It’s the tea-time rush hour in west London and Anna Chancellor can’t find a parking place for “my crappy old Audi”, so she dashes into the restaurant and asks me to order sausages while she resumes her search. Alas, they only have hot dogs and I don’t reckon the stylish Ms Chancellor is a hot dog person. “You’re right,” she says when she returns. “I couldn’t take the sausage out of a hot dog because it would be floppy.” She smiles. “I want a normal one. I’m married to a Muslim and he doesn’t like pork. Is the overall impression that I’m a mad woman?” I resist replying, “No, just quackers” as she’s too often associated with her part as Duckface, the jilted bride in the 1994 film, Four Weddings and a Funeral.
She is marvellously outspoken and vibrantly indiscreet (qualities slightly countered by requests of “Please don’t quote that”), but nevertheless delectable company, open and trusting. “I’m nearly 50, you know,” she says, proudly. She’s 48 and could pass for a decade younger. She scans the menu, can’t find her glasses, asks me to read it and orders steak and chips with a cup of black tea. “How sweet of you. I haven’t eaten yet today.”
She has an aristocratic and moneyed pedigree. One of her ancestors was the brother of Jane Austen, her mother’s great-grandfather was Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and her second cousin six times removed was Lord Byron. “My generation was at the end of an era. There had been money and titles, but there was none left, nothing to inherit, so we just bounced around with an open heart and a wonderful naivety. If I’d said I wanted to be an actress – and I am an actress, not an actor, ‘vive la différence’ – it would have seemed as unlikely as wanting to be an astronaut. I’ve always been a people pleaser although I hate that term. I’m mostly sunny, but there’s the other side to my optimistic and positive character. My grandmother [Lady Perdita Hylton] nearly killed herself with depression, which made Mum withheld and proud. I irritate myself when I get depressed and think I should snap out of it. What really matters in life?”
Family, perhaps? Her parents divorced when she was two (there were two older sisters and a brother). “Most actors are the youngest – have you noticed? There’s not so much expectation, which gives you freedom, and you show off to get attention.” They lived with her stepfather in a large house in Somerset. She became estranged for a while from her father, John, 87, but there’s a rapprochement. “I’m going to pick him up and bring him home for the weekend. Human beings are addicted to their parents. There wasn’t much physical contact but you want peace and everyone to be unified before they die. There’s no joy in blame.
“He wasn’t a conventional father, but he is rather wonderful. He drove us across Europe – or ‘the Continent’ as he called it – and we’d be feral, swearing, burning cigarette holes in the back seat. I think my wonderful parents just didn’t instil discipline. He’d have been a good actor – very handsome and terribly funny – but he started as a publisher and ended up as an antiquarian bookseller in the Caribbean. Now he lives with his brother [journalist Alexander Chancellor]. He was surprised I acted. In Puerto Rico once he went to see a film he was told was about England and said, ‘That girl looks remarkably like my daughter’. It was Four Weddings. He said, ‘People tell me they saw you on television. I wish you’d let me know. I feel out of the loop.’ He’d probably watch dutifully.”
Interesting to know what he’d make of the second series of BBC3’s Pramface. She plays Janet, the mother of a teenage daughter, Laura, who has a baby by her young boyfriend, and herself has a difficult relationship with her husband (Angus Deayton). It’s just one of a number of varied parts she’s played in recent years – from Amanda in Private Lives on the West End stage to BBC2’s The Hour, in which she played gutsy foreign correspondent Lix Storm. “It suited me, and I loved the language. I can be jealous of rival actresses. We’re like siblings saying, ‘What about me?’
“I’ve trained myself to believe other people’s success is also mine. Cate Blanchett is the most ravishing and talented actress of our time, and somehow her success seeps through our pores. She’s not a lone person achieving because we’re all connected. It’s wonderful to be part of a world where that’s a possibility.”
She never thought it would be like that. She left home for London at 17 after getting two O-levels at the perhaps inappropriately named Institute of the Blessed Virgin. “I followed my siblings slavishly, but I wasn’t going to stay in west Somerset. Not lively enough. I lived with a great aunt in Holland Park and was enrolled in a sixth form college but never went. My report said, ‘Anna who?’ I’d get up late, smoke joints, waitress, and earn a lot of money as an artist’s model. I took my clothes off, naturally, because I thought I looked better naked. We were so innocent. I was a bit wild, went to all sorts of places – hitch-hiked, got into strange cars. I was incredibly lucky. I can’t say it was always easy but I’ve never been hurt physically by anyone. Do you mind if I take my jumper off. You’ll be able to see my bra – it’s black under a white T-shirt. Anne Robinson chastised me for this, but I told her that’s the way it is. She’s so funny – she sold herself short on that programme [The Weakest Link], which made her so rich.”
She enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. “I never imagined I’d get a job. It was thought of as unfashionable to be posh. They said I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I don’t come from an easy background.” She left in her third year after becoming pregnant, aged 21, with her daughter Poppy by a skinhead punk poet, Jock Scot, who was working with singer Ian Dury and was 13 years older than her. They separated when Poppy was four – and trouble. “She was beyond badly behaved, which was my fault. I was a challenging mother.”
They lived in an untidy basement flat in west London in the same building as her sister, Kate, who was married at the time to writer Will Self. She had Poppy’s ears pierced at three months old and took her everywhere – gigs, clubs until the early hours. “Even at the age of four she’d terrify grown-ups. I’d drag her aside and say ‘Why don’t you want to be liked?’ She told a friend who asked me if I had work, ‘She’ll never get a f*****g job’ because she’d heard me say it.”
Then, at about 12, Poppy discovered art and metamorphosed. “She’d come home, rush by me and say, ‘I’ve got to do my homework’. I couldn’t believe it. I’m a poacher turned gamekeeper. She used to follow the Libertines with Pete Doherty – charming and talented – and when she didn’t come home by the time I specified I’d leap out of bed in a fury, put clothes over my pyjamas and charge past bouncers with my face on fire to grab her. She was horrified. It was so hypocritical of me. Now she’s well turned out, funny, with a very nice boyfriend.”
Anna married a cameraman, Nigel Willoughby, but that ended in divorce. “I can’t have been a good wife.” Meanwhile, work was going badly. “I began to think I wasn’t meant to be an actress. I loved acting so even if I didn’t get a proper job I’d put on a play in someone’s living room. Then I auditioned for Bill Smethurst – ‘Butcher Bill’ – who was blamed for killing off Crossroads. His next project was a 1990s sci-fi soap, Jupiter Moon. I thought he was wonderful because – oh, this is all about oneself – he loved my short skirt and flirting. He was my biggest fan. It’s wonderful if someone likes you – and I earned money for the first time.”
Success in Four Weddings didn’t lead to as many parts as she hoped. “It could have done if I was more organised. But I had a child.” She adds, “I should have told you I’m meeting an old boyfriend [Tom] I haven’t seen for years. He might turn up at any moment. You can ask what I was like and see what he says. Or maybe not. I told him not to worry because I haven’t changed.”
She’s now married to an Algerian, Redha Debbah, seven years her junior, who drove her when she appeared in The Real Inspector Hound in the West End. He was working temporarily as a minicab driver and is now a computer technician. “I chose him and he resisted at first.” They lived together for 14 years until marrying in 2010 after she’d become ill with meningitis in New York and couldn’t name him as her next of kin. “It made me wonder who would get me from the morgue. Poppy would have had to but you don’t want to tear your children away from their life to look after you.
“How can I admit I chased him, you might wonder. Perhaps I should be more circumspect, but what can you say except the truth? I do feel if girls are ashamed to admit their desire it comes out in ways which are duplicitous, cunning and full of anger. I’m not saying if you fancy someone you should tear down their front door – but why not? We should be passionate. Who cares about rejection? Your mistakes make you. If someone doesn’t want you, move on. There’s such pressure on young girls these days to look amazing and as if they’re having the time of their life on Facebook. Truth has gone. Now they are so glamorous, but they can’t get boyfriends. We had hairy armpits and got them… Do you regret you haven’t had more sex in your life?”
“No. I feel I’ve had enough. At 50 I’m told it gets better. I’m looking forward to the hidden secret of old age sex. I heard a man on the radio say it was like putting a plug into an electric socket. He was 85. You might need Viagra, but if science has made something to help us enjoy ourselves – great. We don’t want to take headache pills for the rest of our lives.”
She finishes her steak – “delicious” – and looks at her watch. “Maybe he’s stood me up. I hope so. I’m addicted to The Bridge and want to get home to finish it. Let’s not worry. If he comes, he comes.” He arrives a few minutes later. “This is Tom,” she says. “He works for the BBC. We lived together when we were… how old?”
“We didn’t live together,” he says, seeming slightly nervous.
“Yes we did. I was in your basement.”
“I was 19,” he says.
“Were you? It was so long ago, and over so quickly.”