Rita on Stage and Screen


In the spring of 1970, whilst appearing in Victoria Wood’s play Good Fun at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre (which was set in an arts centre up north, where a group of its employees prepare for a cystitis sufferers’ rally), I was sent a script of a new stage play titled Educating Rita by Willy Russell. It had been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Mike Ockrent set to direct, and was to be put on in their studio theatre, which at that time was the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden.

I was immediately attracted to the character of Rita, a working-class hairdresser who realises there is more to life than the narrow horizon she sees before her. She wants it broadened, and she wants an education, so she embarks on an Open University course. During the course of the play she finds herself marooned between her own working-class roots and family, on the one hand feeling that she has somehow left them behind, and the middle-class life she craves on the other, sensing that in essence she is an outsider. Although her marriage to her husband Denny breaks down because he does not understand and is threatened by her aspirations, all comes good in the end when she grasps that, through education, the most important thing she has gained is choice. There was not a scene in the play that I didn’t identify with and, without wanting to sound like a complete pill, just like Talent before it, it felt a little like destiny.

At the time Good Fun was rumoured to be going into the West End and I really couldn’t face a long run, even though every night was a riot on stage and my character, Betty, a cosmetics saleswoman, brought the house down. Her opening line after knocking on the door and being told to come in was: ‘I’m sorry . . . I never lay my hand on a strange knob.’ One night the hysteria grew to such a pitch that we simply couldn’t continue with the scene and everyone, the cast included, just collapsed with laughter that went on and on. Nevertheless a nice, short, three-month run, in repertoire, which meant playing only half the week, with another production taking the other half, was a far more attractive deal than a run in the West End with eight shows a week for nine months, even though the difference in money would be huge. So I plumped for Educating Rita, thinking it would be all over by the autumn . . . How wrong could I be? I’m glad to say it was never to be over.

In the summer of 1980 I was renting a room in the flat of my friend, the actress Rosalind March, in Oakmead Road, Balham, along with Babs, my Jack Russell terrier. We had both come out of long relationships - that is, Ros and me as opposed to Babs and me - and we spent a lot of evenings, armed with a bottle of wine, vindicating ourselves of any blame, while heaping it instead on the hapless men involved, and celebrating our freedom. We had met originally through the acting agency, Actorum, a couple of years earlier.

Actorum was an agency run by and for actors, with a tiny office in Tower Street, and when members were unemployed they were expected to come into the office to man the phones, ring round for work and negotiate contracts. Although it worked in principle, in practice some members were rarely, if ever, in the office and others were never out of it, which at times gave rise to a degree of, shall we say, bitterness. Whilst there were people who were wonderfully efficient in the office, there were others who put only themselves up for parts, plus one or two who suggested themselves for parts that were completely wrong for them. One such individual, who at this time was most certainly middle aged and not what a girl would describe as good-looking, put himself forward to play Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, no less, when actually, were it being cast at the time, The Hobbit would have been more appropriate. Needless to say he wasn’t called for an audition. Also problematic was the fact that no deal could really be negotiated without close consultation at every stage with the actor for whom the deal was being struck. This resulted in situations such as the one that occurred when I was filming Nearly a Happy Ending.

It was our last evening in the studio and for some reason we were very behind with the recording. It may have had something to do with the director coming down and saying, ‘What’s happened? You were funny in rehearsal . . . Be funny!’ This, as any actor will tell you, is the kiss of death. Anyway, in those days if you hadn’t finished in a television studio by ten-thirty they would simply pull the plug, so the pressure and tension were already fairly high when suddenly I was summoned up into the director’s gallery to take an urgent phone call. I couldn’t imagine what it was; thoughts of my flat burning to the ground or my mother being ill or worse shot into my head as I picked up the receiver. To my surprise, on the other end was the chirpy voice of a fellow actor.

‘Julie! Good news! I think I’ve got Sheffield Crucible over a barrel! Shall I go for the extra fiver?’

Just before rehearsals for Educating Rita were to start I decided to take a little holiday. Ros was about to do a commercial in Amsterdam. The filming would be spread out over five days or so, with quite a bit of free time, and we thought it would be fun if I went along too. We checked into a hotel that had been booked by the production company. It was on the Heerengracht, one of the three main canals that run through the centre of the city. The name means Gentleman’s Canal, the appropriateness of which was completely lost on us, at least to begin with. The hotel, one of those ornate-looking, tall, thin houses, was cosy and friendly. After unpacking in our respective rooms, which were at the top of a narrow creaky staircase, we went down to the little bar for a drink. The bartender, a good-looking chap with bright blond hair, was wearing a kilt. He was chatty and friendly, speaking very good English, but he was definitely not Scottish. We spent the evening talking to him and another rather dapper man in his fifties who had just checked in and who, it turned out, was a consultant neurologist from Canada. Both of us being tired and Ros having to get up at some unearthly hour, we decided to get an early night.

The next evening we ended up again in the little hotel bar. This time, there were just two or three young men, standing around quietly having a drink. As the evening went on and the bar started to fill up, we began to notice a distinct lack of women. It was only later, around midnight, when the consultant came back into the bar after a night on the town, that we began to cotton on as to what kind of hotel it was. With him was a huge and very beautiful black man dressed from head to toe as a cowboy, including leather chaps and spurs. I innocently asked whether they’d been to a fancy-dress party, a question that was mysteriously met with peals of laughter from the assembled group.

As the night crept on towards the small hours, the cowboy, enlivened by drink, began to remove his clothes and show us his piercings. I thought I was daring, having two in one earlobe, but these were simply eye-watering to behold; there were little rings and studs glinting and gleaming from folds and crevices that a person simply does not associate with jewellery, and all I could think at the time was what a terribly uncomfortable impediment some of them would be to certain activities.

Anyway, dear reader, as you may have guessed long before I did, it was a gay hotel and the production company presumably thought it was a nice safe place for a woman on her own, as Ros was initially going to be. It was either that or, when she asked them whether they would also book a room for her friend, they got the wrong end of the stick. I really don’t know which it was but it was all very educational and, more importantly, it made us laugh, starting a friendship that has lasted to this day.

When the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned a play from Willy Russell, apparently they were expecting a big modern musical like John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert, which had enjoyed a massive success, here and in the States. What they got was a two-handed play with one set and no idea how to cast it. It remained on the shelf for some time, after which it was decided to cast it from outside the company, leaving Willy and Mike Ockrent to their own devices. So we started rehearsals in June 1980.

Mark Kingston was to play Frank, the Open University lecturer, and the two of us hit it off immediately. Although I had identified with the character of Rita on just about every level, when it came to act her I had real difficulty in finding her core and agonised through rehearsals about who she was, trying different approaches and using different characters from my own life as inspiration. At one point Willy suggested that if I wanted, I could play her as a Brummie. That night when I went through the script I was fascinated to find that the timing and rhythm of Rita’s one-liners were at odds with the Birmingham accent and its kind of dry, downbeat music, which has utterly different cadences and humour. It simply did not fit the sparky Liverpool tempo. I never truly found Rita until the first preview at the Donmar where somehow, through sheer terror and the life-or-death need to survive in front of an audience, she clicked gawkily into place. I thought that I would most certainly fall flat on my face as soon as I stepped out on to the stage. On that first night Mark and I stood holding hands in the darkness backstage, waiting to go on, shaking with fear, both feeling that the critics would dump on us from a great height and that a blanket of humiliation was waiting to smother us.

How wrong could we be? I remember during the first-night interval Mike whooshing through the dressing rooms, making an O with his thumb and forefinger, kissing it, thrusting it into the air and calling to the gods with a huge smile on his face, ‘Prima! Prima! Prima! Prima!’ whilst Mark and I just stared at one another, thinking: Is he deluded? No, he was right; the next day the papers were full of praise and you couldn’t get a seat. After its three-month run we transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre, a great barn of a place, made more intimate by shutting off the upper tiers.

One day during the course of the run I received a phone call from a man who introduced himself as Lewis Gilbert. He told me that he was a film director and that on the recommendation of his wife he had come to see the play and had absolutely loved both it and me. He was going to make a film of it and said that he wanted me for the part but could not offer it to me just then as he had yet to raise the money. He would be in touch.

Approximately three months later he rang again. He had been in America where potential investors had talked of Paul Newman and Dolly Parton in the roles of Frank and Rita. Well, I could think of two very good reasons why I couldn’t compete with her. It seems that because I was an unknown I would be required to do a screen test, the very thought of which sent me into paroxysms of panic. I would have to prove myself all over again to people who knew nothing about me.

It seemed an exhausting task, in which the stakes felt ridiculously astronomical: a tiny unreliable pivot on which my life might turn and move into another league, where I was to star in a major motion picture or, alternatively, where I would fail to make the grade and then have to live with that and the rejection therein - not an easy one for me (remember the fiasco of the walking race? And the hoohah over eleven-plus, where failure was just about equal to death?) - and I would then have to watch someone else take the part that I had created. I would be too nervous! I wouldn’t be relaxed enough to be really inside the character, and what if I was just too nervous to perform at all? The Americans wouldn’t think that I was good-looking enough and what if, what if, what if . . . It felt like a test to see whether I was good enough to be on this earth instead of right for a part in a film and a part that I knew inside out at that.

However, salvation was at hand; a month later I was put out of my misery when Lewis rang again.

‘It’s all right, darling, we’ve got Michael. You won’t have to do a screen test now.’

At first I couldn’t make any sense of this; I thought he could only be saying that I had not got the part.

‘Oh . . .’

‘OK, dear . . .? Happy?’


‘You’ve got the part.’

Oh my garrrrrrrd!’

‘Yes, dear, now that we’ve got Michael, we don’t need a star to play your part.’

‘. . . Sorry? Michael . . .? Michael who?’

‘Caine, darling, Michael Caine is going to play Frank.’

‘M-Michael Caine . . .? Michael C—Alfie? Alfie is going to play ... Rita?’

‘No, dear, he’s going to play Frank.’

‘Yes, no, yes, no, I knew what you meant. Oh my gaaaaaaaard!’

I rang everyone I knew, including Duncan Preston. So when a few minutes after my last call the phone rang and a deep Texan drawl said, ‘Hi, am I speaking to Julie Walters?’ I answered suspiciously, ‘Yeeees?’

‘My name is Herbie Oakes. I am the producer of your movie Educating Rita and—’

‘Stop before you start! Yeah, great name, Duncan, very good, but I know it’s you and do you know how I know it’s you? Because your Texan accent is soooooo bad!’ And cackling manically I put the phone down.

About five minutes later I decided to ring Duncan back. He completely denied having just called me and, what is more, I believed him. Oh my gaaaard! I’m already off on the wrong foot. In fact, I’m off on the most terrible of feet. But the producing person with the ‘great name’ rang back and, in an obsequious, faltering way, I tried to explain and apologise.

‘I’m so sorry, erm . . . Mr . . . Mr Hoax, er, no . . . I’m sorry, Mr Mr Mr Mr Mr Mr . . . Oakes.’

‘Please call me Herbie, yes, I thought I had the wrong number.’

Oh, if only you had. But, even though I’m not sure that he had understood, he was charming and friendly, going on to explain that he had simply called to introduce himself and to invite me round to his place for drinks so that I could meet Michael as well as some other people whose names went immediately in and out of my head. All I heard was Michael, Michael (The Ipcress File, Get Carter, The Man Who Would Be King, Zulu, Alfie and millions of other films too numerous to mention) Caine.

He was, as you might imagine, funny, friendly and direct, with a working-class down-to-earthiness that put me at my ease straight away. When I was leaving, Shakira, his wife, whose vivid beauty was even more arresting in the flesh than it was in print, said, ‘You are so lucky it’s Michael.’

I mentioned this to Lewis.

‘Oh yes, darling, when you think who else it could have been, she’s absolutely right.’

I have spent the last twenty-five or so years trying to work out who on earth he might have been referring to.

We started shooting some time around the beginning of August 1982 in Dublin at the university. The play was set in northern England and in reality the university would more than likely have been some red-brick monstrosity, but Willy and Lewis wanted it to be intimidatingly other-worldly for Rita and remote from the probably sixties-built secondary modern that she would have attended. So the beautiful, photogenic Trinity College, Dublin, was cast, with its imposing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture, and its sense of ancient academia.

The Friday before we were to start on the Monday, I was due to have a make-up and hair test, in which I would be made up as the character, wearing my wig and costume, and they would shoot some film of me in order to see that the whole thing worked. Unfortunately, a week or so earlier I had been bitten by a horsefly and Mount Vesuvius had erupted on my cheek, large, red and glowing. I stood there in the glare of the lights, feeling rather awkward in the wig, make-up and costume, as it was very different from the stage production, where I had worn my own hair throughout and where Rita’s clothes reflected the fact that from the very beginning she had already moved away from her working-class contemporaries towards the middle-class student identity she craved. In contrast, in the film she looked the antithesis of a student, to begin with at least, when she was still very much a hairdresser in a little suburban salon. Lewis wanted the cinema-going audiences to see her transformation clearly displayed in her choice of dress and general demeanour. So I stood there in my pink-and-black-striped pencil skirt, pink blouse, black fishnet tights and staggeringly high heels, as Lewis, Freddie Williamson, the make-up artist, and Candy Patterson, who did my costumes, discussed me in stage whispers from behind the camera.

‘Less eye make-up, Freddie, that’s too much, she looks as if she’s done three round with Muhammad Ali.’

No, Freddie, I like tons of eye make-up, I was well pleased with that.

‘Well . . . the thing is, she’s got such small eyes, perhaps we just go without.’


‘Yes, that’s probably best.’


‘The natural look.’

God, nooooooo!

‘Exactly, now what’s that on her face?’

My nose?

‘I don’t know, I presumed it was just a spot. I’ve done my best to cover it up.’

What do you want? The George Cross?

‘Well, let’s hope it’s gone by Monday. What do you think?’

‘Well . . .’

‘It could be a bite.’

Oh my God!

‘Hello, helloooo, excuse me, I say, hello! Please allow me to put you out of your misery: I’ve been bitten by a horsefly, everyone. I know this to be the case because I was actually there when it happened.’

Luckily they laughed. The bite was gone by the Monday, well, more or less, with the help of a trowel and a whole container of concealer, that is.

The filming lasted nine weeks and with the very gorgeous Lewis Gilbert at the helm it was an unstressed, light-hearted pleasure. He was delightfully absent-minded and legend has it that once, after filming for some time at Pinewood Studios, he drove the twenty miles to Shepperton Studios by mistake and berated the security man on the gate for not recognising the name of the film he was directing. On one occasion when everyone had assembled to start filming after lunch, the entire crew and I decided to play a trick on Lewis, who had not yet returned. Hiding behind vehicles and round corners, we all watched as he approached the set and stood there for several seconds with an open-mouthed, slightly baffled smile on his face. He then turned round slowly in a jerky, flat-footed little circle, muttering puzzled half-words as he went: ‘Oh . . . thought . . . Ha . . . mm.’ We jumped out at that point and surprised him; he laughed at the fun of it all but claimed that he knew we were hiding all along. He had an appealing clumsiness and would frequently walk on to the set knocking lamps this way and that, leaving cries of ‘Relight!’ in his wake, and once when not quite concentrating he crossed his legs and fell off the dolly. (This is a platform on wheels for the camera and not something that you blow up, dear reader.)

Michael was completely unstarry, managing to my surprise to walk around Dublin without any fuss and without being recognised to a troubling degree; he rarely stayed confined to his trailer, preferring rather to be out on the set chatting to the crew. He loved good food and treated us to lavish meals in some of Dublin’s and the surrounding area’s finest eateries. He also gave me one of the best pieces of acting advice ever, which was: ‘Save it for the take.’ It may sound obvious, but there is a great temptation to do a scene at full pelt in rehearsal, if only to make sure that you actually can, but often there are, for technical reasons, lots of rehearsals and you can kill the freshness and spontaneity of the thing by constant repetition.

This happened on the day when we were shooting the scene when Rita comes back to tell Frank why she hadn’t turned up to his house for dinner. It was meant to be tearful and from the moment I woke up on that morning, I was preparing for it, even gulping my breakfast down whilst on the verge of tears. By the time I got to the set I was already drained and the first shot was of Rita standing there crying through the rain-lashed window. So in the very first rehearsal, I let it all out and then struggled to achieve any tears through the next five or six rehearsals, until Michael pointed out that it was not that close a shot and that they couldn’t really see whether I was crying or not anyway. Another filming lesson: check the size of the shot before launching into your performance of performances. By the time it came to my close-up I had absolutely nothing left and it was then that Michael said: ‘Use the rehearsals for yourself, and save the special stuff for the take.’ It has rung in my ears many, many times since.

The whole experience, being my first film, was a steep learning curve. I had performed the role innumerable times on stage and that performance was in itself like an old film playing in my head, something that needed to be got rid of rather than utilised. It was a performance designed to reach people sitting in the back rows of the Piccadilly Theatre, while I was now required to give a performance for an audience that for a lot of the time was just inches from my face. However, Lewis was always at hand with his inimitable style of direction: ‘Too big, darling, it’s not the Albert Hall!’

No one could have been more surprised than me by the success of the film. When I first went to see it in a little screening room in Soho, I was appalled by my performance, thinking it over the top and amateurish, and again, as with the play, I thought both it and I would be dumped on from a great height by critics and public alike. I wanted to run and hide, so when Lewis mentioned that Columbia Pictures had bought it for release and that on top of that there was talk of Oscar nominations, I thought he had gone completely off his rocker with optimism when the film would probably not even make it in the ‘straight to video’ category. Of course it did go to video but before doing so the play enjoyed a huge, worldwide, theatrical distribution and success.

The film opened in London first, in the spring of 1983, with a royal première at the Odeon, Leicester Square, attended by the Duke of Edinburgh. He sat in the row in front of me and when the film finished he turned round to give me a huge thumbs-up and a wink. My mother came down from Birmingham and, unable to get through the crowd in order to get into the cinema, she called to a policeman for help. Pointing up at my name on the hoarding she told him in no uncertain terms that that was her daughter up there in lights and could she please come through or else.

The following autumn the film was to open in the States and that August Columbia Pictures’ mighty publicity machine was set in motion. I flew with my friend Ros Toland to New York and was booked into a huge corner suite at the Plaza Hotel, looking directly out over Central Park. One of my fellow guests was the King of Morocco, who had taken the entire first floor of this enormous hotel, together with his massive entourage and his three hundred items of personal luggage. Ros, who had been the publicist for the film of Educating Rita in Britain, had a refreshingly irreverent attitude towards the Hollywood establishment as well as a wicked sense of humour, so I had asked her to accompany me, both as a friend and as a personal publicist to help stave off the worst excesses of the publicity demands. I fell for New York instantly and even today the first sight of Manhattan, lit up as you drive across the midtown bridge from the airport, makes my skin prickle. I think it one of the most beautiful sights in the world. Everywhere I turned seemed to be a movie location; in fact the whole place felt like a film set. It was buzzy, neurotic, with an ambient sense of excitement and danger. There were warnings back then that to veer off the beaten track was not advisable and ending up in the wrong street in the wrong neighbourhood could spell disaster for a bumbling tourist. I was enthralled by the city and still am.

Waiting for me when I arrived at the hotel was a script that had been sent to me by Burt Reynolds, whom I instantly confused with Burt Lancaster. It seemed he had seen the film and wanted me for his next project. I thought: This is it! I’ve arrived! Look out, Hollywood, I’m here! Then I read it. It was not only awful but I was being asked to play an upper-class New York stockbroker type: why? So I duly turned it down, and in any case I wanted to do the publicity tour that was to take me in some style around America, Australia and Europe. However, Burt wasn’t taking no for an answer and sent a message, saying that even if I didn’t want to do his film, he would like to meet me. This I couldn’t resist. He flew Ros and me down to his home town of Jupiter, yes, Jupiter in Florida, where as we drove through the town we noticed several buildings emblazoned with the letters BR. We were booked into an hotel and that very night we were to meet Burt over dinner at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater where a production of The Hasty Heart by John Patrick was playing, starring the woman who played the eldest daughter of the Von Trapp family in the film of The Sound of Music. We were very excited. When Ros informed me that the man we were meeting was in fact not Burt Lancaster of From Here to Eternity and Elmer Gantry but Burt Reynolds of Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run fame, I was thrilled. Then I recalled an interview that I had seen on television in the recent past with Dolly Parton, who had just done a film with him, and she said that they had two things in common: they both had forty-inch chests and they both wore wigs; the latter comment Burt was apparently not too pleased about. So as we were being driven to dinner in our stretch limo through the streets of Jupiter City, I regaled Ros with this story, adding that above all else we must not mention the wig or refer to it in any way, however obliquely.

‘Hi, Julie, Burt Reynolds, welcome to Jupiter!’

He was quite short, wearing built-up shoes, and had gorgeous, dark, twinkly eyes. I kept my own directed straight at them, never letting them stray north to the unnaturally dark thatch lurking at the top of his conker-brown forehead.

‘Thank you, WIG!’ It just came out, exploding out of my mouth without a thought. Well, there was a thought; it was don’t mention the wig! I then scrabbled about trying to recover, with verbiage spilling everywhere: ‘Yes, yes . . . thank you . . . wig . . .’ Oh God, there it goes again! ‘Wig . . .’ Please, brain, stop it . . . Try to engage, please! ‘Wig ... wig . . . wiggoing to enjoy this . . . our . . . selves . . . tonight. It’s, it’s so . . . let . . . jet . . . lagged . . . I am so get-lagged . . . erm.’

Burt instantly came to the rescue, ushering us through with loads of bonhomie and a joke that made us laugh, but which I cannot for the life of me remember now.

We were seated for dinner in a private box at the back of the theatre, with a huge black bodyguard who according to Burt had been something high up in the Miami State Police. The first half of the evening was a little strained, mainly because we were forced to sit through the first half of a rather turgid production of a play long past its sell-by. Then when the interval came along like a cold drink in the desert, Burt pressed something and a soundproof glass screen glided across the front of our booth, thankfully remaining there for the rest of the night. Once we were released from the coma-inducing show, the evening bubbled into life with Burt getting more laughs and engaging our interest in a way that The Hasty Heart could never hope to do. His parting shot was, ‘Look, I’m not going to try to force you to do it, although I know you’d enjoy yourself, and I’m not going to try to force you to do the movie either!’

The next day we were taken by limo to his house and watched as his helicopter landed on the lawn in the back garden to take us to Miami airport. Burt gave me his phone number and said that if there was ever anything I needed that he could help with, I was to give him a ring. We were then whisked up and out of Jupiter to land on the runway a matter of yards from the aircraft that was to take us back to New York. What on earth the planeload of gawping, bemused travellers thought of these two young, slightly scruffy girls getting out of a helicopter and straight into first class, I dread to think. All I can say is I’m glad it was Burt Reynolds of Cannonball Run fame and if I am to believe the numerous people whom I have met since who have worked with him, I missed out on that film and a whole lot of fun.

Back in New York the press junket began with twenty television interviews, one after the other, followed by a seemingly endless round of newspaper interviews. Michael, Lewis and I were each ensconced in a separate room at the Plaza, visited in turn by individual journalists. That evening Michael took us to Elaine’s, a famous restaurant frequented by celebrities of different types. The walls were covered in their photographs, personally signed to Elaine with some chatty message usually followed by a lot of exclamation marks. So when on arrival I asked Michael where the Ladies’ was and he instructed me to turn left at Woody Allen, I went along the wall scanning the photos for Woody’s little elfin portrait and ended up tripping over the real man’s feet. We sat in the corner, with Michael pointing out anyone famous as they came in, with all the fresh excitement of a boy actor. ‘That’s Henry Mancini . . . You know, “Moon River”.’ The charming thing about the whole experience was that Michael was more famous than any of them.

Ros and I had a ball in New York; she had friends there and we were out most night, painting the town some colour or other. On my last morning I woke up inexplicably wearing a New York City Department of Sanitation T-shirt. I never quite worked out where that came from but perhaps after the painting I’d done a bit of mopping and dusting.

Next stop was Los Angeles; the drive in from the airport there, of course, is a completely different kettle of fish. It is a massive, sprawling suburb, which is all sub and no actual urb, acre upon acre of tatty, low-rise housing, with no character whatsoever. We were checked into the Beverly Hills Hotel, a pink palace of a place set in the heart of the not-at-all-tatty and highly manicured Beverly Hills, which is known for its celebrity clientele and its famous Polo Lounge, dubbed by Bette Midler the Polio Lounge.

It was Labor Day weekend, which gave us time to ourselves, so we headed to the pool. We were shown to our loungers by two tanned, athletic-looking young men, sporting Ray-Bans and dressed in blindingly white singlets and shorts. Ros, with her wonderfully dry, irreverent wit, and I sat there agog, chortling at the assembled clientele. I had never seen so much gold in one place. There was enough there to solve Third World debt. When one woman dived in I checked the muscular young men to see whether they displayed any signs of concern; they didn’t, but it was a wonder she ever came up again. She was covered in what is nowadays referred to as bling and so, it seemed, was everyone else there: great lumps of the stuff hanging from ear-lobes, necks and wrists, not pretty or delicate or subtle. In fact, a block of gold just strapped to a person’s front or perhaps a bank statement made into a sunhat would have been more aesthetically appealing, whilst creating a similar impression.

Just before we left I appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and regaled him with stories of the Beverly Hills Hotel, such as how we were not allowed into the Polo Lounge with its snobby old dress code because one of us was wearing denim, and that in fact the most smartly dressed people in there were the hookers, but that was apparently absolutely fine with the management because they looked right. I also told him that, after staying there, 50 per cent of my luggage was now towelling. Johnny loved all this and invited me on the show twice in one week to talk about it further; the only other person ever, at that time, to have appeared on the show twice in one week was, strangely enough, Burt Reynolds. Unfortunately the hotel didn’t see the funny side of it, and I was never booked in there again.

I had always had a fascination for Los Angeles. For as long as I can remember, every Christmas we received a card from my mother’s second cousins who lived there. The card was in the form of a photograph of the entire family beaming festively and somewhat glamorously at the camera. They were called the Takahashis and, yes, as you have no doubt surmised from the name, they were and indeed are Japanese, or at least Japanese-American.

My great-aunt Margaret had gone to California from Ireland in the 1920s and worked as a waitress on a train. One day she was taken ill and a Japanese doctor tended her. The result was that even though neither could speak the other’s language, they nevertheless fell in love and subsequently got married. They settled in the Japanese quarter and their children in turn married Japanese-Americans. During the Second World War they were interned in a camp, even though they had never been to Japan, knew very little about its culture and, to all intents and purposes, saw themselves as American. It was when my mother was a child at home in Ireland that her cousin Margaret first got in contact via the local post office. They were both aged around eleven at the time and she had been writing to them, never having met them, ever since. So it was with great excitement that I contacted the Takahashis and told them I was in Los Angeles.

I was invited to dinner at their home downtown and felt instantly at ease with them. There was something strangely familiar that I couldn’t quite name: something in a turn of phrase, a knowing glance, the tone of someone’s laugh, the set of someone’s mouth, my mother’s eyes surrounded by an Oriental face, the features of a distant cousin. They looked Japanese but there was a liberal, if subtle, sprinkling of O’Brien genes. They joked that they thought their small eyes were down to being Japanese, but that now, having met me, they could see that they were in fact Irish eyes. I booked tickets for them for the Los Angeles première and enjoyed watching the Columbia Pictures representative who, after ushering them in, turned to a colleague and mouthed silently, but with the pronounced articulation of someone communicating with the deaf, ‘Her cousins?’

Just as I was about to leave Los Angeles, a call came for me to appear on Good Morning America with the famous television journalist, Barbara Walters (no relation). It was to happen live, the very next day in New York, so I was to fly there immediately that evening. I arrived at the airport in Los Angeles to find that the flight was delayed because La Guardia airport in New York was fogbound. The plane eventually took off well past midnight. When we arrived in the vicinity of La Guardia, an announcement was made to the effect that the airport was still fogbound and would we please be a little patient. They did not send Ros with me on this particular journey as it wasn’t deemed necessary just for one night and so I was travelling alone in first class, seated next to a man who, as we circled the airport waiting to make a landing, was becoming increasingly nervous. Eventually the captain’s voice came over the speaker system with the comforting announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, if I could just have your attention for a moment. It seems that this fog just isn’t going to lift so we are proposing that we land at Newark instead of La Guardia as we are running out of fuel fast.’

With that the man sitting next to me jumped up out of his seat and shouted, purple-faced, at the blank wall in front of him, ‘You asshole!’

We landed at Newark airport some twenty minutes later at about four o’clock in the morning. I hadn’t a clue where Newark was, so it might just as well have been in Brazil. I couldn’t remember where I was staying and, needless to say, the Columbia Pictures rep, for whom I had no contact number and who was meant to meet me off the flight about six hours earlier at another airport entirely, was not there. I had no dollars, as they were in my hotel room back in LA, and I had been assured at the time that not only would I not need any money, as I would be met and taken everywhere by a rep in a limo, but that I would be back within twenty-four hours. Stiff with panic, I wandered out of the deserted airport in the vain hope that at least there would be a car waiting for me. No such luck. I then went towards the taxi rank and heard a woman ask whether anyone wanted to share a cab into Manhattan. At exactly the same time the name of the hotel I was booked into popped inexplicably into my head and I took her up on the offer, along with another woman and a man. I had no idea how far we had to go and was shocked to see the familiar skyline within minutes of setting off; it seemed Newark was a lot nearer Manhattan than La Guardia. I sat in the back of the cab, desperately trying to think how I was going to explain my lack of funds, and then when the cab pulled up outside my expensive-looking hotel it just exploded out of my mouth, just as Burt Reynolds’ wig had done only a few days earlier: ‘Erm . . . I’m really sorry but I haven’t got any money.’ Absolute silence. ‘Erm . . . Columbia Pictures were meant to be meeting me . . . I’m so sorry . . .’

‘Oh, that’s OK. Forget it.’ This was the nice lady to my right.

‘Oh, really . . . Columbia Pictures, huh?’ This was the rather cross man sitting in the front and addressing me as if I were a halfwit claiming to be a brain surgeon.

‘Yes, I’ve got a film opening here.’

‘It’s all right, really.’ The kind woman again.

‘Oh really? You’ve got a film opening and you have no money.’ The cross man, now sarcastic as well as patronising.

‘Yes, I’m an actress, I was just put on a plane last night. I’m on Good Morning America in the morning.’ Me, squirming.

‘It’s fine, really.’ The woman.

‘You are a movie star appearing on Good Morning America and you can’t pay for your cab ride?’ The man.

‘Yes, I know it sounds odd, but . . . I’m so sorry.’ Me, squirming even more.

‘Yeah, you betcha it sounds odd.’ The man, very cross and sneery. He turned his head away and raised his palm towards me in a ‘talk to the hand’ kind of gesture. ‘Yeah, whatever, lady. We’ll pay.’

I skulked off into my very posh and impressive-looking hotel. It never crossed my mind that I could have got the hotel to pay the cab for me and saved myself the humiliation of trying to explain the unbelievable. A lesson was learnt that night. Now I always make sure that I have enough money on me for a cab, a contact number and an address, no matter who says that they have organised everything.

Next morning after about an hour and a half’s sleep I was sitting in front of a make-up mirror at the studio, supposedly getting ready for the show. Even though there were magenta-coloured circles under my puffy, bloodshot eyes, which had virtually disappeared inside my head, I had for the first time in my life elected to wear no make-up, as the thought of touching my eyes, let alone trying to define them with eyeliner and mascara, was too much to bear. Never had the term ‘red eye’, the name given to the Los Angeles to New York flight, been more appropriate. Just before we went on air and the interview was about to start, I happened to mention to Barbara, who was sitting there in fully coiffured, beautifully dressed, perfumed splendour, that I hadn’t bothered with make-up. Even beneath the powdered, orange perfection of her own freshly applied maquillage, I could see that she had paled at the thought of appearing bare-faced on national television and, indeed, when we went on air, she thought it so significant that she turned straight to camera and announced, ‘She has no make-up on, everybody!’ I saw a playback of the two of us afterwards and could see only too clearly why it is necessary to wear at least a modicum of slap in a situation such as this; not only because of the draining effect of the powerful studio lighting, but also because up against Barbara’s extraordinary hue I looked positively green.

From LA we went on a nine-week tour, taking in San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Atlanta and Hawaii. Then on to all the major cities of Australia, followed by New Zealand, and finally the Netherlands and Scandinavia. I saw mainly the insides of hotel rooms, but there were days off where we were treated royally; in Los Angeles, through a connection of Ros’s, we went to visit Tippi Hedren’s ranch. Tippi, famous for appearing in Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie and for being Melanie Griffith’s mother, lived on an amazing spread in California, where she kept animals rescued from the circus and the like. Amongst the elephants was one in particular, whose back I rode on, which spent its time obsessively walking round and round in circles, every so often rearing up on to its hind legs in a sad parody of its former days as a performer, continually doing the tricks that it had been taught to do long ago in the ring. There were lions lounging around on the tops of old buses, one of which I was able to sit down with and cuddle - admittedly he was ancient and had no teeth or claws, as these had been removed during his days as a circus performer - but even so when I got up to walk away the hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I was warned not to rush because he might just chase me and bring me down for fun. The most abiding image from that trip, however, was when we were sitting in the kitchen, having a cold drink at the end of the day, and a fully grown tiger, which had been bathing in a pond outside, jumped in through the window just like a domestic cat.

Nothing on the tour quite compared to this, although there were highlights: in Denver, we were taken on a special plane ride over the Rockies and through the Grand Canyon; in Sydney, I was put up in a penthouse suite looking out over the famous harbour, complete with a sunken bath and its own butler, the very suite that the Queen had occupied only weeks before; there we spent a day on a yacht, sailing around the harbour and going out to sea. Everywhere we went, we flew first class, which still epitomises luxury for me, and we stayed in the most exclusive of hotels.

In every city of every country that we visited, there was a Rita waiting to meet me: that is, an actress playing the part in a theatre somewhere. Today I still get people coming up to me in the street or writing to me to say how Educating Rita has influenced them, giving them the impetus to try further education and to make changes in their lives. I have often been asked whether I get fed up with being so associated with this part and I always answer that I am proud to be remembered for it, and that I would be thrilled to be remembered for anything, but to be remembered for this is a privilege.

Throughout my career I have continued to make a steady stream of films, good, bad and indifferent, since Rita, many of which I am very proud of and many that have been arguably more accomplished in the acting stakes, but none has matched that film or been met with the same warmth and recognition.

Mrs Weasley, in the Harry Potter films, probably comes close and does, of course, add a whole new audience, that of children, and I must confess I love to see the look of wonder on their faces when they discover that the woman fondling the vegetables at the supermarket, or trying to park her car on the High Street, is none other than Mrs Weasley. It’s usually their parents who point me out and there is very often a fierce discussion as to how this person could possibly be Mrs Weasley, who as everyone knows is a rotund redhead. In the film, of course, I wear a red wig and padding; in fact my substantial bosoms were, for the first couple of films, stuffed with birdseed, which became a little worrying whilst filming at King’s Cross station with the number of pigeons that there were pecking around on the platforms, and even more worrying when I thought I clocked an owl looking interested. I pictured the scene where I see Harry and the boys off on the Hogwarts Express turning into something out of Hitchcock’s The Birds. However, without Rita I probably would never have been considered for the Harry Potter films, because it was Rita that got me recognition in the film world and, more importantly, in Hollywood.

I won my first film BAFTA for Educating Rita at a ceremony during which I got increasingly drunk. I was sat at a table separated from my friends with a group of people that I didn’t know. I had no idea how much I had drunk, as waiters never allowed your glass to be empty, constantly hovering with a refill, and I was too nervous to eat the dinner provided. I had no real expectations of winning so when my name was called out by Michael Aspel who was hosting the evening, as usual I was unprepared. I tottered up on to the stage and by this time I was totally plastered. I stood there for several seconds, staring my BAFTA in the face, and then I said, ‘Has anyone got a carrier bag? I can’t go home on the tube with this.’

Muted laughter.

‘Thank you . . . thank you . . . thank you . . . thank you . . . No, really ... thank you . . . No, honestly . . . thank you . . . No, thank you . . . Thank you . . . Thanks.’

Then as I left the stage, thinking my speech to be cleverly ironic, Michael turned and said to a quietly embarrassed audience, ‘Well, she might at least have said, “Thank you”,’ and brought the house down.

After the ceremony I, along with fellow winners, was meant to be presented to the Princess Royal but this proved impossible as I could not be found. This was no wonder because I was, in fact, under the table, literally, discussing the state of the film industry with an actor who was quite clearly as drunk as me but whose identity has now been completely obliterated from my memory. Should he wish to make himself known and put me out of my misery, he can contact the publishers at any time.

Having played Rita on stage as well as film, I am often asked which of the two media I prefer and I have to say that the live theatre wins hands down. Nothing can compare with the adrenalin-fuelled excitement of theatre, where the actor tells the story and pulls the focus, and each performance is unique, as is the relationship with each audience. Film is much more technical, where the story is told more by the director and his editor. It is shot out of sequence in tiny segments lasting only a matter of minutes and once shot is set in aspic. It is not possible in film for the actor to experience the thrill of a story unfolding, in the way that the cinema audience does whilst watching the film, but in theatre the actor shares this with them. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy film; it is far less stressful than theatre. You get a chance to do lines over and over again and you don’t have to artificially project the character out over the stalls.

Even so I have had the good fortune to be involved in two great productions at the Cottesloe Theatre at the National: the first one being Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love in 1985 and the second, more recent one, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons in 2000. Because of the intimacy of the space in which they were performed, these two experiences, along with Rita at the Donmar Warehouse, managed to combine the intimacy of film with the heart-pumping excitement and shared experience of live performance. Also, if a film turns out to be a flop, unlike a bad stage production you don’t have to keep acting in it until the end of the run; it’s either straight to DVD or you keep your head down when you pass the only cinema for two hundred miles that is showing it.

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