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Actress Anne Reid's action-packed second act

Anne Reid. Photo/Alamy

In a career spanning 60 years, Anne Reid has only one regret: she’d like another chance to take her clothes off.

At 84 – you’d never know it talking to her – British actress Anne Reid, on the phone from London, is having an action-packed second act. “I’ve done a film called The Nest with Jude Law – do you know him? I’m playing Eddie Redmayne’s mother in a film called The Aeronauts. And I did an action film – this is all last year and this year – in Budapest where I got blown up on the Eurostar.”

Blimey. She’s well over what she calls the “skirts and jumpers” roles that can bedevil older actresses. “I get sent lots of fading grannies,” she sighs. “I look at the script and it says, ‘This old lady comes through the door with her dog and she’s wearing a cardigan’, and I think, ‘Oh, God, I know that’s me they’re thinking of.’ I won’t do it.” She’s put the word out to her agent. Send her no lingering illness, send her no dying of the light. Not unless it involves exploding high-speed rolling stock. “It’s depressing enough getting old without doing it for your work.”

Understandable. It’s half a century since she famously expired on screen. She still never hears the end of it. Valerie Barlow, wife of Coronation Street’s floppy-haired intellectual, Ken, is electrocuted in a faulty-hairdryer shocker. A traumatic memory for Street fans of a certain age. Electricals were lethal in the 70s. It could have been any of us. I want to ask her about it. She was on Corrie for nine years she will never get back and doesn’t want to talk about it. “I haven’t watched it for 40 years,” she says pointedly. William Roache, who plays Ken, is still there. “Well, I wouldn’t be. I’d be going stir-crazy. Mind if we talk about something else?”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

No worries. As viewers of Doctor Who know – Reid played a bloodsucking alien in a pensioner perm and a dressing gown opposite David Tennant’s Doctor in an episode featuring space rhinos with guns – you wouldn’t want to annoy her. And there’s plenty to talk about. She was in Dinner Ladies with the late Victoria Wood, a legend.

“I know. So sad she died. I worked with her such a long time. She wrote some great parts for me.” She’s had John Cleese as her love interest in comedy series Hold the Sunset. “I said to him, ‘I thought you’d be really difficult’, but no, he was a complete pet,” she says fondly. “He doesn’t throw his legs about like he used to when he was a young man.”

And she’s Celia, another woman having a second shot at love, in Sally Wainwright’s acclaimed Last Tango in Halifax. Her co-stars include such marvels as Sir Derek Jacobi, Sarah Lancashire, Nicola Walker … Celia is a terrific role for a mature actress at the top of her game.

When Reid went to Tasmania for the genealogy documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? – “They found out that my great-great-grandfather was not, as my father told me, a minister of the Kirk of Scotland but a convict who was deported to Tasmania” – she didn’t find new relatives, but encountered many fans. “That was funny, walking down the street and people were walking after me shouting, ‘It’s Celia! It’s Celia!’”

In 1961, Reid was a star as Valerie, the first wife of Corrie’s Ken Barlow. Photo/Alamy

Reid’s career spans more than 60 years. It’s with a little trepidation that I delve back even further than Coronation Street to that men-in-tights 50s television classic, The Adventures of Robin Hood. “Oh. My. God,” she shrieks. She doesn’t mind a bit talking about one of her first television roles after she graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada). “It was hysterical. I was Alison in the Blue Boar Inn, serving ale to the outlaws. The scenery used to shake because it was all made of cardboard.”

Simpler times. “I was squeezed into a dress made for Ava Gardner and the zip went all wavy down the back because it didn’t fit me. I used to go down to Shepperton Studios on the train, only me and all the cleaners going to the offices with their buckets and their mops. Those were the days.” Show business: it’s never as glamorous as it sounds. “No, it isn’t, darling. They always seem to ask people to do the coldest things in the winter, like jumping into lakes. They don’t ask me any more, because I’d die.”

Not that she hasn’t been up for some risky roles. She shrugged off the skirt and jumper and everything else for her award-winning lead in the 2003 film The Mother. Her character, May, has an affair with her daughter’s lover, played by a 35-year-old, soon-to-be-007 Daniel Craig. No one bats an eyelid when Clint Eastwood, in his late eighties, frolics with women a fraction of his age, but an attractive 62-year-old woman and Daniel Craig created headlines.

“It was fine until I had to take my clothes off,” she says (she’d never done such scenes). “The night before, I suddenly panicked and got very upset.” As she put it on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, “I had a lot of drink on my own in the flat and I stripped and I stood in front of a mirror and thought, ‘Tomorrow I am going to have to show this.’ And I started to cry.”

Perfect preparation, possibly, for a performance in which the magnitude of May’s vulnerability powerfully conveys her hunger for intimacy. “I thought nobody would ever touch me again,” May says, “apart from the undertaker.” Reid told Craig she was nervous. “He said, ‘Well, she would be nervous, so use it.’”

With co-star William Roache. Photo/Alamy

In the end, Reid is a trouper. “My son rang me and he said, ‘Oh, Mum, it’s a great part. Just go for it.’” She has no regrets. “It changed my life. I got nominated for lots of awards. The most exciting one was the European Film Awards. I went to Berlin where I met Jeanne Moreau.” She pauses to savour the name. “Do you know Jeanne Moreau? She was lovely. She ran up to me and threw her arms around me. I couldn’t believe it, because she’s been an idol of mine. She said, ‘You’re wonderful, you’re wonderful’ and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, it was worth making the film for that.’”

Maybe she has one regret. “I wish I could do the sex scenes again because I’d be much more interesting. I was frightened of looking like an idiot and being talked about around the dinner tables of England as embarrassing, so I was rather cautious about my reaction to Daniel Craig,” she muses. “I think I might give it a bit more welly, as we say over here.” Perhaps there could be a sequel.

The Mother highlights the self-contained quality Reid brings to her dramatic roles: so much exposed, so much still hidden. She was much the youngest in her family, packed off to boarding school at 10. “My father was a journalist, so I travelled to wherever they were.” She once flew, without her parents, in a maharaja’s plane from Heathrow to India. Goodness. Different times. “I certainly wouldn’t let my grandchildren go off on their own,” she says. “But it made me very confident and very self-sufficient as a child.” It taught her to fly solo.

She still likes to be nudged out of her comfort zone. We’re here to talk about a challenge in which she kept her clothes on but had to sit still as a stone on the Sky Arts programme Portrait Artist of the Year. Professional and amateur artists must produce a portrait of one of three well-known people in just four hours. Sitters over the years have included Sir Ian McKellen, Richard Dawkins and Geraldine James. The winner scores £10,000 and a commission to paint someone famous. One year it was Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. The show involves, well, watching paint dry. Yet it makes for compelling television. “Yes, why does it?” Reid says. “Can you tell me that?” Before I get the chance, she tells me: “It’s the pressure, isn’t it?” It usually is with competition shows.

In this series, the fifth, the painters vie for a commission to paint Tom Jones for the National Museum of Wales. High stakes. There’s the added tension of watching the newer artists try to paint with shaking hands as the sitters try to keep their eyes open. And, in the case of Reid, their mouths shut. “She’s such a character and she really wants to engage with the artists. I think she would love to have more direct contact with them,” said host Joan Bakewell. “Well, I’m a bit of a chatterer,” says Reid. “I wanted to ask them about their lives. But you’re not to.”

Still, she found it all fascinating. “I had my portrait done, when I was very young, by three artists and they all painted me very differently. I realised they’d all painted me similar to themselves. There was a very thin woman and she painted me as very thin, which I quite liked, and then there was a rather tough lady and she painted me as tough. I think, in a way, that’s what happened in this competition.”

Reid sits for the contestants in the Sky Arts series Portrait Artist of the Year. Photo/Matt Frost/Sky UK Ltd

The sitter gets to choose a painting to keep. Not to give too much away, Reid didn’t necessarily go for the most flattering portrait. “I don’t know much about painting, but I could see the artistry.” The portrait she chose is at her son’s house. “I hoped I was going to turn out looking like Princess Grace, but that didn’t happen. I just feel honoured that they picked this old face of mine.”

In her spare time, Reid does cabaret. It brought her to Auckland last year. She performed her own show, with her musical director on piano, aboard a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth to Sydney. They had a few days in Auckland first, where no one remembered Valerie Barlow and there were more gratifying cries of, “It’s Celia!”

“I loved it. We sat on the quay and had soft-shell crab at the Crab Shack and we went to the Town Hall and heard some Mendelssohn.”

The cabaret idea started when a friend in France, who puts on shows for charity, roped her in. She didn’t need much roping. “I suddenly felt terribly excited and found all these songs. I was very nervous. We went back to France and did it after about a year. I chat about my experiences in the business and growing up as a child in the war. Once they started to laugh at the stories I was telling, I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”

You expect she can do anything she sets her mind to. “I’m so busy! I’m doing a Jane Austen in wigs and big frocks and corsets.” That’s Sanditon, based on Austen’s unfinished novel. Years and Years, written by Russell T Davies, which started on BBC One last month, is getting rave reviews in the UK. The series travels with the Lyons family 15 years into the future, to a world where, when your teenager says she wants to transition, she’s not talking about gender. She wants to be transhuman. Think Black Mirror with more laughs. Reid plays the family matriarch. “I go up to the age of 102. So, I said to the makeup department, ‘Gosh, 102. You’ll have to put all that prosthetic stuff on my face.’ And they said, ‘No, no, you look fine.’”

From bonnets and carriages to dystopian techno madness: her head must spin sometimes. “Oh, it spins all the time, but that’s nothing to do with work, it’s just to do with getting old, darling.” They’re not always big parts, but as long as they’re not “northern mother” or “old lady in cardie”, she’ll be there.

“I want to have little adventures now, things that don’t take too much out of me, things that involve travelling. Maybe somebody in New Zealand will offer me a part in a movie,” she says, as we say goodbye. “We could sit together on the quay and eat soft-shell crab and watch the sun go down.”

Portrait Artist of the Year, Sky Arts, Tuesday, 8.30pm, from June 25.

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.