Miranda Richardson and I have an afternoon rendezvous in a downstairs room (number 2; cost, around £400 a night) at a boutique hotel in west London with a king-size bed, walls prettily painted in historic green and Thai white, and a roll-topped Victorian bath with a rainfall shower. It’s the hotel where, in room 16, Kate Moss and Johnny Depp are said to have filled their bath with champagne. Perhaps Miranda, 56, and I could use it for a similar activity, although I’m not sure the BBC – whose PR rep sits guard on the bed – could stretch that far to publicise a three-part series based on EF Benson’s comic novels about cultural snobbery and English silliness in the 1930s.
Indeed, such frivolity would be spectacularly out of place with Richardson, who is thankfully unpredictable, scorns celebrity, is personally and professionally independent and once warned me, “I don’t suffer fools gladly.” Today she promises that “This interview could go off in any direction,” as well she might, considering the weirdly inappropriate location.
Richardson plays Miss Elizabeth Mapp, a cornucopia of middle-class gossip and envy, who rents her house, with its “library” of fake books, for the summer to the widowed Mrs Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas – played by an equally brilliant Anna Chancellor. The series, which captures the gentility and curtain twitching of the fictional seaside town of Tilling, is from a bygone age. No sex. No violence. “There’s an undertow,” says Richardson, smiling. “Do you mean it’s not like Hnormal telly? The writing is better?”
Her face is transformed in the series by a set of protuberant false teeth that gives her fixed smiles a saccharine duplicity. “I kept breaking them when I took them out. Fortunately they are mendable and easy to talk with after you’ve let them settle for ten minutes. I’d put them in after make-up, wriggle them around my mouth, and there she blows. They put me in character.”
The series, scripted by Steve Pemberton, was filmed mostly in the Citadel area of Rye, East Sussex, home town of EF Benson. “The house is in the street where one is supposed to live if one is anyone. Jolly pretty it is, too, and although we were invading them, the residents were charming and marvellously well behaved. I had such a nice time. I hope the series might be good. There were moments of such deliciousness – I’m not talking about what I was doing – that you think, ‘Golly, this has got to communicate itself.’ ”
Her phone rings. “Sorry, my architect is trying to contact me.” She has recently moved to a new home. “I’m nesting at the moment, which I enjoy. I like the nomadic aspect of my work, but if you do it for too long you want to decompress.”
She’s never married, although she hopes she’s been in love “several times”, which she considers an “illness”. “And I may not marry. People I know do it as much for tax reasons as security.”
The younger daughter of a marketing executive and a housewife, she was born in Southport, Lancashire, and spent five years in rep before making her acclaimed film debut as Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, in 1984’s Dance with a Stranger, followed in 1986 by Queenie (Elizabeth I) in Blackadder II. She was described in the US as “the hot new bundle from Britain”, but the promise hasn’t been lavishly fulfilled, in spite of two Academy Award nominations (for Damage in 1992 and Tom & Viv, as TS Eliot’s first wife, two years later).
“The trouble is I haven’t obeyed the rules or done things I’m supposed to do. I don’t like to repeat myself. No one was tough enough to say to me, ‘Shut up, calm down, this part will do you good, blah blah blah.’ I haven’t done classics because I’m a scaredy-cat and I need someone to tell me, ‘You’re just the person for the job.’ ” She famously turned down the Glenn Close role in Fatal Attraction, calling the film “crap”. “Let’s not talk about that,” she pleads. She worked with Steven Spielberg on Empire of the Sun and Robert Altman on Kansas City, but doesn’t regret that she hasn’t had a Hollywood career. “Why are you putting it in the past? I had a go in America [playing a New York socialite in TV conspiracy thriller series Rubicon, which was shown on BBC4 in 2011], but unfortunately there was a shift in management just before we started filming and they didn’t then know what to do with me.”
On Christmas Eve she stars with Harry Hill in BBC1’s The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, which is also set in the 1930s. “British TV has got better and I’m sure if I tweeted I’d find a lot of enthusiastic viewers, but I don’t. Twitter is cheap therapy: people have their say without it being a criminal offence, unless they’re trolls. “I’m still around and hungry for work, but it can be frustrating finding a role that feels right. Mapp and Lucia is something that, if you’ll pardon the pun, I could get my teeth into.”
Calling her an “actress” used to make her wince. “You don’t say ‘doctoress’. It had connotations – actress/model, or someone with a lot of hair and a breathy voice. I don’t let things get to me so much now – only when I think it’s necessary, which isn’t often.” In order to keep calm she’s taken up the cello and is working towards grade three. “Never too late is my motto.”
She’s also a keen falconer and has a bird, Cassiopeia. “They’re fascinating, essentially wild so you never get to know them, although you kind of do. When I was 12 I sat with an injured kestrel all day, comforting it, and in the evening she flew to join her mate on the church tower. It was incredibly romantic. I became obsessed after that.“I constantly want to give up acting. It can be frustrating and annoying, but I don’t know what else I’d do. I’m always saying ‘I don’t know’. I’m no less clueless now than I’ve always been. But there are worse things in life than making people smile and happy.”
Mapp and Lucia Monday 29th December 9.05pm, Tuesday 30the December 9.00pm, New Year’s Eve 9.00pm, BBC1 (8.30pm New Year’s Eve in Scotland)