Anne Reid: "I get much better roles now, but it’s a bit late"
The award-winning actress on a career as a "jobbing actor", why she doesn't want to say goodbye to Sanditon and what the future holds.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
For most actors, to be commanding plum roles in primetime dramas nearly 70 years after their TV debut might feel valedictory. But Anne Reid isn’t most actors.
"People say to me, 'You’ve had a wonderful career,' but I don’t think I have," the 88-year-old star of Last Tango in Halifax, Sanditon and BBC One’s recent The Sixth Commandment confides with characteristic frankness.
Granted, the string of secretaries and brides-to-be she played in the likes of The Benny Hill Show and Hancock’s Half Hour might not have felt like the most fulfilling of roles; such were the breaks for many young women in the late 1950s.
But surely she felt she’d arrived when she landed the part of Coronation Street’s Valerie Tatlock (later Barlow) and became a mainstay of '60s TV, before being killed off a decade later?
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"Yes, but there was a hangover afterwards – people think you’re a bit downmarket for doing Corrie," she reflects. "I get much better roles now, but it’s a bit late.
"I would have loved to have done some Alan Ayckbourn or Noël Coward, but I didn’t fight for it. If I lived again, I would. I didn’t have the confidence – but now I do!"
At an age when most of us might think about retiring, Reid was just getting started. Playing Jean in Victoria Wood’s BBC sitcom dinnerladies in the late 1990s was, she says, the turning point.
"People realised I could do comedy and Vic got huge viewing figures for everything she did." Reid also realised the on-screen appeal of difficult people. "The audience really loves somebody who chucks their weight around, as long as it’s done with humour."
Which is, as it turns out, a fitting description of Lady Denham, the matriarch of Sanditon, the unfinished Jane Austen novel that was turned into an ITV drama series in 2019, which returns this week for a third and final run on ITVX. The wealthy widow is, Reid says, one of her favourite parts.
"She’s charming and good fun – but don’t cross her." She pauses. "A bit like me, I’ve always wanted to boss people about, it’s something I’m good at!" she laughs.
Reid said yes to the part "in about 10 seconds" because she wanted to play a woman of elevated station after servile roles in the BBC’s Bleak House and Upstairs, Downstairs.
The third season goes deeper into Lady Denham’s class roots by introducing a love interest: Rowleigh Pryce, who’s initially unaware that his old flame is now a lady of the manor, risen in status.
Reid suggested James Bolam for the part – they’re old friends whose chemistry makes for some mischievous fun. She speaks fondly, too, of co-stars James Fox, Kris Marshall – "I love to shout at Kris" – and Kate Ashfield.
Sanditon is heartland Austen, light-touch family viewing a world away from the racy goings-on of Bridgerton, a thought that clearly tickles Reid.
"I’ve not seen Bridgerton – I wonder what Austen would have thought of it?" she muses. "Her work still feels fresh," she adds. "We can identify with the characters, she writes them so beautifully, with humour, and you realise that people don’t actually change a lot.
"She’s a romantic as well – Pride and Prejudice is one of the most romantic things you could possibly read. Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility was beautiful, too – you can’t go wrong with Austen."
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The third season of Sanditon was filmed 18 months ago and has already aired in the US, where network PBS rescued the show after fans petitioned for more following ITV’s decision not to commission it beyond its first season.
"Americans love it – they come up to me in the street all the time," Reid says. "We’ve been told there won’t be more, but I’d happily do another six series. I’m just so thrilled that they had the imagination to cast me. People usually seem to think I act better with a pan in my hand!"
Reid has often described herself as a "jobbing actor"; one key to her longevity in the business is a desire to follow the writing rather the size of the role on offer.
"They don’t write many parts for me now, but I still turn things down," she says, apologising if it sounds arrogant. "I like having something to get my teeth into."
Those juicy parts include the matriarch Muriel Deacon in Russell T Davies’s Years and Years and, more recently, the role of pensioner Ann Moore-Martin in Sarah Phelps’s The Sixth Commandment.
And she nods appreciatively at the mention of Celia in Sally Wainwright’s Last Tango in Halifax. "Yes, Sally is wonderful, isn’t she? Her scripts are so glorious. She gives great descriptions – she doesn’t write 'sadly' or 'happily' in brackets in her scripts, like a lot of writers do."
One thing Reid loves about acting at her age is the lack of competition – though she’s realistic about her place in the pecking order. "If they can get Judi Dench or Maggie Smith, they’re going to go for them, aren’t they?" she laughs.
Reid loves the team effort of making TV shows and movies and talks fondly of filming with Julianne Moore in Barcelona for the 2007 movie Savage Grace, and Michael Fassbender in Oslo for 2017 thriller The Snowman. She also shows no desire to slow down.
"Oh, we never retire, us actors," she beams. "My eyesight’s not great, I don’t hear everything, but apart from that – touch wood – my mobility is good. The important thing is I can learn things fast and I’m blessed with a good memory for my lines."
Her long-term memory is another thing. "I’ll be watching a TV drama from years ago and I’ll think, 'I’m sure I’ve seen this before,' and suddenly a door opens, there’s this girl with a very high voice and a tiny waist… and it’s me!"
The third act of Reid’s career kicked in around the time she turned 80, when she started doing cabaret shows in London and Paris, interspersing The Great American Songbook with tales from her showbusiness life. "It’s hardly Lady Gaga!" she says of these intimate shows. "But music has always been the most important thing in my life, really – much more than acting."
Reid has rarely sung on screen and admits she was nervous on stage until the audience’s response taught her to relax. "Talking to audiences, rather than acting for them, has taught me a lot, actually," she says thoughtfully. "They’re very kind. They’re not there to judge you."
Her cabaret stories will feed into the memoirs that she’s been promising to write for years – she has a title, suggested by old pal and Last Tango co-star Derek Jacobi, but it’s under wraps for now.
"I haven’t got much discipline; my butterfly mind wanders off. But I am going to try to write my autobiography and bore everybody to death! I just don’t think it’ll be that interesting."
Perhaps this harshest of self-critics should let us be the judge of that.
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