After training as a dancer, success on a television play, followed by a part as Elizabeth Taylor’s maid in the 1963 feature film Cleopatra, led Francesca Annis into acting.
Since then, Annis has appeared regularly on stage and screen. Her film credits include Krull, Dune, Under the Cherry Moon, Debt Collector, Onegin, The Libertine and Revolver. On TV, she’s been seen in Tales from the Crypt, Magnum PI, A Pin to See the Peep Show, Once Upon a Time, Peer Gynt, Edward VIII, Madame Bovary, Stronger Than the Sun, I’ll Take Manhattan, Absolute Hell, Between the Lines, Dalziel and Pascoe, Wives and Daughters, Deceit and Jericho amongst others.
On stage, Annis has worked frequently at the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Donmar Warehouse, the Royal Court, the Almeida and in the West End. Her many credits include Ghosts, Hedda Gabler, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Three Sisters, A Month in the Country, Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet, Arms and the Man, The Vortex, Henry IV and the Almeida’s famous Hackney production of Hamlet, in which she played Gertrude to her now-partner Ralph Fiennes in the title role. That production also transferred to New York.
This summer, Annis appeared in the world premiere of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s latest play Shoreditch Madonna at Soho Theatre. She’s followed that up this autumn with the West End revival of the rarely performed Epitaph for George Dillon, which was co-written by John Osborne with Anthony Creighton a year before Osborne found fame with 1956’s Look Back in Anger. In Peter Gill’s new production, Annis stars opposite Joseph Fiennes, brother of Ralph.
Date & place of birth
Born 14 May 1944 in London.
Lives now in
I never did train as an actor. I was actually trained to be a ballet dancer at the Corona Academy. Someone saw me there and cast me in a television play so I sort of drifted into acting. The play was very successful and it created quite a stir. It was called The Wind and the Sun and it was for the Sunday night drama slot, Armchair Theatre. It detailed the break-up of a marriage but seen through the eyes of the children, which was very unusual at the time. I was 17 but looked much younger.
First big break
I’ve always been quite fatalistic. After that first role, I was offered more and more work and just kept accepting it. The big break was doing Cleopatra (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I played Eiras, one of two handmaidens. It was then that I suppose I made a conscious decision to pursue acting as a career because I had to go to Rome for a year to film, which meant giving up my dance training.
Career highlights to date
I do have to say that Cleopatra. Also a television series called A Pin to See the Peep Show. It was a journey in the life of this ordinary suburban woman, the last but one to be hanged in England. It had a real effect on me, that part.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
I loved playing Juliet at the RSC. I adored her optimistic determination that nothing would get in the way of love.
That year that we did Romeo and Juliet (1976), working with Ian McKellen (who played Romeo) had a profound effect on me. It was a very successful year at the RSC. Ian also did Macbeth with Judi Dench that year. Through his example, he taught me the value of working in theatre beyond the first night. With film and television, you’re working in the moment. But Ian made me appreciate the value of work in progress, of continuing to improve your performance beyond the press night. It’s about what you can do for yourself and your art. Ian’s criteria for success were very stringent.
In film, Roman Polanksi because of his overall ability. We live in world of expertise. So many directors rely on different experts to help them pull a film together. But Roman can do absolutely everything. In theatre, Peter Gill. He nurtures and empowers you in your work – not only during rehearsals but beyond the first night and even beyond the play. He helps you in your journey in the profession. It will come to you, he says, and encourages you to work on it. I found that when I did A Month in Country and Mrs Klein with him at the National. He taught me things that I went on to grasp much later. I’m very excited to be working with him again on Epitaph for George Dillon.
I think Rebecca Lenkiewicz is an incredibly exciting new playwright. What I like about her is her Chekhovian ability of giving you a wealth of information about character and life in two lines – and she does that with a wonderful sense of irony that’s very contemporary. It’s an economy of language combined with laser-beam vision.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I don’t have any. I just live in the present. Ruth Gray (in Epitaph for George Dillon) is consuming me at the moment.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Ballet was an option, of course. Other than that, one thing that I think must be very exciting is being a supervisor of literature at a university. I’m not saying I could do that job but it does fascinate me. There you are, an expert in your field, and yet you’re being constantly surrounded by young people and their imaginative qualities must give you new insight into subjects that you know so well.
What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you?
Max Stafford-Clark’s Macbeth for Out of Joint. It’s an old classic but they shook the whole thing up. It was like one of those snowglobes, you know? It had all the same components as every other Macbeth, but they were shaken up and fell down in a different place. I know that play back to front and inside out, but that production was so fresh, it actually made me cry. Danny Sapani (who played Macbeth) was wonderful.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I don’t know what else to say accept more funding.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Definitely Mary Wollstonecraft (the feminist, educationist and mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley) for her courage, brilliance and imagination at the extraordinary time of the French Revolution.
Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. And in terms of more contemporary books, JM Coetzee’s Disgrace.
Favourite holiday destinations
I’ve travelled quite a lot. I did love walking in the mountains of Yunan in China. I’d like to explore more there.
Favourite after-show haunts
No, I’ll go with whoever wherever they want to go.
Osborne is of course best remembered for Look Back in Anger. How do you think this piece compares to that famous play?
Epitaph for George Dillon was written before Look Back in Anger (premiered in 1956) although performed after (1957). John Osborne wrote amazing parts, but they were usually the ones using men, like Jimmy Porter, as ciphers for what he had to say. One of the big differences with Epitaph is that he wrote it with Anthony Creighton and I think that helped broaden the view. Look Back in Anger was about four people living in a very confined space. Epitaph is about a whole group of people (nine in total) and it’s really rounded, with the social changes, what was coming and what was going, woven seamlessly into the story. I think it says much more about real domestic, suburban life during that time in the Fifties. It shows so clearly the incredible repression and social constraints on people – and why, as a result, the explosion of the Sixties and Seventies absolutely had to happen.
Tell us about your character.
I play Ruth Gray, a very intelligent and articulate woman. Through her, you really see what it was like for women then, women who weren’t qualified and so couldn’t get out and be independent. It’s a marvellous part. I don’t think John Osborne wrote another wonderful woman’s part like that until Time Present (written for his wife Jill Bennett in 1968). I find it very interesting.
With Peter Gill directing, there’s a real Royal Court thread running through this production. What do you think the legacy of Royal Court is from those formative times in the Fifties & Sixties?
The Royal Court is always thought of as writers’ theatre, but it’s always been an actors’ theatre as well. Those early generations at the Court put a different kind of acting on the map. It was the end of the matinee idol. And that commitment to acting remains the same to this day. That’s a great legacy. It is wonderful to go there and see marvellous actors, who excel in the theatre and are there to do interesting work.
What are your future plans?
Just life! I do like working in the theatre so I’m sure there will be more plays.
- Francesca Annis was speaking to Terri Paddock
Epitaph for George Dillon is at the West End’s Comedy Theatre.