Robert Lindsay and Maureen Lipman reflect on the fickle fortunes of television fame

As the pair return to comedy for new series Bull, they take a look back over their storied careers

The cordial political tussle starts sooner than I imagined. Two articulate, outspoken, good-humoured, Labour-supporting actors, Robert Lindsay and Maureen Lipman, are watching the lunchtime television news at Pinewood studios when Tony Blair is interviewed. “Your hero,” Lindsay mutters, with some disapproval. “I wouldn’t go that far,” says Lipman. “That’s not what you said to me the other day…” he replies.

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They leave it there, for a while. They’re filming a three-episode sitcom, Bull, in which Lindsay plays the eponymous owner of a dysfunctional antiques shop and Lipman is his sister and incompetent assistant, Beverley. All morning she’s been reshooting a scene where she sits in a chair, smoking herbal cigarettes incessantly (“probably half of 30 this morning”), pretending to be knocked forward by a cuckoo clock and telling a potential employee, “We’ll let you know.”

“I can take it. I’m a masochist,” she says, adding ironically, “I’m glad I did all that work on Shakespeare at drama school.”

She and Lindsay are perfect foils at 69 and 65 respetively, old enough to be honest and admit unexpected fame made them both insufferable for a while, and also to discuss how therapy helped. He is reserved, watchful at first; she is immediately lively and irreverent.

He told a Hay Festival audience in 2013 that he had little respect for his profession, apologised for being an actor, and says he’d like to give it up. “Actors always say that, especially as we get older. What is it with us? There’s that awful realisation, ‘What else could I do?’ Look at Angela Lansbury, still touring at 89. She’s probably gone, ‘I’m no good at DIY, can’t cook very well…'”

“Bob and I are old technicians,” Lipman says, “but we tempt fate and it’s our defence to say we’re doing no more, but there’s not an actor alive who doesn’t want the phone to ring with a nice – or even a rotten – job. We don’t know what to be when we’re not acting, even though it’s sometimes not very satisfying. TV hasn’t been brilliant for me recently and if I were to rely on it there would be slim pickings.”

She’s also a wickedly funny writer, but says, “Nobody pays writers any more. A friend was offered £50 for a book review. I’ve had a column in a magazine for 13 months and have yet to be paid. I have no complaints, though. I have a lovely man [Italian businessman Guido Castro], my kids [Amy and Adam by her late husband, playwright Jack Rosenthal], thank God, are thriving and I have two grandchildren.

“My fear now is ‘How long have I got?’ – the normal neurosis. There’s always something in the theatre” – Daytona in the West End last year (“the best work I’ve done”) and Harvey this year -“although salaries are down 70 per cent since the 1980s and it drives you nuts because it’s never what you imagine it will be. At my age – I must stop using that phrase – it becomes harder and harder to keep my mouth shut.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” says Lindsay. “You have to find a way to disagree pleasantly,” she explains. “Misunderstandings happen when you step on eggshells to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Women, particularly, are taught to manipulate rather than argue back.”

Lindsay has a spiky reputation, and has Seasonal Affective Disorder, which can lead to depression. He snubbed a dinner invitation with Margaret Thatcher because he didn’t like her politics (“one of my greatest regrets”), disagreed with Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein over a film adaptation of Graham Greene’s Loser Takes All, and again last year when he played Aristotle Onassis in Grace of Monaco with Nicole Kidman. “I haven’t watched it,” he says. Lipman comments, “If you start with the premise of Nicole Kidman playing Grace Kelly you’re up s**t creek – of course, she’s a good actress, but she ain’t Grace Kelly.”

“Movies are such a lottery,” Lindsay continues. “I had a really good part until Weinstein changed things. What’s so hurtful is you’ve given a piece of yourself, so just take the money and run.”

The pair are both long-standing Labour supporters, with passionate views on the party’s future. Lindsay says he comes from a very outspoken family. “My dad [a carpenter] was a trade unionist, a real northerner who didn’t take crap from anyone. That’s why I get so angry about New Labour – it’s not what it was meant to be. Jeremy Corbyn is a wonderful politician who will take the Labour party back to what it should be. Life changes, though. We’ve all become more middle class.” Lipman responds, “Everyone aspires to be middle class. That’s why old Labour doesn’t work.”

Earlier this year Lindsay finished a run of 15 months in the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and is now working on “about the tenth re-write” of a musical of Wind in the Willows. “It’s a modern version without animals. Mole is an Underground worker on the Metropolitan line, we collect rubbish on the river with a boatman called Bill Tarbrush and meet Toad, a Boris Johnson figure, in Henley- on-Thames. I have a production company and we’ll do something in the theatre.

“I want to keep away from making television programmes. It’s too expensive. Theatre is more fun anyway because you have control. I suppose we all had working-class chips as we grew up, but with theatre you have a common aim and accept every background, age, and race. I’m very lucky I’m still working in this silly business after 50 years. I come from a small mining town [Ilkeston, Derbyshire] where many people are unemployed. My teacher said I’d never work – or could become a hairdresser.”

When I interviewed Lipman 20 years ago, she told me she feared TV was going downmarket. “It was always for the people, but now it’s by the people. With smaller channels you’ll make TV from your own house or community. No one writes plays any more and there’s no watercooler discussion the next day.

“It always was a young person’s game. The difficulty is staying the course. There’s a moment when you are bigger than you thought you would be and that’s when your character comes out. When I did the Beattie ads for BT [from 1989 to 1992] I considered myself a serious actress, so it was a shock when people in restaurants greeted me with ‘Brr, brr’. It went to my head a bit. I was really impressed when James Fox told his son, who wants to act, ‘You have a year to be an arsehole – and then it has to stop.’”

When she was offered Bull she says, “I immediately assumed someone had dropped out, but I read the first page of the scene we’re doing now and thought, ‘That’s funny.’ I’ve been in and out of that thought ever since,” she adds wryly. “Rob’s done shows with an audience so right away you know if you’re onto a winner or not.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp5U7J-7NTk

Robert Lindsay in My Family

“Not true,” he says. “My Family [in which he starred for 11 years] had nine million viewers, but the press loathed it. I suppose popularity breeds contempt. The irony is the BBC shelved it saying they didn’t want any more middle-class comedies – and then put on Miranda. I assume I’ve lost the plot.”

They have both been in therapy. Lindsay married actress Rosie Ford in 2006 and they have three children – Sam, nearly 16, Jamie, 12, and three-year-old John. He also has a 25-year-old actress daughter Sydney Stevenson from a relationship with actress Diana Weston. But in 1980 he went through a “terrible” divorce from actress Cheryl Hall.

“I started using Prozac. A doctor in Ireland told me to chuck it in the Liffey. He put me in touch with a counsellor who released a lot of the rubbish and illusions I had about myself.” After success as the revolutionary Wolfie in the BBC’s Citizen Smith from 1977 to 1980 (below), he won an Olivier in London and a Tony on Broadway in the mid-80s for Me and My Girl, and auditioned for James Bond in The Living Daylights [the part went to Timothy Dalton].

“I was flavour of the month, storming Broadway, and started to believe my own publicity. I assumed I’d be a big film star, but even then there was a little voice inside going, ‘You’re not really like this. Stop it.’ The downfall was immediate. I did three films in Hollywood back-to- back, which were disasters. A lot of people tried to get me to stay – Mel Brooks, [Steven] Spielberg, [Barbra] Streisand all took me out to dinner and offered things. I know I’m dropping names like mad, but Dustin Hoffman told me, ‘Look at all the crap I’ve done. Stay here.’ But I was so homesick I hightailed it back to England and made GBH [for which he won a Bafta]. That restored my confidence.”

You went well over the year for being an arsehole,” remarks Lipman. “Absolutely. Rosie has re-recorded all our VHS tapes and I watched myself on Parkinson when I returned from New York and thought, ‘You arrogant young man. Who do you think you are?’ But you need a certain ambition and arrogance in this business.”

“Robert and I are very ambitious; we wouldn’t be here otherwise. And when I started working it was still frowned upon because a girl should marry and have children. If you can juggle it like I did – just – it takes its toll, like any work where you constantly have to prove yourself.”

She had a difficult time in the 80s, when she was in Martin Sherman play Messiah. “Someone got up one night and screamed at me. It was as if all the voices of disapproval came at me at once. I was moving house, had two children under five, couldn’t sleep and lost it for a while. I saw this very lovely old Jungian for 15 months, and having made him laugh throughout each session I’d leave, dress up as a chicken in a sitcom and realise, ‘This is my therapy.’”

A production assistant apologises, but says they have to be on set now as the schedule has changed – again. But Lindsay and Lipman are relaxed and accommodating. They’ve been here many times before. And will certainly be so again.

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Bull begins on Gold tonight (Wednesday 21st October) at 10.00pm