Life & Culture

A woman of many parts, from warrior queen to lollipop lady

The star of Kay Mellor's new TV show, Girlfriends, talks Shakespeare, family legacies and Yiddish


She’s played lead roles on stage in plays by Shakespeare and Sophocles, she’s the imperious Princess Marie in Mr Selfridge and in the first Harry Potter film she was no-nonsense Madame Hooch. But Zoe Wanamaker’s latest role casts her as Gail Stanley, a downtrodden Yorkshire woman working as a lollipop lady.

She plays one of a trio of lifelong friends, alongside Miranda Richardson and Phyllis Logan, in ITV’s Girlfriends which started this week, written by the prolific Jewish screenwriter Kay Mellor.

“It is a very different role for me” Wanamaker concedes when we meet on set. “That’s the joy of it, to challenge yourself. I love doing something I haven’t done before. That’s one of the reasons I took it.”

Straight after the five month Girlfriends shoot, she went into rehearsals with Toby Jones and Stephen Mangan for Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, currently in preview at the Pinter Theatre. Later this month we’ll see her in Sky Atlantic’s Welcome To Britannia, set in 43 AD playing warrior Queen Antedia. She describes her costume and wig as “channelling Tina Turner in Mad Max”.

“It’s always about the writing for me,” she says, coming back to Girlfriends. “I haven’t seen everything that Kay’s done but Band of Gold, her TV series about prostitution in Bradford, was the thing that really struck me. The way it was shot was fantastic, the characters were very strong, it was written very well, fresh and interesting. It’s the same with Girlfriends. It is refreshing and it’s colourful.”

Some claim there are no roles for women over 50 but Wanamaker, now 68, proves them wrong; “It’s great now, more people recognise that older women are viable and people want to watch them. We have history, more obviously, unlike men, we have so many different levels of talent, go through so much hormonally. The life of a woman is much more dramatic because we have so many more colours and changes in our bodies. That is something to celebrate and examine.”

I expected her to be grand, partly because of her artistic history but also as the daughter of the late Sam Wanamaker, one of the greats of British theatre. The opposite is true. She’s warm and funny, interesting and interested. She’s tiny in build but big in intellect.

She was just three years old when her parents, Sam Wanamaker and Charlotte Holland fled to England with daughters Zoe, Amy and Jessica, to escape the anti-communist McCarthy witch-hunts in their native America. In 2009 when Wanamaker took part in the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, she visited the FBI headquarters to read her father’s FBI file. The document revealed the level of scrutiny Sam was under and the very real risk of imprisonment he faced. Charlotte was also blacklisted.

Both had been brought up in a traditional Jewish environment but by the time they had their children they had eschewed all observation of Judaism. “They came from a generation of having a strong Jewish upbringing but at that time they felt that kind of indoctrination was wrong. I think we all have to assimilate religions and that’s what my father thought, it was all relative. But I do miss having knowledge.”

We’re speaking during Chanukah, and she’s sad not to be exchanging gifts or lighting candles “I don’t have any of that...There was a time when I went to the synagogue in Marylebone, and I did go to Saturday classes and stuff like that. That soon disintegrated though.

“Daddy did once take me to synagogue in Kensington. I was quite young, I had never been before. He used to smoke then, he put ash on my face and a hat on me and I went to sit downstairs with the men. It’s a lasting memory.

“What I really miss, to be honest, is the Yiddish. My parents have died so I don’t hear it now. But when they didn’t want us know about things, they used to speak in Yiddish.”

She recalls some observance of festivals. “I enjoy the festivals but I don’t know anything about them! I remember one Passover, we were having the meal and I’d got a mouthful of matzah and horseradish and the phone rang and dad disappeared. We all left the table, he got us all back and all started again, then the phone went again! It was always like that.”

There was a time when she fancied a different sort of religious life. “When I was kid, my parents rented a house in the Cotswolds, Daddy was doing Othello at Stratford with Paul Robeson. There was a little church up the road and I used to go there. I thought it would be great to become a nun! Fantastic.”

She didn’t, and despite her parents trying to dissuade her from a life in the theatre — “My mum made me take a shorthand typing course” — she followed in their footsteps.

Her father worked tirelessly to resurrect Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre but died in 1993, four years before it opened, like Moses on the brink of entering the Promised Land.

“It was unfair. What a Trojan, what a fighter, the tenacity of the man. The Moses-like idea, yes, I have a photo of him when he had a beard and I suppose he looked like that or Lear. He was unstoppable, a phenomenal human being. He spent so much of his life and my mother too supporting him with the Globe. I am so proud.”

She’s never performed on stage at the Globe and doubts she ever will; “I feel it’s too much for me. Too much pressure on me. There is enough pressure when you walk out on stage without it being one that was so synonymous with my father. It is a fantastic space and he predicted all of the development.”

Wanamaker came late to marriage, wedding actor Gawn Grainger in 1994. “I just thought I’d turn into a dirty old woman, I really did. It was a surprise.”

She believes getting married when you are older has its bonuses; “You learn that nobody is perfect. We’ve had other lives and that can come back and hit you or you can actually be open and that’s a joy. There’s a great richness.”

She became step mother to Grainger’s two children Charlie and Eliza, teenagers at the time, and they have now made her a grandmother four times over. “You can’t replace their parent or pretend that you gave birth, you only want to be their friend. As far as I was concerned, I got lucky with these extraordinary people, who were generous and open.”

When you learn that Wanamaker has dyslexia it makes her theatrical ability even more of an achievement; “It used to be a bit of joke you know, me getting muddled ‘I’ve got dyslexia, not very bright’, all jokey. But actually I had tests and I was way off the charts. It was a relief to find out. I do find scripts difficult; for example on My Family, I would stay behind and have stage management go through it with me every single day. Even then, if something doesn’t compute, then it stops me. I have to be word perfect because if there is a word missing, it stops me. That is unfortunately a pain. It is what it is. Having it means I struggle a bit more and I openly say so.”

In the current climate it’s inevitable that I ask if she were ever a victim of sexual harassment. “The casting couch mentality has always been there. Marilyn Monroe was invited to a party and she was the only one there, she was the party. I don’t know what to say about this. I was never put in that position. It’s all about power, it could be a woman or a man, it’s about wielding power and abusing it.

“I remember going on the tube and men rubbing themselves again me and my mum telling me to shout very loudly ‘Please move away from me!’ That scared them alright.”


Girlfriends is on ITV on Wednesdays at 9pm. The Birthday Party runs until April 14.

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