of wine, I’m distressingly the life and soul of the party.
I’ve just had my first trumpet lesson and was told I had a good lip. Who knew? I had a terrible headache for three days afterwards but it was fun. I draw and paint a bit but I’m never going to be Rembrandt.
Who would you like to say sorry to?
Jack [her late husband Jack Rosenthal] because I was sometimes cross and mean and not there when I should have been. My mother for using her as the butt of too many jokes and my father for impatience, which he passed on to me in the first place.
What did your parents teach you?
My mother taught me to accessorise and my father taught me to question.
Glass half full or half empty?
A bit empty. I don’t like being that way but I might as well admit it.
Latest fashions or time-honoured classics?
I like funky clothes that are within my age range. I’m never going to dress in Vivienne Westwood but I like things that have re-interpreted the latest fashions. And I’m wearing a lot of black since I went grey.
Things you can’t throw away?
My mother’s fur jackets, clothes from the Sixties that I’ll never get into again, my costumes from Re:Joyce and Jack’s chair. I’m a bit of a hoarder.