The Daily Telegraph
Wednesday 10 October 2007
Actress Jemma Redgrave speaks for the first time about her father Corin’s heart attack and tells Maureen Paton about how acting together at last is a dream come true
BYLINE: Maureen Paton
LENGTH: 1249 words
In poignant circumstances that she could scarcely have foreseen, Jemma Redgrave has finally achieved her lifetime’s ambition to act alongside her father Corin. The Redgraves share three scenes in a new television drama based on eyewitness accounts of the British-led liberation of the Nazi death-camp Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. Jemma plays the female lead as the Red Cross nurse Jean McFarlane. Corin is cast in the key role of Brigadier Glyn Hughes, who led the medical team that fought to save the 40,000 inmates of the camp. But what makes this performance remarkable is that the scenes were shot just over a year after Corin, now 68, had a heart attack that nearly killed him.
Jemma, 42, found her eyes filling with unscripted tears on set for the first time in her career. “Luckily the cameras weren’t on me,” recalls the actress, who once said that her beloved father had always seemed “indestructible”.
In the 1970s and 1980s acting took a back seat while Corin Redgrave slogged his guts out as a fund-raiser for the Marxist party. He returned to acting in 1993 in In the Name of the Father, then, in 2000, took prostate cancer in his stride and went on to deliver an acclaimed King Lear for the RSC in 2004, followed by a one-man tour de force playing the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. Then, despite taking on the role of Pericles at night, he returned to campaigning, championing the cause of gypsies, by day.
“Did I ever say to Dad: ‘Slow down’? There was no point, because he would always reply: ‘Yes, yes, I will, I will, I will’ – just like Mrs Doyle from Father Ted,” says Jemma as we talk in a private members’ club in Soho. “And of course he never would. Kika [Markham, Corin’s second wife] says exactly the same thing. Politics is part of him; he will always want to be active in humanitarian causes, the things that really occupy…” – she pauses to correct her tenses – “…had occupied his time.”
In June 2005, Corin’s heart stopped during a speech he was making to councillors in Basildon, in which he pledged to form a human shield to stop 600 travellers from being evicted from a local campsite. He suddenly faltered and sank to the floor, losing consciousness. After his heart was started again with defibrillators, he was rushed to Basildon Hospital. “I don’t know if it was true, as reported, that two policemen brought him back to life at the meeting. I was in such a bad state myself when I heard the news that I didn’t ask,” admits Jemma.
She had been filming in Ireland and the first she knew of her father’s collapse was when a friend rang to tell her that it had been shown on the news. “Somebody had a camera at the meeting, so my father’s collapse was televised,” says Jemma, her tone of voice deploring such an invasion of privacy. “He was on life support for three days and then in various other hospitals after that.”
The Redgraves – the acting dynasty includes Corin’s sisters Vanessa and Lynn, and Vanessa’s daughters Natasha and Joely Richardson – closed ranks around Corin, and none has spoken publicly about his condition until now.
“His recovery is astonishing,” Jemma says. “All the family were there in the intensive care unit, like Orpheus waiting for Eurydice to come back from the underworld. We were all praying for him to step back into the world, and he did. It was a wonderful moment when he opened his eyes. Did he recognise us immediately? He sure did,” she says, grinning at the memory.
Yet when I ask about any lasting effects of his cardiac arrest, she hesitates and then confides: “He’s still, you know, there’s a frailty there; and there have been consequences. The recuperation took a long time, probably about a year, and he’s still in the process of recovery. But he’s doing brilliantly, and his genius as an actor is undiminished.”
She declines to go into details of those “consequences”, a defensive glint in her eyes.
“In the four, five months after the heart attack, when Dad was in various hospitals, I really felt that I wanted to be there a lot,” says Jemma, who lives in London’s Tufnell Park with her husband, the human rights QC Tim Owen. “In fact, we all needed to be around him. He had never had any heart problem before, or not that we knew about, but he did have arrhythmia [an irregular heartbeat], which is a slight problem but not a heart disease in itself. Lots of people have arrhythmia – Tony Blair has it.”
As for speculation about possible memory loss following any brain damage from cardiac arrest, she says simply: “I think my father’s work in the Belsen drama speaks for itself. He was word-perfect, absolutely spot on, and he didn’t need any looking after during the filming; he’s from that stoical war-child generation.”
Seemingly unburdened by either dynastic or political baggage, Jemma has pursued a successful, rather sexy career in television drama while raising a family – she’s the mother of Gabriel, 13, and seven-year-old Alfie. Yet despite her approachable manner – there’s nothing remotely grand about this girlish-looking, 42-year-old yummy mummy who, when asked how long she has been a blonde, gives one of her shouts of laughter and says frankly, “not long enough” – she can be as clannish as the next Redgrave when it comes to protecting her own.
For the second time in her life, the traditional parent-child roles have been reversed. Jemma is now looking out for her father, just as she and her younger brother, Luke, nursed their late mother Deirdre, who died of breast cancer in 1997.
The Relief of Belsen shows Redgrave on screen for the first time since his cardiac arrest. The drama was filmed in Dorset and the scenes shared with Jemma were filmed over an intensive three days.
During the shoot he was accompanied by Arden, his 24-year-old son from his marriage to Kika, who is also an actress. “Kika was working at the time, so Arden came to the filming,” explains Jemma, telling me that her adored half-brother even landed work as an extra in the crowd scenes.
In fact, says Jemma, Corin was offered a role in The Relief of Belsen before she was. “And then the director asked me if I’d be part of it, too. Well, you wouldn’t say no, would you? It’s such a privilege to work with Dad.”
He’s a wonderful grandfather, too, she adds – something that might surprise those who associate his ascetic political image with solemnity. “Solemn is one word I would never use to describe my father,” she insists. “He isn’t solemn: he’s wicked, provocative, funny, brilliant, intellectual, committed, passionate – but not solemn.”
There’s clearly some campaigning life left in Corin yet, because he is making his stage comeback for one evening only. He is reprising his role in Tynan on October 22 at the off-Broadway Public Theater as a fund-raiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids and the Actors’ Fund. A post-performance reception will be hosted by his sisters Vanessa and Lynn. Jemma, needless to say, will be flying over to join them.
As stoical as her father, she plays down the question of whether he will ever be able to return to the stage full-time. “I don’t know if he will go back to the theatre; we’ll see. But I hope so, I really hope so. Who knows what the future holds, but it would be lovely to work with Dad again. Any time, frankly. And to have worked with him for the first time on a drama like this is a wish fulfilled.
“It would,” she adds superstitiously, “be greedy to wish for more.”
* ‘The Relief of Belsen’ will be screened by Channel 4 on Monday October 15 at 9 pm