After the hoohah of the 1984 Oscars was over, I stayed around in Hollywood for a short time on the advice of a couple of executives from Columbia Pictures. I was introduced to a hotshot agent at Creative Artists Agency and was duly taken on. I did the usual rounds of casting folk and the movers and shakers of the film industry, and was even given a few scripts to peruse, but they simply didn’t know what to do with me; the scripts were all a bit Rita-esque, with old-fashioned, cheeky, chirpy, ‘cor luvva duck’ characters, some American screenwriter’s romantic and ill-informed idea of what a working-class English girl was like. How could I summon up the enthusiasm to work on things like these when I had had the privilege of the likes of Alan Bennett’s, Willy Russell’s, Alan Bleasdale’s and Victoria Wood’s characters to perform?
At a loss, they then sent me bland, generally written characters in romantic comedies of the sort that had been popular in the 1970s, where every line was predictable and cliche’d, and could be said by a hundred characters in a hundred different ways, instead of the taut, precise and brilliantly observed stuff I had had the good luck to have grown up with and grown used to. So in my heart of hearts, much as I loved the idea of Hollywood, I knew where I wanted to be. I felt that the roles that I wanted to play, and the projects that I wanted to be a part of and that would fulfil me, were tied to my roots, and that there was a cultural divide that I could not comfortably cross without living in America and soaking it up for some time. I wasn’t prepared to do that when my real interest lay deep down in my own history and people. I also felt that the talent of British writers, technicians and directors was unrivalled.
So back home I came, travelling straight up to the Lake District on arrival, Eskdale to be precise, to start shooting a film titled She’ll Be Wearing Pink Pyjamas.
This was a piece about a group of women on an outward-bound course, with an interesting script written by Eva Hardy that didn’t quite live up to its potential when completed, but with a fabulous bunch of women, Pauline Yates, Paula Jacobs, Maureen O’Brien, Janet Henfrey, Alyson Spiro, Jane Evers and Penelope Nice amongst them. The film looms large in my memory because of an incident that occurred after we’d been marooned up there for two or three weeks.
One evening after filming we were all in the bar of the hotel, bemoaning the fact that in a day or so’s time we would have to remove our clothes for a particular scene that was set in a shower. Being naked in public is not something that I seek out in life, or in work for that matter. I had done it once before in Alan Bennett’s Intensive Care, where his embarrassment was so extreme that it made me feel positively Gypsy Rose Lee, and I was to do it once again on stage in the West End in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune in 1989, but that was in a very dim light. And then finally - and when I say finally, I’m pretty positive that I mean finally - I was to strip off in 2003 for the film Calendar Girls, but this was a very brief shot, after a pep talk from Helen Mirren and the rest of the girls, plus a glass of champagne, plus a seniority that gave us women total dominance of the set on that day.
However, back in 1984, I certainly felt no such seniority and the thought of a fairly long scene with dialogue whilst you soaped your lalas in a naturalistic fashion was not on my list of things I must do before I die. Then someone - and I can’t remember who, though I’ve often been given the credit - came up with the idea that we should refuse to do it unless the crew took their clothes off as well. Everyone, including the sound crew, who were in the bar that night, thought it was a gas and in the excitement the idea developed into us telling the producers that there had been some kind of recent ruling by Equity, the actors’ union. Then Pauline Yates suggested that we get her husband, the actor Donald Churchill, to ring up pretending to be Peter Plouvier, the then general secretary of Equity, to inform our producers of the bogus ruling. The next day a message was left at the hotel reception, asking the producer to ring Peter Plouvier at Equity urgently, along with Donald Churchill’s telephone number, which, of course, he duly did.
The conversation went something like this:
‘Yes, hello, could I speak to Peter Plouvier, please?’
‘Yes, hello, Peter, you left a message for me to call you. I’m working on the film Pink Pyjamas.’
‘Oh yes. I’m sorry about this, but I believe you have a scene involving several actresses having to appear naked and . . . er, it’s coming up this week, isn’t it?’
‘Erm, yes, that . . . that is correct, yes. Is there a problem?’
‘Well, I’m afraid the Women’s Committee have just passed a motion stating that should any female members of a cast be required to appear naked, then the same number of crew will have to appear naked too. This was passed . . . er, just yesterday morning and I’m afraid you are the first production that it applies to. Erm, I’ve spoken to Alan Sapper, the general secretary for the crew’s union, and he is in complete agreement and will be instructing his members accordingly. I am sorry about this. I expect you could do without it but I’m afraid we are forced to comply.’
Nobody expected for a minute that the producer, whose name I have left out to spare his blushes, would believe a word of this. But, dear reader, he did.
On the day that the scene was to be shot, we arrived to find members of the crew in heavy discussion with the producers, some saying that they refused to undress.
‘I’m not taking my clothes off! I have to bend down a lot . . . it wouldn’t be right.’ This was heard coming from one little huddle. Others were trying to negotiate a fee for revealing all.
‘I’m not going to let a bunch of loony feminists ruin my film!’ This was heard being screamed tearfully from the producer’s caravan later.
By this time we were terrified, not of the impending scene but of the consequences of our prank once the truth was out. However, we felt that now we had to carry on until the bitter end. Inside the shower set the moment came for us to remove our dressing gowns in order to shoot the scene. As soon as we did so, true to their word the sound boys whipped everything off as well. Many a sound technician would have felt diminished by the size of his boom, but not our man, and may I say that he gave the boom, which was, after all, very large and hairy, a good run for its money. Next to follow was Clive Tickner, our marvellous lighting cameraman, sitting there on the dolly, looking ravishing in nothing but a set of headphones. Eventually, the entire crew, which I have to say was suddenly greatly reduced, were naked; all, that is, except the director, who refused and looked most uncomfortable into the bargain. I can’t think why, dear reader, but thereafter a lot of people went round inexplicably lifting their little fingers behind his back, especially when he said anything that could be construed as a mite pompous.
This went on until the end of the shoot and is probably still going on today, for all I know. I am not saying he was an unpopular director, but I do have to say that the caterers offered to make a giant custard pie, with the proviso that some brave person would have the chutzpah to shove it in his face on the last day of filming.
It is amazing how respectful men become when they, too, are naked and in a position to be judged. I noticed it when on a nude beach in Greece; there was absolutely no leering and no comments, lewd or otherwise. Once the scene was over we made our confession with a case of champagne placed strategically between us and them, to ease any embarrassment, and it was all taken in good heart. It is a story that still follows me around the world today; in fact a friend of the very producer of whom I speak contacted him from Australia, only a short forty-eight hours after the joke was played, and reported having read about it in a Sydney newspaper. It turned out to be a publicist’s dream but, even so, a box office disappointment, as was the film I did the following year in 1985.
This was called Car Trouble, in which I starred with my dear friend Ian Charleson, whom I had worked alongside in the play Fool for Love by Sam Shepard at the National Theatre. It was a huge success resulting in us both being nominated for Olivier Awards. We transferred to the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue for a limited run, and I adored him. We were attracted to the child in one another and shared a huge mutual affection as well as a certain wicked, camp humour. Car Trouble was a comedy that revolved around an awful couple called Gerald and Jacqueline Spong. He is the overproud owner of an E-Type Jaguar and, to cut a very long story short, Jacqueline takes a fancy to the dishy mechanic played by the dishy Vincenzo Ricotta, who happens to be servicing the said E-Type and predictably ends up servicing her. The climax, for want of a better word, occurs when they are at it in the car and inadvertently slip the handbrake off in a mid-coitus frenzy, sending the car careering through woodland down a bank. The two of them end up being stuck together, Jacqueline having gone into a trauma-induced spasm. I thought Barry Norman was going to spontaneously combust when he reviewed it on Film ’86 as he was so utterly furious. City Limits, which was then Time Out’s rival what’s-on magazine, called it ‘a sizzling turd of a movie’. The magazine has since folded but not before honouring me in the form of a garden gnome inscribed with ‘The person you would most like to spend a day on Clapham Common with’, and my awarding it with the honorific title ‘The magazine I would most like to wipe my bottom on’.
However, City Limits was forgiven the following year when it gave me the award for Best Film Actress for my portrayal of Cynthia Payne, the notorious Streatham-based madam who famously issued luncheon vouchers to her clients, in the film Personal Services. David Leland had written a really affectionate, moving and funny script, and Terry Jones of Monty Python fame was to direct. David had told me that he was partly inspired to cast me, as well as being influenced in his writing of the part, by my performance as Betty in Victoria Wood’s play Good Fun, which he had directed some six years earlier at the Sheffield Crucible. But even though I was his and Terry’s first choice for the role, the producers weren’t so keen and I was forced to read on camera on three separate occasions before being finally offered the part. A few days later there was to be a press conference, at which Madame Cyn and I were to be centre stage, to announce the forthcoming production, so David and Terry organised dinner in a now-forgotten location so that the two of us could meet. I remember the restaurant as being exclusive and not entirely empty, and it can only have been a matter of minutes before the sneaky sidelong looks, the sly backward glances and the behind-the-hand titters and whispers began.
‘Do you like sex, Julie?’ Cynthia has just sat down.
‘Erm . . . Well, it depends . . . on who it’s with.’ I giggle and my cheeks start to burn.
‘A lot of my girls can take it or leave it, but you get a girl who actually likes it and you’ve struck gold.’
Cynthia has quite a loud, strident voice. In fact she is talking to me as if I were sitting inside a cupboard with the door shut. The actress in me makes a note and a man at the next table has a coughing fit.
‘Oh, yes . . . I . . . can see that.’ My neck is burning now as well.
‘Yes, I couldn’t be doing with it when I was on the game, I got too sore.’
A man and a woman have just entered the room, turned round and gone out again. David coughs.
‘Erm, shall I order for you, Cynthia? I know what you’re like when you get talking.’
David knows Cynthia well, having apparently spent the last two years in her company researching this film. I notice that he has gone grey around the temples since I last saw him and that his hairline has slightly receded.
‘Yes, David, you order. I like a man who can take the lead. I don’t meet many of those these days. All my lot want to be humiliated . . . here.’
She rummages in her bag and brings out several small black-and-white snaps. It takes me time to focus on the first one.
‘He’s a bank manager.’
There is a naked man lying, well, cowering, on the floor of what looks like a perfectly ordinary sitting room, covered in some dark substance.
‘He likes to be covered in Hoover dust.’
Diners at the surrounding tables are now enveloped in total silence; there isn’t even the scrape of a knife to be heard.
She produces another snap for my perusal. In it a group of elderly men are sitting round with cups of tea, being served biscuits by a couple of topless women in stockings and suspenders; one of them looks the spit of Mrs Raven who did our cleaning when I was a child.
‘That’s one of my parties.’
‘Oh . . . The gentlemen are quite—’
‘Yes, I know, I prefer them old. They’re easier to handle; the young ones are too much trouble, I won’t have young ones. I turn them away.’
There is now a waiter lurking by the doorway into the room; I can see his shoulders going up and down. A little droplet of perspiration has just run down his ribcage.
‘A lot of mine are slaves.’
She then goes on to explain that she has several clients who simply wish to be totally servile and humiliated by a woman in high heels and the bonus is that they make no demands for sex. It is all about role-play, she says.
‘It’s marvellous, Julie, I have my house scrupulously cleaned once a week by a man wearing nothing but a suspender belt and stockings. He cleans my kitchen floor on his hands and knees with a toothbrush held between his teeth and as long as I kick him up the bum every so often he’s fine. I’ve got another pair who do my garden, I just have to shout at them from time to time, tell them they’re bad and make them cut the lawn with a pair of nail scissors, and they’re as happy as Larry.’
‘Gosh . . .’
‘Yes, so if ever you need a cleaner I could easily find you someone and the beauty of it is they pay you!’
There are now two waiters in the doorway, quite openly enjoying the show. Cynthia, in the meantime, has moved on to regaling us about a man who wants to be dominated, frightened and humiliated, and she tells us how she and a friend took him out to a lonely spot in the countryside, where they ordered him to undress, tied him to a tree and then left him for a couple of hours.
‘Yes, we just gave him a slap and then went shopping in Brighton. He used to love it, except one time we forgot all about him and went home. We had to go back for him in the dark and we couldn’t remember where we’d put him. We had such a laugh.’
More photos then appear, one of a huge man wrapped up in a blanket with a dummy in his mouth and a ludicrously large baby’s bonnet on his head.
‘He’s a High Court judge.’
Another photo is of a scrawny, bespectacled man sitting on a large, apparently naked girl’s lap at what was obviously another of Cynthia’s parties.
‘He’s a Justice of the Peace and this one, he . . . he is a very high-up policeman.’
This last is of a tall, lanky-looking man dressed in a schoolgirl’s uniform complete with gymslip, white, knee-length socks and a blond wig tied up in pigtails.
‘You should come to one of my parties, Julie, you’d love it.’
I managed to avoid this. Cynthia visited a couple of locations whilst we were filming, both times holding court on the pavement opposite. Having gathered a little group of onlookers around her, she then set about telling them how whatever it was that we were filming really happened.
‘No, it wasn’t like that. No, you see . . . etc.’
Eventually the locations were kept a secret. The shoot itself was an education, I think for one and all, but obviously more so for some than others. The sets were generally littered with sex toys of various types and an eye-watering selection of pornography that was continually being pored over by members of cast and crew alike.
‘But her nails are chipped!’
This was from my mightily posh but lovely make-up artist as she stared horrified at a photograph of a woman holding a huge disembodied phallus, which might easily have belonged to a donkey, as if she were posing for an advert for Wall’s Cornetto.
The film was moderately successful in a cultish sort of way, but I knew it wasn’t going to be huge at the box office when I came out of an early screening and heard a woman say, ‘Well, something there to offend the whole family.’
The following year I was offered the role of another real person, the wife of Buster Edwards who was one of the key players in the Great Train Robbery. Although in some ways it makes the job easier, having the character already in existence to draw upon whenever necessary, playing a real and living person also brings with it a huge responsibility to do them justice and even though in both these cases I was not attempting an impersonation of any sort, I was still required to find the essence of each. Unlike Cynthia, June was a very private person and so I felt my responsibility to be even greater, as she was not the sort of person who was likely to stand on the pavement opposite a location and shout the odds about how authentic or not the portrayal of her life was. I was excited to hear from Norma Heyman, the producer, that Phil Collins was set to play the lead and in September 1987 we started rehearsals for Buster. We had been at it only a couple of days when I discovered that I was pregnant. About eighteen months previously, in December 1985, the fourth to be precise, I had met a very handsome man from the Automobile Association, the AA , in the Fulham Boulevard, in a bar on the Fulham Road.
I had just returned home after playing Lady Macbeth opposite Bernard Hill as the lead in Nancy Meckler’s production of the Scottish play up at Leicester Phoenix. It had been a huge success for me on many levels, not least because it was the first time that I had not employed an accent of some sort to play a part and had spoken Standard English, but it was also a role I found profoundly moving. At the time I felt that the current prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was a very good model upon which to base my interpretation of the character. Lady M’s vaulting ambition, whatever the human cost, seemed to be a perfect parallel to Thatcher’s mode of leadership but during rehearsals I discovered the frail creature beneath the character’s driven exterior - the soft, vulnerable bit of her that breaks down and reveals itself in the ‘mad scene’. It is the only part I have ever wanted to play again, apart, that is, from Mrs Overall of course.
I have always been fascinated by, fearful of and drawn to the subject of mental illness, feeling, I suppose, that we all tread a very fine line between what is seen as insanity and what is supposedly normal. I later felt compelled to write about it in my novel Maggie’s Tree and although this was, in essence, a fairly dark story, I derived huge joy from writing it, partly because it dealt with a subject that I found disturbing, but also because of the element that is key in my desire to act, which is the monumental power of storytelling. Here in the novel-writing process I was the creator of all things; I decided where the characters came from, both physically and emotionally. I built them from scratch. It felt very akin to acting, but, of course, much lonelier and I do love the social, team-spirit nature of being part of a company or being surrounded by a film crew. So my experience at Leicester Phoenix covered most of the bases and was hugely fulfilling.
Once home in London, I went to the aforementioned bar to catch up with my best buddy, Ros March. A weekly session of talking through our lives to date was, and is, a requirement that I consider vital to the healthy running of my life and this particular one was rather lengthy as I had been away for some weeks. We had met at the Fulham Boulevard for tea at four o’clock in the afternoon and were still there by nine o’clock in the evening, by which time the place was awash with so-called ‘Hooray Henrys’, and Ros and I were three sheets to the wind. At some point I staggered up to the bar for yet more refreshments and, hearing all the over-privileged ‘Yah-yahing’ going on, I announced at the top of my voice to Ros, but also for the benefit of those around me: ‘I bet nobody here is a member of the Labour Party!’
With that a big, deep voice next to me said, ‘I am, actually.’
I looked up and that was it: love, dear reader, or, most likely at that particular juncture, lust. We struck up a conversation, about what, God alone knows, and then after saying goodnight he apparently spotted us staggering about outside, with me dropping ten-pound notes all over the place. Fearing for our safety he decided to walk us home. On reaching my door - at this time I lived a matter of minutes away, in St Dionis Road - I insisted on his coming in for a cup of tea, asking at the same time whether, as he was a man, he would mind taking a look at (a) my shower, as I could read a novel in between each drop of water that came out of it, and (b) my washing machine, which for some reason I had been unable to empty and which therefore had been full of soaking washing for several days.
The house was open plan so that the sitting room ran straight through into the kitchen. As I stood at the far end of the room watching, as my mother would have called him, this ‘fine figure of a man’ get down on to his haunches to inspect the faulty machine, I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of exhilaration. When he dropped on to all-fours for an even closer look and said, ‘I think you probably need a pump,’ I mistook his meaning, not realising that he was referring to the appliance, and I ran the full length of the room towards him, propelled by an irresistible urge, and leapt, laughing with drunken glee, on to his back.
He shot to his feet and began to pivot round in an attempt to shed my limpet-like grasp, obviously thinking that this was an attack.
‘No! No! I want you to have my children!’ I cried reassuringly but round and round he spun. ‘No, no, honestly, I’ll give you reasonable access!’
Anyway, to cut a very long story short, we have at this point been together for twenty-three years. He was right about the pump, in all senses; he mended the washing machine that night and never really moved out, and a short and passionate eighteen months later we decided that we would, all things being equal, have a baby.
Only a couple of months later, in the run-up to the film Buster, we realised that we had in fact achieved our goal, if a little quicker than anticipated. When I broke the news to her, Norma H. decided that for insurance purposes it was probably better that it went no further than her. This was all very well, but I was suffering not just from morning sickness but from morning, noon and night sickness, and every so often during rehearsals, which were mainly with Phil, I would have to inexplicably get up and rush to the lavatory. This reached a crescendo of discomfort when one of my quick exits occurred with unfortunate timing and I rushed from the room just when Phil, as Buster, was telling me that he loved me and we were about to get into a clinch. That morning, my driver, Jeff, had asked me whether I was happy with his driving as he was concerned with the way I dashed, green faced, from the car at the end of each journey. Then Norma H. grabbed me later after rehearsals and said that Phil was wondering whether I had a problem with him, as my behaviour was so odd, so she was forced to spill the beans. There was much relief all round.