British TV’s first rock chick Charlotte Cornwell is back at the RSC after 32 years. The half-sister of spy novelist John Le Carre and star of cult 1970s TV series Rock Follies talks to Catherine Vonledebur about swapping sunny LA for Stratford-upon-Avon.

Actress Charlotte Cornwell has to keep pinching herself.

The RSC leading lady, who is half-sister to spy-writer John Le Carre, moved to California 12 years ago.

As well as helping to set up a new graduate acting programme at one of America’s top-ranked drama colleges in Los Angeles, Charlotte has appeared in several US TV dramas, including The West Wing, The Mentalist, The Practice and Family Affair.

On her return to Britain last year, she was excited to be offered not one, but two parts at the RSC after an absence of 32 years – Gertrude in David Farr’s Hamlet which is running until September and The Countess in Nancy Meckler’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which begins this week.

“I came back from the US last year when my daughter Nancy was getting married. My agent said she was going to be retiring so I asked my daughter’s father’s agent, Jeremy Conway, ‘Could you help me get the first job?’. Theatre is his great thing,” she explains.

“I couldn’t believe it when I was offered these parts at the RSC. I still have to pinch myself.”

Charlotte is enjoying being on stage at the new RSC Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“When I was at drama school everyone wanted to perform at the RSC,” she says.

“I played Rosalind in Trevor Nunn’s As You Like It in 1978. The RSC is a wonderful space to work and we have a lot of wonderful young actors in our company, but it feels much more casual and relaxed now.

“I am not saying that’s a good thing. I am an old dinosaur. I think Greg Doran is the man to bring a little bit of that old magic back.”

The 64-year-old, whose contemporaries include Helen Mirren and Robert Stephens, was a leading lady at the Royal Shakespeare Company for three years at the height of her early acting career. She last appeared in the RSC’s London run at The Warehouse in 1980 in Much Ado About Nothing, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Bastard Angel.

But one of the roles Charlotte is best remembered for is Anna Ward in Howard Schuman’s award-winning 1970’s classic TV series Rock Follies with Rula Lenska and Julie Covington about the fortunes of a three-girl rock group.

“It’s so long ago, it’s a bit embarrassing now,” she says. “But it was so ground breaking at the time – they used visual effects which had never been used before. It paved the way for music videos. It’s still very watchable I don’t know why it is not shown as a re-run.”

The actress, drama teacher and campaigner, has a daughter, Nancy Cranham, from a former relationship with actor Kenneth Cranham. She says: “My daughter and I are very close. We are great friends.

Charlotte Cornwell in Rock Follies with Julie Covington and Rula Lenska.
Charlotte Cornwell in Rock Follies with Julie Covington and Rula Lenska.
 

She studied history at Kings in London and then did a Masters. After working for the BBC for six months on a drama documentary she went on to work in education administration. I am very proud of her.

“She came to the first night of Hamlet and said: ‘Mum, I haven’t seen you on stage for 12 years’.”

Charlotte, who was an acting coach at the University of Southern California’s School of Theatre from 2003 until last year, is passionate about education.

“Teaching was hard to learn but now after nine years I feel confident to call myself an acting teacher,” she explains. “It was a wonderful 12 years in LA. “We had a lot of students from very poor backgrounds. Seeing how it opened doors for them was amazing.

“Teaching has made me much more aware of the my own process as an actor.

“Gertrude is an interesting role . When I met David (Farr) I said: ‘I have no answers to Gertrude only questions’.

“I have seen her played as an alcoholic, an nymphomaniac and a femme fatale. I didn’t want to rely on one of those crutches, but to find her story.

“What I have tried to do is to make her journey as absolutely clear as I can. She doesn’t say very much in the play, and there isn’t a chance for her to explain herself. Her one saving grace is that she loves her son more than anything else.

“But I have very clear reasons why she does what she does. Widows were often sent away and pensioned off on some dowry, but Gertrude shrewdly marries her husband’s brother in her son’s interest to maintain his inheritance.

“She also finds Claudius very sexy. When you rediscover sex in your sixties it can be very heady.”

In the past, Charlotte has been an ardent campaigner for Artists Against Apartheid, the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, British Actors Equity and Greyhounds UK – the pressure group she set up with actress Annette Crosby to stamp out the abuse of greyhounds in the racing industry.

Although she says she has grown more mellow as she has got older, Charlotte still has that fighting spirit.

Since moving back to London last summer, the actress was shocked to discover university tuition fees had increased three-fold to £9,000. Not only has Charlotte joined other actors, including Judi Dench and Julie Walters, in speaking out about the difficulties facing potential drama students, she is going one step further.

In 2015, Charlotte is hoping to launch the Fearless Choices’ Young Actors Project, a free 15-month acting project for 18-to-25 year-olds from low and no-income families. She says: “I am enraged about education in this country and about the effect of debt on young people. The psychological effect of being in debt is horrible.”

When she is not acting, Charlotte finds it difficult to switch off and has no plans to retire. “I am not an ‘unwinder’. When I am not working I am setting up ‘Fearless’,” she says. “I cannot imagine retiring. I will hopefully drop dead on stage.”

* Hamlet runs until September 28; All’s Well That Ends Well opens tomorrow until September 26. Box office: 0844 800 1110, www.rsc.org.uk .