Impossible though it may seem, Anne Reid was not tipped for greatness when she started out as an actress.
‘A casting director once said to me, “Dear Anne, you always help us out when we’re desperate,”’ she recalls, with a rueful laugh. ‘People didn’t rate me at all. At school I was told I’d never make it as an actress, because I wasn’t the type. Whatever that means.’
She’d prove them wrong by winning a place at RADA – only to be told, again, that she wasn’t leading lady material. Perhaps that’s why, at 84, with an MBE for services to drama and full national treasure status assured, she still insists: ‘I’ve always thought of myself as a kind of variety person, rather than a serious actress. I’d much rather do comedy, really.’
She certainly delivers plenty of laughs in her latest role, playing the indomitable grand-dame Lady Denham in Sanditon, Andrew Davies’ ITV adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished final novel.
‘It’s an absolute gift of a part,’ says Reid. ‘I’ve never played the lady of the manor before. I’m usually in the kitchen, so it was nice to be upstairs giving the orders for a change. And I have to tell you, now I’ve got upstairs, I’m never going anywhere else.’
A rich widow who holds the fate of the fledgling seaside resort of Sanditon in her in her gift, her ladyship takes half a tumbler of seawater every morning – which may explain why she’s so salty, with the best line in acidic put-downs since Downton’s Dowager Countess. She’s also determined to disappoint the rival heirs jostling for her fortunte, grandly informing them: ‘I have no intention of dying.’
‘They’re all hanging about like vultures waiting to pick her bones. But she absolutely refuses to let go. I hope Andrew Davies doesn’t have any designs on knocking her off,’ she adds, teasing the possibility of a second series, ‘because, like her, I will probably refuse to go.’
While Reid admits she finds Lady D’s take-no-prisoners attitude refreshing, she’s not sure she could pull off the fire-breathing battleaxe act in real life.
‘I hope I’m nice to people,’ she says. ‘But I do get bored quite quickly. And then I just want to go home and shut the door. I tell people I’m terribly tired, and everybody goes, “Oh gosh, yes, you must go home because you’re so old.” But I’m not really tired. I’m just bored. It’s very liberating. You can get away with murder when you’re older. There isn’t a lot else to recommend it, I have to tell you.’
Davies, of course, has a long track record of ‘sexing up’ bonnet dramas, and Sanditon hasn’t disappointed on that score. ‘Well that’s Andrew,’ says Reid. ‘But presumably people could be racy in those days. I can’t see that sex has changed that much.’
It was another Davies – Russell T – who was responsible for Reid becoming an internet sensation earlier this year, when a monologue from his dystopian BBC drama Years and Years went viral on social media.
‘I was quite surprised,’ she admits of her ‘this is the world we built’ speech, which so perfectly captured the madness of the current age. ‘It was a wonderful piece of dialogue, quite hard to learn. But I think we have to thank Russell, not me. It was all on the page. I’d do anything for Russell. He’s a wonderful writer.’
Reid was born and raised in the North East, before being sent to boarding school in Wales when her father was posted abroad as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. When Weekend catches up with her, she’s about to head up to Yorkshire to film the long-awaited fifth series of Last Tango in Halifax, Sally Wainwright’s much-loved comedy-drama about the autumnal love between old flames Celia (Reid) and Alan (Derek Jacobi).
‘I kept saying to Sally: “You’ve got to write some more,”’ she explains. ‘It’s such a joy. Derek and I love doing it. And I love playing scenes with Sarah Lancashire [who plays Celia’s daughter Caroline]. We know each other so well.’
Part of their connection stems from the fact that Lancashire’s father Geoffrey was a writer on Coronation Street in the 1960s, when Reid played Valerie Tatlock (later Barlow, first wife of Ken).
It wasn’t her first TV job – she’d done bits parts on the likes of Hancock’s Half Hour and The Benny Hill Show – but it turned her into a household name, and she stayed on the street for a decade, before being electrocuted by a faulty hairdryer plug. (A whopping 19 million tuned in for her funeral, and she says people still come up and talk to her about the wiring on that plug today. ‘But only very old people’).
Afterwards, she took a 12-year break from acting – partly to raise her son Mark, but also because her husband, Granada drama boss Peter Eckersley, and her mother were both ill.
‘I never thought about my career – I didn’t know whether I’d ever go back to acting,’ she says. ‘It was only when my husband died [Peter passed away from cancer in 1981] and I got asked to do a play, Billy Liar, in Bolton… I said, “Oh God, I don’t think I can. I don’t think I can learn a script any more.” But eventually I accepted, and it kind of changed everything. I started to act and, gradually, I did all the things my contemporaries had been doing 20 years earlier.’
A key figure in her professional comeback was Victoria Wood – who her late husband had actually discovered in the late 1970s. ‘He saw her first play, Talent, at the Sheffield Crucible, and bought it for television,’ Reid recalls. ‘Then he commissioned her to do two more plays, and that set her off, really. She and Pete were very close. I think she missed him, always, afterwards. She had a big picture of him over her desk in her house.’
In the mid-80s, Wood hired Reid as part of her TV comedy rep company – the start of a long working relationship that eventually resulted in her scene-stealing turn as Jean in Wood’s sublime sitcom dinnerladies. ‘It wasn’t until I worked with Vic that people realised I could be funny,’ she says. ‘She was very clever at casting. She just saw what people had got. I owe her a lot. The minute I started working with her, everything changed.’
Another career milestone was her award-winning performance in the title role of Roger Michell’s 2003 film The Mother. Written by Hanif Kureshi, it tells the story of a widowed grandmother who embarks on an affair with a young handyman.
Did she hesitate before taking on such a daring role?
‘I didn’t, really,’ she says. ‘I tried not to think about having to take my clothes off and all that. I didn’t think I’d get it. I though it was a waste of time, because it was a leading role, and you have to have a name on a film to raise the money. But Roger and Hanif, bless their hearts, just thought I was right.’
And the man cast as her lover for those intimate scenes? One (pre-007) Daniel Craig. Not that the name meant anything to Anne.
‘They said, “Do you know Daniel Craig?” and I said, “No, I think you’d better send me a video of him, because if it’s somebody I don’t fancy, it’s going to be a bit tricky.” When I told a friend of mine who it was, she nearly fainted. And then I saw him in a film, and I nearly fainted as well.’
Like Lady Denham, Reid has no intention of fading from view, or even slowing down. ‘As long as my health lasts and I can remember my lines, I’ll keep working,’ she says. ‘It’s fun working with all these young people. It gives you a kind of energy. I mean, it is exhausting – they’re very long days. It would be nice if we just filmed for a couple of hours a day. I was told that in France they have two hours for lunch. I would like that.’
For someone who supposedly wasn’t acting material, Reid has made a pretty good fist of things. Does she gracefully accept the title of national treasure?
‘Well, it’s very gratifying to be… accepted, really,’ she says. ‘I’m just thrilled that people know what I can do. I call it the Eric Morecambe Syndrome – he only had to walk on and people would roll in the aisles, because they expected him to be funny. I think people now expect me to be good, so you’re half way there before you even open your mouth.’
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 12 September, 2019
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