Tim Walker

Meeting Eileen Atkins

The ‘third dame’ of British theatre on cancer and self-loathing

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Dame Eileen Atkins is adamant that she is a horrible person. ‘My mother looked at me as if she had hatched a snake, but then I could be vile to her and to my family,’ the actress says. ‘My parents were angry people, frustrated with their lot in life, and I inherited their anger. I’ve always put my career before everyone and I have been very selfish. I think it’s a good thing I never had any children as I would almost certainly have passed on my anger to them. I’d have been a terrible mother.’

Everybody seems to love and revere Dame Eileen except, alas, Dame Eileen herself. I tell her the complimentary things that the distinguished playwright Ronald Harwood has told me about her and she just laughs. She has always been different from her fellow dames — Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren — but then she says that, coming from a council estate in north London, she had a background that was a lot more humble than any of theirs.

‘Of course I am not as polished as they are and I haven’t their confidence. I couldn’t possibly, given where I came from.’ She talks about her ‘big mouth’ as if it is an external entity, quite beyond her control, and indeed sometimes it seems as if it is. One thinks of all that fuss when she let slip to a journalist that the Miami Vice heartthrob Colin Farrell, 42 years her junior, had made a pass at her. ‘I worried about how Colin would react to those awful headlines, but he came to the first night of Doubt in New York on Valentine’s Day last year and told me not to give it a second’s thought. He’s a darling boy. I went to a restaurant with him and women were virtually lying across tables asking for him, but you know, that Carly Simon song is very true when it says that “Legend’s only a lonely boy when he goes home alone”. I couldn’t possibly have gone to bed with him, though — it would not have been right.’

A lifelong insomniac, Dame Eileen has been taking Mogadon to get to sleep for the past 44 years, and doubled the dose 12 years ago. She ought to look terrible, but she is a remarkably youthful 72 with luminous pale-blue eyes, regally high cheekbones and glossy, auburn hair. She is talking to me over a mug of camomile tea in the restaurant of the Almeida theatre in north London towards the end of the run of Frank McGuinness’s There Came a Gypsy Riding. All the critics loved her, but some weren’t so sure about the play.

No matter. She knows that by the time this piece appears she will have started filming The Cranford Chronicles, a BBC1 drama serial based on the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, in which she will appear alongside Judi Dench. In plays such as The Killing of Sister George and Vivat! Vivat Regina!, films like The Dresser and on television in Smiley’s People, this woman who likes to describe herself as no more than ‘a jobbing actor’ has portrayed a variety of roles utterly convincingly. It’s helped, she reckons, that she has managed to retain a relatively low profile. ‘I have never wanted to do a TV series because people feel they get to know you when they see you regularly in the same part. I don’t want to be known. It’s useful being a nonentity.’

If she is more passionate than ever about acting, it’s hardly surprising. Each day she now regards as a gift. In the summer of 1995, when she was appearing in Indiscretions on Broadway, she discovered that she had breast cancer. She underwent a lumpectomy and six months of chemotherapy. ‘The cancer is in remission, but it has still changed me. It’s given me a determination to live life to the full. I got my diagnosis about the same time as Linda McCartney. We had a mutual friend in Carla Lane who put us in touch. I had been diagnosed a month before Linda, and was struck, when I talked to her, by her determination, courage and good humour.

‘We formed, along with Miriam, another woman I had got to know through the disease, a self-help group and talked a lot on the telephone. When Linda knew that she was dying she stopped calling. She pretended that she was travelling. I suppose she had been concerned about the effect it might have had on my morale. It was typical of her. Then Miriam’s cancer came back last year.’

There is pain in Dame Eileen’s voice, but also fortitude. She says there are some aspects of her character that are very masculine. ‘I try to just get on with things, without a fuss. I certainly have a masculine approach to work in that I have always wanted to make my own way.’ I wonder if it extends to sex. ‘Oh yes, certainly. Old men can talk about how they find young women attractive, but old women are not supposed to even look at young men. But I have made no secret of the fact I love young men and love to be around them.’

At 22, she married the actor Julian Glover. He had an affair with Sarah Miles. By the time Eileen was 32, they had divorced, but she remains a friend to both her former husband and Miss Miles. Eileen has owned up, too, to a long-running affair with a well-known American who is now dead, but whom she has never named lest she embarrass his widow. ‘Infidelity,’ she says, ‘is one of the last things you should fall out with someone over.’ She adds that she is friends with all but two of her ex-lovers. How many have there been? She self-consciously tots them up. ‘Somewhere around 20,’ she says, finally. ‘Edward Fox was among them. He believed that a woman’s place is in the home. A job came up for me in America and he said to me that if I took it then we would be finished. I took it and we finished. It was six months before we talked again. I love him dearly.’

Since 1978 she has been happily married to the advertising director Bill Shepherd. ‘I warned him that my career was always going to come first and he accepted that. I am sure that’s why we’ve stayed together. I say the things I have that matter to me these days are my cats, my house and my husband, in that order.’

She laughs. One wonders if she has not finally found some degree of contentment in life. ‘I worry still about finding work. It’s not just that I love to act, but I do need the money. Everybody thinks I made a fortune out of coming up with the idea, with Jean Marsh, for Upstairs, Downstairs. In fact, I got a pittance for it. I think, though, that a part of me also rather enjoys the precariousness of an actor’s life. Maybe life has got to be a struggle to be real.’

Tim Walker is the Sunday Telegraph’s theatre critic and diary editor.