When Radio Times calls, Maureen Lipman is in the bath. She decides to put on some clothes so we can have “an adult conversation” about A Month of Maureen, Radio 4’s tribute to one of our best-loved actors in the form of four plays specially written for her. It’s a lovely thing, she says, but there’s one problem. “A Month of Maureen? I think it’s a terrible title and when we asked them [the BBC] why, they said, ‘Well, we did it for June Whitfield’ and I said, ‘Yes, but her name is June!’”
The first play is called Three Journeys, written by Gary Brown, in which she plays the mother of a 40-something son with special needs. “What struck me about the play is the amount of patience the mother has, which is not my strongest quality,” she says. “Whatever reincarnation I’m in, I was not patient in my last life and I’ll be back again until I learn it.”
Lipman, now 71, has two grown-up children – Amy, 43, and Adam, 37 – and two grandchildren. Was it tricky, being a mother while trying to work full-time?
“I do wonder about that now. I don’t know how I managed it. It’s a struggle to be there at all the right times and not take out your problems on the children. But stay at home? No, I don’t think so, I’m very jumpy when I’m not working. My husband [playwright Jack Rosenthal, who died in 2004] was born in 1931 so you couldn’t call him a new man, but by God we shared everything and so I was able to do what I did. There’s a burden of guilt put into women, but you do the best you can.”
Lipman, born in Hull to a Jewish family, is known for her opinions. She publicly abandoned her support of the Labour Party in 2014 after Ed Miliband’s motion to recognise the state of Palestine, protested outside a Palestinian play and said that Jeremy Corbyn “sups with the devil”. As an actor who sometimes creates controversy, she must have a thick skin. “A thick skin? I’ve got no skin at all. And that’s why I wouldn’t do Strictly Come Dancing,” she says. “I’d go on there and cry in front of the nation.” Even after all these years, she baulks at the idea of watching her own work. “You feel as if you know it all. Then you see it and think, ‘Oh for Christ’s sake.’ That’s because you’re looking at some part of yourself you don’t really like, instead of looking at yourself as a whole.”
Even after a 50-year career and roles in The Pianist, Educating Rita, Oklahoma! and Coronation Street, Lipman feels she’s been somewhat overlooked.
“I love filming, but I don’t get many films to do – I think probably I don’t have the face for it – and it’s a bit cliquey, isn’t it? But I do like the idea of doing a scene, then spending two hours having scrambled egg sandwiches and then suddenly filming again. I’d love to do more TV, that’s something I haven’t done much of.”
She is currently directing her late husband’s 1979 TV play The Knowledge at the Charing Cross Theatre in London (to 11 November). “Doing that I’ve learnt how needy we are as actors. We’re told to come to rehearsals, to learn our lines – it’s not that different from school. We don’t really get the opportunity to grow up that you do in other professions.”
It’s no secret that the acting world is a strange one – but as a woman in the fickle world of fame, has Lipman experienced any of the abuse of power brought to light by the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein?
“I’ve never come up against that, but I trusted people I shouldn’t have, someone’s paid me a compliment and I’ve gone along with it, not realising more was expected of me. If a girl is 19 and looks like Gwyneth Paltrow, her agent has to have the balls to say, ‘I will be sitting in on this meeting.’ I’m not blaming all agents, but I’m saying, you do not go into Mike Tyson’s bedroom expecting a game of Scrabble.”
She says that with more women in positions of power, things will slowly change, but people will always be afraid to say no to men like Weinstein. “It’s the moderates who are guilty here. They should come out and say, ‘It’s not in my name, I don’t agree with it, I won’t work like this.’ But if that means losing your job, very few people have got that kind of moral courage.
“All this stuff about sexism in the workplace doesn’t just apply to showbusiness. Show me an office where somebody hasn’t gone to the water cooler and had someone’s tongue thrust down their throat.”
I ask how she feels about still being remembered for playing Beattie in the BT ads that ran on TV in the late 80s and early 90s. She’s done Shakespeare but it’s “you got an ology?” that she’s so well known for. “When I die, it’ll say on my gravestone, ‘Beattie is cut off at last’. I used to find it annoying, but I’m over it. The things I loved haven’t always mattered to the world at large because they’re not hits. When you’re in a hit, everyone wants a piece of you, wants you at all the parties. But a long career is about realising that that’s not reality either. If you focus on only the hits, you’d be very jealous all the time. You’d think, ‘Why did I lose that? Who turned against me?’ With age, you find that perhaps you don’t want to go to the Bafta awards. Perhaps you’re happier watching it on the telly.”
A Month of Maureen begins on Monday 6th November at 11:30am on BBC Radio 4