Name of the game; INTERVIEW: JEMMA REDGRAVE
BYLINE: James Rampton
Actress Jemma Redgrave runs a mile when she hears the word “dynasty”. It’s not that she has a loathing of glitzy American soaps; it’s just that when your grandfather is Michael Redgrave, your father Corin Redgrave, your aunts Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, and your cousins Natasha and Joely Richardson, the word tends to attach itself to you like a barnacle to the bottom of an old boat.
So it is with no little feeling that Jemma Redgrave expresses her delight that she is finally being viewed as an actress in her own right, irrespective of her famous name.
All the same, she claims her name was never a passport to work. “Nobody ever seriously thinks you get a job because of your name, because if you can’t do it, you don’t work. They might trot you round the paddock, but they’re not going to put you in for the race if you’re not up to it.
“At drama school, I felt I was getting away with it, I felt outside things. I would have good attempts but I could always hear my own voice. Now I feel connected. I don’t care what other people think, because I feel I’ve established myself.”
And she’s right. Her performances in the title role of Bramwell on ITV, as Sir Oswald’s wife in Channel 4’s Mosley, and as the lover in The Buddha of Suburbia on BBC2 have placed her at the forefront of TV performers.
In all Redgrave’s roles, viewers are drawn to her warmth and humanity. One critic observed that what marked her out was “her sense of heart”. Think of the poignant look of hurt that crossed her face when her husband (Jonathan Cake) in Mosley had the gall to blame her for his serial philandering. “People say you are so lovable, and I am so interesting,” he sneered. “I will try to be more lovable, if you’ll try to be more interesting.”
Bramwell, showing in two World Cup-busting feature-length episodes this week, was the show that really made her. Created by the acclaimed writer Lucy Gannon, the character – a doctor battling against prejudice and scant resources in the East End of Victorian London is both feisty and fiery.
A tall, elegant figure in a blue dress and pale cardigan, Redgrave reckons that “the good thing about Eleanor is that she’s not ingratiating. People say to me, ‘God, I want to slap her sometimes.’ And so do I. I think, ‘calm down, and just count to 10’. She frequently puts her foot in it, and she’s not afraid to be bad-tempered. But a lot of people identify with her strength and her determination, and her will to forge a career for herself in a male-dominated profession. That strikes a chord even now. She’s headstrong, bloody-minded, passionate and difficult, but naive and vulnerable at the same time. It’s a good rich mixture.”
Viewers have also been attracted, Redgrave admits, by the often gory hospital scenes. “People are fascinated by Victorian medicine because it’s so gruesome. A hundred years ago, they were removing a woman’s ovaries for what is now called post-natal depression.”
This is all of a piece with the gritty feel which distinguishes Bramwell from the chocolate-box look of much costume drama. “It’s less well-pressed than a lot of other period drama. It looks cold in the same way that Persuasion did – people are crumpled and muddy. There is a sense in Bramwell of a time when there was no central heating. It was freezing in that hospital. Poverty was filthy and not glamorous in any way.”
For all Redgrave’s success over three series in Bramwell, it was Mosley that grabbed the most headlines. Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran’s drama copped a great deal of flak for supposedly glamorising the British fascist leader. “It was obvious the series was going to be a talking-point, but I had no idea it was going to be so controversial. People asked whether it should have been made. The answer is yes.
“Mosley was a despicable monster, but he was part of our particular history. It was because Mosley was charismatic, fantastically articulate and a brilliant speaker that he was so dangerous. You can’t help thinking, ‘what a waste that a man with such promise and talent should have thrown it away and espoused such an evil cause’.”
“It’s now a very febrile time in Europe,” Redgrave says. “There are fascist movements in Russia and the Balkans. We must look at people like Mosley and understand them, so we don’t repeat our mistakes.”
Despite her telly hits, for a long time Redgrave had the makings of a severe case of stage-fright. “I hadn’t been anywhere near the theatre for five years. I went to a first night a year ago, and I got a panic attack. I thought, ‘how can they possibly do it when they know Michael Coveney the Daily Mail theatre critic and Nicholas de Jongh from the Evening Standard are sitting out there sharpening their pencils?'”
All that changed when Peter Hall persuaded her to take the lead in his production of Major Barbara at the Piccadilly Theatre in London. “She’s such a surprising character,” Redgrave enthuses. “You have certain expectations and preconceptions about a Salvation Army major of the early Edwardian period. She subverts them with her humour and humanity.”
Earnest, passionate, engaged, Redgrave displays a commitment to her work that she says she learnt from her father. “He has huge integrity and believes that one should be serious about what one does. I’ll end up in “Luvvies” for this, but there is value and weight in what we do.
“Gombrich says that you respond to painting because there’s something familiar in it that you understand even if it’s abstract. It illuminates and you connect with it. So whether it’s painting, opera or theatre, it’s important that you don’t short-change people. If you don’t take something seriously, what’s the point in doing it?”
‘Bramwell’ is on Mon and Thur at 8pm on ITV.
LOAD-DATE: June 15, 1998