Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Frances de la Tour: “The distribution of wealth was not in sight”

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II am writing a letter to Richard Curtis on behalf of Frances de la Tour. Release the Director’s Cut of love actually – for the good of the nation. The silky-voiced ‘Harry Potter and the Seventies’ sitcom star was originally among the cream of Britain who starred in the 2003 film, playing Anne Reid’s dying, bedridden partner – but both actors ended up on the cutting room floor. “Oh yeah, we had a nice scene,” she says. “And I think it was the only gay scene,” she recalls. “It’s weird that they cut it. Maybe it was too dark to bring it inside. Because it turned out to be a pretty light and fluffy film, didn’t it?” It could have turned the affectionately mocked Christmas film into something very different – ​​more progressive, less cloying. Still, Curtis has manners. “At least he wrote to me and said we’re terribly sorry but it has to be cut.”

However, it could be argued that an actor as unlikely as De la Tour has no place in cheesy movies where “love” gets a capital L. The 78-year-old three-time Olivier winner has one edge – a leisurely, imperial aura. There was no surprise with the BBC series Who do you Think You Are? found their ancestors aristocrats. Listen to her voice – clear, deep, laconic – and it may seem a little incongruous to imagine her in any other profession. She began her career with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s; In recent years she has had roles in franchise films such as Enola Holmes and Tim Burtons Alice in Wonderlandand collaborated with Martin Scorsese on his big-hearted family photo Hugo. There were also television comedies malicious and big school, and she has been celebrated for the three Alan Bennett plays in which she has appeared. She admits she works less now “because of my age.” I call her home on her landline number and she’s lovely – but you sense she wouldn’t put up with fools, just anyone she was willing or unwilling to put up with.

We’re talking because De la Tour is reprising her role on ITVs Professor T, a British remake of a Belgian crime drama about a Cambridge criminologist with OCD (here played by Ben Miller). It’s characterized by tonal shifts like pulling the handbrake: somber one minute, comically surreal the next. As his mother Adelaide, De la Tour was an instant fan favorite, sporting fluffy hats and giving bubble baths to her Chihuahuas. Their relationship — strained but with tenderer depths — takes the show to unexpected places. “They are obviously very, very interdependent. I mean, they’re sort of useless together because they’re so different,” but “there’s a deep love there.” A scene of them dancing together on a rooftop came out of an impromptu moment with the director. “There are those moments that show their closeness. And then she comes out with something ridiculous. And he comes out with something fancy. And they are completely at odds with each other.”

The resurgence of quality TV drama is “welcome,” says De la Tour. “[TV] was frowned upon years ago – that it could never keep up with the cinema. But it’s over. When I was younger, that wasn’t the case.” She notes that there were some popular comedies; one was random rising damp, about a terrible landlord and his unhappy tenants. De la Tour played the slick spinster Miss Ruth Jones, and it remains one of her best-known roles. The show ran in four series between 1974 and 1978 and had an audience of between 15 and 20 million per week. In previous interviews, she appeared annoyed when it mattered. Just because, she tells me now: “There’s so much work involved. I’m not mad about it. It’s just annoying. Because it’s only one thing after so many.”

A new generation has become fixated on a different role: De la Tour’s performance as the giantess and Hagrid squeezing Madame Maxime in the Harry Potter films. Parents approach them in the park and ask them to say hello to their children; she does not mind. “It’s nice to see their little faces light up because they’re kids. It’s nice that I can give them a smile. And they’re always like, “Oh, you’re not very tall, are you, in real life?” And I say, ‘No, I’m not. I just played a giant, I’m not actually a giant’” she laughs. “And her eyes keep getting bigger, that’s very cute.”

Of course, the Harry Potter film franchise has been the subject of controversy because of JK Rowling’s widely publicized comments about transgender people. Is it true that younger actors have distanced themselves from the author? “Well, I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. It’s her point of view, you know what I mean? They are perfectly entitled to their views,” says De la Tour. “I just hope it hasn’t harmed their work. Because she is a wonderful author and has written a great deal of lyrics that are loved all over the world. So I think she needs support,” she says. “But I think a lot of that is a misunderstanding. I don’t think she was against any human rights, male or female, at all. I didn’t feel like she was against someone having the right to be who they want to be.”

But it’s De la Tour’s acclaimed stage work that has been the greatest passion of her career. “That’s where I started. I dreamed of that. That’s what I trained for,” she explains. “So I think that’s where my source of energy for wanting to be an actor is rooted.” Many have a particular fondness for her performance as the kind but cutting teacher Mrs. Lintott in The history boys, which premiered at the National Theater almost 20 years ago, went to Broadway and was later made into a film. It launched the careers of James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett and won De la Tour a Tony. “I can’t believe it,” she says immediately upon mentioning the play. “Because it really feels like yesterday. Some of the work you do feels like it was a century ago. And then other things you’re like, oh, that was only a few years ago because it’s still so alive in my head. And I think with all the boys – well, they were boys, young men. All these actors were 21 or 22, well, they’re almost 40 now!”

A rousing speech in which Mrs. Lintott talked about “how depressing it is to teach five centuries of male incompetence” had audiences clapping nightly—especially on Broadway, where “there used to be a huge cheer.” (Another continental difference: “We could use very strong swear words in England, but you couldn’t do that much on Broadway.”) Being the only woman in the cast was “oh, pretty wonderful. I felt really honored and loved. And they sent me up spoiled too, which was great. So I sent her up rotting.” In Bennett’s journals, he described a back-and-forth moment backstage when he “saw Russell Tovey backstage muttering to Ms de la Tour, ‘Frankie, if I wasn’t gay ‘would you fuck me?’ She looked him up and down before saying doubtfully, ‘Maybe’.”

Brilliant as the play is in emphasizing the value of serious thought and engagement in culture rather than rush and superficial provocation, it’s hard to say whether it would have been as popular had it been staged today. Hector, the genius general education teacher (played by the late Richard Griffiths), is notoriously groping. “There was a slight danger line in it because he was abusive — there’s really no other word for it. And it was treated with glee and a kind of seriousness, but it wasn’t treated too seriously. But she concludes, “I think it grabbed the issue and it grabbed it well.”

The death of director Peter Brook earlier this year prompted her to reconsider another of her defining theatrical roles. She played Helena in Brooks’ radical, carnivalesque Midsummer night’s dream, is now considered one of the greatest modern Shakespearean productions. Her voice grows warm at the memory. “That was really the best moment of my young life.” She had done “little things” at RSC and worked her way up to a larger part, “and then that Dream resulted. and it was like a dream. Because I worked with the best director in the world. I was 25 or 26. And it was a Great Something to do.” It went around the world, including her first Broadway engagement. Working with Brook was “hard to beat.”

“The man had no ego at all. It is only about the work. And he was incredibly loving to us. And respectful. I think he really appreciated actors and what they do, and a lot of people don’t. So we get called names like Luvvies and things like that. That would never, never, ever cross his lips once.

Although she works less now, she has a busy life as a grandmother – she has two children and four grandchildren. She’s not on any social media, so ignore a Twitter account that declares, “What’s really fun is island of love!‘ under her name. (“You should quit, all I can say.”) She describes herself as a lifelong socialist. “I see no reason to change my mind about it. I think we were honestly right about what is happening with so many nationalist governments around the world. Low practices in high places.” The political situation in Britain, she says bluntly, is “a catastrophe” and the fallout from the war in Ukraine cannot be solely blamed. “Care for the economy and the distribution of wealth was non-existent long before the war. The war somehow accelerated everything and made it a lot worse.”

Is there anything that can give us hope: “I don’t think words like ‘hope’ fit that. It’s about seeing what’s going on and what you can do about it. In the end it comes down to the people. For the economy, there could be a different poll tax situation to start with, where people take to the streets and say, “Well, actually, enough is really enough. We can’t pay our bills. What are you going to do about it?’ In the end it’s about all of us, what we think individually and how it becomes a collective.”

It is obvious that politics and theater are two of the main pursuits in De la Tour’s life; she speaks of them with the same clarity and conviction. But with determination and some regret, she says she won’t be returning to the stage. “I can not right now. I think after a certain age you just walk, well, I don’t think I can anymore.” On television, “all these things that people might find a bit excessive” — like being driven everywhere — “are actually real important because it means that older actors can basically keep working until they drop dead.” She’s not sure people understand what hard-work theater is: preparation begins the moment you wake up, use of your voice is limited during the day, “and if you’re raising kids at the same time, which I was, it is extremely tiring. But,” she says with feeling, “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

Professor T returns to ITV on September 16

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