Maureen Lipman is one of our best known actresses. She talks to Chris Bond about her new radio sitcom and why she owes Hull such a big debt of gratitude.
IT’S only when you start to tot up her theatre, film and TV credits that you realise just how prolific Maureen Lipman actually is.
Since making her debut in the film version of Up the Junction in 1968, the Hull-born actress has enjoyed a remarkably varied career that has seen her appear in hit TV shows such as Jonathan Creek and Doctor Who. She has also starred in films as wildly diverse as Carry on Columbus and Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, and was part of the National Theatre during the early 1970s under the charge of Sir Laurence Olivier.
In recent years she has perhaps become best known for her comic roles and this week she stars in To Hull and Back – a brand new series for BBC Radio 4, starting tomorrow night, which pairs her with fellow Hullensian Lucy Beaumont, who wrote the script.
The sitcom, which is set in Hull, is based around Sophie (Beaumont) and her mum ( Lipman), who live together and try to scratch out a living doing car boot sales at the weekend.
“It’s like Steptoe in reverse,” says Lipman, who is full of admiration for Beaumont. “She’s such a talented writer and I like her, we have a real bond.”
Once she read the script she was happy to be involved. “It’s heightened realism and it’s also funny, and a lot of radio comedy isn’t always funny, it’s very off the wall.”
As well as this Lipman is also starring in a new series of Bull, alongside Robert Lindsay, which returns to UK Gold this week. Not that she makes a beeline for comic roles. “I take what I’m offered and most of what I get offered is comedy,” she says.
Most people perhaps assume that comedy is easier than drama for an actor, but Lipman believes the opposite is true. “Judi Dench said the hardest thing to do is a sitcom because do you play to the camera, or do you play to the audience? It’s a very unreal situation.”
If it is a challenge then it’s one Lipman has mastered during her career. Perhaps it has something to do with her northern roots? “I think that being from the provinces does shape you, especially if you come from Hull. There’s a dour humour, ‘if you think you’re that good what are doing here?’ It’s the same kind of thing in places like Liverpool.”
Although Lipman lives in London these days she feels a strong connection to the city where she grew up. “I tend to only get back there about once a year to visit my parents’ graves, but it’s part of my fabric, there’s something different about coming from Hull and I’ve had a lot of mileage out of it. Whenever I tell audiences that I come from Hull, ‘which is twinned with Sierra Leone,’ they fall about laughing.”
She’s delighted by Hull’s rejuvenation in recent years – epitomised by its successful bid to become UK City of Culture in 2017 – but says unless you’re from the city you probably don’t get what all the fuss is about. “If you come from Hull you assume that everyone else gets what’s interesting and weird about it. I think we need a short course on Hull and why we feel such tortured affection for the place.”
Not that it’s a course she would need to enrol on. Lipman went to Newland High School in Hull, where she had a gang that included a singer, a dancer, a contortionist (yes, really) and Maureen the actor, whose schoolgirl peak came in Dr Faustus.
Her father Maurice owned a gentlemen’s outfitters in town, but it was her mother, Zelma, who pushed her towards a career in acting. “Not that I needed much pushing. I was always a performing child and when I look back I must have been absolutely ghastly.”
But she says she owes her career to the fact that she was a baby boomer and to the generosity of Hull City Council, which paid for her to go to drama school during the 60s. “I belong to the luckiest generation that ever lived, because I got that for free, it’s not like today where you have to pay £9,000 a year,” she says. “I owe them everything because without that I would have done something else. I would probably have gone to university and ended up teaching, or making a nuisance of myself in politics.”
Not long after studying acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art came her big break in Up The Junction. In 1969, Lipman came back up North for a spell, to join a drama company started by Granada TV in Manchester which nurtured plays that would be performed on stage then television.
It was here, too that she met her future husband, the writer Jack Rosenthal. They married in 1974 and stayed happily together until Jack’s death in 2004.
She was in Laurence Olivier’s Royal National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, and early TV appearances included The Lovers and Doctor at Large. The National Theatre proved to be a hugely fruitful experience. “That was my training ground where I did my rep.” Here she watched and learned from the likes of Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg and Billie Whitelaw.
“I was picked out of the chorus line which was probably because I was funny in the canteen. Sir Laurence Olivier was in charge and I remember hearing him saying to someone ... ‘what are we going to do with Miss Lip-man?’” she says, doing a more than passable impression of the great man.
In 1979, she came to prominence on television as the lead in Agony, as an agony aunt with a chequered private life. Of her many roles on the West End stage and beyond, stand-out parts include that of Joyce Grenfell in Re:Joyce! and Aunt Eller in the National Theatre’s Oklahoma! with Hugh Jackman.
Despite winning many plaudits over the years, for some people she is still best for playing Beatie, the fussy grandmother in the BT ads during the 80s. So does that irritate her? “It probably will when I die and the headlines say something like ‘actress gets cut off’ or something. But it was a good ad and it’s interesting that just as the single play disappeared from British TV, the single advert that is repeated came into being.
“I was 40 years old when I was playing her and curiously my principal at drama school, who was never my biggest fan, said that I wouldn’t come into my own until I was in my 40s. I thought that was the meanest thing anyone had ever said to me, but he was sort of proved right.”
Such is her versatility now that we are as likely to see her in a TV soap or in a radio sitcom, as we are sharing anecdotes on a chat show sofa. But given her vast range of work, and the fact she turns 70 next year, is there a role she still has a burning desire to play?
“There isn’t a particular part but I would like to do something that lasts longer than a week and gives me the chance to develop a character... before I’m too old to remember.”
The pilot of To Hull and Back is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow at 6.30pm, with the full series starting on October 21.