20 Questions With ... Lynda Bellingham
Date: 29 October 2007
Lynda Bellingham, opening this week in Vincent River at Trafalgar Studios, talks about playing mothers and explains why acting life beings at sixty.
Well known for her performances on a wide range of TV series and dramas, Lynda Bellinghamís extensive credits include roles in Doctor Who, All Creatures Great and Small, At Home with the Braithwaites, The Bill and Faith in the Future. She is still remembered as an icon of motherhood in the series of Oxo family ads, which ran for 16 years.
More recent stage work has included Sugar Mummies at the Royal Court, Losing Louis at Hampstead Theatre and Trafalgar Studios and Marry Me, You Idiot at Jermyn Street Theatre.
Vincent River, by Philip Ridley, received critical acclaim when it was first staged at Hampstead Theatre in 2000. Bellingham appears in the West End premiere alongside Mark Field and plays a woman visited by a teenager who has some connection with the death of her son.
Date & place of birth
Born 31 May 1948 in Montreal, Canada. There is no significance in being born in Canada. Itís just that my father worked for an airline and my parents happened to there at the time. I was actually brought up in Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.
Lives now in
Friern Barnet, where I have a flat in a former psychiatric hospital. Iíve always lived north of the river, ever since I first came to London when I was at drama school and shared a flat in Marylebone High Street with Nickolas Grace.
Central School of Speech and Drama, 1966-1969.
What made you want to become an actor?
As a small child, I always wanted to be a show jumper, but I had to give up horse riding altogether when I developed bad hay fever. The acting kicked in when I was eleven. I played a servant in Macbeth at the Hendley Shakespeare Festival, an outdoor semi-professional company near Tring in Hertfordshire. The next year I was Puck in a Midsummer Nightís Dream and I just loved every minute of it. I won drama and poetry speaking awards at school as well, but thatís where it all began.
If you hadnít become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
Well apart from working with horses, nothing remotely interested me other than acting. Nowadays, if I wasnít acting Iíd quite like to run a restaurant or a hotel.
First professional job
Frinton Summer Theatre, where I did an eight weeks season of weekly rep consisting mostly of Brian Rix farces and Agatha Christie thrillers. I was an assistant stage manager, which meant you did everything from painting the sets to playing small parts. I remember being slightly put out because in the very first programme they misprinted my name as ďLyftaĒ Bellingham. Then I went to Crewe rep for nine months where they got it right.
First big break
My first ever break in television was two episodes of an early Seventies series called Kate, with Phyllis Calvert playing an agony aunt. But it was the year in General Hospital which really got me going. In theatre I thought I was going to make my mark in 1974 in a new musical called Bordello, about the life of Toulouse Lautrec, but it only ran for 41 performances. I was, however, the very first nude ever to appear on the stage of the Queenís Theatre.
Career highlights to date
Playing Helen Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small, because I got that job at the same time as I signed up for the Oxo family television commercial campaign, which ran for 16 years. You could see me doing vetís wife acting and healing animals on BBC, and then switch over to ITV and watch me cooking them with gravy. I loved doing Faith in the Future with Julia Sawalha, for which we won the 1997 Best Comedy award, and more recently spending six months in The Bill playing horrible leather-clad villainess Irene Radford. I guess that when you get into your fifties you just have to keep reinventing yourself as an actor. They kind of donít know what to do with you. Thankfully, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren have shown the world that there is acting life after 50, although equally there still arenít all that many strong parts for women parts on television today, which is why doing theatre is so important to me.
Patrick Marber Ė Iíd love to do one of his plays. Shakespeare is a favourite too. Most of all Iím a big Edward Albee fan, with A Delicate Balance and Whoís Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the top of my list.
Whatís the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Without question, Patrick Stewart in Macbeth at the Gielgud Theatre. Itís vital to have drama as strong as this in the West End as opposed to all the big musicals.
Whatís the best advice youíve ever received?
The best advice I ever gave myself was to believe in myself.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Actingwise, itís got to be Katherine Hepburn. She epitomised how a woman could be funny, witty, intelligent and attractive all at the same time. Historically, I quite fancy being Boudica Ė Queen of the Iceni maybe, but a bit of a ladís girl too.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia MŠrquez with its fantastic historical sweep. But I truly adore crime books, especially Mark Billingham and Patricia Cornwell. I guess thatís why I was destined to be in The Bill.
Favourite holiday destinations
For years I wouldnít allow myself a holiday because of my work and the children, although my two sons are now aged 19 and 24 so Iím able to explore more. When I was married to my former Italian husband we always went to Italy. My own choice will always be remote and exotic islands, The Maldives is out of this world. Iím always desperate to escape to some uninhabited desert isle, although there canít be many left now.
Favourite after-show haunts
The Ivy, J Sheekey and Jo Allen. When I was in Losing Louis at Trafalgar Studios, sometimes Iíd allow myself to stay over on Friday nights at The Athaneum in the posh part of St Jamesís. Iíd walk there and say hello to the man on the door at the Ritz on the way, sometimes even pop in for supper. Itís the posh part of London that Iíd never normally frequent in a million years.
Iím not very web aware, even though I have a site of my own. I really must get down to updating it because it says I would never ever get married again, but as Iíve just got engaged itís now out of date. I email of course and I understand how wonderful the internet can be, but for reference and information Iíd still rather read a book or go to a library.
I did try to keep up with the latest drum and bass through my sons, but I love classic singers like Ray Charles and Iíve recently had another go at Barbra Streisand. I bought lots of her CDs and when my other half and I drove down to the South of France this summer I played her very loudly all the way, which encouraged him to drive faster and faster so we would arrive and I would have to switch off.
How did being the Oxo mum for so long affect your career?
It stopped me doing quite a lot. I am proud of it because it was daring at the time - almost like a mini soap opera. But there was a real snobby thing about it. Certain parts of this industry were always going to shut the door on me for having done that. But then I didnít find my feet on television all through the seventies because I got into comedy mode Ė you had to do what I call ďtits and arseĒ stuff. Now itís very different for actresses but then you were only usually employed in comedy shows as the butt of menís jokes. You couldnít be funny and attractive. I think it was something I was rather good at and could have probably achieved higher things. Nowadays it doesnít really matter what you do so long as you put bums on seats. Itís depressing. TV has truly gone for the lowest common denominator at the moment Ė a bit like the equivalent of John Major and his grey politics.
Youíve recently begun to play yourself as a panellist on Loose Women. Whatís that like?
Itís very different and Iím thrilled to be going back to it after Vincent River. We talk about our lives and people see me as myself, but itís also great that audiences will accept me as a character in a play. I realised that these days itís a lot to do with ďprofileĒ Ėyou have to keep reminding people that you are still around. Loose Women does that but in a way that doesnít compartmentalise you.
Why did you want to accept the part of Anita in Vincent River?
Iíve always tried to find theatre roles that stretch me. Anita, the mother in Vincent River, is a fantastic challenge. I mustnít give too much away because itís important that you donít understand too quickly the dynamics of whatís going on between this older woman in her fifties and a young lad who she invites into her flat. As the play unfolds, you begin to understand why Anita is bound to this boy through the death of her own son, whom she discovers was gay. Itís a daring piece exploring grief, violence and homosexuality from a motherís perspective and itís about tolerating how people express themselves, be it sexually or verbally. Itís also timely, this year being the fortieth anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality in this country.
Does being a mother of two sons yourself help you understand Anita?
Of course it has, although as actors you donít have to experience something in order to portray it. But to discover that your dead son has a secret life, as Anita does, is quite something. Iíd be horrified if I found out that my sons had lives that I knew nothing about. Still, short of listening at the keyhole, I guess you have to let them go their own way. Iíve been branded with a motherly image ever since I played the mum in the OXO commercials and after sitcoms like Faith in the Future, in which I was Julia Sawalhaís mum. As an actor Iíve got a myriad of mothers within me, but not necessarily jolly mums carrying in the Sunday joint and the gravy boat.
Any roles you would still like to play?
Iíd love to have a go at Gertrude and Lady Macbeth. As I approach sixty, Iíve begun to understand why people talk about becoming invisible after a certain age. I hope that somewhere in the scheme of things thereís a role out there that says to women of my age that you can be visible without being eccentric, a doddery old lady or a geriatric sex maniac. I am sure itís there. I just have to find it. Maybe thatís my mission.
What are your plans for the future?
Iím planning to write my autobiography so Iíve been looking back and forward recently: the seventies was starting out; the eighties was television; the nineties was divorce and hauling myself out of that; now Iím challenging myself by doing things I have never done before. As an actor, people do feel safe with me. Iím not threatening. In recent years, Iíve used that to draw people in. Sometimes audiences can be quite shocked. In Sugar Mummies last year at the Royal Court, I played this awful woman who has lots of sex with young black men. I loved it. Iíll be sixty next May and Iíve decided that over the next ten years Iíll tackle more roles like that Ė and hopefully clear a few notions about me. As for a title for my book? I havenít decided yet, but maybe it should be Triumph Over Adversity, because my former marriage was quite the most painful thing in my life.
- Lynda Bellingham was speaking to Roger Foss
Vincent River opens on 2 November 2007 (previews from 390 October) at the West Endís Trafalgar Studios.