ON BEING PORTRAYED – YET AGAIN – BY A FINE ACTRESS!
Mail on Sunday 2008
“I find it very easy being me. After so many years, and with some toughdirection, I’ve learnt the lines. I knowthe cues, when to enter dramatically and when to exit quickly stage right. I may sometimes wish I’d been given adifferent part but it’s too late now.
I have now been played by five actresses, three times on television, once on radio and once on the stage. It’s a spooky feeling, watching and hearingoneself as seen through the eyes of a director, producer, or actor. Outside the stratospheric realms of royalty not many people find themselves portrayed on stage, screen or radio –especially whilst they are still very much alive.
In August this year, Neil and I had just arrived in Edinburgh for the Festival, where our daily show, ‘Lunch with the Hamiltons,’ was due to open the following day. We knew we were being portrayed in a Radio Four play, ‘Life After Scandal’ and so, eschewing the delights of the Edinburgh Fringe, we huddled around the radio in our rented flat to listen in. I so wish we hadn’t. By the time the credits were rolling I had hit the bottle big-time and was inconsolable. I don’t normally burst into tears whilst listening to the radio and I didn’t on this occasion. Emotion and tears just welled up slowly as I became steadily more upset by the way I was presented. I don’t blame Helen McCrory, the actress who took my part. Her mastery of the art was recently evident when she brilliantly portrayed Cherie in the award-winning film‘The Queen’. Who can forget ‘Cherie’s’ hilariously awkward ‘bob’ as she backed out of Her Majesty’s presence? It’s an odd link to Cherie. I never thought I had anything in common with her apart from the fact we have husbands who were once MPs and are both middle aged women with a thigh problem.
But notoriety makes strange bedfellows. As well as being the ultimate Cherie, Helen McCrory’s television portrayal of Anna Karenina was peerless, so I had high hopes. I just wish she had had time to research my tone of voice and manner of delivery and conveyed the sense of fun and gentle bossiness which pervades much of what I say. Unfortunately, apart from Helen also playing two other parts (including Margaret Cook), apparently, the BBC does not budget for radio actors to spend time studying the person they are portraying. Perhaps this doesn’t matter when the characters are fictional ordead. I am neither. Despite the words in the script being basically mine, I felt the real me had been lost and badly misrepresented. Helen, under direction and presumably guided by the image she has from the media (certainly not by the real thing) had given me a ‘cut glass’, shrill delivery which was simply not accurate, as many friends rushed to the phone to attest.
Helen was the fourth actress to take me on and, last week, I notched up the fifth when ‘Life after Scandal’ took to the stage at the Hampstead Theatre, with Caroline Quentin playing me for a four week run before going on tour. The play’s author, Robin Soans, also an actor, had met us three times at his request for scrumptious afternoon teas at Fortnum & Mason. Robin and Helen McCrory had previously worked together on ‘The Queen,’ where he played the dignified Equerry who ushered the Blairs up the staircase for the first Prime Ministerial audience of Her Majesty. He was unforgettable as he advised Tony to remember, “It’s ma’am as in ham not ma’am as in farm.” Robin’s tactic was to ask gentle but probing questions of his subjects: Lord Montagu, Jonathan Aitken, Edwina Currie, Charlie Brocket, Margaret Cook, et al.
He spent many hours with each of us and possibly obtained more information from some than they had been willing to give at the outset. Edwina, for example, was adamant she would talk about salmonella but not, not, not about John Major. Her tirade about the ‘double prat’ who scorned her is one of the star cameos of the show in the hands of the highly versatile Geraldine Fitzgerald who also plays a sensitive and wounded Margaret Cook to perfection.
Neil and I have always been totally open and frank about the ups and downs of life so we had no problems chatting away to Robin. As we munched our smoked salmon sandwiches, he sought to allay any initial reluctance and scepticism we might have had about the project. The approach, he explained, was redemptive. It would not trawl through the salacious detail of our case or that of the other subjects ofthe drama . The aim was to examine how we had put our lives back together after being subjected to wholesale public vilification and demonisation. Over the months, Robin interwove the responses of all his interviewees and constructed an intricately crafted play based almost entirely on our own words.
With the radio version ringing in my ears, I arrived at the Hampstead Theatre last Tuesday with considerable trepidation. By the time the curtain rose I was suffering severe stage-fright, despite only sitting in the stalls. I admire Caroline Quentin and had been assured she has been cast because we are similar in character, both displaying the same lively sense of humour and idea of fun. Also, she knows from bitter experience what press intrusion can be like having lived through it at the time of her divorce from Paul Merton.
Interestingly, she was going through this when we first appeared on ‘Have I Got News For You’ in 1997 when we were on Paul’s team. Everyone is shown the ‘pictures to caption’, the ‘odd one out’ etc an hour or so in advance of recording so you can pool your knowledge and get your ideas worked out. We had just emerged from a bruising election defeat and knew nothing of anything else in the world, so we were relying totally on Paul for guidance on the ‘silly’ things from the press. Ian Hislop went off with Maureen Lipman but Paul spent the entire time on his mobile to his lawyers so we were left floundering in ignorance.
So Caroline and I have common experiences of intrusive cameras and shouted impertinent and hurtful questions. We had never met but I knew she had spent the last few weeks studying my speech and mannerisms. I also knew from experience, as she is the fifth actress to have taken my part, that the more accurate and lifelike her portrayal, the spookier it would feel.
Television first seized the moment after theTory meltdown at the 1997 General Election and rushed out ‘Mr White Goes to Westminster’ – a satire on the campaign of the so-called ‘Independent’ Martin Bell (more accurately described as a New Labour stooge) and his subsequent early days as Neil’s successor as MP. Having been widely caricatured and fixed in the nation’s psyche as a ferocious ‘battleaxe’ during the election, I could hardly be surprised when I was fictionally portrayed as such on television by the redoubtable Celia Imrie. Caricature exaggerates events and personalities but if it is stretched too far, it degenerates into farce. Vicious satire can expose a raw nerve, so I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud at the programme. Objectively, I should have been horrified at the way I was portrayed by Celia but I wasn’t because it was so obviously a spoof. In the fevered climate of the time, however, I am sure many viewers would have thought it was really me, if only subliminally. I was all the perceived horrors of a Mrs Tory MP rolled into one. Why, therefore did I find it so funny? I could see I was pretty easy to send-up, especially just then, and Celia did it brilliantly by her every gestures, her facial expressions and with the help of a ludicrous but funny plot. Neil was portrayed as weak and hopeless andI as a ferocious virago – both hugely wide of the mark but probably close to our media image at the time.
I long ago learnt the truth of the old adage, ‘Laugh and the world laughs with you……’ But I do occasionally get frustrated by my image as a tigress when, in reality, I am just a pussy cat – albeit with sharp claws. A few years later we were hilariously lampooned by impressionists, Alistair McGowan and Ronnie Ancona. Those two had clearly done their homework, probably by watching news footage and maybe the programme we made with Theroux ‘When Louis Met the Hamiltons’ which would have been a good and varied source. Their un-malicious but penetratingly accurate sketches left us helpless with laughter. Neil, alone in a hotel room looking hopelessly at both the kettle and the teabags, not knowing what either were for and having to ring me for advice; me pushing a supermarket trolley loaded to the gun whales with alcohol, refusing to let Neil put in a small packet of Sugar Puffs because there was no room. I make no secret of the fact that I like a drink or two. Rumours that I drink to excess are rubbish –I drink to everything.
Impersonations are one thing but I never thought I would see myself portrayed seriously on television. Sure enough, it happened at the beginning of the year 2000. Trying to resolve our ‘little local difficulty with an Egyptian Grocer’, we had been battling in court against Mohammed Fayed for 5 weeks before Christmas 1999. We never appreciated, as the words tumbled from our mouths in court, we were simultaneously writing a TV script. To condense five and a half weeks of courtroom cut-and-thrust into an hour and a half was not easy. Successful compression from a vast mountain of material requires the skills of a master playwright. Considering the actors had then never met us and were not present as the drama unfolded, the characterisation was excellent. Charles Dance imparted an air of smugness to Neil which he does not possess but, that apart, he was a convincing choice and he was very flattered as Charles is such a heart-throb. Despite being dark and elfin, neither of which adjective could possibly be applied to me, Belinda Lang was visually excellent although her accent was also a little too refined. I don’t talk like the Queen. It was eerie to hear Belinda speaking my actual words and, perhaps more so, to watch her face expressing the very real anxiety, frustration, anger and disbelief which I had experienced on the inside just a few weeks earlier.
Fast forward to Hampstead last week. Caroline Quentin and I would never be selected for the same identity parade and she eschewed any obvious props like a blonde wig. But, dressed in my trademark bright red, she was uncanny, accurately capturing what was variously described by critics as my ‘wonderful bossiness’, my ‘pushy absurdity’, and my‘courageous loyalty’ as a ‘formidable old battleaxe’. It’s difficult to isolate quite why I thought she had caught me so accurately (there was, after all, a touch of exaggeration from time to time) but it was a sympathetic performance and she had picked upon small details (eg she frequently smoothed her hair behind her ears) which hit home, although perhaps only to me. With excellent body language between her and the admirable Michael Mears as Neil (enviably rather taller and slimmer than the real thing) they made a convincing pair of Hamiltons. They, too, had done their homework and I know they had watched the Louis Theroux programme – Michael told me so after the performance.
There can’t be much wrong, even for this most critical of critics, when my only real objection was to the fact that Michael was wearing a fake bow tie, which Neil has never done in his life. It would be an athema to him. I gripped the edge of my seat and audibly grimaced when he unclipped it at one point. Afterwards, I gave both him and the director a good finger-wagging so I trust the tie has now been changed for a real one. There’s no point having a battleaxe reputation if you don’t use it. I am the sort of person who always has to have something to worry about but, on this occasion, my trepidation was unnecessary. However, with the greatest respect to five fine actresses, Celia, Ronnie, Belinda, Helen and now Caroline,when the Hollywood blockbuster comes along can I please be allowed to play me? Distance may lend objectivity, but no-one knows one better than oneself.”