Amanda Redman on quitting New Tricks to play Tommy Cooper's wife

"It's about his double life - the stress, boozing and the hard work - all of which ultimately killed him"

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Amanda Redman on quitting New Tricks to play Tommy Cooper's wife
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Stephen Armstrong

Amanda Redman seems unstoppable. This, after all, is a woman who was pronounced clinically dead aged just 15 months, but lived to tell the tale, who survived a showbiz marriage, ectopic pregnancy and appearing in Paul McCartney’s woeful film Give My Regards to Broad Street. This is an actor who happily walked away from a primetime ratings hit New Tricks in search of a fresh challenge. So when she fires up an e-cigarette and enthuses that you can have any flavour you like – “chocolate, hazelnut, elderflower...” – it should come as little surprise that the flavour she opts for is American red tobacco. “There’s no point smoking sweets,” she gives a dismissive shrug.

This isn’t the way actors are supposed to behave. If you’re interviewing some 22-year-old who’s been in Game of Thrones for ten minutes they’ve probably got three publicists in the room and only sip room temperature spring water. Redman remembers what that’s like (she’s played many a glamourpuss), but also remembers the moment it stopped.

“I took a Jenny Eclair book called Camberwell Beauty to ITV with this amazing multilayered character – sort of Nurse Jackie or Carmela Soprano,” she recalls with a crooked half-grin. “They said: ‘We can’t do this, your character is too unsympathetic, your audience won’t like that.’ God, I was so angry. We used to lead the world with our brave TV, now it’s hard to find something you’re proud to appear in.”

She’s proud of her new role (her first since New Tricks) playing Gwen “Dove” Cooper, Tommy Cooper’s wife in ITV’s biopic of the beloved funny- man. Not Like That, Like This stars David Threlfall as the magician/comedian, whose fez and catchphrase, “Just like that!”, were essential tools for any 70s impressionist. Written by Simon Nye, it’s not quite a hatchet job, but it presents a darker side to the clown, focusing on his long-term affair with his assistant Mary Kay (Helen McCrory), as well as his drinking and occasional bouts of domestic violence.

“They have been very respectful to the legend that is Tommy Cooper,” Redman insists. “Which is correct because you don’t want to alienate people who idolise him. But it’s about his double-life – the stress, the boozing and the hard work – all which, of course, took its toll and ultimately killed him.”

While Cooper’s drinking was well known (he once put gin on his cornflakes, arguing it was healthier than milk) and his adultery widely known in showbiz circles, the domestic violence is nevertheless shocking, especially on screen.

“It’s very hard for us to look at it in 2014, but women of that generation did put up with stuff that women today wouldn’t necessarily put up with,” Redman says. “Oddly, we’ve veered away from showing domestic violence on TV these days. It’s still incredibly prevalent so we should be portraying that. But I think that Gwen would absolutely go: ‘Well, I hit him back.’ She would think there’s nothing wrong with that. When Tommy hits Mary, that is more shocking and graphic on screen because she was so gentle. You try not to judge. He was an incredibly flawed human being who needed the idolism, but couldn’t cope with it.”

Do all performers have that same need? She stirs uneasily: “I believe that for actors it’s useful to have had pain in your life,” she nods. “I think it you’ve led a charmed life, you might technically be fine, but there’d be something missing.” For Redman, of course, pain was almost the first thing she knew.

When she was just 15 months old, she was accidentally scalded in the kitchen by a pan of boiling soup and suffered third degree burns covering 75 per cent of her body. She was so severely traumatised that, at one point, she was pronounced clinically dead. These days, the only evidence is a little scarring on her left arm.

When it came to playing Gwen Cooper, however, she was drawing on a different kind of pain – one that comes with anger.

“The betrayal that Gwen feels when she finds out about Mary, who was pert and trendy, while Gwen was a stocky, frumpy, blowsy woman. I’m sure she felt ugly and old. As a woman, when you get to a certain age you understand that. Any woman of my age would say that they feel invisible as women. You’re ignored because you’re not old and kooky, and you’re not young and sexy. You fall right in the middle of two stools. And that’s how the powers that be in casting tend to think as well, unfortunately.”

Redman can’t feel completely ignored – her husband Damian is usually described as her “long-term toyboy” (although he’s now 41) and Gwen’s the first role in her career one might describe as dowdy. She does play a game sometimes: watching TV and trying to spot parts she could have played. Not because she wanted the role, but because they were her age – she’s 56 but she’ll take mid-50s. “There’s consistently nothing,” she shrugs. “Emma Thompson is probably the only person I can think of who’s my age and working and she’s had to write stuff for herself.”

Which is what Amanda’s started to do. Her first project proved a little too alarming for TV bosses – an autobiographical series about a woman approaching her menopause and her children leaving home. “They wouldn’t touch it because they thought it was not something that men would want to watch, which is a shame because a lot of it’s very funny,” she chuckles.

Scenes from her own life included a recent dinner party where she found herself going into the kitchen, opening the freezer and sticking her head in to cool down her hot flush before returning to offer her guests more drinks. But there was also the pain she felt when her daughter Emily (from her first marriage to actor Robert Glenister) left home to go to drama school and she gave up her dream of having another child.

Her first marriage informed her performance as Gwen, who was a showgirl when Tommy met her during the Second World War. “A showbiz marriage works for some people, but in my experience it’s not a terrific thing,” she gives a wry smile. “It’s easier because you understand more, of course, but it’s too pressured, especially if one person’s getting work and the other isn’t. The first desperate question any actor will say if they bump into you in the bar is: ‘Are you working?’ So when the phone rings and it’s your agent and not his agent, it’s not a good thing.”

The pronoun is significant. Redman is almost never out of work. After the menopause project failed she hooked up with Roy Mitchell, the creator of New Tricks, to produce and star in a drama. “Apparently, I’m not legally allowed to say anything about it,” she laughs. “I’m sorry, I’d have to kill you. But it’s wonderful being there when all these suits are sitting around talking finance and they ask your opinion on who should direct. I’m thinking I should write the theme tune. And sing the theme tune...”

The Dennis Waterman gag seems to come out of nowhere, but in fact she still hangs out with the New Tricks gang. “We had a drink last Thursday – apart from Dennis who was in Bermuda – and still adore each other,” she smiles affectionately. “I’m very grateful for Tricks and my old boys. They were lovely to me. My agent reckons I’d be working even without New Tricks, but who knows? I haven’t got a clue.”

Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This, Easter Monday at 9:00pm, ITV


 


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