Shirley Williams arrives quite punctually, given that she has a self-acknowledged reputation for tardiness – bright blue eyes shining, lovely smile, brisk but immediately genial – at the restaurant of her choice, which is in the crypt of St John’s Church in Smith Square, Westminster, much favoured by MPs because of its close proximity to the Houses of Parliament. Later she will walk there and take her seat in the House of Lords in her role as Baroness Williams of Crosby.
We are meeting primarily to discuss the new film based on Testament of Youth (showing at cinemas from today, Friday the 16th January), the memoir her mother, Vera Brittain, wrote as a passionate remembrance of lives cut short and friendships crushed by the First World War. Brittain lost her brother Edward, fiancé Roland Leighton (a poet), and best friend Victor Richardson. Years later, her father committed suicide, unable to face life after the death of his only son.
The book was an instant classic when it was published in 1933 and was heralded as an anthem for the lost generation. It fell out of favour – with its pacifist message – in the buildup to and during the Second World War, and was popularised again with the 1979 television series, starring Cheryl Campbell as the writer. The appeal of the new film – in which Vera is beautifully played by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, above – is a reminder that Brittain’s story remains forever fresh.
Williams says that she originally had reservations about another attempt to adapt her mother’s book because Cheryl Campbell was so perfect in the original: “She was wonderful because she caught the spirit of my mother. She had a really inward feeling about it.” But having seen the film, twice now, “I have concluded that it is very well made – subtle, extraordinarily sensitive, brutal when it needed to be candid about what life was like in the First World War hospitals, and not romanticised – I didn’t want it to be and my mother wouldn’t have wanted it to be.”
It was rather amazing to read that when Williams was a young girl, she had aspirations to act herself, and was second choice to play the part Elizabeth Taylor took in National Velvet. I said I loved the idea that it could have been her. She giggles: “You may love it, but it’s a good thing I wasn’t. I would have been very ill made for it, I can tell you.”
Instead, she grew up to read PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford (where she became the first woman to chair the Oxford University Labour Club), and was then awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Columbia University in New York. On her return to the UK she became a journalist at the Daily Mirror and then the Financial Times, before entering the political arena and rising to Secretary of State for Education and Paymaster General – holding both positions at the same time, as the only woman in James Callaghan’s 1976 cabinet.
I ask her how she was treated when she entered Parliament in 1964. Was she patronised? “It was more subtle than that,” she says. “It was much more being treated as though you weren’t worth listening to. That was one of the real problems but, to be fair, people like – not just Margaret Thatcher, the usual example – but Barbara Castle even earlier, were quite substantial figures and they stood up for what they believed in and argued the case. They did not fit into the agreeable, supportive woman concept. It’s about being taken seriously and not being treated as a kind of ancillary figure.”
The French can be sexist, she says, “but France is much better at older women. The French treat older women as people with interesting things to say, and are much more willing to accept a woman as intellectually able and with outstanding character.”