Juliet Mills talks about her acting career as she heads to Yorkshire to star in the classic thriller The Lady Vanishes

There are going to be a lot of cherished memories stirred when Juliet Mills tours her new show around the UK in the coming weeks. “I love playing all the different venues in the different towns and cities,” she says. “Going into the older ones, all of them in wonderful condition, reminds me that my father probably played in them. It’s a tradition with which I feel very much at home.”

Juliet Mills with fellow cast members of The Lady Vanishes. (Photograph by Paul Coltas).
Juliet Mills with fellow cast members of The Lady Vanishes. (Photograph by Paul Coltas).

Her father, of course, was the legendary actor John Mills. It was he who instilled a work ethic into his three children and one for which they are all very grateful. Juliet has showbusiness in her blood and her first screen appearance came playing an 11-week-old baby – “not that hard really,” she laughs – in the classic wartime film In Which We Serve.

It wasn’t just her immediate family who were famous either. Noel Coward was her godfather, and Vivien Leigh her godmother. At the family home in Buckinghamshire, they had some impressive guests staying for the weekends – among them David Niven, Rex Harrison and a certain Marlon Brando.

Her father’s career had longevity and so does Juliet’s. She’s now 77 and starring in a new stage version of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes which arrives in Yorkshire next month. It’s adapted from the Thirties classic movie by playwright Antony Lampard and also stars Juliet’s husband of 38 years, Maxwell Caulfield.

Mills pictured in New York in 1961. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The couple now live in California, but temporarily abandoning their home in the States for the summer isn’t going to be any problem, far from it. “I love it”, says Juliet. “We’ve worked together probably half a dozen times, and for us it is always a great adventure. We pack up, put everything in the car and off we go,” she says.

“My philosophy is ‘be grateful for what you’ve got’. Don’t moan, get on with it. Enjoy your adventures and experiment all the time. If you come up against great sadness – my mum’s bad dementia at the end of her life – well, cherish the memories. I am so grateful that I remember my father’s strong spirit and his fortitude – he went blind in his later years. He still kept going. He still had spirit. In that way, I think that I am still much like my mum and dad.”

She laughs that one of the most recent jobs she did was on a cruise, reliving the seagoing romp Carry On Jack. Back then, it was the first time that the Carry On franchise had gone “period”, and Juliet was a lass playing a comely lad. “We were shooting at Pinewood during the day and then I had to get back to the West End at night to appear as Titania in the Royal Shakespeare production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What was that all about? I hadn’t a clue about who I was, or what I was supposed to be doing. Kenneth Williams was always a riot, and so was Charles Hawtrey. I didn’t know if I was on my head or my heels! From high camp to high drama – who knew?”

She’s looking forward to tackling her latest role in The Lady Vanishes. “I’m playing Miss Froy, a rather enigmatic governess who turns out to be not quite what she seems – and that was a huge plus for a start. Miss Froy has been working for an Austrian family for six years and she’s, well, part of a bigger puzzle. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, and there must be a lot of younger audiences who haven’t, I really can’t reveal much more than that. The fact that it is a new play ticked all the right boxes as well. So coming back to the UK, and doing a tour together sounded like a very good idea and a lot of fun.”

The story weaves a conspiracy among passengers on a train – the period is the anxious few months before Nazi Germany annexes Austria – but has lighter moments. “It’s a real comedy thriller, which, actually, is my very favourite genre in the theatre. I think that people love to be scared – a little – and then to laugh at themselves because they’ve been scared.”

She’s pleased that the play is being staged in the North. “A lot of people can’t get to London, or maybe don’t want to go to London to see a show, so I think that taking what we do to them, and keeping the tradition of live performance – which my dad felt was so important – up and running is an imperative. As my dad knew so well, when theatre works there is nothing like it for sheer excitement. My mother [the author Mary Hayley Bell] knew that too, because she was a prolific and much-admired playwright. There’s nothing that beats being able to see real people walking, talking, laughing and crying, going through all emotions, and then to get drawn into that experience. It’s very different from watching a screen, or a computer – or even a movie.”

Juliet was a mere teenager when she appeared in the West End hit Five Finger Exercise. She found herself acting opposite the legendary John Gielgud, and, to put the icing on the cake, the play then transferred to Broadway, where it was a box office smash, and where she was nominated for a Tony Award.

She’s worked with countless big names down the years. She loved working with Jack Lemmon on Avanti!, which was directed by Billy Wilder. “It was all shot in Italy, and heaven knows why I was picked because I was far too slender for the role. They demanded that I put on 35 pounds in weight and I remember that Billy and his wife, and dear Jack, took me out to dinner every night just to make absolutely sure that I didn’t slip an ounce. That’s a lot of pasta!”

It was the sitcom Nanny and the Professor – dubbed “The American Mary Poppins” –that took her across the Pond. “I never intended to stay, but work kept on getting offered. And it still does, I’m glad to say.” In 1974, she won an Emmy for the mini-series QB VII, and, more recently, made an impact in ITV’s Wild at Heart.

She’s delighted, she says to be heading to Yorkshire. “It’s truly my favourite county. If ever Maxwell and I decided to return to the UK it is where we would live, no doubt.”

As for advice for budding actors? That’s simple. “My answer is always ‘follow your dream, go for it and do not let anything ever stand in your way. Give it 100 per cent. There is no other option. I was tremendously assisted by the family I was born into. But that didn’t, in the end, push me forward at all. Talent is, in the end, what matters,” she says.

The Lady Vanishes, Cast, Doncaster, June 3-8, box office 01302 303959; Leeds Grand Theatre, July 22-27, box office 0844 8482700.