Dame Maureen Lipman (Weekend Mail, January 30, 2020)

Cover of Weekend featuring Dame Maureen Lipman
Cover of Weekend featuring Dame Maureen Lipman

Dame Maureen Lipman and I are doing a remote interview ostensibly to talk about her exquisite portrayal of the title character in Martin Sherman’s one woman epic Rose. It is a powerful drama.  A memoir of harrowing events of the last century told through the eyes of a feisty Jewish survivor from Shetl in Russia to ghetto in Warsaw, where her husband and child died.  She headed to the sewer and then as a woman who didn’t belong anywhere, found a boat to the promised land which was invaded and she was brought back to Europe, yet escaped to the US with an American Jewish sailor and ended up running a hotel in Miami.

It goes out on Sky Arts 27th Jan which is Holocaust Memorial Day. “Martin has done a brilliant piece of work, he is an old soul.” I first worked with him in 1999(?) for Messiah, he has got my voice and I have got his voice.  So even the fact that I had to learn 47 pages in a very short time while still doing Coronation Street I knew it was going to be alright because his rhythm is in my heartbeat.  You don’t bend the dialog it just rolls out like Cleopatra coming out of a carpet.  I love the young director Scott Le Crass We have to go in the garden to rehearse in Media City, just before we recorded it, they put scores of greenhouses; wooden ones, painted ones, We sat in one of these where you are supposed to get parmesan fries with this script with its immense themes. He got me, he realized that I didn’t need to do too much but to let it happen and we had such a nice time.  The first day was the worst because I said I had to have the words there in case I dried, like a black hole, dead.  The whole thing was made for 2K.  There was somebody kneeling beside me with a computer that didn’t do the trick at all.  The second day he managed to get me an auto cue, like Barbra Streisand, I just needed the comfort.  When I first saw it I was transfixed by what I can only describe was my face and I couldn’t see that it was good.  When people were saying it was very good I thought I must steel myself and not be such a wanker.  Then I saw it was good.

“Rose is now in Florida and sophisticated, so someone from Angels sent in a blouse but it did not go over my bosom. It so happened I had with me a gray little jacket. It came from my friend Elspeth who was from Germany, she left clothes to her friends. She was 102 when she died and she still did Pilates two times a week.  She was a photographer for a magazine called Ambassador and she was an inspiration.  Even when the reviews came out they said, even her jacket was redolent of a concentration camp.  It is marvelous how you can see what you want to see.  At the start of lockdown I wrote a little play for my grandchildren, The Gorilla and the Unicorn.  The guardian wrote it as  guerrilla , so you see what you want to see.

Maureen is in her home in West London and asks “Can I write your intro? She greeted me in black palazzo pants, her skin sun kissed her hair tawny streaked and azure blue eyes. The carpet was cream just like Barbra Streisand’s.” 
She remembers I met Barbra. “Did you go to her house? Did she have art deco furniture?” Rose is set on a bench where Rose is sitting shiva (Jewish people sit, remember, discuss the dead and I let Maureen know one time I interviewed Barbara, she too was sitting shiva. But I sat on the wrong side so she got very upset with me.
Maureen was incredulous. “There’s a right side to sit shiva?” I explain not a right to side shiva but a right side to sit next to Barbra because she feels one side of her face is less attractive. It looks more like her father and it’s the one she used to camera when she starred and directed Yentl, where she is a woman mostly playing a man.  The irony deepens – Maureen’s husband, Jack Rosenthal, wrote Yentl. He died in 2004.  
“Did you ever interview a woman who was happy with the way she looked?  Who was that woman, apart from my mother, who liked her appearance?  If women are happy with their face because they have had a lot of work done, that is not a woman who is satisfied with her looks because then you do it again and again and that is the problem.  When you do see yourself regularly on screen that does not make you happy, you fix on things. It used to be that I fixed on my eye bags.  I used to sit with cucumbers on my eyes every morning and one day I didn’t, I fixated on something else.  Saggy bits where cheekbones should be and that takes care of the next year and I think I could but what if one side looks different from the other?  When I think now, 1976 it would have been, I was on stage with Debra Kerr nice woman, funny, self-deprecating, I thought to myself, Poor thing, she is 58.” She had not had work done and she was gorgeous.”
Talking to Maureen, her mind darts and jumps. We move back to Yentl and she tells me that Jack told her of the intense preparations for the making of the film.   One day before the cameras were about to roll (Barbara and Jack didn’t speak much, they just got on it). One day she was “up and down restless, the assistant was in and out and finally she came back with a package. Barbra went into the bathroom and she said to Jack, who was famously gullible, she looked him in the eyes and said, “When the green ring’s at the top and the blue ring’s are at the bottom or is it the other way around, which one makes you pregnant?” Jack said, “Errr…” it was a brilliant moment because millions of dollars rested on his decision.  The film went ahead and she did an exceptional job which people really don’t give her credit for.  A woman playing a man with the infinitely obscure Mandy Patinkin.  He is very mystic.  I saw him in a play once and I told him Jack had written Yentl and he said, “Ehhh…”.  
Maureen assumes we are talking remotely because of the pandemic but in fact I have fallen down the stairs and can’t walk.  She says, “One of the things I have discovered about aging is that you don’t pick your feet up enough.”  Sometimes you are just slurrying. I did it down the tube steps, landed on my knees with a sickening crunch.  And it makes you tentative.  But where would we have met if we could?  Two benches in the park?  I still use a bench. I sat on a bench outside the vets the other day.  I ran into Catherine Tate and she said, “I am a great fan of yours!” 
I said, “Is that dog a Griffin?”  She said, “You are the second person ever to have identified the dog.  I have a Basenji and a Podengo. The Basenji (Diva) is 15.  The Podengo is a Spanish dog, a rescue from a concrete bunker.
She is really more like a cat. She is not a cuddly dog. I remember Diana Rigg said to me when we were in Cherry Orchard, “Why don’t you get yourself a real dog?” I said, she is a real dog, I love her, and she said, “Well, she doesn’t love you!” I love dogs, but I shouldn’t have them because you have to give them your full focus.
What happens when she goes to Manchester for Coronation Street where she plays Evelyn?
Max is here, she is my amanuensis (someone who does everything). All About Eve takes place in this very flat, I tried taking Diva on tour and she ate the dressing room in Woking.  Diva is 15 and the Podengo is only 2.  Diva is so beautiful like a little movie star, like a fox, red and white. They are very cat like – she doesn’t come near me unless I say so, which is good for me because I don’t really do needy. I am not very good at being fussed about or fussing. I need my space.”  
Our discussion flits in and out of the ageing process. “We think we are immortal which means you never plan ahead. You are just entranced by each new thing that comes up and you think OK, I’ll deal with that.”
I tell her that’s exactly what I’m doing at the moment with my leg in the cast – dealing with things one minute at a time. She says, “You have to be glad you are a journalist and not an ice skater!”
Dame Maureen is an elegant, opinionated, vibrant 74. She says, “I’ve started making noises when I get up, ow, ow, ow, surely that is the beginning of the end.”
I think otherwise. Her Rose is so brilliantly observed and portrayed it shimmers and even in lockdown her energy has been unstoppable.  She has been going up and down to Manchester to play Evelyn in Coronation Street, she has been doing her own version of a workout every day, sometimes on a chair.
“It’s not really a Joe Wicks type of thing. It won’t get you out of breath. It’s not really yoga, but it’s kind of daft yoga and in between I do face exercises, voice exercises and eye exercises.”
Then she asks have I done any jigsaws in lockdown? “It’s better than mindfulness and meditation. This is something where two hours can pass without thinking about Covid, Brexit, or Boris Johnson’s hair, anything.  All that matters is that frilly dress on the woman in front of that blue building.  I hadn’t done a jigsaw in 70 years, but I have got this video of Hugh Jackman. He has done this massive jigsaw of New York, he puts the last piece in and you see him take it all apart.  I love Hugh Jackman.  I worked with him for a year and I didn’t find anything to complain about, and I can find the flaw in a Persian carpet before it is spun. 
I went to see him in Manchester and I got tickets for some of the Coronation Street people. I went early to have a chat with him, he lets in people who are either big fans or disabled, he meets them all before the show, signs things, then he has a little circle where the cast went.  Then he introduces me, I had gone out beforehand around Manchester, bought a bottle of wine, passed it around to the cast. It really was fabulous and he is a fabulous showman.  Half way through he introduced me to thousands of people, I had to stand up and my face was red. 
At the end of it, the guy who plays Craig the policeman said, “Thanks very much for getting us tickets but did you mean to have that in your hair?” – I then saw that I had been walking around with a velcro curler in all night.   The whole time I was turning and accepting compliments with a velcro roller in!  
I got through the first lockdown with jigsaws and I relished my lack of ambition.  Suddenly I didn’t feel my mother breathing down my neck.  Suddenly I was just spraying furniture and painting tables.  I took up painting and somehow gave a monster courgette. I was busy. This time I have just got the jigsaw and a couple of good books.  I’ve seen all of Call My Agent on Netflix, I loved it so much. My Octopus Teacher on Netflix was great. I don’t watch a lot of television, I get steamed up about the cliques in television. I will go for walks. I move the furniture around.  I walk in Kensington Park Gardens, I walk in Holland Park, Golders Hill Park. Last week I walked with a friend to Notting Hill Gate down Portobello Road.  Looking for silver linings, if you look up in London you see amazing things all the time, it’s so fantastically beautiful.”
This is coming from a woman who has just had some very bad news. “My partner who is in a respite home had the vaccine on Wednesday and by Friday he had Covid. 
We don’t know how he got it or when or if he had it when he got the vaccine.  My partner is very private, so I am being deliberately obscure. He has a form of Parkinson’s disease and he is being cared for in a small home. Normally I would be there quite a lot, but I can’t go.”
We do know from archive that her partner is over 80 and is retired businessman Guido Castro and they have been together over a decade. It does seem a scandal that people don’t get tested before they are given the vaccine.
Lipman says that she did feel OK but commuting Manchester London and the new virus strain has made her feel, “I did feel safe but not now. I don’t feel terribly safe. I’m used to taking out of the news whatever I want to. It’s not that. It’s the new strain. Say what you like about Boris. Nobody could have coped with this one. When the vaccine should have been the best of news, it’s been totally taken away by this variant. Nobody really knows if this vaccine is going to fix it.
Tony Blair is a wonderful ideas man, he is right to get it started (it was Blair’s idea to roll out the vaccines faster by rolling out more of the first dose and leaving a longer time than 3 weeks for people to get their second dose). When it comes down to those fine details we don’t know, we are just guinea pigs. It is agonising, nobody has the right to complain anymore.  We have a vaccine, Trump is out, we are out with Brexit and the deal, we just have to get on with it.”
She’s not afraid of travelling to Manchester to film Coronation Street. “They are very good at sending cars and it has a screen.  I am one of the first people ever to wear a mask from February last year.  People looked at me like I was crazy.  I sit there with my mask and my gloves and I check into an anonymous place and before going on set they take my temperature.
I go to my dressing room, my costume is hanging out there, my make-up and my rollers are there inside, I plug in my rollers and put them in my hair for Evelyn’s style.  The make-up girls are not allowed to touch us. It doesn’t bother me because if you’ve been in the theatre you can always do make up.  Tests, of course, aren’t entirely reliable.
Does she get depressed or anxious? “I get sleepless.”
I am told being depressed is to do with worrying about the past while being anxious is worrying about the future.
“Well, we’ve got something to be anxious about. We have to believe in the vaccine. He must have already had Covid when he was given the vaccine. I hadn’t seen him since Christmas Day. I had a test and I was negative.”
In the meantime, she has been listening to a lot of Louis Theroux and Ruby Wax. “There’s so much about mental health. People are funny because of their pain. Being funny is important but is it so important that you fuck up your life for it. We are funny because we are angry.”
Then she seems to change the subject, but not really. “There’s something in the fact that Bill Bailey won Strictly. He was elegant and graceful and screamingly funny. I thought one of the pretty ones would win because they always do. It’s a great mark of where we are as a nation that we wanted someone who’s slightly over the hill to win.”
Would she like to have done Strictly? “I’ve never done Strictly because I’ve never been great with criticism. I don’t want to be pushed towards emotion. It’s too easy. If I was standing there and I’d done my best and…. I don’t want people to see me getting upset.”
Although she fits effortlessly into Rose because she’s a great actress, not because she wants to be pigeonholed as a great Jewish actress or national treasure, she’s not terribly like Rose. Rose for instance had a long suffering mother who never praised, teased or hugged.
“My mother was a proper mother. It was Matin Sherman (the writer of Rose and Messiah and Bent) who had a difficult childhood. His mother had a condition where for a lot of her life she was unable to talk to him. Originally he wrote it when I’d done the BT commercial (where she played Jewish mother archetype Beattie – it’s good to talk)
I was very loathe to go into another Jewish part. I became a bit of a national treasure and I was too young to play Rose. Rose was 80 and I was 40 but this came at the right time. It doesn’t necessarily have to be another Jewish experience. It could be a Vietnamese boat experience. It makes you feel differently about immigrants.”
It’s about people who don’t belong. She is booked to do Coronation Street until September. “I don’t know if in September I’ll be done for good but the plan is, or at least I would like to perform Rose in the theatre, if by then there is such thing as theatre.
I was delighted when I was offered the part in Coronation Street. I do find television a bit cliquey. I always like it when people say to me what are you doing these days? Ahhh, you are in Corrie, never watched it myself.” (She puts on a dismissive tone) and says, “Well 10,000,000 people make up for you.”  I am very grateful for it. Jack wrote episode 13 and then he wrote 150.  He started work on the same day as Tony Warren. I was in it before but with a different head on.  It is a strange mixture of down to earth reality and fantastic absurdity …. if you watch something with passion you can take anything.

It’s with the deepest irony Maureen Lipman concedes as her phone was beeping with multiple congratulations for her astounding performance as Rose (which premiered on Sky on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27) she was sitting vigil for her partner of 13 years Guido Castro with his three daughters as he lay dying.

“He died after a short Covid related iillness – Not of Covid

“He was such an interesting man – he was old (84); he programmed the first actual computer and one of the first prototypes for Ford.

“He went to every country in the world except Papua New Guinea because I wouldn’t go. He learnt to fly, he played real tennis, he was a lovely gift, a gift to me, I met him when I was three years a widow.

“I’ve just seen a letter from Shirley Conran to the girls… she was his sister-in-law with his first marriage when she left home she slept on their sofa – it’s an amazing letter with him being called the catch of Cairo – he was born in Egypt.

He was Egyptian. He was one of this perhaps little-known group who had an exodus from the Middle East in 1956 when all Jews were kicked out of Iran, Iraq and Yemen. 850,000 of them. Their houses were taken and their jobs were taken. Alan Yentob is one of them.

They had a beautiful house on the Nile and after they were booted out it was given to Madame Sadat — she lives in it today. Guido’s sister, late in life, married Sir Keith Joseph. They were at a do in New York and Yolanda was seated next to Madame Sadat and they had such a pleasant time together that when the dinner was over and they left, Madam Sadat said, “I had such a nice time in your company, please remember if you’re ever in Egypt, my house is your house.”

“Isn’t that brilliant?

“I said to Guido it’s time to go, you’ve got to let go and I think for once in his life he actually did what I told him… I was driving home, I turned the car back and that was it.

“It’s a savage irony that a moment of personal triumph – well you can’t be a really good actor in a rotten part I was very lucky to get that part — all the congratulations came on the same day as I lost my love — again.”

Her first husband Jack Rosenthal died in  May 2004 after 30 years of marriage

“There I was sitting with him and his three daughters on the floor of his respite place. On the evening of January 27, I came home, tried to watch Rose but I was too tired, I went to bed and the next day I drove back to see him and it was clear that I was going to see him off; he knew I was there – I did sonnets I sang I Love You A Bushel And A Peck — I told him we’re going to be all right, please let go and he did and all I could hear on the phone with ping ping ping as people were saying “Mazeltov” and “Congratulations it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. There is nothing that’s more relevant to the Jewish experience!”

“He lived a long life and he did everything he set out to do.

When he met me, he was already in his 60s and I was three years a widow in my 50s. He thought nothing of getting in the car at Gerard’s cross and picking me up in Southwark at midnight.

He was gentle, deep and sweet, thinking he didn’t know who anybody was in the world of theatre yet he loved opera and theatre and reading. For instance, when he met Christopher Biggins he said, “What do you do for a living?”

“Shirley Conran said he could meet James Bond and it wouldn’t matter to him; he’d say, “And what do you do for a living?”

He went everywhere in the world except Papua New Guinea and Cracow and Belize. He stopped travelling much when he met me.
It’s only in the last couple of years that he’s seemed weak… in his early 80s, he was beating people at old tennis.

“He had the jab. He got Covid – it wasn’t Covid that killed him but it weakened him terribly.”