“There’ll be no nonsense today,” says Anne Reid in a brusque but pleasant manner. “I hope you won’t bang on about my age. Can’t you pretend I'm 32? I realise it’s a novelty but I get bored.” Steady on. Over the next few weeks the 77-year-old stars in the six-part BBC1 comedy drama Last Tango in Halifax, opens her one-woman cabaret act, and will have just finished a two-month run playing Juliana Tesman in Hedda Gabler at London’s Old Vic: “It was what you call a cameo role, which is nice. Theatre is nerve-racking, but you have to put yourself through it, like training for an athlete. It sorts out the men from the boys.”
Sitting demurely in a hotel near her flat in London’s West End, she sips fresh orange juice. “Cheers,” she says. “The trick is not to take yourself too seriously, darling. Acting is enormous fun. I work extremely hard, but I’m not going to sit here and be solemn. It’s a weird way to earn a living. None of us are grown-up, so when you see actors trying to be serious in ridiculous costumes you wonder, ‘What are we doing?’”
An orthodontically perfect smile and eyes that betray mischief make her look decades younger than she is. Friends call her ‘Dame Annie’, for the MBE she received in 2010. “It’s a gag. I thought an MBE was unlikely but it happened. I’d rather have an Oscar and a million pounds than be a dame. I’d love to have done Hollywood films but they like young people and have enough old girls.” Moreover, she’s not really the right shape – short and a bit round.
As a warning, in which I hope she is half joking, she chides, “I don’t trust journalists as far as I can throw them. My family were all in newspapers.” Her father was the Middle East correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, her brother features editor of the Sunday Mirror: “I’d hear stories about actors and tell my brother ‘You won’t believe this, but you mustn’t put it in the paper,’ and he’d say, ‘Would I?’ as he made notes. Newspapers are much more intrusive today though. People discuss their intimate sex lives in detail. I wouldn’t. Well, I have nothing to talk about. My granny thought I was a bit wild, wearing short skirts, and even though I’m broadminded I suppose things are a bit free and easy now. Porn on the internet is awful, but I really hate the violence children are exposed to. They say it has no effect, so why do we have advertising? A bit of a cliché that, I know. But it will change. Everything always does.”
In Last Tango in Halifax (left) she plays Celia, a widow in her 70s who meets her teenage love, Alan, played by Derek Jacobi, after their grandsons put them both on Facebook. “I love its pace. It has a lot of good stories in it. I hate plays that take a long time, and there’s a lot of that on television. Atmosphere has replaced plot. It’s all so moody you don’t know what’s happening.
“I hope Last Tango gives hope to older people, although attitudes have changed so much. They used to think you were old when you reached 50. Now everyone is looking forward to being like Joan Collins and Jane Fonda. Soon there won’t be many grey-haired grannies.
“Actresses of my age constantly complain they’re put out to grass, but I don’t know. We can be sexy in later life. Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren are fighting back. Everyone is trying to keep themselves young and in shape. All right, I’m not in great shape, but I’m pretty healthy and born under a lucky star. The main thing is to have a positive attitude.
“Older audiences are neglected, though. They shouldn’t be making TV shows for young kids who are out having a good time. All these boys’ films, science fiction, bore me rigid. But the chick lit things I like would bore them, romance with happy endings and old musicals. I love comfort television beautifully done – Poirot, Foyle’s War, Miss Marple.
“Writing is the most important thing for me. I always ask who wrote a new script. Actors phone and say they have a wonderful part but don’t know who it’s by. When my husband was head of drama at Granada in the 1970s he always said writing was decisive. Then they started making vehicles for actors who became famous in soaps, which wasn’t wise because they come and go. It’s a tough old world.”
She herself was a star of Coronation Street, playing Valerie Tatlock, first wife of Ken Barlow. Their wedding entranced 15.8 million viewers, but she left in 1971, her departure a dramatic electrocution by hairdryer watched by more than 18 million people. She then took 12 years off. “Some people thought I regretted being in Coronation Street. I didn’t, but it became tedious when the show was all anyone wanted to talk about because it was so famous. I haven’t seen it for years. I don’t watch soaps. Besides, I wanted to look after my son, Mark. He went to boarding school but I was there every Wednesday and Saturday to watch him in football matches – he used to long for me not to come. I didn’t worry about getting work later. I always think it’s going to be all right.
“I don’t want to be immodest, but I’m pretty versatile – I can do comedy as well as drama. A teacher at Rada told me I’d have difficulties because I don’t fit into a particular slot. For a long time I was the nice lady in dinnerladies who made sandwiches.” She puts her hand to her mouth in a pretend yawn. “But that’s changed now." In 2007 she played Jack’s mother in Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy Into the Woods. “Wow, yes. I loved it when the orchestra came in. Heaven! How will they keep me down on the farm now that I’ve seen Paree!?”
This month, on 17 and 18 November, she’s putting on a solo show at St James Theatre Studio in London. “Friends think I’m insane doing a cabaret show of stories and songs about my life, but I’ve talked about it for 30 years. I'll be nervous – for the first five minutes – but I can’t be hanged for it. If it’s terrible I won't do it again. As you get older the phone stops ringing, which is inevitable because people stop asking for you. I want something I can do on my own, wear what I like, and control.” So she’s a control freak? “A difficult question, but I don't want to control anyone else’s life. Singing makes me feel good even though I don’t have a great voice. I like parties when someone sits at a piano and you join in the songs – you don’t get drunk then.
She takes after her mother, she says. “She was quite giddy, a party girl who liked to dress up, although not in a crazy way. All my family were good fun, and to be born into that was the luckiest thing that happened to me. I love to socialise, but also to be on my own. I don’t think I’ve ever been lonely, darling. I sit and think – there’s always something going on in my head – or play my piano."
In 1981, her husband Peter Eckersley died. “I never considered remarrying. My husband was wonderful. I wouldn’t go off like Celia, in Last Tango. I’m independent, quite selfish and have no need to live with someone for the sake of it. I have my son and two beautiful young grandsons.”
Inspired at school by an elocution teacher who weaned her off wanting to be a ballet dancer (“it would never happen with my shape”) and ‘cured’ the North-Eastern accent she’d acquired from her birth town of Newcastle upon Tyne, she went to Rada. “Posh people had gone out of fashion at the time, with kitchen-sink dramas and actors like Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney. Now the Etonians are back with a vengeance. So long as they can act, darling, I don’t mind. Some can’t, but that’s a matter of opinion and I’m not going to criticise anyone.”
Her first television work was in the Benny Hill Show. “It has a bad name now, but it was popular worldwide and done in all innocence by my generation. Today everyone is politically correct and takes things far too seriously. Certain behaviour is no longer acceptable, but I suppose you have to go through that to get everyone treated fairly. Of course it will never happen in my lifetime.”
In a hugely varied career including dinnerladies, Doctor Who, Midsomer Murders, Shameless, Bleak House and Ladies of Letters, playing Barbara Cartland, there have been few upsets. She was the cook, Mrs Thackeray, in the 2010 version of Upstairs Downstairs, which suffered by comparison with Downton Abbey. She thinks it was good enough to warrant another series and becomes modestly indiscreet: “Please don’t have me saying bad things about Downton. One of my dearest friends plays the cook.”
Her life was changed by the 2003 film The Mother (above), where she showed her flatteringly pert breasts and gave broad hints of oral sex in joyful abandonment with her daughter’s boyfriend, played by Daniel Craig. “He went on to do all right,” she laughs.
“I had doubts at first. I thought it would put people off their tea, and the night before the sex scenes I drank too much champagne, but I’m glad I did it because it was daring and I like challenges. I wish I’d been more adventurous, sexually wilder, in the film.”
It’s a remark that will boggle the mind if you’ve seen the film. “I was worried I’d look a fool, but, oh blimey, no, I don’t regret it. I got noticed and had wonderful trips to film festivals. It brought me other parts, but I was never offered anything sexy. It happened to me a bit too late.
“You have to keep going, keep trying something new. Yep, I enjoy life. My instinct would be to sit and watch TV, but I keep pushing myself. You either grow or you sink. I take the next job and hope people keep asking. Long may it continue.”
Last Tango in Halifax begins tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1