She was a child star who became the Queen of Cakes. Now starring in Great Expectations, Jane Asher talks to Sarah Freeman.
Jane Asher isn’t what you’d call a method actor, but having been cast as Miss Havisham in a new production of Great Expectations she has added a few crucial details to Dickens’ most tragic of characters.
Jilted at the altar, the heiress of a wealthy brewing family lives out the rest of her life in the sprawling Satis House, never removing the dress she should have been married in and leaving the wedding breakfast uneaten on the table. Asher could stomach the idea of the crumbling mansion. She could put up with the rotting food, but Miss Havisham’s wardrobe troubled her a little.
“I really don’t like to think of her sat there in the same wedding dress for years on end,” she says in between rehearsals at West Yorkshire Playhouse. “I mean it’s just not hygienic is it? So I’ll let you into a secret. I like to imagine that she might occasionally do a little bit of laundry.”
Cleanliness issues sorted, Asher says she is relishing getting her teeth into Dickens which has been given a timely reboot thanks to the BBC series Dickensian. Created by Tony Jordan, who for years was the lead writer on EastEnders, it took the author’s most famous characters from Scrooge to Fagin and cast them into a brand new murder mystery.
“Oh, wasn’t it clever?” says Asher, who has been catching up with the series on iPlayer. “I know sometimes when you mention Dickens’s name it’s a bit of a turn-off for some people who were forced to read it at school, but a show like that really showed just how good he was at storytelling.
“You sit and watch Caroline Quentin and Richard Ridings as the social climbing Bumbles and while, yes they are caricatures, we all know couples like that. Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, these were 19th century soap opera.
“You can only imagine when they were published in weekly or monthly instalments how much people looked forward to them. Keeping an audience wanting more is such a clever thing to be able to do.”
Asher made her acting debut as a six-year-old and was just 11 when she appeared in The Quatermass Experiment.
“I think it’s a natural instinct in children to perform. I was spotted in the street and, so the story goes, it was my bright red hair which did it. I never went to stage school though for which I am eternally grateful. These days children can only work so many hours and there are a billion regulations about what they can’t do. All right and proper of course, but back then things were different and I had a great time. It became very addictive.”
Next month Asher will celebrate her 70th and while many actresses complain parts try up as they get older, it’s latterly that she has arguably landed the most interesting roles.
In 2009 she played Delia in Peter Hall’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Bedroom Farce, she’s taken on the iconic Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and, at the age of 64, appeared in her very first pantomime playing the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. When it comes to powerful female roles, Miss Havisham, she says is right up there.
“I hadn’t actually read Great Expectations, but Miss Havisham is such an iconic character that it was too good a part to turn down. She is a deeply tragic figure. There is no other way to see her, but I do think that towards the end she has a moment of realisation. I think she does understand the impact her decisions have had on others. Her heartbreak turns to bitterness and it completely infects her adopted daughter Estella who ends up so emotionally cold. She does, I think, ultimately see just how far her influence has stretched, but it’s too late. By then there is no way to right the wrong.”
While Asher doesn’t want to give away too much, what she will say is that unlike most productions this latest version isn’t told from the point of view of Pip who falls in love with Estrella only to find the relationship doomed.
“It’s a really interesting change and it also looks very stylish. The book opens in a graveyard and the action moves from a great big pile like Satis House to factories and the docks, like all of Dickens it is incredibly detailed. When you are trying to recreate that world on stage I think the only way to do it successfully is to pare it back.
“I still get a real thrill about live theatre and I am lucky that interesting parts seem to have landed at my door. I don’t think you can ever plan these things. Or at least I have never been able to.”
For a while in the early 1960s Asher was best-known for being Paul McCartney’s girlfriend. She has been married to the illustrator Gerald Scarfe since 1981. While the couple’s three children were young, Asher says she was reluctant to take jobs which involved long periods away from home. Instead she began writing cookery books and found herself crowned the Queen of Cakes and was cast as a domestic goddess long before anyone had even heard of Nigella.
“It suited people to portray me like that and I didn’t mind, even if it was some way from the truth.”
Back then the idea that Asher would have teamed up with a company like Poundland would have seemed unthinkable. However, three years ago the discount store introduced a bargain baking range with Asher’s name emblazoned all over it. Launched just ahead of the hugely successful Great British Bake Off it became the company’s fastest selling range.
“I did have reservations about whether it was the right thing to do, but like everyone I began making basic recipes like gingerbread and I thought it would be a nice idea to make baking as accessible as possible. I think what has surprised me most is the attention to detail. I fully expected that they would want to just put my name on existing products, but everything is designed from scratch. It’s been hugely rewarding.”
You wonder where she finds time, but Asher is currently working with designers on a new hand mix which will complete the Poundland range. She says she answers all emails from customers – good and bad. She’s very aware of how word and mouth can impact on sales, although when it comes to her own acting roles she says she learnt early on not to read reviews.
“Of course you can always tell whether things are going well, because there is a different buzz in the room, but I think it’s unwise to know what the critics say. Even great reviews can put you off your stride. You get to the particular bit where they have said you have been so moving and you’re suddenly paralysed – you wonder how you did it.
“The one thing I really am grateful for is that Twitter wasn’t around when I was younger. Of course people have always said nasty things about people in the public eye, but at least in the past it was always behind your back. I think I prefer it that way.”
Great Expectations, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to April 2. 0113 213 7700, wyp.org.uk.