For the last 15 years of his life, Maureen Lipman’s father Maurice struggled with short-term memory loss and the actress was “afraid it was going to happen to me”. It was the inspiration for If Memory Serves Me Right, a prime time BBC documentary broadcast on Thursday night in which she explored issues of memory and memory loss.
Having agreed to an interview “not early” on Sunday morning, Ms Lipman starts by explaining: “I’ve always been interested in memory and wanted to learn more about the brain. There was no script for the programme. I just did it. We had one director, one cameraman and one researcher who almost collapsed by the end.
“I’m an actress. So if I want to learn how to play golf, I play the part of a golfer. That’s just what we do.”
The programme follows the West End star on a personal and scientific journey. Personal because she shares her own memories with the viewer and scientific because she seeks out medical experts, looks on as a brain is dissected in a lab and has a virtual glance at her own brain following an MRI scan. But she has some serious qualms about the edited version of the documentary.
“I wanted the programme to be something other than soundbites and about my life. It might be interesting to other people, but it’s not interesting to me. I didn’t really want it to be personal.” She had been conscious of the problems inherent in “celebrity-led documentaries”, where “the celebrity often gets in the way of information. There are usually just shots of celebrities telling a story as they get in and out of taxis. It’s so infuriating.”
Indeed Ms Lipman is shown stepping in and out of black cabs at various points as she travels to interview memory experts and victims of memory loss.
A close-up catches her teary-eyed visiting her native Hull for a reunion at her old school. When I point this out, she snaps back: “That’s what I’m fighting. They focus on it when you get misty-eyed. I thought I was brighter than that. I guess it’s entertaining at the end of the day, but what happened to that stiff British upper-lip?”
She is far happier discussing the science behind the programme, particularly as the BBC editors “decided to cut most of it out. In the scene where I meet the hypnotist [Paul McKenna, who convinces Ms Lipman her dog has won an award], it looks like I’m acting but I’m not,” she insists. “He was using rapid eye movements that they couldn’t show because it would affect the viewers.” She does not know why other elements were left on the cutting room floor. “If it’s too technical it gets thrown out.
“Looking at the brain was remarkable, like a mysterious rolled-up tape of memories. To think about how that waxen cauliflower is controlling every movement I make and even how I’m talking to you now — it’s remarkable. I always read books about science.”
Throughout the documentary, Ms Lipman talks about her father, a tailor who had a shop in Hull, who had memory problems from the age of 68 until his death at 83. “One day he went into hospital for a minor operation and two days later he lost his short-term memory.
“In those days we didn’t ask questions. It could have been a stroke but we don’t know. After that, my father knew who we were but sometimes did not know where he was. We spoke lucidly about his condition. It made him very afraid because he was a proud man. On my wedding day he forgot to take me down the aisle. He kissed me at the West London shul and in through the doors he went. I had to nudge my beautifully dyed shoes through the door and say: ‘Come back.’ He didn’t come to my son’s barmitzvah because he was too afraid they would call him up to read and he would forget to go. He lost all of his confidence.”
Her father had lost brain cells, “but so much more than that, he lost his essence. With the loss of his memory, I lost the father I knew. I had never really questioned or thought about memory, what it is, what it does. From that moment I did think to myself: ‘I must look after my memory.’ It’s something that does concern people of my age, I really wanted to find out what the brain does,” Ms Lipman, 66, says.
“The left side of my brain doesn’t seem to function,” she adds, laughing. “When I learn a dance for a musical, I can only get the steps if I see someone doing them. I don’t count in numbers like everyone else. It must be a familial genetic part of the brain. I can’t understand a word my accountant says, it takes me a long time to work out percentages and I find languages very difficult. Jack [Rosenthal, her late husband] was pretty bad with numbers as well. Once my son left his keys about and I said: ‘What are you like?’ ‘You,’ he replied. I can’t argue with that.”
If her memory goes, “that’s the end of your career as an actor and you’ll have to go into radio. Your memory affects what you do. It’s not difficult as long as you have your memory. I don’t plan on retiring any day soon. They’ll have to put me down dead before I retire.”
Her favourite part of the show is a victorious memory battle with actor Larry Lamb. Applying memory techniques, the challenge was learning 25 new names, faces and birthdays. “That’s really what the programme was about.”
She has learned that memory resilience is connected to “exercise, eating blueberries and fresh garlic every day and learning something new every day to keep your mind active. It’s much better than Sudoku.”
And if she still forgets people’s names? “As I wrote in the JC the other week, I can’t possibly remember all the people I meet, but they remember me because I’m the speaker. They’ll say: ‘How can you not remember me, I gave you a lift home?’ But in the end you just have to bluff, use your charm and hope you get away with it.”
As the interview ends, I have an unforgettably cringeworthy moment, asking instinctively: “Would you say this programme was a trip down memory lane?” It sounds silly and we both know it. But Maureen Lipman is a professional. “You could say that but I’ll leave it to the sub-editors,” she replies.