The Big Interview: Maureen Lipman

28th June 2012. Maureen Lipman pictured at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.
28th June 2012. Maureen Lipman pictured at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.
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AFTER 40-odd years in the acting business, naturally Maureen Lipman feels she’s learned a thing or two that’s well worth passing on to fledgling thesps.

Hordes of them are gathered at The Crucible in Sheffield for the International Student Drama Festival, ready to hang on her every word. She’s got her lines perfect for the masterclass she’s about to deliver, having done something similar only weeks before at Tel Aviv University.

“They loved it – I did things like telling them how to deal with a bad director,” she says chattily, in a voice that still owes its vowels to her upbringing in Hull.

“The truth is that as an actor most of your life will be spent learning scripts that are impossible to say because they’re so badly written. It’s true – the times when you get Chekhov or Jack Rosenthal are very limited.

“Even if you work, you’re going to have to work very hard to make sense of what someone’s written for Holby City. Most of the time you’re just making the best of a bad job...”

This sort of truth is not aired enough, says Lipman, who’s an incredibly youthful 66. “It’s like childbirth: no-one tells you that it hurts like hell – but they should.” If she sounds slightly... bitter ... on paper, you’ve got the wrong idea. She’s chirpy and matter-of-fact.

Another warning she will give the bright young hopefuls is that auditions are all about convincing a director that, whoever they thought they wanted, you are actually better.

Another couple of pearls from her jewellery drawer of wisdom: “Mimicry is useful, as is making yourself a niche, but once you’re known in that niche you have to crawl out of it to do other things.”

Maureen Lipman seems to have been with us forever. She surely has a portrait of herself in the attic. Apparently happy to discuss anything (“Ooh, blue toenails...I like those sandals... No, I haven’t had ‘work’ done on my face, but I do think about it, as almost everyone I know seems to have had it ...”) and can’t help but slip back and forth into a wardrobe of characters.

If you got trapped in a lift with Maureen you’d probably be happy to stay a few days, given a bottle of water and some chocolate to share. One minute she’s Beatie, the fussy Jewish grandmother of the BT ads; the next she’s acting out one of the many confrontations she rails against in today’s soaps; then she slips into the persona of Irene, one of the two competitive Ladies of Letters she played with Anne Reid on TV.

She scoots between yobs in the street shouting racist comments to imitations of her mother Zelma, who sounds like a hard act to follow – although Zelma’s unconscious talent for comedy never graced a stage. No, Mrs L put her energies into encouraging little Maureen, who looks back and describes her younger self as “a performing midget and an annoying brat in class”.

Lipman went to Newland High School in Hull, where she had a gang that included a singer, a dancer, a contortionist (this is true) and Maureen the actor, whose schoolgirl peak came in Dr Faustus.

Her tailor dad Maurice owned a gentlemen’s outfitters in town and he was, she says, a waspish character. Life was never dull with Zelma about, either. It’s not hard to see how these parents informed both her acting and her many comic writings in magazine columns and books.

“My parents were hilarious,” she says. “My mother’s been dead eight years, but people still tell me new stories about her that are like manna from heaven.

“A woman she knew told me a while back how she’d once said to Zelma ‘Isn’t it awful, getting old? You look in the mirror and all you see are wrinkles and saggy skin ...’ Zelma replied: ‘I’ve got a mirror like yours’. How brilliant is that?”

Being from Hull has added grist to the professional mill. “If you don’t get the joke in first, someone else will say something rude about Hull. But there’s a doughtiness that’s bred into people (there) who are funny, inventive and brave.

“I get a huge laugh from audiences when I say I’m from Hull, which is twinned with Sierra Leone... And when I’ve performed my one-woman there people say ‘If you’re that bloody good what are you doing here?’ I love it.” Not long after studying acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Maureen Lipman’s break came in the film Up The Junction. 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.

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.

Among her vast range of TV work, we’ve seen her as snooty landlady Lillian Spencer on Coronation Street, in Jonathan Creek, as a villain in Dr Who and as herself on many a game show or chat show sofa.

She was also the mother of the eponymous musician in the film The Pianist.

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.

“There was no bar at Granada so we went to the Film Exchange, and one day I met Jack [Rosenthal] there. He was wearing a grey sweater with a black polo neck. We got talking, and he told me he was writing and producing a new series called The Dustbinmen.

“He needed someone to shout, in a kid’s voice, “Mam, it’s the dustbinmen!” at the end of the opening credits, so I voiced it for him. That was it, really.”

Within a week of encountering Manchester-born Jack Rosenthal, Lipman knew he was the one. “It was like meeting myself coming back, even though he was 15 years older and so was of a slightly different generation. It felt familiar, sort of astral.” They married in 1974 and were happily together until Rosenthal’s death in 2004. Their children Adam and Amy are both writers and helped Lipman to complete Jack’s autobiography, By Jack Rosenthal, after his death.

The other reason Maureen is back in Yorkshire is to open an exhibition about Jack’s work (and her own) at his alma mater Sheffield University. Eight years after the trauma of his death, she had to look away when a film was shown of the writer addressing students at the university years ago.

“I haven’t seen Jack moving for years, so it was quite a shock and I couldn’t watch it. All my and Jack’s archives are at the university and the students asked some really interesting questions.

“I told them a few things they didn’t know about Jack: that he bit his nails; that he suffered fools gladly; he hated confrontation; he was sartorially challenged; he over-indulged his children and wife; he used too much kitchen roll when he fried fish.

“Apart from that he was perfect. Just perfect.

“He was a new man before there was such a thing. I think he was a better husband than I was a wife, but we had a good partnership.”

How does she think they influenced each other’s work? “Having Jack’s dialogue to speak was like having Chekhov. You didn’t have to change a bit of it. Today everything in drama, even in The Archers, is about confrontation. Jack was not interested in that... He was about the machinations and manoeuvres and, like me, he was fascinated by what lay beneath the page, lifting the carapace.”

Jack was the anchor at home. He crafted his many acclaimed works such as Bar Mitzvah Boy, The Evacuees and Eskimo Day at their home in Muswell Hill, and the last thing he wrote before his death was a 10-minute play that Maureen directed to be performed for a cancer charity.

“I got the actors around our kitchen table with food and drinks for a read through and to discuss how we’d do it. Jack said ‘I’ve waited all my life for a director to do that with my work.’ I said ‘Now I come to think about it I’ve waited all my life for a director to do it for me.’

“He’d get me to read one of my magazine columns to him and say ‘I don’t know how you do it..’ But then he did always say that if I went out for a packet of butter I came back with a three-act play, whereas he’d come back with a packet of butter.”

The new man in Maureen’s life (she met him at a dinner party a couple of years ago) is businessman Guido Castro. She’s moved to a flat in central London, and says she’s happy, he’s “lovely”, and satisfying work still comes along. She recently directed and appeared in a tour of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park ( “Jack’s favourite play – he said it was perfectly constructed”), and has another play coming up in the autumn.

She supports various charities including Free Burma, and writes for the Jewish Chronicle as well as The Oldie magazine. Her most recent joy is new grand-daughter Ava. She may be a grandma, but in her head she’s still 34, says Maureen.

Before she leaves to pose for photos, she can’t resist a self-deprecating comic quip about her chances of bagging one of the big roles for women of a certain age.

“Even great talent waits a long time for the drippings from Helen Mirren’s table. I’m not even going to get those, because Penelope Wilton and Pat Hodge will... unless, on a good day, they’ve both got toothache.”

Jack Rosenthal & Maureen Lipman – A Creative Partnership is at The Exhibition Gallery, Western Bank Library, Sheffield S10 2TN until August 19. 0114 222 7200.