20 Questions with... Anna Carteret
Date: 2 August 2004
Veteran actress & Peter Hall favourite Anna Carteret shares her experiences about growing up in India, how she felt when her daughter started to follow in her theatrical footsteps & reveals how thongs can ruin rehearsals.
Anna Carteret's acting career has spanned five decades, during which time she has worked with the heavyweights of British theatre.
Early productions for the National Theatre (at the Old Vic where it resided originally) included The Advertisement directed by Laurence Olivier himself, Danton's Death, Jumpers, The National Health, Tis Pity She's a Whore, Merchant of Venice and Cyrano de Bergerac.
Carteret was in the opening production for the 'new' National on the South Bank, John Gabriel Borkman, which was her first with Peter Hall and the beginning of a lifelong working relationship. Other Hall productions Carteret has appeared in to date include On Approval, An Ideal Husband, King Lear, Waste, Misanthrope and Major Barbara.
Amongst her many other stage credits are: The Beaux Strategem, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (for the RS,C directed by Howard Davies), Richard II, Death of a Salesman, Michael Frayn's award-winning Copenhagen and 2003's star-studded revival of Absolutely! perhaps, directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
Carteret is married to director Christopher Morahan and has performed in his productions of Man and Superman, Semi Detached, Heartbreak House and Naked Justice. They have two children, Rebecca Morahan and Hattie Morahan, both also now in the business. Rebecca translated The House of Bernada Alba and Dona Rosita by Lorca for the Orange Tree Theatre last year (when Carteret starred) and is currently translating an Argentinean play for the Royal Court. Fellow actress Hattie is currently playing the title role in Iphigenia at Aulis at the National.
On television, Carteret made her mark playing Inspector Kate Longton in Juliet Bravo. Her other small screen credits include The Pallisers, Being Normal, In the Heat of Day, The Shell Seekers, Ashenden, Sherlock Holmes, Eskimo Day/ Cold Enough for Snow and Peak Practice.
Carteret is currently performing in Man and Superman and Galileo's Daughter, directed by Peter Hall as part of his second annual summer repertory season at Bath's Theatre Royal. They continue at Bath until 14 August 2004 and then transfer to Malvern Theatres until 28 August 2004.
Date & place of birth
In Bangalore India, On December 11, 1942. My Father was in the Indian cavalry and my mother had been brought up there; as had her mother, and her father was in the Gurkhas. So all three generations of women were brought up in India. I came back when I was four and I could hardly speak English at all, I spoke Hindustani. My Ayah, (nanny), taught me nursery rhymes, which I still remember. My first memory is her pushing me along a long dusty track and a bullock cart came by. One of the bullocks peed and it splashed on my legs. I also remember riding to school on a little pony called Ginger Biscuit - all the children did, with a young Indian boy looking after the ponies and escorting us home again. My parents met in India - it was very romantic but my mother couldn't even boil an egg - because of course they always had servants. She tried to boil one once but left it on for two hours! When we came back on the boat I can remember my sister Niki and I had pink-eye, and we had to lie in the dark in the cabin with cold flannels over our eyes and my mum read us The Secret Garden. I can remember identifying with the girl in that, Mary, because she comes back from India and feels like an outsider.
I had always insisted from the age of three that I wanted to go on the stage, and from the age of eight I trained at the Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertfordshire. At that time my father was stationed in Germany so I had to board. The first time I went back to England from Germany, I remember setting off at five in the morning in the snow, and my mum gave me a hot water bottle to put under my coat - but within two hours the water had turned to ice, which shows you how cold it was! I remember we stopped for breakfast on the autobahn, and dad ordered me an omelette and guess what was in it? Jam, it was revolting, anyway I didn't eat a mouthful. I was met in England by my godfather who drove me to the School. It was a beautiful place, this old building, and it was enormous, like a fantasy. That's where I met my first English friends. And there I learnt to be a jack of all trades.
I liked art because I had a school-girl crush on the art teacher who became a kind of mother substitute to me - I remember giving her all the presents my parents sent me - this is when I was ten. I was so homesick I dressed up my pillow as my mum. I also liked Mrs Hughes -Davies or 'Hugs Bugs' as we called her, our English teacher. She was my first inspiration to love words and their meaning and where they come from, whether English, French, Latin, Italian or Spanish.
Lives now in...
I live in the Devil's Punchbowl which is south of Guildford, in Surrey. The house consists of two gamekeepers cottages back to back. We have a beautiful garden and we've made a lake at the bottom from a natural spring - it was always boggy so we thought we'd use it as a feature. My husband loves birds and now there are ducks and all sorts, it's lovely. I was out talking to them this morning about 6.30am.
First big break
Probably Peter Pan because I understudied Wendy. This was in 1960 and my first acting job. It was the Christmas season at the Scala Theatre, in Tottenham Court Road, which is no longer there. Donald Sinden played Captain Hook and Julia Lockwood was Peter Pan - we called her Toots - she was absolutely brilliant. Donald was definitive as Hook and Mr Darling. I played Tiger Lily and about three weeks in I had a message: Juliette Mills who played Wendy was in hospital, she'd done her back in while flying on the wire. I'd never used a wire before but they told me not to worry, just 'don't jump' . In the last act, there was a scene in the treetops where I flew to visit Peter and I had a hat with little beads all over it and the wire got caught in the beads so my head was stuck on one side. Peter got the giggles and couldn't speak so I thought it best to cut the scene short and said "Come along Nana - home!", nothing happened so I tried again, still nothing; on the third time we were finally flown off. I found out after the fly men were in the pub and had to be called back early to get us off!
After Peter Pan, I decided I would be an actress rather than a dancer and I wrote 99 letters to all the reps in Britain, including Forbes Robertson who ran the rep in the Butlin's holiday camps. He was the only one who replied and he gave me a lead part at Skegness and guess who was the drummer? Ringo Starr! All us girls used to cook scrambled eggs for breakfast for him and the other guys in our caravan. It was during that time that one of the actors in the company, Tony Ashdown, introduced me to an unknown actor called Michael Caine. He already knew what he was doing and where he was going but he was a really nice guy and very funny.
In An Ideal Husband, directed by Peter Hall; I played Mrs Cheveley opposite Martin Shaw. We opened in 1995 at what is now the Gielgud (it was then The Globe), moved to the Haymarket for six months and finally to Broadway. That was my first time in New York, it was a wonderfully heady experience.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Saturday Sunday Monday by De Filipo. I played the maid. It was directed by Franco Zeffirelli at the Old Vic 30 years ago with Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Martin Shaw, Louise Purnell, who became my best friend, and Gawn Grainger who I played opposite in Absolutely! perhaps.
I was in the opening production at the new National Theatre - it was John Gabriel Borkman by Ibsen - with Peggy Ashcroft, Wendy Hiller, Ralph Richardson and Frank Grimes. My character was Mrs Wilton. I have two fond memories of that production. I was pregnant before the transfer so I wrote to Peter Hall who was directing and said I couldn't do it. He replied by return of post saying it was no problem and that we'd just let out the costume! By the end of the run, I was eight months pregnant. It changed the whole story because my character eloped so her motivation now seemed very different, you see. The other memory is of Ralph meeting my husband at the stage door before he left on his motorbike. Ralph turned to Christopher and said "Pistols at dawn?", meaning can we have a fight over Anna. Isn't that lovely? Actually, it's a good title for an autobiography isn't it?
Martin Shaw, David Suchet and David Yelland who was also in An Ideal Husband. They all have a great sense of humour and managed to corpse at least once during the performance.
Peter Hall, who has cast me in some marvellous productions over the years, and my husband Christopher Morahan, who knows me so well and how much to push me. He gave me a very useful note when I did Man and Superman with him at the National. He said three words: "a silver pistol". He meant be accurate, one shot, and silver - delicate, precious, elegant, bright, sharp, you understand? It can be difficult sometimes though, I remember when he wanted to do Hedda Gabler and I'd just had Hattie, my second child. I was sitting there, breastfeeding, feeling fat and unattractive. I would have loved to play the part, but he cast Penelope Wilton. Although it never actually happened, I remember the hurt I felt because she was my best friend, and Hattie's godmother.
Dennis Carey, who's dead now, directed me at the Bristol Old Vic - in 1964, I think it was, in Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? We were like a family. It was the most involving and exhausting play I have ever been in. After the last dress rehearsal, Dennis took us to the edge of the river and bought us all ice cream, but he didn't give us any notes. He wanted us to take the play and make it our own.
I remember working with Franco Zeffirelli - who I love - on Saturday Sunday Monday. In one scene my character is chopping onions and begins to cry. I asked him, "Why does she have hysterics?" and Franco said to me "Don't worry darling, no one will be looking at you"! I remember that note because it meant I could do what ever I wanted. So I did mad things like climbing into dustbins, developing a limp, getting a wig from Brixton that looked like a lavatory brush, and using a high squeaky voice... I had a ball and I got the Clarence Derwent Award for most promising newcomer! Isn't that hilarious?
I rather like foreign playwrights. De Filipo who wrote Saturday Sunday Monday, and I love Pirandello too. It's because they move you, challenge you, they make you laugh. Oscar Wilde because he does the same thing and he's actually very serious when he makes you laugh. Laughter is the strongest way to share character, thoughts, ideas, everything.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Beatrice in Much Ado but I'm too old. I'd like to play it opposite David Suchet because David and I did a TV film years ago and he used to make me laugh a lot, as well as treat the work very seriously.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Guantanamo. I saw it at the Tricycle with William Chubb, and at the time I saw the play, I had no idea that I'd be working with him now in Bath! Have you seen Iphigenia at Aulis? You must! It's so distinctive. I am also very proud of our daughter Hattie who is in it.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I am passionate about this. I would encourage and make sure every school has a good drama teacher; both of my girls had good drama teachers and that's where their love of words and language and drama grew. Theatre I believe inspires, enlarges, encourages, provokes and angers - it utilises all the senses, so I think it should be offered to children everywhere. I think it's a good way to help people understand themselves and each other.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Mother Teresa. Because she has done more for all people than anyone else I know. It doesn't matter how or why as long as you do it.
Favourite holiday destination
Lanzarote. Years ago Christopher, Becca, who was very young, and I went there out of season. We took a fishing boat to a small nameless island one day that was nearly deserted and we took our clothes off, all three of us; I've got a picture of Christopher and Becca's little bottoms as they stroll across the dunes, and that symbolises Lanzarote for me.
The Secret Garden as I have already mentioned. I also like Rumer Godden - she lived in India and wrote very evocatively of the country. Christopher directed Hattie in a TV adaptation of one of her books, The Peacock Spring; Peter Hall's daughter Jennifer was in it too.
Favourite after-show haunts
There used to be one opposite the stage door of Haymarket called The Buckstone with Gerry Campion behind the bar and that was the 'in' place where actors went, it was kind of secret, with very low lighting! Now I tend to be rushing to catch the train home and don't have time for a drink!
I don't use the Internet really except to research poetry for a programme I'm doing called The World Is Our Oyster with Jan Carey. We met doing Juliet Bravo together and we were talking about being out of work. We have a fascination about women's journeys, like the Edwardian female explorers, people like Rebecca West. But in the show we use the idea of 'journey' very liberally in terms of literal or emotional journeys.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I'd have liked to have gone abroad and worked in development. I've sponsered a 13 year old Indian girl, Suguru, and we write to each other. I tell her things I think might interest her, and she writes to me about the things she cares about. Every so often I get a report from the head of her community on her progress. My daughter Becca works for a Fair Trade coffee company and travels to South America and East Africa, working with Farming co-operatives and I respect her work there greatly. She also speaks Spanish fluently and co-translated Lorca's Dona Rosita, the spinster which is the last play I did, at the Orange Tree in Richmond.
How did you feel when you found out your daughter, Hattie Morahan, wanted to act? Do you think acting is in the blood?
I was thrilled but nervous because it is such a terribly insecure profession, more so than ever before with fewer reps. I think it is partly in the genes and partly in the environment. If you grow up surrounded by people who talk about acting, theatre, films and TV - Christopher's dad was a Production Designer and Producer in films - it's not surprising you will be interested in these things too.
What made you accept your parts in Man and Superman and Galileo's Daughter?
I wanted to work with Peter again. And I was excited by the idea of doing a new play by Timberlake.
Which of the two plays do you prefer?
Galileo's Daughter is the most demanding for me, I play the Abbess. She is unconventional, more sophisticated than you would expect. She has chosen to be a nun, but she seems more interested in human beings than God. She thinks laterally and that makes her challenging.
You did Man and Superman at the National a few years ago. Has that production, directed by your husband, affected your attitude toward the play or your playing of this character?
Yes, both. I remember Antonia Pemberton who played Mrs Whitefield was so subtle and funny, and I'm doing my best to find the same delicacy.
How, if at all, do London audiences differ from those in the regions?
I think there are a lot of tourists in London, and what rather worries me is, often when they book their holiday, they get a deal to go to particular musicals. So those shows dominate the market, and some serious straight plays, like Guantanamo, don't get any publicity and visitors don't get to know anything about them. Londoners can be lazy, thinking we'll see that next week, and end up missing it, whereas in the country people make an effort to see something if they really want to see it.
What's the funniest/oddest/strangest thing that has happened in rehearsals/ runs to date of these productions?
Sophie Winkleman is an beautiful, sexy girl, and plays one of Gallileo's daughters. There's a scene where Gallileo, played by Julian (Glover), comes to visit his daughters in the Convent. We are rehearsing it one day and Sophie is in tight jeans and tight top with bear midriff - she couldn't look less nunly! Meanwhile Julian is struggling to do one of his long speeches, it is a serious scene; however from where we are you can see Sophie's red thong above the top of her jeans and of course it is distracting poor Julian, in the end he says "I'm sorry I can't go on!" and we all stopped for a tea break. It was very funny.
What are your plans for the future?
I'd like to direct. I've directed five plays already. When we did Dangerous Liaisons, the five younger members of the cast got a bit bored so I told them to find a play they'd be interested in and we'd try and do it. We did Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry and opened it in Bristol. I've been sent a play by Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues, all about a disparate group of people going to Bosnia to help after the war. It's about each character's relationships and experiences. I want to do it with this company if I can, at the studio theatre here.
- Anna Carteret was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Man and Superman and Galileo's Daughter continue in rep at the Theatre Royal Bath until 14 August, after which they transfer to Malvern theatres until 28 August 2004.