Portrait by David Newton

Portrait by David Newton



 "To be a good gossip you have got to bitch!

And I can bitch all too easily. And I certainly don’t want it in print, because it’s hurtful.” Dame Eileen Atkins is giving me her reasons for having never written her autobiography; a book that would surely be one of the greatest showbiz memoirs of all time, given her eight eventful decades of life and her notoriously candid conversational style. “I think I’ve appeared, as a character, in about seven autobiographies now, and I’ve come out of them quite nicely. Nobody has said ‘And then Eileen Atkins turned up, and the party, which had been fun, was the most boring thing you’ve ever been to..!’

Indeed, one imagines this most vivacious of Dames would liven up any party and, sure enough, in the course of our conversation I am regaled with  delicious tales of sex, drugs and celebrities, all delivered in Atkins’ irresistibly theatrical timbre. But there is more than just backstage gossip: we talk about art, dreams, politics and ghosts and I discover a contradictory spirit that exists in her, touching all of these subjects.

But back to the autobiography: couldn’t she get someone else to help her and edit out all those “hurtful” bits? “Oh but then it would be boring!” is Eileen’s reply, kicking off an hour and a half of delightful contradictions. “I really like reading other people’s memoirs, though. I don’t think I’ve ever been shocked before, but I was deliciously shocked at Antony Sher’s book because his seemed to me one of the most  truthful autobiographies I’ve ever read. Crikey...  even saying he was wanked on a beach by a coloured man in South Africa (and he used the word ‘coloured’, because that was the word then). I mean it is fiercely honest.”

She surely senses a kindred spirit there, because Atkins’ own fierce honesty has got her into hot water on many an occasion: “I have too big a mouth and I say what I think and that is not clever. I’m not proud of it,” she says. But this honesty is also reflected in her fearless career choices. Alongside the many Shakespearean classics she has played, Eileen has incurred the wrath of feminists (more of which later), performed naked covered in her own excrement (later too!), shocked 1960s audiences in the West End’s first “lesbian” play (The Killing of Sister George) and, as recently as last winter, trod the boards at Stratford-upon-Avon in her 81st year as The Witch of Edmonton

However she usually gets recognised in the street not for any of these meatier roles, but for her part in ITV’s Doc Martin, which she has filmed in Cornwall every other summer since 2011. “The fact that I’m in Doc Martin is a bit of an accident, really, because they said to me would I do the last eight episodes, (the last eight they were ever going to do), and I thought “Oh that’s quite fun”. I liked the series, and I love Cornwall and I like Martin Clunes, and it all came at a very good time for me, when I wanted to get out of London. I thought ‘How lovely, I’ll do their last eight.’ That was three years ago but it really is the last eight this summer. It’s been huge fun and Martin’s been very clever because he understands that actors want to become different people and don’t want to do it continuously: we do it every other summer. I don’t understand people who want to play one part for ten or twelve years, because to me the sheer pleasure of acting is in being endlessly challenged, endlessly saying ‘Well you’ve done that... now can you do this?’ I’ve always said I didn’t want to play one part continuously, which is why I wasn’t in Upstairs Downstairs (the long-running smash 1970s drama that Atkins co-created). There’s no point being in a series unless you’re going to be committed to it, and no way was I going to commit myself.”

“Judi is extremely hard to impersonate, I can’t imagine anybody who could. But I’m afraid I do indulge and do my Maggie!

This ever-curious, challenge-seeking attitude draws comparisons with Atkins’ fellow octogenarian acting Dames, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Born in the same year, the three are good friends and have worked together many times over the years. I tell Eileen I have a  mental image of them constantly going round to each other’s houses and chatting on the phone: is this anywhere near the truth? “I think Judi and Maggie might, but probably only when they’re working together. They’ve worked together more than I’ve worked with them, I think. How I’ve worked with Judi is extra-ordinary. I did my first television with her when we were about 23 [in Arnold Bennet’s Hilda Lessways] and I think it might have been her first television too. We played sisters, and then exactly fifty years later we played sisters again [in the BBC’s Cranford series]. Cranford was wonderful; I haven’t laughed so much for a long time. I’ve had the most laughs with Judi on set but I think most people would say they’ve had more laughs with Judi than anybody else because she’s such fun. And Maggie is a genuine brilliant wit.”

Our conversation is peppered with anecdotes about Atkins’ celebrity friends, so I wonder if she herself has ever been star-struck? “I once did a silly thing when I was very young (well, in my thirties!) I was mad about Steve McQueen, and I was in Los Angeles doing  something on TV and Alec Guinness, who was a friend of mine, was there doing Star Wars. Alec said he’d been invited to brunch with McQueen, because he [McQueen] wanted to do something ‘serious’. And indeed he did: the ghastly An Enemy of the People by Ibsen. So Alec said ‘Come to the brunch with me’ and I said ‘Oh yes, yes!’ and when it came to it, I just couldn’t go: I was just too frightened! I couldn’t even make my legs walk to get into the car! I pretended to Alec that I was ill in bed and couldn’t go, which was very silly of me.”

“My other crush was Paul Newman and, when you’re younger, if a huge American film star like that comes into your dressing room, you are kind of  ‘Oh gosh, wow, is he real or am I dreaming?’ Paul used to come and see everything I did on Broadway, with his wife Joanne Woodward. They were always holding hands and I said to him ‘That’s so sweet!” and he said ‘No, I find it difficult to go backstage so Joanne drags me!’ In fact I was so easy with him I actually asked him to direct my movie Mrs Dalloway and he sent me a letter saying ‘When you write your first Western, give it to me!’ And talking of star-struck: Katharine Hepburn took me up in a bit of a way. I was in the US and going to have Christmas with my old friend Zoe Caldwell. I was  getting over a love affair and I said to her ‘There won’t be a lot of people, will there?’ and she said ‘No, I  promise!’ And then two nights before I was to go up there, she said ‘I hope you don’t mind, there is going to be somebody else here: Katharine Hepburn!’” Did she know who Eileen Atkins was? “I think she’d probably been primed: she seemed to know about me. And she was terribly funny. She used to come to everything that I did after that. I went to the Long Wharf Theatre [in Connecticut] and played the title role in [David Edgar’s] Mary Barnes, where I had to go on stage stark naked, covered in my own excrement. Katharine Hepburn came to that, and kept saying to me [Eileen does a pitch-perfect shaky Katharine Hepburn voice]: ‘But whyyy did you have to take your clothes off? You have no need! You’re a very, very good actress!’ She came to my one-woman performance of [Virginia Woolf’s] A Room Of One’s Own in America and came backstage with six hugely powerful women and just said ‘Dooo something about this woman! Get her into every newspaper!’ 

Atkins’ wickedly accurate impressions come as a surprise to me; are there any other people she can do? Maybe her mates Judi and Maggie? “Judi is extremely hard to impersonate, I can’t imagine anybody who could. But I’m afraid I do indulge and do my Maggie! (Eileen proceeds to do a side-splitting impression). Despite her obvious quick wit and sharp intelligence, Eileen insists throughout our conversation that she is not-all-that-bright and a bit “slow”. Always the last to get a joke, useless at party games... that sort of thing. To this end she tells me the proudest moment of her life was being awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University. What does that mean, I ask? Because quite often the person never went to that particular  University or College. “Well, I did wonder why I’d got it!” says Eileen, “you just get a letter saying you’ve been given it. It’s not like the DBE when they ask ‘would you like it?’ They just say ‘You’ve got it’. We stayed with a wonderful American professor of one of the colleges, and in the end I said ‘I don’t know why I’ve been given this... do you know?’ and he said ‘Well, we’re not  supposed to tell people, but yours was pushed through for your work on Virginia Woolf.’

This “work” stems from Atkins’ lifelong fascination with the troubled Bloomsbury writer, which has resulted in the aforementioned Room of One’s Own world tour, producing a movie of Mrs Dalloway and counting several descendants of Woolf and her lover Vita Sackville-West as her friends. Indeed Eileen was cast as a “good luck charm”, in her words, in the film dramatisation of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. “Michael has said in interviews that he came to see me do A Room of One’s Own,” Atkins tells me, “and from that he decided to go and read a lot more Virginia Woolf... and then wrote The Hours.” But what began this near obsession with the writer herself? “When I was very young I looked rather like Virginia Woolf, I had that look about me. And somebody asked me to be in a movie when I was about 25 or 26: somebody who’d seen me and thought I looked like her. I’d never even heard of her, I mean I’d vaguely heard of somebody called Virginia Woolf and the script was  really interesting, so I started reading about her. The film didn’t happen but I kept reading Woolf on and off and I think I got through most of her stuff. I just went mad about her. What upsets me, though, is that she’s such a marvellous person but the first thing everybody thinks of Virginia is that she was a writer and she  committed suicide by putting stones in her pockets... and that’s all people know. That she was always a  depressive and of course that was the view you got of her in The Hours. But if you read lots about her, you hear that she was enormous fun to be with, the most fun at a party out of anyone. I mean, yes, she did scare people sometimes and she did ask abrupt questions, but they were nearly always from curiosity and of course she did have a whiplash tongue. She was so witty that she couldn’t help but say things that I guess sometimes hurt people. But what she wrote about life, her observations of life, I just think are fantastic.” 

Would Virginia Woolf be labellled bi-polar nowadays?

"Yes, absolutely, 100%. And she'd probably have a pill and who knows, maybe not be so brilliant..."

Does Eileen relate to her in that way, I wonder?

"Well I just relate to anybody who sees life very clearly. She was a great one for getting enjoyment out of things as you were living them. That you must live like that... in the moment. Of course she had breakdowns all her life but she had long breaks from them." 

Would Virginia Woolf be labellled bi-polar nowadays?

"Yes, absolutely, 100%. And she'd probably have a pill and who knows, maybe not be so brilliant..."

Aside from being The Hours' lucky charm, Atkins' other reason for contributing her cameo performance was that she got to spend a day filming with Meryl Streep. Was it fun? "I think she's the best screen actress ever," she replies, "I don't think anybody would argue with that, she's amazing. I actually saw her last performance at drama school, accidentally, when I was in America: I'd gone with some people who were friends with someone else in the play. I remember she was in a crinoline and I said at the end 'that girl there is brilliant! Who is she?' And I can remember remembering her unusual name and thinking 'I'm going to see her again'. She's such a nice, truly terrific woman as well." I wonder what it was about the young actress that stood out? "Oh you could tell straight away," Eileen replies, " it stands out a mile. She was just 'it' when she was on the stage... she was right in the character. What she was doing was immediately interesting. Talent really does shine right out."

So what would she say constitutes "good" acting? After a long pause Atkins decides: "It's the ability to convince everyone (not just a few of your friends and relatives... in fact they're the most difficult to convince) that you are someone else. And that you are the character."

Are you born with it?

"I think you are born with it, and I think it can be developed. Quite a lot of people are born with the seed but then you've got to want to develop it yourself with a lot of passion. From the age of 12 I wanted to do nothing else. You've got to get enormous pleasure from feeling you have made the audience completely go with you, and believe who you are. You've GOT to have a passion for it, otherwise there's absolutely no point doing it at all."

The concept of passion crops up regularly in our chat, especially regarding personal politics. Is she a feminist? "Yes, I would call myself one, except I’m distraught at the way feminism has been now shaped by some people. When I was young I didn’t expect getting freedom for women would end up with young girls with horns on their heads and masks, being so drunk on Saturday nights that they can’t get home. That is not my idea of freedom for women. And I am somewhat distraught now that the weight’s gone the other way. But I’m still a feminist."

That may be how the actress regards herself, but a few years ago she found herself on the receiving end of feminist firebrand Germaine Greer's wrath when she appeared in the play The Female of the Species. The play was a thinly-veiled, comedic retelling of an incident in Greer's life when one of her female students imprisoned her in her own home. A furious Greer described the play as an "attack" on herself, so I asked the actress how she came to be at the centre of this controversy. 

"To me, if you’ve gone on a reality show, you almost deserve anything you get."

"This is what I mean when I say I’m a bit slow! We had been rehearsing for two weeks before I found out it was about a real event. Somebody said that it really did happen to Germaine, but all I could see when I read the script was that there were a lot of likenesses to her, but I had no idea that she’d actually been held for an hour/an hour and a half by a student. So I stopped in rehearsal and I said 'Hang on a minute here, this isn’t very fair if she was. I’m none too sure we should do this to Germaine Greer' and then the whole cast said to me: 'For God’s sake Eileen, she’s been on a reality show. Do you honestly think anyone who’s been on a reality show deserves to be treated like cotton wool?' And then I thought: 'No, they’re quite right! To me, if you’ve gone on a reality show, you almost deserve anything you get.'"

I am slightly taken aback by this somewhat harsh, Woolf-ish appraisal of a fellow feminist, but in this age of bland interviews with PR-trained actors, I am also exhilarated. Does she enjoy being a Dame? 

"Do you know, I didn’t think I would at all. The letter they sent me got lost, so I got a phone call one day: a woman saying 'we haven’t heard back from your being offered a DBE, so can we do it over the phone?' And I said 'I’m not sure I want to be, I really have to think about this!' That was a little bit of the working class girl in me, or the wishy-washy politics that I have in my head, that swings one way and another. The woman was so sweet at the other end: she said [Eileen does posh accent] 'Oh well, I’ll call back, but I dooo hope you say yes!' So she called back and I said yes, but I didn’t even tell my husband. I just went into a great gloom about it for about three months and I thought: 'Have you sold your soul?' This shows what a ridiculous mess I am! I’m very for the Royal Family but I'm very against aristocracy. I like the Royals because they’re enormously good for tourism. They all work terribly hard. But I really have a real dislike for so-called aristocracy."

So does that mean that becoming a Dame meant she was now a member of the aristocracy?

"No, no no. What I mean is: these people with inherited titles… Lord Somebody-Somebody who has a son who becomes Lord Bumpity-Bumpity… and I’ve never had a good time at a totally aristocratic do! The people that I work with at the Woolf and Sackville-West estates are posh, but the Woolfs were bohemians, they weren’t aristocracy. So I love being with those people. I suppose I’m a daft intellectual snob, that’s all I can say! I’m averagely daft but I’m an intellectual snob. And I like people who are bright, even though I’m not bright myself." 

That line again! But I bet it says "Dame" on her credit card..?

"It does! It’s a big help. It’s on one credit card and not on any of the others. And if I think it’s going to be useful in some way…"

Like booking plane tickets?

"No, it isn’t, because all that comes back is 'Dam E Atkins' or something! I thought it would help me enormously on airplanes because if they see 'Sir So-and-So' you get upgraded, but you can’t put 'Dame' on an air thing. There’s no room for it, there’s no space for it, it’s not recognised. So a man can be a 'Sir' but a woman can’t be 'Dame'. "

Enough to make Germaine Greer's blood boil! And who can blame this Dame for wanting a bit of fun with her title? Out of all our revered theatrical treasures, Eileen Atkins is surely the least stuffy and, dare one say it, the most naughty? Has she, I venture, ever taken drugs? "I've only ever done drugs once, it was hilarious...I accidentally did six lines of coke!"

How can you accidentally do six lines of coke?!

"Thank God we had a very small house that night... it was a very, very bizarre performance!"

"I was in a play in America in 1976, in Stratford Connecticut, and I was moved from the house I was staying in because Hurricane Belle was coming towards us (it was hurricane time). Two gay friends of mine in the play lived in Bethany, away from the coast and said 'come and stay with us tonight'.  But then it was announced that the centre of the hurricane was going to be Bethany! So we all got rather nervous and started singing war songs and sticking sticky tape onto the windows, tying down the furniture, things like that! The wind was going like crazy and, just before 9 o'clock at night, they said 'Eileen, we're terrified, we're going to take some coke! Do you want some?' and I said 'I've never had any, but... yes, alright!' I was pretty frightened too, so if it was going to make me feel better then, yes. They said 'we've cut it out, there's six lines on a piece of glass' and there it was. They turned away and I went 'sniff-sniff-sniff' and did all six lines! When they turned back round they nearly killed me because I'd had all their coke, so they said 'right, now we're going to have to smoke dope to get through it!'. And I can remember being so frightened that I went and got into bed with them. In fact a tree fell into my room where I'd been sleeping, so it was just as well I did.  

We were doing As You Like It at the theatre in Stratford and I was playing Rosalind, and I said 'I will be alright tomorrow, won't I?' They said 'oh don't worry, we won't be doing it tomorrow, all the lines will be down'. Then we woke up the next morning, and I was still flying, I was crazed. One of them (my great friend Victor Garber) made his way down to the theatre and discovered that the theatre had its own generator and we had to play! He came back and said to his friend 'what are we going to do, can we try and bring her down? She's got to play Rosalind!' 

Well, it made me know I don't need to take coke because they couldn't get me off the stage! Every time they tried to get me off the stage at the end of a scene I would push them away and say 'no, they only wanna hear me!' Right at the end of As You Like It you always come on in a cart as Rosalind and you do a dance and you're supposed to be so happy and I suddenly came down off the high and I came on in this cart and I thought: 'I want to die! I don't want to do this jolly fucking dance... I want to lie down and die!" Thank God we had a very small house that night... it was a very, very bizarre performance!"

"Oh I'm so glad I'm sitting here with a hot crumpet, and not in jail with my husband!"

Any other drug-related experiences?

"I tried smoking dope and it didn't suit me. I smoked a bit when I was having chemotherapy, and it was a help, but it didn't suit me. I'm none too sure that drugs should be against the law, though. The minute you say it's got to go underground it gets worse."

The Law and Eileen Atkins: a happy combination or uneasy bedfellows? Has she ever broken the law, I wonder? "Oh I'm sure, many times! The only one I can remember clearly, which is quite funny, is when I went on one of the Aldermaston Ban-The-Bomb marches in the early 60's, when everyone at the Royal Court Theatre was doing it. I was never really that passionate about it, but my then husband Julian Glover was at the Royal Court and I thought 'oh this is a good one, I'll go on this march!' We got to Trafalgar Square and there was John Osborne and Vanessa Redgrave and everybody all sitting there. Then the police came to cart us off to jail and I saw them take off everybody around me. They took off my husband, and I suddenly thought 'fuck this for a lark I'm not going to get taken in', and I went home and had tea! I bought some crumpets on the way and sat at home thinking 'oh I'm so glad I'm sitting here with a hot crumpet, and not in jail with my husband!' It wasn't because I was frightened of the law, but that I didn't feel strongly enough. 

One of the over-riding impressions I get from my conversation with Eileen Atkins is that Passion plays a major part in her decision-making, whether personal or professional. If it's there, she goes for it, if it's missing, she's not interested. I ask her for five words that define her, and they come in this order, after much thought: "Garrulous... Bossy... Gregarious. I also like to be utterly that's odd. So: Independent. Now I've only got one left... [long pause]...Passionate, I'd say. But not about politics."

About life?