Interview: Maureen Lipman

Cuddly? The Jewish everymum hits out

By John Nathan, March 26, 2009
Maureen Lipman can switch easily between aloof celebrity and warm-hearted Jewish mother.

Maureen Lipman can switch easily between aloof celebrity and warm-hearted Jewish mother.

"Brilliant. Two candles. Perfect". It is late-ish on a Friday afternoon and Maureen Lipman is sitting at one of the dining tables at the Menier Chocolate Factory. At this tiny but influential south London theatre she has been playing the elderly, wheelchair-bound Madam Armfeldt in Trevor Nunn’s acclaimed revival of A Little Night Music. From tomorrow the show opens at the Garrick Theatre in the West End, and if it follows in the footsteps of the Chocolate Factory’s previous Stephen Sondheim musical, Sunday In the Park With George, it will bag a hatful of awards.

Night Music is the haunting adaptation by Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler of Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. It is a piece populated by lovelorn Swedish upper-classes who are trapped in a twilight zone of unfulfilling relationships. For Nunn, the revival represents a musical comeback since last year’s turkey, Gone With the Wind. Lipman, however, the Hull-born actor/author/humorist — and JC columnist — has never much needed comebacks.

Her career has proved to be far more robust than those of the actors — Suzy Kendall, Susan George, Dennis Waterman — who appeared with her in her breakthough film, the 1968 period piece Up the Junction.

“I always text my children ‘Shabbat shalom’,” says Lipman, who can easily switch between a celebrity’s aloofness and the warmth of a Jewish mother, depending on the company. The hair and makeup — impeccable as always — suit both roles, although there is a professional trimness to her frame. “And they text back,” she says with a roll of her eyes, as if her grown-up children, son Adam and playwright daughter Amy, wish their mother would grow out of the habit.

“All we need now is a match and a little bread. We’re going to do Shabbat shalom,” she continues with the timing and inflection of a million precisely delivered one-liners. She says this while grabbing a second candle from a nearby dining table and plonking it in front of her. I laugh.

And then she says to the waitress: “All we need now is a match and some bread. I always do it in the theatre if I work on a Friday. And now you’re here, you can bloody well do it with me.” I stop laughing.

Lipman’s previous run of working Shabboses was at Chichester Theatre, appearing in a revival of The Cherry Orchard. A bit of Chekhov here, a bit of Dr Who (in 2006) there. And then there are the one-woman shows — most famously Re-Joyce! about Joyce Grenfell — and that performance in Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film The Pianist. Yes, “robust” is one way of putting it. “Talented” another. And all this on top of being married to the television writer Jack Rosenthal, whose name, since he died of cancer in 2004, is usually preceded by “late” and “great”.

“It is a big plus at the age of 62 to be galloping around,” says Lipman, who is always busy, not least because she says ‘yes’ a lot.

Since Rosenthal’s death, most Maureen Lipman interviews have been about coping with grief. But then came an unexpected relationship with a Scottish businessman who she fell for. It is over now, but it was, according to her latest book, Past-It Notes, the kind of relationship in which she ended up with “thought-free jewellery”. It also ended up with her landing a punch on him. “Don’t bring that up,” she says, “I’ll end up feeling sorry for him.” She sums up the relationship as: “Two very volatile people. And you don’t want to end up with someone who is like that all the time.” The episode, she adds, was all part of escaping the “cacoon” of widowhood. “Nothing will ever replace Jack, of course. But you either do it with the help of a feller, or you do it through work.”

Lipman has done it through both. The work just keeps on coming. “It’s hard for a woman of my age to get on television. I tend not to get offered the Julie Walters and Brenda Blethyn jobs,” she says matter-of-factly. And yet TV is where she is. There was a recent episode of the Channel 4 teen drama series Skins “playing a batty old grandma”, and the other night she filmed an episode of the new version of Minder. But much more conspicuous is Ladies of Letters, her first sitcom since the return of her agony-aunt comedies in 1995. “Ladies of Letters is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says, “We made 10 episodes in six weeks.”

Along with Anne Reid, she plays one half of an epistolary relationship in which one-upmanship between the two ladies of a certain age is more important than friendship. The final episode is broadcast on ITV3 on April 10, and there is talk of a new series.

But today it is not so much work that is weighing heavily but what Lipman sees as the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish mood in the country. In particular the notorious Caryl Churchill play Seven Jewish Children. Along with many other well–known Jewish figures, she put her name to a letter of protest about the play. “Because of [being in] A Little Night Music, I couldn’t go and see it. But I’ve read it…” — she takes a deep breath — “…several times. I have three friends who are in it. And the cleverness and the cynical part of the piece is that Caryl Churchill and [the director] Dominic Cooke obviously saw the trouble that was coming and cast it with Jewish and ‘Jew-ish’ actors. So they knew what they were getting into.”

It is possible that Lipman and some like-minded objectors to the play will produce a parody version — “and we might just put that on film”. It would be the latest example of the actress putting her head “above the parapet” in defence of Israel. In 2006, during an appearance on Andrew Neil’s TV politics programme The Week, she responded to a question about Israeli action in Lebanon. She said that life is not cheap for the Israelis, unlike suicide bombers. It earned her a response from the Muslim columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who effectively accused her of racism. And, according to one or two extremist websites, won her a place on a zealot’s hit list or two. “My kids beg me not to stick my head above the parapet,” she says, as the bread and matches arrive.

But it is not just the Sabbath twilight for which she needs to prepare just now. There is the coming Swedish night-time sun of Sondheim’s musical. For Lipman, the moment when Madame Armfeldt declares that she has wasted her life still brings tears. The first time she did it, she was transported back to the graveside of her mother Zelma, at whose funeral Lipman spotted the man Zelma was once engaged to. Like Madame Armfeldt, she sent back the ring. After Zelma became a widow at 66, she could have at least met her erstwhile fiancé for coffee, Lipman suggested. But Zelma never made the call.

“I’ll always look for companionship. We’ve got nothing if we haven’t got love,” Lipman says, before revealing: “I’m happily with someone else, and I really want to protect the relationship from that ghastly media circus, so maybe for once in my life I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

It is time for those candles. She lights them, says the blessing for the wine and bread, and wishes me “Shabbat shalom”.

Last updated: 1:59pm, August 28 2014