Zoë Wanamaker on partnering Poirot, being a rebel, stage fright and swearing

“I never read Agatha’s books until the part of Ariadne came along. They do go on a bit, but I love reading about her characters,” Wanamaker admits

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Zoë Wanamaker speaks slowly and softly, giggling frequently, tactile, often pausing to find the correct word, not wanting to be misunderstood. She orders a double espresso with extra hot water, and requests, “If I talk drivel, will you make me sound better? Promise.” She seems demure, but there’s a surprise to come.

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She stars in her sixth Poirot as Ariadne Oliver, a crime writer who occasionally helps the detective played by David Suchet. “She’s wonderful, the antithesis of Poirot, who is very anal. She is all over the place, with a fertile imagination, to say the least. Usually she feels something isn’t right, and seeks Poirot’s help. In Dead Man’s Folly she’s asked to organise a [fictional] murder hunt and has an uncomfortable intuition about the family who asked her to do it, so she sends Poirot a telegram requesting him to meet her.

“I never read Agatha’s books until the part of Ariadne came along. They do go on a bit, but I love reading about her characters, and the conversations between Ariadne and Poirot are often very funny. I love the way they are rude to each other. Of course the stories are old-fashioned, but they’re wonderful. They are complicated – Agatha wrote reams – and difficult to ensure the audience is up to speed with the characters.”

As with many Christie adaptations, there’s a lot of exposition, dark meaningful looks, and many false clues. “It’s a convention, so you might as well go with it. For the dénouement of this one David had to remember eight pages of very complicated stuff. I don’t know how he does it. But let’s not talk about him. This is about me.” She cackles. In fact they’ve been good friends since they met at the Royal Shakespeare Company in The Taming of the Shrew in 1978. “We’re both Taureans and they always get on well. He’s like a brother to me.” They were brilliant together in a 2010 West End production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

Ariadne is Agatha Christie’s alter ego. Her books have a Finnish vegetarian detective, mirroring Christie’s Belgian Hercule Poirot. Agatha, it is said, often wallowed in a large tin bath eating apples as she wrote and in Dead Man’s Folly there’s a symbolic scene: Ariadne is first seen sitting on a wall eating an apple. “I never met Agatha – I’m not that old, darling [she’s 64]. I wish I had but I can’t make it up.”

Her parents, Canadian actress Charlotte Holland and American actor and director Sam Wanamaker, brought the family to London when he was blacklisted during the McCarthy period. Zoë was three, the middle of three daughters.

“That was dreadful. You think you’re ruling the roost, and this other child comes along. My older and younger sisters fell in love with each other and I was ostracised. Fights broke out. Neither of them went into acting, thank God for them. My parents tried to dissuade me because they knew rejection was a given. Dad said, ‘You’re never first choice. Remember that’. I wish I’d been brought up to think I was first choice, but I’ve inherited a lot of my mother’s insecurities – she virtually gave up acting to raise us – which I’m very cross with her about.

“Everyone has insecurities but what matters is how you deal with them. Some come out fighting, and others hedge. I hedge. I believe it’s impolite to be ambitious, because my mother said it was aggressive and unattractive. I think I rebelled against her. I’m still ambitious, in a good, rather than mean, way, I hope. It’s a difficult word. It often means, ‘Be careful or they’ll smash your face in to get where they want’.”

She was taken out of a progressive day school in Hampstead, north London, at 15, when her parents discovered she had a boyfriend. “I was different and undisciplined so felt naughty and guilty. It’s probably being Jewish.” She was sent to a Quaker boarding school, and expelled on her last day. “I’d been out with the chaps, skiving in a graveyard, I think.”

After that she went to drama school followed by repertory theatre and 12 years at the RSC despite suffering stage fright. “It’s the fear of failure, and made me physically ill. Once during a play [Wild Oats] I thought I was in a dream and walked off stage in the middle of a scene, which was terrifying. They pushed me back on, and I hope never to have that feeling again.”

Sometimes, she says, she wants to stop acting. “I’ve just seen the most wonderful performance by Lesley Manville in Ghosts and I think to myself, ‘Give up. How do they do that? It’s wonderful’. I’m in awe. Envious? Oh, God, yes. And jealous. We can only keep learning, and watching.

“It’s difficult to get work as I age, but it is always thus. Even Shakespeare stopped writing about women while his men aged. The young look nicer, but older women are more interesting with more to offer and better stories to tell. It’s similar in politics: there aren’t many women because they find the fighting a bit galling and give up. It’s a man’s club and that must be difficult. I hope it will change because womens’ voices are very important and they are – sweeping generalisation – better at judging people as human beings.”

She increased her profile as Mme Hooch in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [“Such fun”] and has won a number of theatre awards as well as being voted “best sitcom actress” in 2005. She was surprised to be offered the part of Susan Harper in BBC1’s My Family in 2000. It ran for 11 series and at its height had ten million viewers. “I was thrilled. The first scripts were very good.

Some of the later ones weren’t, but that’s inevitable when they’re being bashed out on the hoof. It was popular because a husband and wife married for 25 years still wanted sex. That’s healthy, something to be optimistic about. Here’s hoping,” she laughs, ordering another espresso. “I’ll get over-excited.”

A downside to the success meant she could no longer travel on the Tube. “People would nudge and point. I didn’t go into acting for fame, and I have a love-hate relationship with it. I enjoy people being nice and it makes me feel good if they say I’ve moved them or made them laugh, but they can be inadvertently rude – ‘You look so much better off the telly than on’. I feel actors should be anonymous to some extent. If you’re not, your life becomes restricted.”

She had three relationships, the longest lasting 11 years. “I didn’t believe in marriage because I’d seen so many go wrong. I was part of the Sixties where we had the Pill and just because you slept with someone didn’t mean you had to marry them.” When she was 45 she married actor Gawn [“a lovely Irish name”] Grainger, two years after his first wife, actress Janet Key – with whom she was also friendly – died of cancer. She has two stepchildren.

“Society has changed so much in the last 30 years. People get dumped through texts. It’s tough. Relationships are to do with respect, and we need to get back to that. I’m concerned for the next generation – 16 to 24 year olds – it’s just been announced we’re 22nd out of 24 Western countries in literacy.” Surprisingly, her own favourite word is the last great taboo, as forbidden today as the f-word once was. “It makes me laugh. When I say it, others laugh, too. Perhaps they’re surprised to hear it coming from me. It’s different if it’s in anger, but if it’s said joyously it’s joyous. Isn’t it funny that swear words sound good coming from some people, but not others? It’s like a Christian trying to tell a Jewish joke. Only Jews can do that. Sorry to sound racist.”

Her father spent 27 years developing the Globe theatre on the south bank of the Thames, against all the odds. “I was as sceptical as anyone.

It was a huge fight and it’s done what Dad said it would.” He died of cancer aged 74 and she is incensed he was kept alive when she believes it would have been kinder if his suffering could have been relieved. “You come across people who find that abhorrent, and the medical profession is scared. Don’t start me! I support Dignity in Dying, which says you should be allowed to die in the way you want, and others shouldn’t be put in prison for helping you. It’s important to keep fighting for that right. We no longer have religion, which is why I get upset. If you don’t agree with voluntary euthanasia do you base your views on God? If so, which God? I may have my God, but I don’t have to have yours.” She drains her coffee. “We’ve gone all over the place,” she says. “Mazel tov.”

Agatha Christie’s Poirot Wednesday 8:00pm, ITV


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