After making her acting debut in Watford in 1969, Maureen Lipman spent three years with Laurence Olivier's Old Vic Company, where she appeared in productions including The Front Page and Long Day's Journey into Night.

Since then, her West End appearances have included Outside Edge, Messiah, Candida, Chapter Two, See How They Run, Wonderful Town and, more recently, Peggy for You (in which she played famed literary agent Peggy Ramsay), Trevor Nunn's award-winning National Theatre revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! and The Vagina Monologues.

Lipman's one-woman show Re-Joyce! has had three successful seasons in London, while another one-woman show, Live and Kidding, was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment following its West End run. Her other stage appearances include The Cabinet Minister, Lost in Yonkers, The Sisters Rosensweig and, in 2001, Sitting Pretty, which was written by her daughter, Amy Rosenthal.

Amongst Lipman's films are Roman Polanski's The Pianist, Educating Rita and Up the Junction, while her many television credits include her own series of Agony and Agony Again, All at No 20 and About Face as well as Outside Edge, Smiley's People, Absent Friends, Absurd Person Singular, The Knowledge and The Little Princess.

Also on TV, she played Shani in Eskimo Day and its sequel, Cold Enough for Snow, both written by her husband, Jack Rosenthal. She is well-recognised too as Beattie in the long-running British Telecom adverts.

Lipman has written several humorous books including How Was It For You, Thank You For Having Me, You Can Read Me Like a Book and Lip Reading, all comprising random stories of a chaotic lifestyle. She also writes monthly columns for Options, She and Good Housekeeping magazines. In 1999 she was awarded the CBE for Services to Drama and Comedy.

This month, Lipman returns to the stage in the London production of Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. She plays white slave trader Mrs Meers, starring opposite Amanda Holden in the title role at the West End's Shaftesbury Theatre.

Date & place of birth
Born 10 May 1946 in Hull, Yorkshire.

Lives now in...
Muswell Hill, north London.

Trained at...
LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts)

First big break
My first big career break was Up the Junction, which was a big movie of 1969. I played a cockney factory worker. I'd never done a movie, well, I'd not done anything except one play at the Watford Palace called The Knack. That was great, but to get a 13-week movie - bearing in mind that I've never had a 13-week movie since - was a bit of a good break. And I was working with people like Dennis Waterman and Suzy Kendall. It was big.

Career highlights to date
I'd put the children first and say that opening night for two babies is my biggest success story. In terms of work, I think the best thing I've probably done is Re-Joyce!, my one-woman show about the late great Joyce Grenfell, which I played for three seasons in London, one season in America and on and off ever since. I keep bobbing along doing it. That was probably my favourite part because I was so nice when I was playing her, never shouted at anyone. I was a little 'bobby-dazzler', as she might say. It's hard for me to say whether I'm normally nice. If someone cuts me up in my car when I'm playing some other parts, I'm very likely to lean out the window and say "You f**k, you bastard" or "F**k off" or give them the V sign. But when I was playing Joyce, I never did any of that. I was always extremely ladylike.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Oklahoma! was a favourite, largely because of the great Hugh Jackman. Stronger women than you have fallen to their knees like Monica Lewinsky over Hugh. He's just opened in New York in The Boy From Oz and he's going to be the biggest star in the world. We had him for a year and it was bliss. Oklahoma! was a very good production, it was a hit.

There's a palpable difference between being in a hit like that and being in a good play like Peggy for You which I did straight afterwards. I was giving probably my best performance in that, but it wasn't a hit. Yes, it transferred and it ran for six months and it was fine, but when you're in a 24-carat diamond hit, you know the difference.

Favourite co-stars
I had Lynda Bellingham and Larry Lamb in The Sisters Rosensweig, and I had Rosemary Harris in Lost in Yonkers and we all got on very well. Simon Williams is a huge favourite of mine. He played my husband in Agony and all those frothy one-act TV plays. There must have been lots of people I've liked working with over the years. Certainly, there have only been a couple who I haven't liked - which is pretty good for 35 years, I think.

Favourite directors
I've always loved working for Michael Blakemore. He's an actor's director because he was an actor himself. On Peggy for You, Robin Lefevre was such a supportive geezer - we'd do nothing but work but it was always fun. Roman Polanski was interesting. He was a challenge but a challenge that eventually I rose to on The Pianist. I think we liked each other. Alan Strachan was terrific on Re-Joyce!. Actually, in many ways, he was my top because he had a rare quality amongst directors and that was that he was never bored. Even after opening, Alan came back and gave copious notes and that was great for me. As a result, Re-Joyce! never slipped and, as I was on my own, it could easily have got a bit indulgent. And Trevor Nunn too, he's a giant intellect.

Favourite playwrights
I've enjoyed working on Neil Simon and, over the years, I've come round much more to Shakespeare. I think I was a bit scared of doing Shakespeare - as a lot of northern actors are - but these days I am enjoying watching Shakespeare much more than I used to. Chekhov I've never done, though I would love to because I have Russian forebears. But I think my natural feeling really is for modern playwriting. I'd love to do something by Caryl Churchill, who I admire, or Michael Frayn. I also think Peter Nichols is one of the great writers of our time.

Favourite musical writers
Well, you can't do much better than Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town or Rodgers and Hammerstein. I didn't know the work of the Thoroughly Modern Millie people before I went to see the show in New York, and I thought it was incredibly fresh. You know, the thing you are very aware of is writers who write words that feel smooth in the throat. Sometimes writing can feel like soap that you've got to swallow and it's really difficult to learn. The easier a script is to learn, the better written it is. I've noticed with Millie that it's easy to learn. It's well written and also all the lyrics really further the song in an interesting way.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Gosh, millions. I went to see the all-girl Taming of the Shrew at the Globe this summer. I adored it and I said, "Oh, I'd have loved to do something like that". You only really know what you want when you see somebody else doing it. At least in my case, because I don't get asked to do much stuff like that. It's the same with something like Vincent in Brixton or, to be honest, a third of the roles Julie Walters gets on television. Strong, dramatic, fun, fab women. I mean, who wouldn't kill for one of those roles? You should be thrown out of the union if you can't be good in some of those parts.

Do you prefer musicals or straight theatre?
I wouldn't say I had a preference. As actors are endlessly saying, everything in the end depends on the part and the script. I'm at home in the acting parts, I'm scared of the singing and dancing parts, but you've just got to work at a different level. It's almost like being dyslexic or innumerate. You just have to do it five thousand times more than anyone that's been trained in musical theatre. Across all the media, I'd say my personal preference is filming, simply because I love the immediacy of it. I'm nearly always at my best on a first take so I like that, that rapid impulse. I come back to the theatre because that's what offers me the jobs. I've done movies, but I haven't had a big film offer since The Pianist and I don't suppose I will until the next 'Jewish mother' comes along. There are parts that casting directors don't see you as.

What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
The Taming of the Shrew. I loved it and I wrote to all the principals saying "you were wonderful" because they were. It was just so funny and it was such a great play for women. Janet McTeer was such a sexy Petruchio, too. She was not only manly, but she sent up what it is to be macho. What fun! I haven't been out very much recently. I've been at home a lot this year because my husband hasn't been very well. It's just cosier at home and that's fine. Of course, I won't see anything now for ages, but when I do, I'm very keen to see some dance. I never go to the ballet and I've got a yen to go.

What would you advise the government - or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
First off, they should start with an arts minister who really knows about the arts, which I don't think is often the case. I think it's incredibly hard for any government, whether it's Labour or Tory, to understand the correlation between what theatre actually creates, you know with tourism and the rest, and what it needs to make it work well. There's a real catch-22 situation. Sometimes three people on a stage with a plinth can make £40,000 a week, and a show with a helicopter flying in can make four pence. It's tricky, some things work and some things don't because that's the glory of the system. But you've got to start right back there with the attitude that the arts are as important as health and education, and you've also got to bear in mind, if you're Tony Blair, that a lot of the country, a great percentage of the country in fact, don't think so. You're dealing with people who are thinking, "Why the f**k do I want to give money to the theatre when I'm never going to go". I just think it's so hard.

I'm very sad that there is such an anti New Labour feeling at the moment, because I think they have had as rough a deal as any government could have had, on the international front and the domestic one. Sometimes the cynicism of the chattering classes and the glitterati or whatever they are called is counter-productive. They did it to Diana, they are doing it to Tony Blair, they are trying to do it to Alistair Campbell, trying to make people who are in some way possibly over-idealistic into heroes and villains. You are a hero on the Wednesday and a villain on the Thursday. I mean, Cherie Blair is a nice woman, she's a bright woman, she's actually a very very pretty woman and from day one the media have been on her. Nobody teaches you how to deal with this game of celebrity, any more than they do how to raise your children. And if you have to do it in a climate of hate, cynicism and derision, you are going to make more bad decisions than good, you are going to be trying to please your critics but there will always be critics. I think that's happened in our business as well and it's fatal.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Who's going out with George Clooney at the moment? Seriously though, I think about this every year at the Woman of the Year lunch. When we get the nominations in and I see what people are doing and have done with their young lives - going between 700 countries in Africa and going to Ethiopia and stuff and saving lives in Kosovo - I think to myself, "What have you done this year, kid? What has your contribution been to the world?" This is a very self-absorbed profession. On the one hand, you can say, well, I am giving therapy to people by making them laugh and cry and being good at my craft. On the other hand, it's the same argument as 'are the arts important', you know, will I change a single life by what I do? I don't think so. But that's why you take silly jobs that are silly and well paid so you can be generous to other people and charitable and balance out your own life which, in my case, seems to have been quite fortunate so far.

Favourite books
My favourite authoress, Carol Shields, has just died this year. I was fortunate enough to have met her, and I still can't believe that there won't be another Carol Shields novel to brighten up my life. She was a modern Jane Austen. What I love about Carol is the fact that she understood that women's lives are cracked like a mirror and that you have to deal with the small issues in a way that's identifiable whilst under the umbrella of this 2000-year-old maxim that it's men who make things happen and it's women who are peripheral. I loved her for that. I loved her for her quiet insidious revolution.

Favourite holiday destinations
I go to the south of Ireland every year; for me, it's perfect. I also like Cornwall.

Favourite jokes
Oh God, when people are talking in a normal conversation, I literally have to stop myself saying, "Oh, it was like the one about the ..." Everything people say reminds me of a joke so I have to be careful not to bore the arse of anyone who comes to talk to me. I've always got one or two jokes on the boil.

A good one was told to me recently about a man going into a pub in Ireland. He orders three pints and he drinks them one, then the other, then the other, and he does that the next night and the next night. One night the barman says to him, "Why do you always drink three pints that way?" And the man says, "Well, I've two brothers. One's in Australia and one's in California, and every night we go into our local bar and we have a drink. We order three and drink from each and that way it's like we're having a drink together." "Oh, that's lovely," says the barman, "that's a really nice thing." Then one night the guy comes into the bar and he only orders two pints. All the regulars are worried and finally one of them goes up to the man and says, "Me and the boys want to give you our condolences." And the man says, "What for?" They point to the drinks - "Well, your brother..." The man says, "Me brothers are fine." "But you're only drinking two pints." "Oh," says the man "that's me, I've given up the drink."

If you hadn't become an entertainer, what would you have done professionally?
I could have taught. And I think I look like a businesswoman so I could have bluffed my way probably halfway up the corporate ladder. But I would always have failed in the end because I'm innumerate and also I'm too chaotic - I'm bad at delegating, I'm bad at organising. So I don't know what I would have done really. Probably I would have written more. I've had a column in a woman's magazine for years and years and years and I'm finally giving it up. The Christmas column will be my last one so now I'm hoping that I will write something more worthwhile which is not anecdotal. Maybe I would have been a hairdresser. I'm quite good with hair and makeup.

Why did you want to accept the part of Mrs Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie?
It's a bit like Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!. She wears a black wig and swans on and off being tough. It's one of those parts that, when you watch it, you think, "oh yeah I could do that", but actually you don't realise the sleight of hand that's gone on. It's a very very technical role, which I've struggled with. And it's hilarious. If I get it right, it will be very funny.

It is a very hard part for me because I'm not a diva, I'm not a musical theatre person so it's always that bit more scary. I don't know what my legs are going to do on the night, I don't know whether my voice is going to behave. And I think it's quite hard for some people to accept me out of the realm of what they expect. There will always be those who say, "Maureen Lipman is miscast", simply on the grounds that I'm a well-known personality who happens to be Jewish from north London. Do you know what I mean? You'll always get a hint of that, which doesn't stop me wanting to walk like a hippopotamus if that's what the role requires.

I could have easily not done Thoroughly Modern Millie, but the producers made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I'm sharing the role with Marti Webb. She's playing two performances a week so I can be at home with (my husband) Jack (Rosenthal). And if he's not well, I can go. So it suddenly seemed possible. This is a very unpretentious show. It ain't Strindberg, but it's very witty and it's true to what it is, and that's what I like about it.

Have you seen the original 1967 film?
Yeah, but it's nothing like the film, it's completely reworked. I watched the film the other day because I remember rather enjoying it, but it's really not very good. It's endless, about three hours long with an intermission and it's got Julie Andrews singing at a Jewish wedding! It's a complete collector's item. And there's the weirdest performance by Carol Channing. It's a very odd piece really, I'm amazed it did so well. This is a really different story, a different attack on it. In this, Mrs Meers is a failed actor on the run and there's much more for Millie to do.

What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals or the run to date for Thoroughly Modern Millie?
I had my usual collapse into wet meringue fear that I can't do this. In fact, I had it about three weeks early, so maybe I won't have it again.

- Maureen Lipman was talking to Terri Paddock

Thoroughly Modern Millie opens at the West End's Shaftesbury Theatre on 21 October 2003, following previews from 11 October.