Geraldine James, recently notorious as the breast-feeding mother in Little Britain, talks to Tim Walker about her role in Howard Barker’s Victory
Geraldine James’s agent telephoned one day and asked if she would care to play an over-protective mother. And he added there was something that she ought to know: it involved breast-feeding and, ah yes, the recipient would be a man in his thirties. The distinguished stage and screen actress has always liked surprising people and that was why, after she had seen the script, she agreed to appear in the ‘Bitty’ sketches in Little Britain — although not, she hastens to add, with her own breasts.
‘Everybody assumes they were mine, but in fact they were prosthetic and made by the man who made the fat suit that Matt Lucas used when he played Bubbles,’ says Miss James matter-of-factly.
‘Like Bubbles’s, they were low-slung, which was helpful because all I had to do was lift a tiny bit of my jersey and David could pile straight in. There was pipework running through them to provide the necessary liquid and that meant, behind the sofa or whatever, several men close by had to be operating a pump.
‘I grew fond of those breasts and when I was asked to appear in the American version of the series, I asked if I would be getting the same pair and they told me: “No, we have got you Nicole Kidman’s.” I wasn’t sure if that was going to work — Miss Kidman is, after all, a lot thinner than me. I never did ask what it was that she had needed them for, but they still fitted pretty well.’
People tend to react with either wonderment or exasperation to Geraldine James’s career. Those who take the latter view point to how she never capitalised on The Jewel in the Crown, one of the most successful television series of the 1980s which ran to 14 episodes. The casting directors wanted her to replicate the same role over and over again and she simply wasn’t having any of that.
There were a number of points when she seemed about to make it big but she always seemed to elect, contrarily, to disappear from public view. After her successful run on Broadway in 1990 in The Merchant of Venice, in which she played Portia to Dustin Hoffman’s Shylock, Sam Cohen, the American agent, promised her he could make her name if only she would go to Los Angeles after the run finished. ‘I did it for Meryl and I can do it for you,’ he had said. Miss James, being Miss James, went back to England.
‘I remember ringing Jo, my beloved rock of a husband, and telling him what Cohen had said and he replied that I had been on the 16th floor of my apartment block in New York for long enough and it was time to come down to earth. Our daughter Ellie had been with me in New York and was about to start school in England when she turned five. My daughter always came first and I got used to my agent saying, when I turned down this or that project because of her, “Oh yes, of course” rather glumly. It was all about priorities.’
Next month Miss James’s priority is Victory, a play by Howard Barker. It is a dark Restoration tale about a nation living under a failed regime and, while obviously topical, it is being staged at the Arcola, a well-regarded, if tiny, theatre in a less than accessible part of north-east London. She was offered the part last May and, after some agonising, decided to do it because she loved the poetic quality of the writing.
‘I enjoy fringe theatre because you get a real sense of collaboration with the audience which you often don’t get in the West End where, on occasions, one has been made uncomfortably aware of people dozing off. Victory appealed to me because I feel it has so much to say. There is a scene all about how the bankers are in charge and it’s uncanny how prescient it seems.’ The work also chimes with her own sense of disillusionment as a lifelong Labour voter. ‘I do not believe that the party I voted for is putting people first and I think that is despicable. I think, for instance, of the extra runway at Heathrow. I didn’t imagine I would ever vote Conservative, but I might have to at the next election.’
Nobody ever got rich working at the Arcola, which made it difficult for Miss James, after she had committed to them, to be offered a couple of lucrative film roles. ‘I found myself thinking “Oh God, what have I done?”, but then I was offered the part as the housekeeper Mrs Hudson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and I was able to fit that in because it was only a small role. It turned out to be a wonderful experience.’ There was time, too, for a supporting part in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. ‘I did it down in Plymouth and there was me and Frances de la Tour and Lindsay Duncan and we had a wonderful time eating fish and chips and gossiping. It’s funny the way things often work out for the best.’
Ritchie’s marriage to Madonna was coming to an end as the Holmes film was being made, but Miss James says that she wasn’t aware of any of the off-screen pressures on the director. ‘He was totally focused and a great pleasure to work with. I would put him near to the top of my list of all-time favourite directors.’
It was almost 20 years ago that I first interviewed Miss James for the Observer and, while still strikingly handsome at 58, she has undoubtedly mellowed. I came away from my first encounter with an impression of an angst-ridden woman who was unable to come to terms with the fact that her father, a doctor in the Home Counties, had shown her little love during her childhood and had divorced her mother.
‘I needed to own up about my early life because it explains why I became an actress. I had to play roles because I did not feel very content about myself as a person. Counselling helped me put that behind me over time. I also managed, towards the end of his life, to come to an accommodation with my father.’
Her husband, the theatre director and drama teacher Jo Blatchley, has clearly tired of hearing about those early days. Miss James says he groaned when Libby Purves dredged it all up for the umpteenth time when she appeared on her Radio 4 programme. How has Jo has managed to put up with her for more than 30 years? ‘The poor thing. He is incredibly long-suffering, but it helps that he is very busy with his own projects and that we share a sense of humour.’
After she finishes at the Arcola in April, she has no other work planned. ‘It’s fine to be an older man in my business, but not an older woman. I think of the Lord of the Rings films, which had four or five leading men who were over 60 and the oldest woman was Cate Blanchett. High Definition has made it even tougher on us women, particularly those of us in this country who tend not to have work done, whereas of course in America it is done routinely.’ For all that, she hopes she has a few surprises left in her. ‘Although I wonder sometimes what there is left for me to do now,’ she says, somewhat unconvincingly.