Although best known for playing Victor Meldrew's long suffering wife, Margaret, in the TV comedy One Foot in the Grave, Annette Crosbie's career has embraced theatre, film and television.
Crosbie's theatre work includes The Trojan War Will Not Take Place at the National, Billy Comes Home, Guy Landscape and Curse of the Starving Class for the Royal Court, A Delicate Balance, I Thought I Heard Rustling, The Way South, Curtains, Collier's Friday Night, Talk of the Devil, Tramway Road, Forty Years On, The Undertaking, Corn Is Green, The Family Dance, The Winslow Boy, Twelfth Night, A Singular Man, My Place, Tinker, Caesar and Cleopatra, Mr Bolfry and The Cherry Orchard, Anne Frank, The Crucible and View from the Bridge at Glasgow Citizens Theatre, in her native Scotland.
Besides One Foot in the Grave with Richard Wilson, Crosbie’s many television credits include Bodily Harm, Murder in Mind, Anchor Me, Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Jonathan Creek, Stuart, Dr Finlay, Flowers of the Forest, Nervous Energy, Message For Posterity, The Speaker of Mandarin, Heartbeat, Jute City, Colin's Sandwich, Summer's Lease, Beyond the Pale, Take Me Home, Watch with Mother, Bon Esperance, Taggart, Paying Guests, Paradise Postponed, Nobody's Property, Que Sera, Off Peak, Pericles, The Pyramid Game, Richard III, Northern Lights, Charles Dilk trilogy, The Misanthrope and Catherine of Aragon in The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
Meanwhile, on the big screen, Crosbie has been seen in Calendar Girls, Debt Collector, Solitaire for Two, Leon the Pig Farmer, The Pope Must Die, Final Warning, The Disappearance of Harry, Hawk the Slayer and The Slipper and the Rose.
Crosbie is currently playing Lily O'Hanlon in the world premiere of Rebecca Lenkiewicz's second play, The Night Season, which is directed by Lucy Bailey, and runs at the National's Cottesloe Theatre in rep until 17 November 2004. Other cast members include David Bradley, Sarah-Jane Drummey, Lloyd Hutchinson, John Light, Susan Lynch and Justine Mitchell.
Date & place of birth
I was born 12 February 1934 in a little mining village called Gorebridge, and that's a few miles out of Edinburgh.
Lives now in...
I live in Merton Park, Wimbledon (south London).
First big break
I don't think I belong to a generation that got big breaks actually. My generation went to drama school, because you didn't get a job as an actor unless you'd been to drama school. When you came out, there were 400 repertory companies to write to and, with any luck, you would get a year's job as an ASM (assistant stage manager) and a walk-on. So, after I had done my two-year course at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, I went to the London Old Vic and then that company went on tour to America. But Alastair Sim was putting on a production of Mr Bolfry at the Aldwych and was looking for a young Scottish actress to play the part of Morag. John Fraser, who was in the company at the Old Vic, said, "Why don't you look at this girl?" and I got the part. So I didn't go to America, I did three months at the Aldwych, which was lovely.
Then from there I went to Glasgow Citizens Theatre and I worked my way from the Citizens, which was fortnightly rep, back to Bristol, which was a three-weekly rep, to the West End and then I was at the Royal Court. That was the steady progression which the youngsters nowadays don't have. So it wasn't a question of a big break, it was a progression. You know, the word went out on the grapevine, eventually you got yourself an agent – but for ages you didn't need one.
Career highlights to date
When I did Romeo and Juliet at Bristol - I was playing Juliet - the schools came, of course they did. And, apparently, when one young boy was asked by his teacher how he enjoyed it, he said it was great but that Juliet came on the balcony and said she had forgotten what she had to say and blushed, and of course that's the line "I have forgot why I did call thee back" - he took it for real and he thought he saw me blush - that was great. And when I did A Taste of Honey at Bristol and a social worker who saw it said "I know that girl", she felt the character was real. Those kind of moments are the ones you remember.
Do you have any more plans to bare all like you did in Calendar Girls?
I don't think anyone would ask me! That's the great thing about playing this part in The Night Season. You go on stage with no make-up and just a couple of kirby grips in the hair, wearing all those old clothes. It's wonderful.
Again, my generation would always tell you the best time was rep. It just was. You got such a variety of parts to play. It was wonderful.
Hopefully, I stay friends with most people I work with - with a few exceptions! I'm afraid the people that always have that special place in your head are the ones that you cannot work with because they just corpse you. Peter Egan is one of them. He and I have done more scenes together looking past each other because we didn't dare catch each other's eye. It's disgraceful, but those are the ones that leap to mind. You know, I don't approve of corpsing, but with some people you can't help it.
Comedy isn't funny to do. It's hard, hard work, it's very disciplined. You laugh a lot when you read it through around the table, but from then on it’s really hard work and you don't get long to do it either. Well, we didn't get long to do One Foot in the Grave. And you couldn't change a line, you couldn't change a proposition. David Renwick (the writer) would explain why it was that one and not the one you'd just used because you didn't learn it properly. He was there all the time, a looming presence.
I've worked with some very, very good directors, but some of them have been pensioned off, only because it became a youth thing you know, especially in television. Really, really good directors would suddenly find that they just weren't young enough. Richard Wilson hasn't directed me in anything yet, but I keep hearing from everyone how wonderful he is.
No, I don't have those.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I don't go to the theatre. A long, long time ago, it wasn't magic anymore. When I was young at school in Edinburgh, I used to be always in the theatre, Saturday matinees I was always there. Then when the festival came, that was just terrific because we schoolchildren would get tickets to go and see The Cocktail Party and things like that. It was wonderful, it was magic. But then you do it yourself and it's not so magic. Musicals can still take me out of myself, though. I love Sondheim, so anything by him is great.
How do you think British theatre has changed since you started your acting career?
The rep theatre system is gone, as I said. Finished. Which is a terrible thing. And I think this country is becoming more and more like America in terms of commercialism, and again, nobody can be over 35. That, of course, is television not theatre, but there's not that much theatre around and television certainly isn't what it was. Maybe that was inevitable as well. I think I'm very lucky, I really do.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I wouldn't even attempt to give this government any advice. What would be the point? No. I think money is what runs everything nowadays.
You were recently appointed President of the League Against Cruel Sports & you run the welfare group Greyhounds UK. How did your involvement with these organisations come about?
Wimbledon dog track is near me and I happened to read in the local freebie that they were having a job to persuade people that greyhounds make good pets. I was looking for a dog so I tried one. What you get from a track is a kind of robot, but the longer you have it the more you see the real personality of the dog. No one has ever played with it or cuddled it, they've been used like a machine. It's wicked what goes on. I am also against fox hunting. I think it's ludicrous and barbaric and just something we shouldn't be doing. So myself and another woman called Maureen Purvis OBE have been campaigning for better treatment for racing greyhounds for the last six or seven years. Maureen has actually owned greyhounds and run them so she knows about it from that point of view, and I've watched this industry and I'm in touch with almost everybody who re-homes greyhounds up and down the country so I know what's going on from that aspect. You see, the National Greyhound Racing Club (NGRC) are supposed to be the ones that police it and control it, so it is a self-regulating gambling industry and, when you've said that, you've said it all.
I thought I was only up against the greyhound racing industry, but now I find I'm actually up against the government and, again, it's money. When we first started saying to politicians that something needed to be done, they were agreeing. But the animal welfare bill is coming up again in the House of Commons, and this government is going to try and persuade everybody that there is very little wrong with greyhound racing, that we should leave it as it is and not do anything until 2010. For the last 75 years, what has gone on in greyhound racing has been unacceptable and indefensible in any country at all that talks about animal welfare, and yet they are proposing to leave it as it is because they want the gambling review and the animal welfare bill to go through as quickly as possible. That’s because they’re waiting for the money they’ll get from casinos which they will attach to greyhound tracks.
Once a dog stops running, they lose interest and there's no record kept of what happens to it. The NGRC are meant to discipline people who dump their dogs or who kill them, but if you withdraw your dog from a track that’s flooded and you don't want to risk the dog's safety, you’ll be fined £600 because you've upset the bookies. That's the kind of industry it is and nothing the British Greyhound Racing Board and its chairman Lord Lipsey says will convince me that you can leave this industry to change its spots because you can't. It's a culture of callous cruelty. There just isn't enough awareness, it's all kept secret. It wasn't until ‘Margaret Meldrew’ (Crosbie’s character from One Foot in the Grave) came along and wrote a letter to the Observer in 1998 that it was brought to people's attention and now everybody's talking about welfare but nothing has changed at ground level, nothing. People must write to their MPs and tell them that greyhound welfare must be addressed now and they must not take the assurances they've been given. Things can't wait till 2010.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I'd swap places with Tony Blair and say something has got to be done about greyhound welfare. Now. Just do it.
Favourite holiday destinations
Italy, I suppose.
Alice through the Looking Glass, The Wind in the Willows, all those wonderful books for children. Catch 22, the great Russian writers. Recently George Monbiot's Captive State, that was interesting.
Why did you want to accept the role of Lily in The Night Season?
Because when they sent me the script, I couldn't put it down. You care, you want to know what’s going to happen to all of them, and you want to play all of them, men as well.
I just think this is a wonderful play. I find it extraordinary that a woman of Rebecca's age should know what it feels like to be my age. It seems to me that that's the mark of a real writer, and I was disappointed that so many critics summed up the character of Lily as a 'batty old woman' who's hung up on sex and who's batty because she watches the television with the sound off. Now, you'd think that they'd have the imagination to see that this woman is like all of us when we get old, you lose your power, your potency, your relevance, you're in the way, people don't pay any attention to you any more, the family that you held together they've outgrown you, they've gone. They don't mean it unkindly, but you no longer count. Insisting there's no sound on the television is the one exercise of power that this woman has, that's all it is, but it's important to her because otherwise she counts for nothing. She knows she's on the way out, she's lost her peers, she's got nobody to share memories with her, her daughter has left her and she doesn't know why, she probably blames herself like we always do. And the thing about sex that they don't seem to realise, these males, is that sex is an affirmation of life, that's what she wants, to know she's alive, that she still counts. Now how Rebecca knows all this... To be so good at putting it into someone's mouth and making it real, well...
What's your favourite line from The Night Season?
There are lots of lines that are brilliant but you have to know the context. There are wonderful lines in the scenes between father and daughter, things like: He says "I didn't like different", and she says "I didn't like drunk".
What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that’s happened in the run to date for The Night Season?
Nothing yet, but because I'm on stage all the time and not always in the scene that's happening, I'm not always lit, so I can watch the audience and I find that fascinating. Audiences differ and that fascinates me, how quickly you know that this audience is going to pick up on everything funny or that this is going to be a quiet one that erupts at the end. I find that fascinating.
What are your plans for the future?
I don't have any. I’ll just keep plugging away with my greyhounds. I know people think it's eccentric to be so hung up on greyhounds. There are so many other causes that I would like to take up, so many, but they have already got people speaking for them and the media covers them. The media doesn't cover greyhounds. You know, I wrote that letter and I was surprised by the effect it had, so I thought, if I can do my bit with this little bit of celebrity I've got, then I'll do it.
- Annette Crosbie was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
The Night Season runs in repertory at the NT Cottesloe theatre until 17 November 2004.