Michael Arditti

From ‘little Cockney’ to playing Queen Mary: the remarkable career of Eileen Atkins

The actress painfully charts the indignities of her early life and the snobbery she endured before being finally accepted in the theatre

Eileen Atkins has survived seemingly insuperable odds to reach the pinnacle of her profession. [© Sandra Lousada/Mary Evans picture library]

Eileen Atkins belongs to a singular generation of British actresses, among them Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Sian Phillips and Vanessa Redgrave, who not only continue to perform on stage and screen in their late eighties but all of whom, apart from Smith, have written their memoirs.

Atkins already has a proven literary track record. Having wisely abandoned her first effort, a three-act, 17-minute play, containing ‘murder, incest and sodomy’, written during an early period of unemployment, she went on to co-create the hugely successful TV series Upstairs, Downstairs and The House of Eliott, write the play Vita and Virginia and put together a selection of Ellen Terry’s lectures.

Will She Do? displays the emotional intelligence, acute observation, wry humour and above all honesty that distinguish Atkins’s acting. She endorses the verdict of her friend and collaborator Jean Marsh, that her brain is ‘like Gruyère cheese — full of holes’; but if her memories are selective, they are also vivid and unsentimental.

The book covers the first 30 years of Atkins’s life, from her birth in a Salvation Army nursing home in 1934 to her performance as Childie in Frank Marcus’s The Killing of Sister George in 1964, which made her a bone fide West End star. She offers few reflections on the craft of acting, other than noting a marked preference for rehearsal and repetition over improvisation, but she is forthright about both the hardships and humiliations of an actor’s career.

Atkins has previously scorned the idea of acting dynasties: ‘Acting is not in the blood — otherwise what are Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and I doing here?’ Yet whereas Dench’s father was a doctor and Smith’s a pathologist, Atkins’s was an electricity meter reader and her mother a dress-maker. She graphically describes a childhood of material, cultural and emotional deprivation, her mother only telling her she loved her once in her life — after an argument about the correct name for gooseberries.

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