On a stage at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in her comedy musical revue, Up for It, Maureen Lipman is gamely having a go at singing, at dancing – and at TV commissioning editors, as well as a few of her peers.
As the irrepressibly plain-speaking 72-year-old sees it, “the minute you’re no longer able to play doctors, detectives or wicked ladies, they say, ‘Oh, would you like to go bobbing about England, pointing at things?’”
Cue a spiel about Penelope Keith cooing over pretty villages, Larry Lamb getting all hot and bothered as he explores the craft of welding, and Miriam Margolyes fronting yet another travelogue series, possibly called, Lipman mischievously imagines, Farting in Five Continents.
“The theme of my show is that they shunt us sideways as we get to a certain age,” she explains the next day over a lunchtime Greek salad and double-shot latte. “Helen Mirren scoops everything on film and Sue Johnston – deservedly – scoops everything on telly. Then you’re in a position where you’re just happy to die on Holby City after a few weeks.”
Unfortunately for Lipman – or, at least, for the veracity of her Edinburgh show – Up for It has been overtaken by events. Shortly after finishing writing it, she landed a dream gig for a still-up-for-it actress with 50 years of telly, stage and film work (and 32 British Telecom adverts) to her name: a regular role in Coronation Street.
And even if she wanted to, Hull-born Lipman won’t be dying after a few weeks. She’s joining the cast as Evelyn Plummer, grandmother of Tyrone Dobbs, and is booked for a year, with a possible extension – “if I behave and don’t talk out of school”. Corrie producer Iain MacLeod promises that Evelyn will be “eye-wateringly withering and will add a fresh dollop of northern humour to the show as she turns Tyrone and Fiz’s lives upside down”.
Lipman secured her passage to Weatherfield after changing agents in the wake of the retirement of her long-term representative. Her brief was typically no-nonsense: “I need to get back on television because your cachet in theatre goes down if you’re not regularly seen on telly.”
Lipman was promptly put up for a new role on the cobbles and producers at the ITV soap were said to be “very excited” at the prospect. But Lipman wasn’t sure, not least because, as longtime viewers may remember, she has already appeared in it, as Rovers Return relief manager Lillian Spencer in 2002.
“What am I going to be – a different character? Or the same character – because Lillian was funny, a kind of Annie Walker. And you do find yourself playing a lot of villains and battleaxes and viragos…”
Lipman suggested that Evelyn could be the sister of Lillian, “who’s fallen on hard times”. But she was told no. “And I have to be careful what I say because there’s a code – you don’t talk and you run everything past [the producers] before you say anything. And I haven’t been on it long enough to have any complaints! But I don’t know the rules yet.”
She recalls that when she got the call to play Lillian, she was on an “oldie cruise” somewhere in the Med, “looking at icons” and entertaining passengers with a one-woman show. She was accompanied by her late husband, Jack Rosenthal. Neatly enough, the revered playwright started out writing scripts for Coronation Street in 1961, on episode 30, “and now we’re up to episode 6772”. In fact, the episode on Wednesday in which she makes her debut as Evelyn is actually number 9558.
“After the read-through of episode 30, somebody with a stopwatch said: ‘I think it’s a bit long.’ And Jack Howarth, the actor playing Albert Tatlock, said: ‘Yes, 29 minutes too long!’ That was Jack’s first review!”
Back on the cruise, “it came through on the ship’s phone – no mobiles then – that Julie Goodyear had… her problems,” she says delicately of the ill-starred return in 2002 of Bet Lynch to the Street cut short amid rumours of Goodyear’s ill-health, “and they quickly wanted someone new. So I said, ‘If you give me one of the old writers like John Stevenson or John Temple [peers of Rosenthal], I’ll come straight back.’”
Maureen Lipman in Coronation Street (ITV)
The producers agreed, “and I had time to think about how Lillian would look and sound. But this time with Evelyn, I was just thrown into it. And I think I’m going to come over as a throwback. Because today’s grandmothers are in FitFlops and lycra and they’ve got hair the colour of a soft peach. This woman is stuck in a bit of a time warp because I didn’t have much time to think about what I was going to do.”
When we meet, in mid-August, Lipman has already crammed in a few days on the Corrie set in Manchester. “On the first day we shot 39 pages [of script], which is unheard of. On a film you’d be lucky to do three,” says the veteran of movies as diverse as the kitchen sink classic Up the Junction (1968, her debut) and Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning Holocaust drama The Pianist (2002).
As evidenced by the twinkle-toed tango she performs in Up for It, the grandmother of two is in fine, energetic fettle. Lipman keeps fit with enthusiastic gardening at her basement flat in Paddington, west London, and a weekly session with a personal trainer. But is she also up for the daily, year-long grind of a soap, one that requires her to be based in Manchester from Monday to Friday? “I’m up for it, my partner a little less so.”
Guido Castro, the Italian-Egyptian businessman with whom she’s been for the last ten years, recently had a spell in hospital with an unspecified illness. He’s home now, “and he’s coming on. But it’s a slow business. And he’s home alone, and I don’t really like that.”
Still, better the cobbles than the collywobbles Lipman has felt at being offered that other telly fallback: reality shows. “I certainly have been asked to do most of them,” she says. “Eat slugs in the jungle and make a total tit of myself and be kicked off in week six in Strictly Come Dancing.” She does admit that she’s “terribly tempted” by Strictly, because she loves the show, but reckons you’re on a hiding to nothing if you’re the “oldie”.
“The fact is that the person who’s pretty, whether it’s Joe McFadden or Abbey Clancy, is going to win. It ain’t gonna be Ann Widdecombe. So if you want to have Craig [Revel Horwood] telling you that your arms are like old windmill sails, it’s fine. But I’m quite sensitive. If I work hard, I like a bit of praise. And I get very upset on behalf of even Edwina Currie… Well, maybe that’s pushing it.”
Lipman is equally forthright in her views on the #MeToo movement. To be clear, she firmly approves of the progress that’s been made in empowering victims of abuse to come forward: “I see where we’re going, and it’s the right place,” she notes. But equally, she takes a contrary stance. Of course she’d work with Woody Allen, she says, despite his daughter Dylan’s unproven claims of abuse. “The only reason not to work with Woody now is that the films are rubbish.” Otherwise, “who wouldn’t work with him if he’s going to redo Hannah and Her Sisters?”
She also defends the film director Roman Polanski, who is still on the run from American justice after being convicted of statutory rape in 1977, suggesting that “60 [sic] years of punishment is probably enough”.
As she puts it, “We’ve got to stop judging everybody now on the mores of then. In the Sixties it was very plausible for a young girl to be brought to Jack Nicholson’s house and left with Roman Polanski. It wasn’t an unusual thing.”
We risk, she says, “going too far… We mustn’t wipe out men. I know men have brutalised women over centuries, but I don’t think the message we’re giving out with #MeToo is right. It’s too all-inclusive, and it smacks to me of the reaction to Jimmy Savile: ‘We messed up big time [by not uncovering his crimes sooner], now let’s get every light entertainer and unfashionable comedian or performer – let’s get ’em for putting a hand on a knee 40 years ago.’ That is just knee-jerk,” she snorts, pun not intended. Or perhaps it is.
She thinks some women celebrities don’t help the cause by sending out what she sees as mixed messages, not least in the clothes they choose to wear on catwalks and red carpets, “all this bondage clothing – dressed a bit like a prostitute would have dressed.
“But if you speak to a real feminist, they’ll say, ‘It’s my body.’ Young female pop stars today, for example, are saying: ‘It’s my body, and I’m empowered to show it to you.’ But then: ‘Don’t touch it, don’t come near it, don’t flirt with it.’ And that is a bit of a shame because flirting is some of the best fun you’ve ever had in your life.”
She sighs. “We’re batting our eyelids and clenching our teeth at the same time. And that is very confusing.”
Lipman is not one for biting her tongue. She’s a disillusioned ex-Labour supporter who’s “disgusted” by Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to root out anti-Semitism in the party. She’s an outspoken champion of the state of Israel, which is one of the reasons she has clashed with fellow Jewish actress Margolyes, who frequently speaks out against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Barely catching her breath, and without filtering her language, Lipman digresses into the absence of women at the tables of global power. “Where’s Mrs Corbyn? She’s a Mexican in a peaked cap following two paces behind… Is he hiding her?” she says dismissively. “Where is Mrs Putin? Where has she gone? Can you trust a man like that? Trump grabs pussy as a way of saying, ‘How do you do, madam?’ We know that; he’s a misogynist and a vulgarian. And he’s on the third Mrs Trump, who hates him.
“Macron?” she continues, referring to the French President. “Want to talk about abuse? Want to talk about Brigitte Macron leaving her family for a 15-year-old schoolboy? How would that work the other way round?” To clarify: although the future Mrs Macron, 24 years her husband’s senior, met him when she taught him in high school, they didn’t start dating until he was 18 and there has been no suggestion of anything inappropriate taking place.
With all that chaos in politics and culture, it’s little wonder that the escapism of our soaps is as popular as ever. And while it seems fairly certain that Lipman’s Evelyn, for all her mooted “battleaxe” qualities, won’t be holding forth in the Rovers about the Gaza Strip, her arrival will surely liven up the Street.
Maureen Lipman might be relieved about her reprieve from chuntering across England “pointing at things in a Barbour and wellies”, but is she daunted at the prospect of entering the nation’s living rooms in pinned-up hair and “some rather nasty Tricel clothes”? Is she heck! “To me, it’s just another job that I’ll do as best I can. I am Marmite – you want to see me or you can’t stand the sight of me. I don’t read social media, so I won’t know if people think I’m crap or not. And if I’m crap, they’ve got a year of crap ahead,” she notes cheerfully, “and then I’ll go back to fringe theatre and £29 a week.”
If Lipman is half as entertaining on the Street as she is in conversation, there doesn’t seem much chance of that. “Evelyn is a renegade in her way,” she says. “I don’t think she’s entirely honest. There’s gonna be trouble.”
The other night, she and Rula Lenska, who recently returned to Corrie as Claudia Colby and with whom she plans to share a flat in Manchester, were out for dinner. “And I said to Rula: ‘I really hope they give Evelyn an Asbo.’ I want to see this woman tagged!”