Anne Stallybrass
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The Captain's Lady

 

Meet Anne Stallybrass, the Captain’s Lady

 Playing long-suffering ladies is her forte, but in real life Anne Stallybrass is more than happy with her lot. In a remarkable interview, she talks for the first time about her marriage to Peter Gilmore, her one-time screen husband.
John Selby reports

 

 

 

 Captain and Mrs Onedin
 became household names overnight

It is an unseasonably warm afternoon in early spring and the door to Anne Stallybrass's pretty stone cottage in Barnes, south-west London, is propped securely open. The "prop", in the shape of a docile-looking golden Labrador, shows no sign of shifting, having reached what appears to be a state of deep and dreamless sleep. On the roof above the kitchen, a man with a familiar face is busily engaged on minor repairs. Below him, and from inside the house, a woman's voice can be heard humming an unrecognisable tune.

The lightest touch on the doorbell and this tableau of domestic tranquillity is shattered. The man looks up from his work, the dog heaves himself awake and wanders off into the garden and Anne Stallybrass, brimful of welcome and warm bustle, ushers her visitor through to the morning room, miraculously producing a mug of hot coffee en route.

To describe her life as reasonably content would be much like describing the Empire State as quite a tall building. Anne Stallybrass, sometime screen wife of Henry VIII, the Mayor of Casterbridge and Captain James Onedin, is in seventh heaven.

The reason for her happiness, alongside her richly fulfilling professional career, may not be entirely unconnected with the good Captain who continues his repair work on the kitchen roof. She has never before spoken in any depth of her life with, and marriage to, Peter Gilmore, the man who made his name in The Onedin Line. Today will be different.

But, first things first, and for the moment she is keener to discuss the return to our television screen of the series Flying Lady (Friday evenings on ITV), which follows the gentle tribulations of a Yorkshire family in which the husband (Frank Windsor), his long-suffering and slightly waspish wife ("that's me - and it's huge fun to play"), and their daughter co-exist with a fourth member, a beautiful old Rolls-Royce, now let out for hire.

"Originally," explains Anne, "the programme was a one-off-play in a series called Love and Marriage, but everybody felt at the time that it was the one that could make a series of its own." That first series of six, hour-long episodes was well-received. "It really is family viewing. It's amazing how much the public like to have that. So many people have said to me that it's a real relief to be able to sit down and watch a programme knowing that there's going to be no sex, no violence, nothing unpleasant in it. I feel it myself. One of the reasons I very seldom go to the cinema is because I can't stand violence, so I'm no different from the average viewer. I just don't know who the programme-makers are who aren't aware of that." She shakes her head, a little sadly.


In the popular series Flying Lady
with co-star Frank Windsor

Making the series has obviously been a pleasure. "We film in a real place, and the pub actually exists: it's called The Gaping Goose and is at Slack Bottom in Wibsey. The location sounds fictional, I know, but you can find it halfway between Bradford and Halifax. It's up very high and the winds come straight across from Siberia; it doesn't matter what time of the year we film, it's freezing cold. And yet, a mile down the road it's a glorious spring day."

"I've been ill-used by my screen husbands, rotters to a man"

Anne Stallybrass seems to speak with the authority of a native of the county; indeed, her name sounds as if it comes from the Yorkshire Ridings. In point of fact it is French (it means, literally, "strong arm"); and Anne was born and raised in Westcliff in Essex.

She cannot recall a time when she didn't want to be an actress. "My parents were very keen amateurs so I was involved from the word go - dramatisations of Winnie-the-Pooh behind the sofa and so on." And then she was lucky in that she went to a local convent school - the same one, as it happens; that Helen Mirren and Gemma Graven also attended - where acting was very much encouraged.

Were her parents proud of her in later years when success came along? "Funnily enough," she says, "my father was very against my going into the business. He was in the Bank of England and you can't get a more secure job than that. My mother, who would have liked to have been an actress, was much more encouraging and yet, when I started appearing on the box, she was much more down-to-earth about it, whereas Father tended to say to people: 'Um, my daughter's on television tonight actually'."

Anne Stallybrass's mother, in fact, died eight years ago, and being an only child has brought its own problems. "Being the only one is a sort of pressure and now that my father is on his own I do wish there was somebody else to share the visiting, the responsibility. He's a remarkable character, though. He's just celebrated his eighty-fourth birthday. He does all his own cooking; even makes his own marmalade."

After drama school, and armed with a teaching diploma should all else fail, Anne Stallybrass joined the Arthur Brough Players in Folkestone in Kent. "And oh, it was lovely. It was like joining a family. I went as an assistant stage manager, playing tiny parts and, eighteen months later, finished up playing leads. Wonderful experience. And then there were the tea matinees." She throws back her head at the memory and laughs her throaty laugh. "It was the only theatre in England that did them so there's an enormous bond between actors who've played Folkestone."

What happened? Incredulously, she says: "Three afternoons a week - Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays - they actually took out every other row of seats and put in tables with plastic cloths, and the audience ate their afternoon tea while we did the show. In the first act, they ordered their tea; and it was brought to their tables in the interval, they ate it throughout the second act and then, in the third act, they handed their trays back and paid their bills. It was hysterical. And of course it suited some plays rather better than others. I mean, Joan burning at the stake, for instance, had her work cut out." She rocks with laughter.
 
From Folkestone, Anne went to the Nottingham Playhouse with John Neville and then to Sheffield where, apart from meeting Roger Rowland, who was to become her first husband, she tackled, at the age of twenty-three, the role of Cleopatra. "Ridiculous, isn't it? But at that age you tackle anything. Blind. And sometimes it comes off, sometimes the sheer instinct is right. As you get older, you lose all of that."

What else changes? Does she still suffer from stage fright, for instance? "Oh, it gets worse; everyone you talk to says the same. It doesn't happen with television, which is so much more like filming these days. But live theatre ..." She shudders. "A lot of actors, as they get older, give up the stage. I remember talking to lovely Patrick Troughton, when I worked with him on what turned out to be his last job. I'd just done a play in the theatre and Patrick, who I'd known for years, said, 'Oh goodness, you're not still doing theatre, are you? I gave up all that shouting in the evening years ago'."

After Sheffield, Mr and Mrs Rowland journeyed south to London - and the big time. Anne remembers a small part in Emergency Ward Ten, then a George Orwell play, then Love on the Dole and eventually landing the role of Jane Seymour opposite Keith Michell in The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It was to prove the first, and one of the most poignant, of her many screen deaths.

 

 

 

 



 

  Anne Stallybrass as Jane Seymour in
  The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1969)

She recalls working on the programme only with fondness, "but not one of us thought we were involved in a success while we were making it. " In the event, it was a huge hit all over the world; it still gets repeated. "I had a cheque from Saudi Arabia the other day and that was for a piece of work I originally did nineteen years ago, I suppose. Amazing."

Eighteen months later, and directly as a result of her portrayal of Jane Seymour, Anne Stallybrass was cast in a role that was to make her a household name. Playing opposite Peter Gilmore, Anne suffered week in, week out as Mrs James Onedin in The Onedin Line. She had not been the original choice. In the pilot programme James's wife was played by Sheila Allen, but in the intervening year, "she got involved in Women's Lib theatre or something and that's how I got invited to do it".

Had Anne any inkling quite what she was letting herself in for? Had she any notion that this was to be a series spoken of, even now, in hallowed tones? "I had no idea, none at all. And I'd never done a series before ... In the end, its success was why I decided to leave. After two years - and they were quite extraordinary, with the world's press gathered outside the rehearsal rooms in North Acton virtually every day - I thought that if I didn't leave then, I'd stay forever."

It was a wise decision because The Onedin Line ran for ten years, but it was a brave one, too. Having made up her mind to go, did she then hesitate? "No," she says firmly, "I didn't at all on that one. Looking back now, I suppose it was quite a courageous decision in a way. I'm not at all sure I'd do the same thing now, but that was sixteen years ago and so I was younger and I felt the need to do something different."

One of her ambitions had been to work with either the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the event, she never has, although she has worked extensively in the theatre ever since, as well as, in time, on television again. One of the television highlights was her role opposite Michael Elphick in This Year Next Year, not least because she was playing comedy, a rarity.

It is not hard to see why casting directors turn to Anne when looking for someone to play a tragic heroine. Her face, in repose, is strong and grave; and, looking at her today, with her page-boy haircut, her neat black sweater, crisp white shirt, mid-calf length black cord skirt and black boots, it is easy to imagine her fitting comfortably into period costume. It is something she herself acknowledges.

"I became well known for playing long-suffering 'historical' ladies: Jane Seymour, the Mayor of Casterbridge's wife, Mrs James Onedin. I've been ill-used by my screen husbands," she says cheerfully, "rotters to a man."

Of the theatrical highlights, two stay in her mind. Both were comedy tours: the first, My Fat Friend, starring John Inman at the height of his popularity in Are You Being Served? toured the country from Poole to Aberdeen and was, says Anne, the single most pleasurable experience of her entire career. "We played to completely full houses every night, at every theatre, throughout the tour. It was a joy, an absolute joy."

The fun wasn't confined to the performances. "We used to like to eat after the show, but we decided it was beginning to get a bit expensive. There were only four of us in the cast, so we were usually all in the same hotel.

"What we started to do was take it in turns to go to Marks & Spencer, buy all the ready-made food we needed and smuggle it up to one or other of our rooms with a bottle of wine. John was so outrageous he'd even ask for an ice bucket with nothing in it but ice so that we could cool our wine.

"Then, the next morning, we'd creep out of the hotel with all these carrier bags containing our empties, which would be deposited in the nearest rubbish bin." She smiles with real fondness at the memory.

She also enjoyed touring with Eric Sykes in Alan Ayckbourn's Time and Time Again. "There's something about working with people like John Inman or Eric who aren't classical actors; they have a wonderful attitude to live theatre. They have this enormous joy in the rapport between them and the audience and, of course, it rubs off on you. On the first night Eric Sykes was quite extraordinary. The rest of us in the cast who were 'ordinary' actors were standing around tense and terrified, waiting for the curtain to go up. Not Eric. There he was, in the wings, cracking jokes with us all, doing brilliant bits of mime, with not a trace of nerves - we just couldn't believe it."

Just as Anne's career was going from strength to strength, her personal life took a new direction too, and her developing friendship with Peter Gilmore matured into real-life romance. Towards the end of the Seventies they set up home together, a state of unmarried bliss that the twice-married Mr Gilmore (once to the actress Una Stubbs) and the once-wed Miss Stallybrass saw no reason to put on to a more formal footing.

There was considerable speculation at the time in the smaller newspapers with the larger circulations as to Peter and Anne's private life. Did she find this intrusive? "Quite honestly, " she says now, "I didn't really have too much trouble." The same was not true of the good Captain. "It was different for Peter. I suppose he'd been in the series for longer by then and he was more instantly recognisable; I'm thankful now for my wig." She gives a slightly hollow laugh.

"I remember going back to my home-town of Westcliff to do a play and being asked by the local newspaper for an interview. It was just after my marriage had broken up so I agreed to the interview on condition that I wouldn't talk about my private life. So in the paper it said, 'In next week's Southern Standard - read all about Anne Stallybrass who will NOT talk about her private life'." Again, that throaty laugh.

"Then I went to see my old headmistress, who was a nun - she was about eighty-five by then - and she said: 'Quite right dear, quite right. You shouldn't talk about your private life.' She was very sweet. Helen Mirren had recently done one or two quite outrageous things, filmwise, but she didn't say anything about that. Instead, she simply said, 'And I'm so glad Helen's going back to the Royal Shakespeare."'

Anne Stallybrass is full of infectious good humour. She is also, you feel, a woman of quiet determination. Whatever she might say to the contrary, it requires a pretty steady nerve - and it certainly proves a pretty stringent test of any relationship - to survive public speculation on your private life. She and Peter had been living together for ten years when she was quoted as saying, "It's a relationship that blossomed after my part in the series ended. At that time we were both married to other people. We see no point in getting married now." End of story?

Actually, no. Within months, and with the minimum of fuss - just four friends attended the civil ceremony in Richmond, Surrey - Anne became Mrs Gilmore. So why did she change her mind? Anne Stallybrass turns to look through the window and into the patio garden beyond - and gives a nervous laugh. "Oh, I don't know," she says at length, "for all sorts of enigmatic reasons. No, it was just a personal decision, nothing more than that. It just felt right. And we did manage to do it incredibly secretly, incredibly privately. If you really want to keep it private, you can. I mean, people don't go round every single board at every single register office looking to see who's marrying who ..." Her voice trails away.

"I think that most people who claim they want to keep it quiet and then it's splashed all over the papers actually probably wanted just that in the first place." The likeable, no-nonsense Anne Stallybrass wanted to keep her marriage quiet precisely because it was such a personal event. "Absolutely. It was just something totally private between us. Peter's a very private person and has suffered in the past by pressure from the Press. He certainly didn't want that to happen again."

Last December, she celebrated her fiftieth birthday. Was it a milestone? Before she can answer, the golden Labrador appears at the glass sliding doors. "Ah, somebody wants to come and socialise," says his mistress. Enter Tom, aged seven-and-a-half, who is very pleased to see us, settling contentedly at our feet. "Let me see now. No, I think forty turned out to be much more of a milestone although, funnily enough, I didn't feel it at that time. I deliberately told everyone that it was my fortieth birthday and that it didn't worry me at all - and then found that it did, that it was an awful shock.

"Being fifty, on the other hand, was something I'd thought about in advance and so it wasn't nearly so bad. I know it ought to have been - it's your half-century, after all - but it just didn't strike me like that.

"And I suppose being forty for a woman is a reminder of the biological clock ticking away." She smiles. "As it happens," she adds, "I was unable to have children. It is something I have learnt to live with. I take great joy in my three godchildren and have kept in contact with all the 'television children' I have had."

So what of the future? She considers this. "Well, my favourite actresses now are people like Thora Hird - did you see her as the stroke victim in the Alan Bennett play on television? - and Peggy Ashcroft. So there are fabulous parts for older actresses if you can get them."

Will she act until she drops? "Oh, I hope so because all the older actresses I've worked with have a marvelous life. They've all got their aches and pains the same as other old people but, because they're working, they stay young mentally, they put up with the physical ailments. Gabrielle Daye, who plays Grandma in Flying Lady, is a wonderful character: she comes up on the train to Leeds to record the series with a suitcase on wheels because she's got a slightly dodgy leg, and she never complains. She enjoys life.

"I toured with Cathleen Nesbitt when she was ninety-two and she was marvelous. On the last night of The Aspern Papers, we gave her a little present and she'd been saying all the way through the tour that this, of course, would be the last time she would ever appear on stage. Then, on that last night, she said, 'Well, I expect this will be the last time ...' And it jolly well wasn't. She went off, aged ninety-four, and did My Fair Lady in America with Rex Harrison."

Anne Stallybrass's two grandmothers lived respectively to ninety-six and ninety-nine. So we can look forward to many, many more years yet of seeing their granddaughter on stage or screen. Typically, the warm and wise Miss Stallybrass says nothing. Instead, she simply laughs that lovely laugh.

Woman’s Weekly
18 April 1989

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