Samantha Morton: the eternal outsider

Samantha Morton's traumatic childhood left her homeless and isolated. But then books changed everything...

Samantha Morton says she found a kind of solace in portraying Laurie Lee’s beleaguered mother Annie in the bold new TV version of Cider with Rosie. The vivid tale of life in rural England almost a century ago is part of a BBC season that aims to represent, through its treatment of the period’s literary classics, the condition of society at times of momentous change.

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Though removed by time and place, there was a common ground in the sense of isolation – Annie in the countryside of Edwardian England; Morton through her Nottingham childhood that was riven by divorce, parental violence, alcohol-ism, foster care and homelessness. The Bafta-winning actress has also said that she suffered sexual abuse while in care, but that neither the police nor social services investigated the claims.

Playing the part, she says, was simultaneously hard and natural as Annie, in her solitude, became nothing less than “a source of love and dedication”. Morton first came across Cider with Rosie when she was 19, and realised that despite its nostalgia for a vanished rural life, it was also a clear-eyed documentary account of a world that was hard, poor and unforgiving.

“I was very struck by his honesty,” she says. Lee isn’t just writing about his love for the valley, she explains, but also acknowledging his own past behaviour, such as his part in hatching an (unsuccessful) plot with other lads to rape a local girl. “There is not even an attempt at justification.He just says, this is what happened.”

Morton is now 38 and has three children, the eldest with her ex-partner, the actor Charlie Creed-Miles, and the younger two, born in 2008 and 2012, with her husband Harry Holm, a film-maker and the son of Sir Ian Holm.

In the matter of her own past, she’s as forthright as Lee. When talking about her education – or rather the lack of it – her anger isn’t directed towards her parents, natural or step, who were clearly bowed beneath the weight of their own problems. No, her target is the state and the system that she says deprived her of books, paper, pencils; the materials of learning.

“I got to a certain age and decided that it [education] was my right and that I would devour these things wherever I could find them. I also realised the importance of having your own room in which to think, feel, breathe, all these things.”

If you thought someone of Morton’s background might have little time for the produce of the apparently privileged Bloomsbury group of writers and artists, you would be mistaken. The clue is there in her own words, which echo the title of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

This, she says, made an indelible impression on her. So too did a number of American authors, including John Williams, who wrote the much-admired campus novel Stoner. First published in 1965, and dealing with failure and obscurity, it has since become an unexpected bestseller. Then there is Charles Bukowski’s bleakly autobiographical Ham on Rye. And Rupert Thomson’s dystopian 2005 novel Divided Kingdom, which she could read “zillions of times and keep getting something new from it”.

The common factor here is in the outsider nature of the central characters, which is how Morton describes herself – an outsider looking in. It can, she agrees, help with the professional challenge of becoming other people. In her own career the range has become impressively broad, from the dumb laundress in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999), which earned her an Academy Award nomination, through Myra Hindley in Longford (2006), for which she won a Golden Globe, to her starring role in last year’s Miss Julie, directed by Liv Ullmann.

Outsider or not, she could hardly be more present in conversation: ardent, optimistic, passionate, impatient and, as she acknowledges, a ready stock of lasting resentment at the way in which education passed her by.

She remembers the frustration of trying to engage teachers in discussion. “I would have seen something about Nelson Mandela on TV or in the papers, and I would want to know what was going on. What is the story of this man? Or the IRA – why are they being talked about? Asking the teacher why we couldn’t learn about these things and him saying, ‘Because the syllabus says we have to do Roman coins.”

Her present reading is Andric’s 1945 novel The Bridge on the Drina, which covers 400 years of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s history. “It has profound things to say about what Europe is going through right now; about how countries can merge and change and alter their identity. Something like this is going on in Britain right now, but there is so much resistance to the fact that we are transforming that it breaks my heart.”

Is it possible that a thwarted early desire for learning meant that she kept, and still keeps, a sharper appetite for it in adulthood? She disagrees, arguing that being taught properly at a young age is the key to lifelong learning. Consequently she despairs at the closure of Sure Start Centres, where books are available to those who cannot afford to buy them, describing this as nothing less than a scandal. “The point about education, when it’s good and when it’s right, is that your mind opens and goes on opening; it expands and goes on expanding, and as a result the world becomes a special place.”

Formal teaching may have been a washout for Morton, and for reasons that were hardly her fault she may not have been a receptive pupil. But she got her hands on the instructive tools of her working life. The student in her found a keen teacher; the teacher in her found an eager student, and this surely is one crucial element of a remarkable story.

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Cider with Rosie begins on BBC1 tonight (Sunday 27th September) at 8.30pm