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I'll be Mother then, shall I?

by Robert Gore-Langton

Copyright (c) Times Newspapers Limited, 19th September 2005

Anne Reid is in high demand to play women of a certain age, says Robert Gore Langton

She has stripped off on screen at the age of 68, she's been a mum in most television soaps, and last year she popped out of a trap door covered in boa feathers singing to a Chichester audience far older than her. And for her latest venture Anne Reid is stepping into the bolshie world of the late John Osborne. An Epitaph for George Dillon feels close to home as it's about a writer, and her own family background is deeply inky: "I had three brothers, a father, an uncle and a grandfather who were journalists, though it never crossed my mind to be one."

Her part in Victoria Wood's comedy Dinnerladies has made her a modern television face -a lined, comic, mumsy sort of face. Her generation may recall the decade-long stint she did in Coronation Street, in which she played the doomed Val, whose life was eventually terminated by a faulty hairdryer.

The whole subject bores her rigid. "It was so long ago — who cares?" she groans.

But it was where she met her husband Peter Eckersley, Granada's head of drama, whose early death caused her to give up acting for many years to bring up their son.

These days she's making up for lost time. Now 70, she will be in the BBC's new adaptation of Bleak House next month — she plays Mrs Rouncewell, the housekeeper, and most of her scenes are with the X-Files star Gillian Anderson ("a very, very nice person") as Lady Dedlock. She's also in the forthcoming sequel to Booze Cruise.

Meanwhile on stage she is rehearsing for An Epitaph for George Dillon, the play John Osborne co-wrote with Anthony Creighton before his 1956 hit Look Back in Anger. It has Joseph Fiennes in the title role. She never saw the original production. "I went to boarding school when my father went away to be a foreign correspondent. I had a teacher who sent me off to elocution lessons to get rid of my Geordie accent. She got me an audition for RADA and my brother took me to see Look Back in Anger.

"There has been a lot of discussion in rehearsals because (the director) Peter Gill and I can remember 1955. I said to Joe Fiennes: 'You wouldn't be sitting here in trainers and a T-shirt, you'd be in a shirt and jacket with a tie!' The play is about his struggle to be who he wants to be -a writer. My character believes he has a huge talent: she's adorable and suffocating at the same time.

"Oddly enough, I've been working with Frank Finlay in Life Begins recently and he was in the play in New York back in the 1950s. There was a newspaper strike and it didn't get reviewed, so it closed. Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich stepped in and got it revived."

It was another Peter Gill production -of his play The York Realist -that attracted rave reviews and did wonders for her morale. "I nearly turned it down — I just saw another northern mother. But I took it on and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I adore working for Peter. He's a hard taskmaster, but he's captain of the ship and he knows where he's going."

Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi were in the audience on the first night. It led to her being cast in their BBC film The Mother, about a widower having an affair with her daughter's boyfriend (35- year-old Daniel Craig). It was Reid's first starring role, and she had to turn down Calendar Girls to do it.

"I'm no Nicole Kidman," she says. "I looked in the mirror and said: 'You can't show this to the British public -it's going to put everyone off their tea.' I rang my son, a film editor, and he said: 'It's a good part, go for it. If you're inhibited, it's not going to work.' I've never had sex in public before. I said I want absolute rules laid down: I'd strip to the waist but that was it. I got really drunk on champagne the night before."

The film produced an unexpected travel bonus when it was lionised at film festivals. "I went to Monte Carlo, Amsterdam, Oslo and Paris -I got Best Actress in Paris. I had a wonderful time! Claude Chabrol kissed my hand; Wim Wenders put his arm around me.

"Jeanne Moreau came up and hugged me and said: 'You were fantastique!' She told me her mother was English. I said: 'I know, you're my idol. Your mother was called Buckley and came from Bolton.' She was absolutely heaven."

In George Dillon she is working alongside Francesca Annis, the actress she would most like to be, though she hasn't confessed this to her co-star yet. But is she running the risk of becoming a national treasure -would she like to be a Dame? "All my friends call me Dame Annie anyway," she says. "No, I'd much rather have an Oscar and a million pounds."

An Epitaph for George Dillon previews from tomorrow at the Comedy Theatre, SW1 (0870 0606637) and opens on September 27

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