Interview: Maureen Lipman

Esther, of course I'm not leaving!


It is a sunny, spring afternoon and Maureen Lipman walks breezily towards the stage door of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, where she is starring in Harvey, Mary Chase's 1944 American comedy about an invisible six-feet-tall rabbit. Lipman's chunky golden earrings are glinting in the sunshine, her fingers are tapping out a text message. The recent headlines about how antisemitism may force her to live in Israel or New York seem a world away.

The hair, a mane of carefully controlled grey with a streak of Cruella, only more subtle, bobs in the sun like a shampoo advert. Soon it will be curled into tight, tiny curls and covered by a wig that will make Lipman look much older - though no older than her age of 68. She greets me with a story about how her son Adam - father to Lipman's two grandchildren - attempted an April fool on his mother that backfired.

He told her that David Hockney had painted a series of portraits of leading Jews including Nigella Lawson and Michael Grade, and that they were being sold on eBay. The portrait of Lipman had the highest bid at £15,000. Lipman got her revenge by telling her son that she couldn't find it on eBay but had phoned "David in California'' to see if she could buy it. She finishes the story as we climb the stone stairway that leads to her dressing room.

"'Oh, Mum, I feel such a nudnik,''' she says, mimicking her appalled son. "I said 'Don't kid with a kidder'."

We have reached a door that has a brass plate on which is engraved the name Maureen Lipman.

It is not often that a critic sits with the star of a show in their dressing room as they prepare to go on stage. Especially after giving the show in which they are appearing a less than enthusiastic review. So when I was asked if I wanted to interview Maureen Lipman, and it was suggested I read the play I had reviewed before turning up, it felt a little like being called into the headmistress's office. But it was the publicist's idea, assured Lipman.

"I can't believe that they asked me to do it," she says, now sitting in one of the plush dressing room's armchairs. "A week without me would be magnificent for the readers of the Jewish Chronicle." Then she acts out a possible scene between two JC readers: "'Have you read the Jewish Chronicle? Yes, she's not in it....'"

I laugh and instantly relax. And then she says: "So, did you read the play?", which makes me nervous again. But we talk about the play, and maybe I end up seeing more of its merits and perhaps she ends up seeing one or two of the production's fault lines. She offers a Turkish delight. All is well.

Although I expressed doubts about the play, I had no doubts about Lipman who every time she goes on stage proves just how good an actor she is. You can't blame Adam for believing she called Hockney. From the 1968 Brit movie Up the Junction to Polanski's Oscar-winning The Pianist, it's easy to forget the role that straight drama has played in Lipman's career. But it is still comedy for which Lipman is best loved. The wit reveals itself in everything she turns her hand to: the TV and radio panel shows; the memoirs and newspaper columns; the iconic BT ads of the 1980s, and the comedy dramas written by her late husband, Jack Rosenthal, who died of cancer in 2004.

In Harvey she plays the aspirational and highly strung Veta who attempts to have her brother Elwood (James Dreyfus, and most famously James Stewart in the film) sectioned into a psychiatric hospital because having a brother with an invisible rabbit as a best friend makes life difficult. Funny and tragic, Lipman is the best thing in Lindsay Posner's production.

And yet, although she has been recently described as approaching national treasure status, there are times when she feels less than treasured. "I did Ladies of Letters with Anne Reid for two series," she says, "and since then there has been nothing on television at all. And without the cache of television you haven't got much cache in theatre. I have to get back on television."

Unlike most of her fellow actors Lipman does not need television to remain in the pubic eye. Her opinions about British attitudes to Israel, and that of the Labour party, and some Jews too, regularly go viral.

"I know when the economy dips, Jews get it. Maybe [ the actress] Miriam Margolyes doesn't know. And it doesn't really matter whether it's Israel or because we look as if we're successful, or whatever. It's antisemitism. And the reason for that thing about whether I'm leaving England was simply that I was sitting at home, decoupaging a mirror as I do, when LBC rang and said 'Are you worried about rising antisemitism?' and I said 'Of course, there isn't a Jew in England who isn't.' I said, 'When things get rough economically Jews start looking at their suitcases.' He said, 'Would you go?' and I said, 'If things got tough, of course I'd go.' The next thing I read is Lipman is leaving. I've had letters saying 'Don't go.' But it's not as if I was saying I can't wait to get out of this country." Then pointedly, Lipman adds "Esther!", because Esther Rantzen wrote a response in the Mail saying Lipman should be more grateful to the UK.

"I'm not saying that this country has never done anything for me."

Anyway, there are no plans to leave, and not much urge to either. The very idea upset her children Adam and Amy, now the family playwright since Jack died.

It is an hour to go before curtain up and a lady called Holly has arrived with Veta's hair. She begins to put Lipman's into tight curls. Meanwhile the actress paints her eyelids a surprisingly vivid blue. As Veta begins to emerge in the bulb-framed mirror I ask what comes next. "I warm up my voice, I recite a couple of poems in the voice of the character I'm playing. I'm not Daniel Day-Lewis. I don't sit here as Veta. But I have to do these things…" she breathes in a deep and long yogic breath and then lets it out, "…before I go on. I'm never complacent. It's always a fright."

I explain that I meant, what role comes next after Harvey. The answer is shocking coming from an actor at the height of her powers.

"I don't want to do the theatre any more. I feel as if I've been banging my head against the wailing wall." The demands of commercial sector – short rehearsal times, compared to the luxury of the subsidised theatre - can be thankless, especially when it results in mixed reviews, although the reviews for Lipman's performance are, pretty much as always, excellent. In Harvey she delivers one of the finest comic performances currently on the London stage.

Rallying, she says: "I would like to play Lady Bracknell, but David Suchet is doing her, so that's the end of that. There aren't many roles for women of my age." There is a pause. "Shylock. I could play Shylock," and after she, Holly and I laugh at the joke, the room falls silent with the idea hanging in the air.

"You could," I say. "There have been women Hamlets, why not a woman Shylock?"

She says "I could," and I ask if she minds my suggesting it in the JC. "Go ahead," she says.

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