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20 Questions With...Penelope Keith

Actress Penelope Keith, who begins West End previews this week for Noel Coward's Star Quality, unearths her secret passions for George Bernard Shaw, Richard Briers, Scotland & Capability Brown.

By • West End


Penelope Keith is regarded by many as one of Britain's greatest comic actresses, known and loved by millions from her television roles in The Good Life and To the Manor Born.

In addition to those two hit series, Keith has also appeared on TV in Sweet Sixteen, Executive Stress, No Job for a Lady, Law and Disorder, Next of Kin, Spider's Web, Waters of the Moon and Coming Home.

But Keith's career started in the theatre, to which she returns frequently. In addition to seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Compnay, her myriad stage credits include Suddenly at Home, The House of Bernarda Alba, How the Other Half Loves, The Apple Cart, The Millionairess, Moving, Hobson's Choice, The Deep Blue Sea, The Importance of Being Earnest, On Approval, In Praise of Rattigan, Mrs Warren's Profession and Good Grief.

Keith recreated some of her most reputed stage roles - including The Norman Conquests, Donkey's Years and Hay Fever - for television. Keith was seen most recently on the London stage as Queen Elizabeth I in The Regina Monologues at last year's Covent Garden Festival.

She returns now in a new version of Noel Coward's Star Quality. Adapted and directed by Christopher Luscombe and also starring Una Stubbs and Russell Boulter, Star Quality opens this month at the West End's Apollo Theatre, following a successful UK-wide tour.


Date of birth
Born 2 April 1940.

Now lives in
I'm a Surrey girl - I was born in Sutton, brought up in Clapham, but have lived in wooded, forested, lovely Surrey for the last 23 years now.

Trained at
Webber Douglas Academy

First job after graduating from Webber Douglas
I did rep at Chesterfield - that's what people used to do. It was a six-month winter season. It's sad that people can't explore and widen their range early on in their careers anymore in this way. Like all crafts, you learn from the masters, as an apprenticeship, not as a student, but sadly there are no longer the same opportunities for students to come out and learn their craft anymore. After Chesterfield, I did Lincoln, Manchester, Salisbury and lots of other places north, as well, and then joined the RSC at Stratford.

First big break
It depends on what you mean by big break, but I can see with hindsight that I was really blessed in having a big West End success and television success at exactly the same time. The Norman Conquests on stage occurred simultaneously with The Good Life on television, so I had a day job as well as a night job.

Career highlights
There are lots of them, but doing The Morecambe and Wise Show on television and Desert Island Discs on radio proved to me that I'd made it - in the 1970s, after you'd been asked to do those two things, you knew you were there, and could die now! In the theatre, I've had so many wonderful, wonderful parts that it's difficult to try to choose between them - it's like asking whom your favourite child is. But I've really enjoyed all the Coward I've done, and I loved played Hester in The Deep Blue Sea - it's an extraordinary, most wonderful play, and the fact that we neglected Terence Rattigan for so long was criminal.

Favourite stage productions you've worked on
I'm always most enthusiastic for what I'm doing now. But I enjoyed The Norman Conquests immensely, and also Michael Frayn's Donkey's Years - I had two hits in a row, both in the same theatre. And Hobson's Choice, which I did at the Haymarket, was another wonderful play: it was like getting into a Rolls Royce every night, it's one of our great classic plays, a stunning, wonderful piece of work, and I loved doing it. But I've been very lucky with new plays, too, and I've loved creating new roles.

Least favourite stage production you've worked on
It was Bertolt Brecht's St Joan of the Stockyards at the Queen's - it's longer than Hamlet, and I found it tedious.

Favourite co-stars
All of them! I couldn't begin to say. But there are a number of actors I've enjoyed working with on a number of occasions, such as Richard Briers (in both The Good Life and the TV version of The Norman Conquests), the late) Paul Eddington (in both The Good Life and the TV version of Hay Fever) and Peter Bowles (in To the Manor Born and Executive Stress). With {Star Quality, this is the first time I've started a play and not worked with anyone in it before. But actors are very agile at developing a shorthand of working together in a short space of time - you work very closely with people when you rehearse, and so get to know them quite quickly.

Favourite directors
Christopher Luscombe! He's directing Star Quality and I've enjoyed working with him hugely. But though directors are important, finally it's the actors who translate the playwright's message.

Favourite playwrights
I adore playing Noel Coward. I learnt Private Lives in two nights, while I was doing Donkey's Years, and I adore George Bernard Shaw, too, whom we don't do or see enough of, in my opinion. It's because I love our language, and the way they both use it is extraordinary. And I like playing good characters I can get a handle on, which they both provide.

What role would you most like to play still?
I put a blank on roles I'd still like to do. If you long to play a part too much, you'll get to rehearsal and have such strong ideas about the character that you wouldn't do it well. So I don't fantasise about that: there's enough fantasy in our business already. But I would have loved to have played Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream - I auditioned twice for separate companies and didn't get it. I'd also have loved to have done Rosalind in As You Like It - I love the language, and the humour.

With all your success in television, why do you like coming back to theatre?
I've been incredibly lucky in that I've been able to do both. I usually prefer the one I'm not doing - I'm a typical human being! So on a Saturday night, when you've had a hard week and you've got to get through the eighth performance of the week, I long for being able to do it just the once for television; whereas when you're doing television and you get it wrong, you wish you had another opportunity to do it again as you would in the theatre. But my roots are in the theatre, and in the final analysis, if I had to choose, it would be that. I've spent most of my life in the theatre. But the shattering thing is that more people probably saw me in one episode of To the Manor Born than would ever see me in the theatre even if I did it to the end of my days. It's lovely, of course, that they now come to the theatre because they might have seen me on TV. And in the theatre, when you're doing a comedy, the reaction from the audience is so nice.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I would ask them to bring back taking children to the theatre. When I was at school, children went virtually every term. It's no use saying you've got to put on things that young people want; no one knows what that is. Instead, they simply need to get into the habit of going to the theatre.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Capability Brown - because I'm a gardener, and he has created some of the most beautiful landscapes in this country, up and down the land. In this instant age, where we see no further than our noses, what I find so extraordinary is that here is a man whose work didn't come to its full glory for over 100 years. If only we could get back to thinking of the future, not the future tomorrow, it would be a better world altogether.

Favourite book
I tend to read a lot about gardens. I also read that marvellous book by David Starkey about Elizabeth I, because I was doing The Regina Monologues about her at the Covent Garden Festival this year. We did it at St Paul's, with Concordia, a group who play instruments of the period, and with a lovely counter-tenor.

Favourite holiday destination
Scotland. I've got family there, and we have a cottage there.

If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done?
I probably would have become a gardener.

Why did you want to accept your part in Star Quality?
I had lifted a speech from the short story version that pre-dated the play for my audition speech at the RSC a long, long time ago. It's a jolly good part and Coward would have loved Chris's adaptation. He has done an amazing job on it.

With a new production of Private Lives simultaneously playing in the West End, Coward fans might feel torn. What would you say to theatregoers to persuade them they should see Star Quality instead?
Aren't Coward fans lucky, that there's not one but two Coward's to see? And this is one they've surely never seen before.

- Penelope Keith was speaking to Mark Shenton

Star Quality opens at the West End's Apollo Theatre on 29 October 2001, following previews from 23 October.


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