Since appearing opposite Cliff Richard in the 1963 film Summer Holiday, actress Una Stubbs has been a regular on stage and screen.
In Till Death Us Do Part, which ran for a decade from 1965, she played daughter Rita to Warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett. Her other TV creditcs include Fawlty Towers, Worzel Gummidge, Keeping Up Appearances, Heartbeat, Midsomer Murders, Born and Bred, Casualty, Miss Marple, EastEnders and The Catherine Tate Show.
Stubbs’ many other theatre credits - at Sheffield Crucible, Manchester Royal Exchange, Chichester Festival and elsewhere - include Great Expectations, The Philadelphia Story, An Ideal Husband, She Stoops to Conquer, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, The Importance of Being Earnest, Peter Pan, Misalliance, Mrs Warren’s Profession, Days of Hope, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, The Soldier’s Tale and Run for Your Wife.
This week, Stubbs joins a cast – also featuring Tim Pigott-Smith, Michelle Dockery, Barbara Jefford, Barry Stanton and Tony Haygarth – in Sir Peter Hall’s new production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The production runs as part of the annual Peter Hall season at the Theatre Royal Bath before embarking on a two-month regional tour.
Date & place of birth
Born 1 May 1937 in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire.
Lives now in
I live in central London. Right in the middle! It’s lovely.
I didn’t train as an actress, just as a dancer at a school grandly called La Rouche, but in Slough!
First big break
Lots of people think it was Summer Holiday, but I was known as a featured dancer before that. I was a Dairy Box Girl, which was a commercial when commercials first started, and I was recognised in the street as much for that as for anything. And then I was in a programme called Call for Cats which was so popular, and then On the Brighter Side, which was a big series with Stanley Baxter, and then a Dick Emery series. So there was lots before Summer Holiday.
Career highlights to date
I suppose really working with Michael Grandage because he’s the tops. I loved being in his production of Don Carlos in Sheffield and the West End. I felt working with Michael was the biggest break, that someone like him would take me seriously.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
Twelfth Night, Don Carlos, and also being in revues at the Mermaid like Cole, which was a top show. I’ve had so many highlights really, it’s weird to pull any out. And I’m really loving this Peter Hall season. It’s a lovely part and I’m loving working with Tim Pigott-Smith (who plays Henry Higgins), he’s such a marvellous person to work opposite.
That’s a bit unkind because you leave somebody out, but there have been so many. Derek Jacobi was just the sweetest man, but I’ve worked with lots of really lovely people. I’ve also loved working with Catherine Tate, because I have young sons – well, I call them young, they’re not that young now – and because they watch those sorts of programmes.
Michael Grandage. I’ve worked with him six times.
Without a doubt, Shakespeare. They’re just such amazing stories and his foresight into human frailty and human ridiculousness, I just think he’s amazing. And I love Charles Dickens, as a novelist and when his books are adapted for television. His stories work wonderfully on telly.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I’m enjoying now playing women who have a bit of humour about them or who are ridiculous. There are wonderful parts for my age group now in Restoration, in Shakespeare, in Shaw. Lots of ridiculous people. I like playing unpleasant people. In Don Carlos I was a really unpleasant woman, horrible, and I enjoyed that very much.
You’ve done a lot of both TV & theatre. Do you have a preference?
Whatever the part is. If it’s a wonderful part on television then I enjoy that, if it’s a lovely part in the theatre, then I enjoy that. And likewise in film.
Do you think audiences have changed over the years?
You don’t notice a difference. I think certain things shock audiences now, like racism and things like that. When I did Till Death Us Do Part that seemed to go by the by, but cruelty seems to be accepted now. It’s weird.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Frost/Nixon at the Donmar Warehouse. It was a really interesting piece. I went to a matinee and it was full of school teenagers who were quite noisy before it started. Obviously they didn’t know the interview (between David Frost and Richard Nixon) - I remembered the interview, but they didn’t – but by the end they were crying, they were completely gripped. If you tell a story well, people who are not used to the theatre or youngsters, they listen, they listen to a good story well told.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I’d like to have been an artist. I’d like to have been a figurative painter. I would love to have gone to art school. I’ve had two exhibitions and I’ve sold quite a lot, but I usually paint people in the street or in cafes.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
When I was asked this before, I said I’d be Blair and spend the day apologising for the war. But I don’t think I want to change places with anybody really. I’m just coping with the life I’ve got, although of course it would be novel. I suppose I might like to be an actress from years ago, or a musical artist, to see how it was and how it worked. Somebody like Marie Lloyd, when she was at her peak, and see how people treated the stage door Johnnies and see what it was like. I suppose that would be a good person.
I wasn’t educated really. I was taught to read and write and dance and that was it. So I worked very hard as a youngster, and then had a family and everything, so I discovered books quite late in life. It was like opening a treasure chest: George Eliot, Dostoevsky - I thought Crime and Punishment was just amazing - and Jane Austen. I’m trying to catch up on old books really but every now and then I’ll read a modern one. I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It’s a book for nowadays, particularly with all these terrible things going on in schools.
Favourite holiday destinations
At this age, I love being in London in the summer. I just think London in the summer is fantastic. When I was young, with my family, we used to go to an island called Lemnos in Greece. We always went back because the children would settle down because they’d meet people from the previous year, and I would meet their parents from the previous year, so we settled in very nicely and went regularly. But for now, I prefer to stay in London.
I haven’t got a computer. I haven’t found a need for one. I’ve got an agent, she can contact me if she wants. I’m still trying to make clingfilm work! I think it’s quite good to be able to say I don’t have a. I’m a war baby, I sort of get on with what I’ve got. I’m typical of my age group, I just love writing and getting letters. I’ve got a mobile and I text, I love that. Sometimes my friends say they feel like they’re in Bletchley trying to work out the codes and the abbreviations that I use. I think I’m so smart, and they think “what is this?”!
Why did you want to accept your part in this production of Pygmalion?
I think it’s a wonderful play and also I think Mrs Pearce is a terrific character. Sir Peter saw me play a similar character in The Deep Blue Sea with Harriet Walter, so he asked me to do it and so just to work with him is a treat.
Tell us a bit about your character.
I’m the housekeeper who looks after Henry Higgins. He’s this confirmed bachelor in his late forties/fifties, and I look after him and domineer him and boss him around and run the house.
There have been many versions of Pygmalion on stage & screen, including My Fair Lady. To what do you attribute its enduring appeal?
I think it’s because it’s a beautifully written Cinderella story and everybody loves that really. I first came across it years and years ago when Rex Harrison came over to do My Fair Lady with Julie Andrews, which I saw. I remember the wonderful story, and of course Rex Harrison – I couldn’t forget him, he was amazing, but then so is Tim Pigott-Smith. Our Eliza Michelle Dockery is also fantastic. What is really wonderful is that she does a brilliant period Cockney and a brilliant upper class accent as well which is very unusual. Lots of girls manage to get one and not so much the other - and she looks exquisite as well. I’ve worked with Michelle before at the National in Pillars of the Community and we were friends then so this is lovely.
What’s your favourite line from Pygmalion?
They’re all such pretty lines. When Higgins says “I’ve grown accustomed to your voice”, you expect him to go into song! Even without the song, though, it’s such a beautiful moment when he suddenly realises he’s messed it all up and he’s become used to her being around.
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that’s happened during rehearsals?
Sir Peter does two plays at the same time. That means you have the afternoons off or the mornings off, which is lovely, but it’s spread over a much longer period than normal. Sir Peter was very strict that we had to get our books down. He makes sure that we’re absolutely word perfect because of the rhythms of Shaw, he’s the same with Shakespeare too. Once we’re all solid on the words, he chuckles away and he’s really wonderful to work with.
What, if anything, is special about performing in the Peter Hall season in Bath?
Well Bath helps, but just working with Sir Peter really. I’ve never done it before. I’ve been at Chichester and done seasons at Sheffield before but I’ve never worked in Bath. I’ve played the Theatre Royal before, but only in productions passing through – that’s where Sir Peter saw me in The The Deep Blue Sea.
- Una Stubbs was speaking to Jake Brunger
Pygmalion is at the Theatre Royal Bath from 28 June to 28 July 2007, before touring to Plymouth, Windsor, Cambridge, Malvern, Oxford, Guildford, Darlington, Cardiff and Belfast. Back in Bath, the Peter Hall season also includes premieres of Simon Gray’s Little Nell and Athol Fugard’s Victory, as well as revivals of Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves and Hall’s own adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.