Think back, just for a moment, to the first series of The Crown. It is 1952. The king, George VI, is dead and the new queen, Elizabeth, has flown home to Britain from Africa. At Sandringham, where her father’s body rests, everything is the same and yet irredeemably changed: a paradoxical state signified most powerfully by the arrival of the king’s mother, Queen Mary. In a corridor lined with servants, the old queen, in black crepe and a mourning veil, advances slowly towards the new queen. Will these grieving women embrace? No. As Queen Mary has already informed her granddaughter by letter, if the crown is to survive, duty must come before personal indulgence, a credo she will now express in the form of a curtsey so preposterously low, it’s a wonder she doesn’t topple over.
At the memory of this scene, Dame Eileen Atkins leaps from her sofa and bobs her jeans-clad knees, wobbling only very slightly. Six years on, she doesn’t remember much about playing Queen Mary: mostly it was just “lying about in bed and smoking”. But she’ll never forget that curtsey: “It was Stephen Daldry [the director] who made me do it. That long bloody walk. I love Stephen. He’s a magician. I’d do anything for him. But I was very proud that at whatever age I was then, I could walk with a straight back and do such a deep curtsey.” Her friend, the actor Siân Phillips, believes that the trick with old age is simply not to think about it: “She doesn’t tell anyone how old she is.” Atkins, however, takes a different approach. “‘You’re 87,’ I say to myself. ‘You’ve been working for six hours. Well done!’”
But isn’t there someone other than Daldry whom she should be thanking at this point? For her posture, I mean? Atkins gives me a knowing smile. “Yes, thank you, Madame Yandie,” she says, sardonically. Madame Yandie was the principal of the unfortunately named KY School of Dance in Wood Green, north London, which Atkins attended as a girl, and the reason I know all about her is that her former pupil has given her a brief but starring role in the memoir that she wrote (“in Biro, in bed”) during lockdown last year. One of the most loved and admired actors of her generation, Atkins had, it seems, been thinking about telling the story of her life for at least a decade. But it was only once the pandemic hit – the play in which she was to star with Timothée Chalamet at the Old Vic was cut off mid-rehearsal – that she was able to get on with doing so. “I’m ashamed to tell you that I had a wonderful lockdown,” she says. “I absolutely loved the whole thing.”
As Queen Mary in the first season of The Crown. Photograph: Netflix
At her house by the Thames at Chiswick – its front windows look directly on to the river, the water bouncing any sunlight straight back on to her bookshelves – life was suddenly very conducive to floating around in the past. She and her cat, Bertie, could hardly have been any more content. (Since the death of her husband, Bill Shepherd, in 2016, Atkins has lived here alone.) Wasn’t she worried about her beloved theatre? “No, because I’m convinced that no matter what happens, people will always want it. They get such a weird thrill from seeing people in the flesh. I don’t quite understand it myself, but it will always crawl back.”
Theatrical memoirs, especially those by actors of a certain vintage, can be quite gruesomely tedious (“the critics were wrong, I feel, to describe my Malvolio as highly coloured”). But Atkins’s is bliss: so funny and atmospheric and true. It’s not only that she has a way of bringing her more antic characters vividly to life (that goes for Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness as well as the pretentious Madame Yandie). She’s honest about herself, too, as content to relate her humiliations as her triumphs (the book ends in 1965, when she at last takes the West End by storm in Frank Marcus’s lesbian melodrama The Killing of Sister George). Is she nervous about its publication? “Well, I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it,” she says. “I suppose I never imagined that it would be published. Sometimes I thought: who the fuck will be interested in this? But I can’t help feeling that Maggie [Smith] and Judi [Dench] are going to be a bit ashamed of me. ‘Oh, what have you said?’ Maggie asked me, when I told her I’d said a lot. But I don’t feel it’s worth saying anything unless it’s the truth.”
‘We don’t know why you’re worried about the accent,’ my family used to say. ‘Look at Michael Caine’
The winner of an Emmy, a Bafta and three Olivier awards, on the stage Atkins has played everything from Edward Albee and Harold Pinter to Chekhov and Shakespeare. Her films include The Dresser (1983), Gosford Park (2001) and Cold Mountain (2003). But it has, she says, been a long trek. “My kind of career happens hardly at all, now,” she says. “Today, I would go into EastEnders or something and then get stuck… I’m not putting EastEnders down. I’m just saying that’s the way it is.” Her rich, elegant voice, the result, at least in part, of elocution lessons, gives no hint of her childhood on a council estate in Tottenham, nor does it suggest how hard it sometimes was for her as a young woman to make the life that she wanted. “The difficulty was wanting to be a classical actress. My family wouldn’t let me alone. ‘We don’t know why you’re worried about the accent,’ they used to say. ‘Look at Michael Caine.’ I would tell them that Michael Caine was not a classical actor, but they didn’t want to hear it.”
Atkins’s mother was a dressmaker and her father read electricity meters. The family was always hard up and her parents’ marriage was less than happy (after his death, she found a photograph of another woman stitched into the lining of her father’s suit). But perhaps their distance from each other had certain benefits for their daughter. She got attention that might otherwise have gone elsewhere, which was how Yandie came into her life, and her taste for performance was sparked. Having been told by a Gypsy that Eileen would one day be “a great dancer – another Pavlova”, her mother duly enrolled her at the KY School. Within a year, she had been transformed into Tottenham’s very own Shirley Temple. “Baby Eileen: Soubrette and Dancer” read the cards her parents had printed on the advice of Madame Y.
Eileen Atkins, photographed in London in 1968. Photograph: Harold Clements/Getty Images
Baby Eileen, who had blond curls and an affectedly cute voice, performed at working men’s clubs for 15 shillings a pop – and yes, this was a bit creepy, as she knew even at the time. Her repertoire included a “French” song that began “I got ze wink… zat makes fellows think” and a modified Cole Porter number about naughty married men. At a party at a friend’s house, encouraged to do one of her turns, she launched into Carmen Miranda’s I Yi Yi Yi Yi (I Like You Very Much), wiggling her bum exaggeratedly. The little girls all laughed, but her friend’s father, a vicar, sent her home with a note expressing his disgust. At the time, Atkins felt ashamed, but she sees now that she also gained something from working the clubs: “A sort of buoyancy. A feeling that people would probably like me. It’s the same thing, almost, as boys from Eton have. They think they’re best. I didn’t think that, but I had been out in front of a lot of working men, and done a number, and they had applauded me.”
Madame Yandie wanted to adopt her protege, but this having proved impossible – Atkins’s parents said no – she opted instead to help her escape from the junior school where she was so miserable by paying for her to go privately. Atkins thinks the two women – her mother and Madame Y – must have made a strange double act, going to Parkside school to meet Miss Hall, the headteacher she would come to adore. “This oily woman who liked to say that one should always pro-nou-nce the be-gin-ning and the e-nd of ev-er-y word and my mother with her thick cockney.” Miss Hall, though, proved to be the first of several saviours in Atkins’s early life: “I knew that I must please her, because if I didn’t, I would be the sort of person I myself would not like.” Miss Hall was severe and encouraging. “I’ve always been grateful to be told the truth. I’m still grateful to the girl who, when I was at Stratford, said suddenly [she adopts a posh voice], ‘Oh, I’ve never seen anyone before whose pubic hair goes down to their knees!’” She laughs, heartily. “The girl from Stratford rang me yesterday, to tell me someone is dead.”
From Parkside, she won a scholarship to grammar school, where she was taught drama by another inspirational teacher, and from there she got a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, though only on its teaching course. Life, she felt, was now beginning, though this would also mean a parting of sorts from her parents: “When I became an actress, they got frightened of me. And I did look down my nose at them. I can’t tell you how horrible I was.” Her book describes her stints, after her graduation, at a little theatre company in Perranporth in Cornwall and under Peter Hall at the Oxford Playhouse (Hall sacked her after she was rude to him). These were the days of repertory, when actors rehearsed the next week’s play even as they performed the current week’s and lived in lodgings with hissing gas fires, a world she recreates beautifully on the page.
Atkins, left, as Virginia Woolf, with Penelope Wilton, in her own play Vita & Virginia at London’s Ambassadors theatre in 1993. Photograph: Alastair Muir/Shutterstock
But then, another saviour: Julian Glover, whom she met when they both performing at Butlin’s in Skegness. Glover, now famous as one of the stars of Game of Thrones, was from a middle-class, rather bohemian family and Atkins fell for all of them, as well as for him. She was just 22 when they married in 1957. “Oh, it was wonderful!” she says. “Going into their home for the first time – that was where I would have liked to have been brought up.” (They divorced in 1966, but he and his wife, Isla Blair, are among her closest friends.) Glover was to join the RSC in Stratford and somehow she, too, wangled her way into the company, working as an understudy and sometimes bagging the odd line.
In the years that followed, wiggling her way into ever bigger parts, she worked with every postwar name you can think of: actors such as Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave; directors such as George Devine and Tony Richardson. In Stratford, she once found Gene Kelly waiting outside John Gielgud’s dressing room. They fell into conversation and she told him she’d disappointed her mother by not becoming a tap dancer. “I bet you can still do it,” said Kelly and together they did three time steps. In the West End with Laurence Olivier, she pretended she lived near the great actor, the better to cadge a lift with him every night (she hoped to join his new National Theatre). This went on until his chauffeur rumbled her. Once, she and Glenda Jackson auditioned together for Peter Brook. “Are you ready?” asked the director. The two women nodded. “Then would you both take your clothes off.” Fatally, Atkins hesitated. By the time she’d asked him to repeat himself, her rival’s were on the floor. Jackson got the part.
Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer
How much competition is there between actors and how much solidarity? “There is a lot of solidarity, because it’s frightening to go out in front of real people, and you could make an absolute fool of yourself. But of course it’s competitive. We all want to shine. That’s why you need a strong director.” Many women complain of the lack of roles available to them once they reach middle age. Did she go through this? Her shoulders rise a little. “Oh, I’m afraid I’m about to say something quite cruel. Most of those actresses are too vain. They have been the beautiful young woman in something and suddenly they’re not the beautiful young woman, so they say there are no parts. But there are plenty of parts, if you’re willing to make yourself look lousy.” People tell her that such a drought didn’t affect her because she was writing for herself; having devised Upstairs, Downstairs for television with her friend Jean Marsh in the 1970s, Atkins went on to write Vita & Virginia, a play about Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (she starred as Woolf). But no, she says, she was offered lots of parts: “I mean, look at Ibsen!”
Nevertheless, acting can be cruel. Her first film, in 1968, was Inadmissible Evidence, adapted from John Osborne’s play and directed by Anthony Page. “On my first day, I stood there and the cameraman looked into his lens. He called Tony over, who then shouted, in front of the whole studio, ‘For God’s sake, take her away and shave her!’ I have down on my face, you see – and if I’d been a kind of little thing, I would have crumpled and cried.” Three years ago, she was in Iceland, making a film with Terrence Malick. “I told them to pluck any hairs, but the next thing I knew there was an electric razor all round there.” How awful. “Yes, brutal.”
But nothing really puts her off. Acting is her passion. Does she know what she’ll be doing next? “I’m afraid that I do,” she says, sounding the opposite of afraid. There will, she tells me, be another series of the long-running Doc Martin for ITV, and there will be film, too, in which Derek Jacobi will play George Bernard Shaw, and she will play his wife, Charlotte: “I didn’t think in a million years it would go. But it’s about Hollywood wanting the rights to [his play] Pygmalion [which became, of course, My Fair Lady], and now all these American stars are piling in.”
She feels lucky and fulfilled. She found what she wanted to do early on in life and it all worked out very well in the end. Her only regret, though you have to prod her to get her to admit to it, is that she never played Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Couldn’t she still have go, if she really wanted to? Ian McKellen has just played Hamlet, after all. But I know already what she’ll say. One of the things I’ve come to relish about her in the two hours we’ve spent together is her lack of vanity, her wonderful pragmatism and ever-droll grip on reality. “Well, Vanessa [Redgrave] played Beatrice too old,” she says, rather crisply. There follows a well-timed pause. “But I think I’m too subservient to the writer to do that.”
Will She Do? Act One of a Life on Stage is published by Virago (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com