Honeysuckle Weeks hit the headlines when she disappeared from her family home. Now, after counselling, she tells Phil Penfold why it feels good to be back on stage.
Honeysuckle Weeks has an instantly recognisable face. Her own description of it is “period” meaning that she seems to pick up a lot of roles set in the past.
“Not that I mind,” she says. “All I want to do is work with quality material.”
She certainly did that with eight series of Foyle’s War. Running on and off for 13 years, Weeks played Samantha Stewart opposite the rather lugubrious Michael Kitchen as the eponymous hero.
The series ended in 2015 and now the actress is back in the theatre with a touring production of The Best Man. Set against the backdrop of US politics as the 1950s gave way to the 60s, it was the time when the ageing Second World War hero General Eisenhower was bowing out, and the youthful John F Kennedy was about to take his place in the White House. Written by waspish social commentator Gore Vidal, it’s a searing view of political machinations – but it has never had a professional production in Britain before.
“I can’t think why because it is a remarkable piece of work,” says Weeks. “And with things as they are in America today, there are some incredible resonances in the script.”
Weeks, who is clearly enjoying being out on the road, was destined to be on stage and fulfilled the thwarted dreams of her now long-divorced parents
“They both very much wanted to be actors when they were younger. Back then, however, you had to get an Equity Card. The union was very strict about who it allowed on stage, and neither of them had the right opportunity. I don’t think that they were very surprised when my younger sister and brother and I all decided to be performers.
“I was a terrible show-off when I was younger. Always wanting attention. But then, I think that is common to all actors.”
Weeks was first cast in a professional role at the age of six in the TV series Goggle Eyes, which also starred her little sister Perdita, and really hasn’t stopped working since. While reading English at Oxford, Weeks, who was educated at the Roedean all-girls school, continued to be a member of the Chichester Youth Theatre and attended the acclaimed Sylvia Young School at weekends.
“My career has been a bit of a slow burn. I must be one of the few people who was in The Bill three times, playing a different character on each occasion. And before landing the role in Foyle’s War, there was Poirot, a Catherine Cookson, and a series called Close Relations.
“I had such a lovely time working on Foyle’s. I think that we had said just about all we had to say by the time we all said ‘farewell’, but who knows?
“If we made a mistake it was that we didn’t tell the war in stories that went from year to year, consecutively. Instead we went to every other year, which used up the time quite quickly. We were in post-war England before you knew it.
“I still get stopped occasionally by people, who recognise me from those years, and they are always very complimentary, and invariably ask when we will be returning.”
If her time on Foyle’s War taught Weeks anything, it is to be a stickler for period.
“For The Best Man I’ve just had my hair done in a style that is very sixties”, she says with a smile, “And, with the costumes that I wear, I think it’ll look pretty convincing. Things have to look just so, otherwise you lose the audience immediately.”
Keen to flex her acting muscles It was Weeks who told her agent to start looking for some stage work and up came the Vidal play. It is being produced by veteran impresario Bill Kenwright, who has assembled a starry cast, including Hollywood actor Jeff Fahey, Martin Shaw and Glynis Barber.
“I went and read everything that I could lay my hands on for this one”, says Weeks. “Research was absolutely vital. Rather cleverly, Gore Vidal doesn’t say which party either of the two rivals for the Presidency belongs to. You never find out who is Republican and which is the Democrat. My character? Well, she’s called Mabel Cantwell, and, if I had to sum her up, I’d say that she was a cross between Dolly Parton and Lady Macbeth.
“She looks as if she’s maybe the dumbest of dumb blondes, but underneath, she is a very smart cookie. I knew nothing about American politics until I started on this one, but I think it will really make audiences think ‘Why would anyone want to go into this cut-throat business in the first place?’
“The answer to that question is ego. Monstrous ego. Someone once said that ‘To want power is corruption already’, and I think that that just about hits it on the nail”.
Weeks’s own mother once stood unsuccessfully as a political candidate. Did she learn anything from that? “You mean did I file it away as an interesting experience? Yes, of course I did. I went to all the hustings with her, and I listened to quite a lot of Town Hall speeches, where manifestos were explained. I really didn’t like what I saw.
“It was pretty obvious that, while there were a few candidates who had integrity, there were others who were part of a writhing nest of vipers. I have schoolfriends who are now involved in politics, and I cannot stand going to their dinner parties. They talk about nothing else all evening.”
As for her co-stars, Weeks has nothing but praise for Fahey.
“He is a remarkable man, and a generous human being. He’s quite a mystical, and quite magical human being, and I’ve found out that he actively supports, with his own cash, so many good causes and Non-Governmental Organisations all over the world.”
Weeks appears like she is in a good place. She was in the news last year when, for a few days, she was reported as missing from home. Stressful family issues led her to walking away from problems, and she is candid about her time in a mental health unit.
“I had to have counselling”, she says openly. “And I am still having it. It was not a good time for me, but unless you talk about it, you are only repressing yourself again, aren’t you, and that cannot be healthy. I don’t mind you mentioning that time. It was part of me, and, well, there we are.”
Many actors have a role that they’ve played to which they would like to return. Is that true for her? This is the only time that she has to think really hard in what has been a free-flowing conversation. Then she laughs: “This one. I need to properly crack this one. It’s so of ‘the now’, that I think that there will be more than a few gasps from the audience.”
The Best Man, Sheffield Lyceum, October 23 to 28. 0114 249 6000, sheffieldtheatres.co.uk