Meet Anne Stallybrass, the Captain’s Lady
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
© Woman’s Weekly
18 April 1989
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