Gwen Taylor - I might be getting older but I'm still willing to take risks

She became a household name in the 80s, has worked consistently ever since and is about to take on one of theatre's best-known roles. Phil Penfold meets Gwen Taylor.

Gwen Taylor as Lady Bracknall in The Importance of Being Earnest.

When we meet, Gwen Taylor is on something of a high. The much-loved actress is heading towards her 80th birthday, but recently, she confides, she flew for the very first time. “Not a commercial flight, darling,” she says. “I was on a wire, strapped into a harness, and went right out over the audience. It was simply exhilarating.”

Taylor was playing the wicked sorceress in a version of Beauty and the Beast at the Derby Arena and, apart from the chance to have a go on the high wire, she admits that one of the reasons for her accepting the challenge was because it would take her back to where it all started.

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Taylor came late to the professional stage, working during the day at a Derby branch of the National and Provincial Bank and appearing with local amateur groups in the evening. In 1972, she made the big leap, trained professionally and her first paid job was at the Derby Playhouse, playing a green bean in Jack and the Beanstalk.

Since then, she has appeared on television in Duty Free, Coronation Street, Heartbeat and Barbara and on the big screen in the likes of Lady in the Van, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the recent Another Mother’s Son. This year it will be back to the stage as she takes on the role of Lady Bracknell in a lengthy tour of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

“I can only think of one time where I have turned down a role. It was another Python film, The Meaning of Life. I was supposed to be in that scene where the man exploded, and his intestines went everywhere – mainly over the other diners, one of whom was going to be me. Rather undignified, I thought. There were other jobs on offer, so I choose one of those instead.”

It was Duty Free which made Taylor a household name back in the 80s, alongside Keith Barron, who died last year. “I just cannot believe that he’s gone, and that I will never hear his voice on the phone again,” she says. “He was a man of great talents, great heart and full of fun. He was always the life and soul of the party, but he was also very genuine.

“He was fiercely proud of his South Yorkshire roots, as proud as I am of mine in Derby. He was always fighting for that corner of the world. I don’t think that there was a malicious bone in Keith’s body. He was that rare thing, a genuine character. If he said that he was going to do something, he went and did it. I miss him beyond words. A wonderful man, and a generous performer – to the point where he would offer great lines to someone else if he thought the effect would come better from them.”

Duty Free, which has made on a limited budget, was, Taylor says, a big learning curve. “The hysterical thing was we were supposed to be holidaying in Spain, basking in the sunshine, lapping up the good life, but we never once left the Yorkshire Television studios in Leeds. The only warmth we got was from the lamps to light the set.

“Actually, I tell a little fib there. Miraculously, they managed to find a bit of extra cash for a Christmas special, and they flew everyone out to Mallorca or somewhere, for some authentic filming.

“The only problem was I was in a play in the West End, with Griff Rhys Jones, so my scenes were all shot in a hotel at Shepperton, and sliced into the finished programme.

“The main thing I remember about it was trying to get back from Shepperton to the West End every day, to make the opening curtain, and being stuck in a lot of very heavy traffic, biting my nails in trepidation.”

It’s Taylor’s adaptability which has made her such a stalwart of the British acting world and she says she is relishing her latest role as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.

“Bracknell is always a bit of a career mountain to climb, but I am delighted to have the opportunity. So many wonderful actresses have played her, and I am lucky to have seen many of them. Dame Judi, of course, and Dame Maggie Smith. Everyone brings their own interpretation to the role – and everyone has a different take on the ‘A handbag?’ line, and that vital scene. It’s the equivalent of male actors in Hamlet getting to the ‘To be or not to be?’ bit, where you can hear everyone in the audience mouthing the words along with you.

“What helps you is that it is all so stunningly written, and beautifully paced. I think that I shall be portraying her as a woman of a certain age who just doesn’t care about what anyone else thinks, she just blasts through everyone’s sensibilities.

“When she hears that bit about being found in a handbag, she is actually so relieved the poor chap is proven to be socially so beneath her and her daughter that she is quite happy about it! Being found in a handbag clearly rules out any reasonable prospects of a union with her daughter.”

Taylor and her husband, the playwright Graham Reid, have decided that during the tour they are going to stay in some nice hotels. The days of digs, and picking cat hair from the bed covers have gone.

“We have both arrived at an age where we need a little pampering, a comfortable room, and to be looked after with a good cooked breakfast in the morning. I always leave our home in London with the best of intentions, vowing that I am going to make an effort and really get to see the places we visit. But it generally all comes crashing down, and it is Graham who gets out and visits the sights.

“We occasionally get home at the weekends, if it isn’t too far, and one vow that I am going to keep is that, when the tour is over, I am truly going to tackle the pile of clothes that I just throw into the dressing room bit of our bedroom, and sort it all out, instead of constantly falling over it!”

Taylor remembers her time on Heartbeat and A Bit of a Do with great fondness. “Heartbeat was such fun, and the bonus was that it was set up there in North Yorkshire, which is a stunning part of the world. I still meet fellow former cast members – like Peter Benson, who played Bernie Scripps – for a lunch and the memories are all happily rekindled.

“However, if I could revisit one play, it would be our West End version of the Joe Orton story Prick Up Your Ears. That closed prematurely because poor Matt Lucas had to deal with a personal tragedy, and we couldn’t recast. It would be interesting to try that one again.”

She is a great encourager of new, young talent, but says she stops short of offering advice. “As someone put it very succinctly but accurately not so long ago, ‘it has a terrible way of returning six months later and biting you severely on the backside’. People do tend to say: ‘Oh, if it hadn’t been for you telling me that’, and making it your fault, instead of theirs.

“So, in my opinion, if you do want a career in this business, I believe that you should cut your teeth in the theatre, with some good amateurs, and see if what you find is for you. Do not be seduced into a TV soap, or something with ‘celebrity’ in the title. Make sure that you can handle the knockbacks, and have the skin of a rhino. And, above all, have tenacity and accept unusual challenges.”

Like flying over an audience on a wire and in a crinoline wearing green bloomers?

“Precisely,” she says, hooting with laughter.

The Importance of Being Earnest, York Theatre Royal, April 17 to 21. 01904 623568,