Lorne Jackson talks to Oscar winner Brenda Blethyn about stardom and getting reviewed in The Birmingham Post.
I’m in the office, interviewing a celeb on the phone.
A high calibre celeb, at that.The ears of nearby journalists prick up as they hear me fire questions about Oscar nominations, Oscar ceremonies and working opposite stars like Michael Caine.
Once thing’s for certain – this is no former Big Brother contestant I’ve got on the other end of the blower.
“Who was that?” asks an eager Journo, as I finally place the phone back on the receiver. “Yeah, all that talk about Oscars” says nosey-hack number two. “We’re dying to know!”
“Oh, just Jack Nicholson,” I reply, calmly gazing at my nails. “Not really a work call, either. Jack just likes to catch up with old friends, from time to time.”
I’m kidding, of course – it wasn’t Old Nich. But it was a prominent figure; though less swaggering in nature.
However, Brenda Blethyn is a genuine star – make no bones about it.
She also happens to be one of the nation’s finest actresses, with a string of major roles to her credit, including two Oscar nominations; one for a supporting role in Little Voice, the other for lead actress in Mike Leigh’s Secret And Lies.
But like so many talented British actresses, she has never lost her love of the stage, which is why she will be treading the boards in Malvern next week, starring in the Edna O’Brien play, Haunted.
Not a bad CV to keep on file. But Blethyn seems much less impressed by herself than my excitable colleagues in Birmingham Post central.
This is due to an un-fussy, down to earth character forged by a humble upbringing.Brenda was born in Ramsgate, the youngest of nine children of working class-parents. Both mother and father had been in service, though her father would later work as a mechanic in Luton. (At one point he was also a shepherd.)
“We didn’t have a TV in the house when I was young,” she recalls. “We didn’t even have a wireless. And I never knew anything about the theatre. That wasn’t the kind of place a family like mine went.
“But my dad did take me once a week to the cinema. That, for me, was like an explosion of magic and light on a distant wall. wasn’t getting that sort of stimulus from anywhere else, so it really had a powerful effect on me.”
The cinema is definitely a place where a young girl can drift with dreams in the dark. So did little Brenda see visions of herself, one day, on that distant wall?
“Not at all!” she chuckles. “I never dreamed I would be up there. The people on the screen might have been from Mars, they were that far from my field of vision.
“It didn’t once cross my mind that I could become an actress. It happened by default, really.”
After leaving school, Blethyn got a job working for British Rail as a secretary. Acting was merely a hobby.
A gamble and her savings took her to the Guildford School of Acting, and by the mid-to-late seventies she was working in theatre and television.
One of her first big breaks was in Coventry, where she performed at the Belgrade Theatre.
“Oh, that was so exciting!” she burbles. “Working in the Belgrade was such a big breakthrough! I really thought I’d arrived.
“I first went there to do panto. Sleeping Beauty, it was. Then there was the Strindgberg play, Miss Julie. One of the best things about it was that I got reviewed in the Birmingham Post.
“I was made-up about that. I sent the review to my family, and everything. It was me telling them that I really was an actress. You know, ‘See, it’s in the paper, so it must be true.’
“When I was working in Coventry I also met Lynda La Plante. She’s a major TV writer now, of course. But at the time she was still an actress. A very funny, witty lady. I felt privileged to be working with talent like that.
“I couldn’t believe it, really.
“It was the same sort of shock when I went to the Oscars.
“My mouth was just open all the time. I couldn’t believe I was in the same room with all those people I used to watch on the screen with my dad.”
Now the actress is returning to the Midlands in style, as the star of a play by O’Brien, one of Ireland’s greatest living novelists.
Haunted is a play about love, lies, loneliness and longing. It’s the story of a sultry, young stall holder, Hazel (Beth Cooke), who attracts the attention of elderly dreamer, Mr Berry (Niall Buggy).
In his desperation to ensure he does not lose the young woman, he secretly gives away his wife’s clothes in exchange for elocution lessons.
Blethyn play Mrs Berry, who is searching for an explanation for her fast-diminishing wardrobe.
The play was written with Blethyn in mind, with O’Brien personally asking her to take the role of Mrs Berry.
“I didn’t know her work,” says Blethyn. “I must be one of the few people who hasn’t read her. But about five years ago, when I was in New York, I met her when she offered me a lift home. She asked me if I would consider doing something of hers. When I got the script I put off reading it for a while, as I had other stuff to deal with. But when I eventually got round to it, I was blown away by the beauty of the writing.
“And it comes out of the mouths of ordinary people; it’s not a literary piece. I gave the script to my partner to read, too, and he loved it. So it’s not just a girly thing.
“There really is such lovely language in this play. I think too many people are wrapped up in texting, and abbreviating the beauty out of language. That’s why I really fell in love with this play. It’s so eloquent. Just like Edna. It’s a treat just to hear her order a cup of tea.”
Blethyn is rather eloquent herself, with a genuine talent for writing, as she proved when she released a fascinating autobiography a few years back.
Though being so savagely self-deprecating, she makes light of the work.
“I never thought I could write a memoir,” she says. “Then a publisher asked me if I wanted to do one. I thought they were just being daft, then they offered to pay me, so I said, ‘Alright!’
“Two years later I got a call from them, and they said ‘How’s it going?’ I hadn’t done anything, so I offered them the money back. But they still wanted the book. So I sharpened my pencil and got on with it.
“I wrote it all myself, without a ghostwriter. I wouldn’t dream of letting someone else do it.
“I’ve certainly thought of writing another book – it would mean another fee!
“But really, I’m still a bit stunned that I’ve done so much. Sitting watching that cinema screen, when I was a little girl, I’d never have believed all this was in store for me.”
* Haunted runs at Malvern Theatre from Monday to Saturday, February 22-27. Tickets from £22.50 (under 26s £8) available on 01684 892 277 or at malvern-theatres.co.uk.