Hopefully, there is a point in everyone’s career where you have such an awesome day that you can take a step back for a moment and think it really can’t get any better than this. A recent conversation with Anne Reid, the absolutely delightful star of Sanditon, Last Tango in Halifax and Hold the Sunset, provided me with one of those days I’ll never forget. As with most discussions these days, we started out talking about the coronavirus, lockdowns and the general state of the world. It’s a long one, so settle in and enjoy. I hope it’s worth the read.
Anne Reid: Oh, I know. It’s very weird, isn’t it, it’s very weird. I’m very lucky because I’ve got a nice little flat in Central London and I’m looked after, you know. My son comes around with the shopping and I’ve got a friend that I meet and we keep our distance.
I’m actually a bit of a loner, to tell you the truth, naturally. I mean, I’m very sociable, I’m a typical Gemini and, actually, it’s my birthday this week (28 May). I’m a typical Gemini, I like parties and I love going to dinner parties and meeting people but I absolutely love to shut the front door and not see anybody. So, it hasn’t been too hard on me.
I know, I know. I’m going to get a T-shirt made to say please don’t kiss or hug me for a very long time. Actors have a tendency to throw their arms around anybody who happens to be standing close to them.
Bill Young: Many PBS viewers are, obviously, very familiar with your work for years and years such as Ladies of Letters, Last Tango in Halifax and, of course, Sanditon.
AR: Oh, my goodness, Ladies of Letters! I was watching that the other day. I’d like to do that again as I didn’t think I was very good in that. I have to say, however, I always think I’m not very good. And now, you’ve got Sanditon on PBS. How exciting!
BY: And, we are all holding out hope for a season two of Sanditon, with fingers crossed.
AR: Oh, I wish we would! It was ridiculous really to end after one series. Because Jane Austen never finished a story on such a sour note. She always had to have a happy ending in her books as far as I know, and I think everybody assumed there would be a season two.
Apparently, the viewing figures for some reason we’re not satisfied I don’t know whether it has anything to do with that or the fact that Julian Fellowes had written something called Belgravia and they knew that was coming along.
And whether that pushed us out of the way I mean I’m guessing this right there like In don’t know, but I loved playing Lady Denham. I don’t think I’ve have ever had so much fun it was, it was a departure for me. I’ve always wanted to play one of those ladies who bosses everybody about it.
And it’s so it was a kind of dream come true really. It was such fun. I was heartbroken when I heard they weren’t going to do it anymore.
BY: It did very well over here and I think that’s what is keeping the hope for more series alive. You know when we first heard about it, it was designed to take the place of Victoria because it was on hiatus. Everybody was talking about Sanditon and from the initial comments, there were going to be several series from the start so I don’t think anybody thought that this was a one and done series.
There’s also a wonderful group called the ‘Sanditon Sisterhood’ on Twitter, who have been pushing for a second series and getting petitions out there with tens of thousands of signatures.
AR: I know, how wonderful of them to do all of that. Tell them to keep pushing! I’d love to do it! Who knows, maybe you all can change their minds!
Well, it’s ITV, it’s commercial television. It’s not BBC. If it was the BBC, I think we would have done more. It’s all about money isn’t it in the end it’s all about whether they get the advertising. I thought it was absurd that Lady Denham threatened them with the debtors prison and then that’s the end, you know, we all want to know, I want to know whether she calmed down or whether he succeeded.
It’s all Andrew Davies’ fantasy. I don’t know what Miss Austen would think about it but it was certainly enormous fun to do.
BY: Unfortunately, it’s just like Sanditon. It’s all about the money.
AR: I guess that absolutely true (laughing), unfortunately. A lot of life is about money but I try not to think about. It was such a nice idea having it by the sea. I kept saying it’s a bit like San Tropez when Brigitte Bardot discovered it in the 50s and nobody knew about this little silly fishing village which of course became such a fashionable place. Because with Sanditon, there’s no end to the possibilities for stories. Anybody could come down, famous artists, writers and there would be a wealth of stories that they could do.
My only disappointment was that I didn’t get to ride in a carriage and I’ve always wanted to go whizzing along in one of those carriages although I’m sure it’s not terribly comfortable. Imagine, London to York in whatever year it was 1812 must have been a nightmare because the roads were not calm, of course, and London cabs are a bit like that sometimes even though they’ve got new springs. You’re just grateful you’re not pregnant.
BY: Looking back over your roles and then you look at Lady Denham. You’re finally upstairs!
AR: I know! I also do this series, Last Tango in Halifax with Derek Jacobi. Well, in the series, I’m much, much posher than him. He grew up in a tobacconist shop in North London.
My father was a foreign correspondent and I went to public school as we call it here. Public doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in America where it means a private boarding school and. It’s quite funny that people treat him as it is much higher class than me, but (laughing) I’ve tried to live with it. I’m not bitter and twist it about because I love him dearly, but it was very nice to be the one that the lady in the manor who was in charge of everything! I took to it very easily you understand.
In Upstairs Downstairs, I was in the kitchen to cook and, honestly, I can’t cook for toffee. I mean, I’m quite famous as not being a good cook. And so that was quite funny standing there over plates and plates of wonderful food and telling everybody that I’d cooked it when I hadn’t at all.
I get lots of domesticated parts. I don’t know what it is. I obviously look better with a pan in my hand. When I’m acting so they stick a pan in my hand and they tell me I’m very convincing. So it was very nice to be to be to be in those lovely frocks.
BY: Looking at your character of Lady Denham and given, as you said, much of Lady D’s character is in Andrew Davies’ head, does it help to have the character, even as short as it is, defined in the book? Does that help you to have a basis of the character?
AR: Oh, yes, wonderfully! No question. Never have I read such a description of a character. It was very clear as Jane Austen wrote it. And of course, that’s what Andrew had based it on. Remember, Lady Denham, in the book, had always had money. But she hasn’t had, you know, Posh money. She’s the daughter of a Lord. She’s slightly, what do you call it in America, the wrong side of the tracks in America. And so she’s had to work she’s had to marry men.
She, obviously, likes money and has had to marry men to get more money and a title. In those days of course women had to look after themselves but I think I would have got the feeling that Lady D had a lot of money but she just wanted more you know that some people do think they’re never satisfied with what they’ve got. That’s how I see her.
BY: I think what helped from a viewer standpoint, when you know the background of Lady Denham, it gives you an insight of her relationship with both Charlotte and Clara in that she could understand and relate to both in different ways, obviously much better than other characters.
AR: Definitely. In a way, I think she understands Clara even though, at times, she was very short with her and got rid of her in the end. Sometimes people don’t like to be reminded of their background, especially if you’re trying to pretend to be somebody else. I think some people once they’ve moved up the scale, they don’t like to be reminded of where they’ve come from. And I think Lady Denham has moved up the scale a bit so that’s why she was not very tolerant with Clara.
Personally, I really don’t think this is me in real life at all. I don’t feel I’ve come from a class, you see, because my father was a journalist and all my brothers were journalists as were my uncles and my grandfather. I don’t think journalists think of themselves as of a particular class, would you go along with that?
BY: I absolutely agree. With Charlotte, at the end of the first season where you looked at her saying that you expect she’ll be walking down the aisles soon. And then she involves Sydney in the conversation….
AR: Lady Denham was quite nice to her, wasn’t she, in the end. I think Lady Denham sort of admired Charlotte. Her feistiness, her strength at defying people. I think she definitely identified with Charlotte. I thought she was divine.
BY: When you think of the ensemble case in Sanditon or even Last Tango or Hold the Sunset, how important from your standpoint is having that strong cast throughout?
AR: It’s very important. You see, when you have great actors, the scene works. That’s what I always worry about, whether the scene works. I always hate the way I look and Lady Denham, my God! Some of the shots that put on Twitter are frightening. I look 146.
But, what you want is good people to play the scene with. And, in Sanditon, they were all excellent. I loved the scene with Kris Marshall. I loved shouting at him. I used to say to him, I’m going to be shouting at you tomorrow and he would say, ‘Oh, good!’. I didn’t have much to do with Theo James’ character, Sydney. He was charming, however, and absolutely charming young man, but I didn’t have a lot to do with him.
My scenes were mostly with Jack Fox who was very naughty. He used to propose to me regularly. It’s great fun. I said one day I’m going to accept you and you’re going to get such a shock! He was lovely.
BY: What I loved about the character of Lady Denham was the balance of you being very harsh and then being very soft at times.
AR: I wanted to do that, because I think in the beginning, I didn’t want to do another of those ladies we’ve seen who are just horrible all the time because I don’t think anybody ever is I just think it’s much more interesting to show vulnerability in something.
We’ve seen a lot of those ladies in English costume dramas who dominated like Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. And I just didn’t want to do that. I want you never to know which way she was going to jump in that she might be all right but If you catch them on the wrong day they’re dreadful.
The thing that surprised me, is everybody thinks I’m so funny as Lady Denham.There’s a lot on Twitter, which I do look at, saying a lot about these one liners I had never thought of it like that at all. I mean I have to thank Andrew and the writers for that but I didn’t think of them as comedic, maybe only within the context of the show were they funny but not funny as a catchphrase. I don’t think of myself as comedic. Did you think I’m funny?
BY: I look at you as being comedic because I enjoy Hold the Sunset.
AR: You did? How wonderful. I will say it was gorgeous working with John Cleese. He was adorable to me. We got on so well. He was so funny, He’s such an icon. God, after Fawlty Towers, which is, as we all know, as the greatest comedy ever made on British television just about.
Hold the Sunset was great fun. I loved doing it. When I was at the Royal Academy. I used to play all the maids and the silly sort of old women and very much character parts. And then when I left, I was never really ripe for a juvenile lead. I settled into kind of Northern mothers and what I used to call the skirt and jumper roles, which went on for years.
Now I’m getting such interesting rolls over the last 15 years. The Mother that I did with Daniel Craig. That changed everything a bit. I guess people had another look at me after that thinking maybe she can do it because I got nominated and won awards and stuff.
Mark Strong always said you have to get into the middle of the pond as it’s no good being on the outside in this business. And I suppose I was on the edges, for many years and now it’s all come good.
When I was young, I was in a soap called Coronation Street. That was very nice for nine years. And then got married, had a baby and gave it up for about 12 years. I gave the business up and really started again when I was 50. It’s just got better and better and better so that’s very gratifying.
I do a cabaret which I absolutely love. I did it at 54 Below in New York, which was just about the best night of my life. I sing and tell kind of funny stories make people laugh. It’s glorious and I loved that night. I’m dreaming that one day I’ll get asked back with my musical director. We’ve done it on the ships and in Australia other places.
So that’s what I really love now is just doing my own show. It’s very creative because I write it and I also can choose what to sing. It’s lovely. So I’m having a rather good time, actually. I’d always thought if we do Sanditon and Last Tango over the next few years, then I’ll be very happy just to do those and not do anything else.
How can I ever thank your Sanditon Sisterhood? They’ve been so wonderful from the start.
BY: I think one of the things what I loved about Hold the Sunset is that having been around long enough to know the comedies in the early days when you think of Fawlty Towers and you think of As Time Goes By and Keeping Up Appearances, comedy has really gotten away from the nice soft, sweet comedy that we’ve known. Hold the Sunset is really the first thing that has come along in a long time since Good Life and To the Manor Born, really, that fills that bill.
AR: I completely agree with you. To the Manor Born was wonderful! I agree with you. It’s considered old fashioned, now, but they work. I hate all this sort of sleazy stand up comedy. Situation comedy is nice because I loved all the films and comedy plays of Neil Simon which is sort of situation comedy and is kind of an extension of isn’t it. We weren’t in the studio we were in a. We were in a house but it’s got that feeling to it.
Oh, I’d love to do some more. I adored it. I picked my character’s name, actually. She was called Hilda and she came from the north and there was another character called Hilda in Coronation Street. I said I’ll do it if you change the name and if I play her as a Cockney rather than a Northerner.
So they said, ‘what name do you fancy’? So I sent them a list and they said we like Queenie and I said yes I love that too, so I picked the name.
BY: Piggybacking on that, when you took the role of Lady Denham, did you have the opportunity to sit down with Andrew and talk about your character and did you have the ability to say, I don’t think she would do it like this?.
AR: Nothing like that. I only spoke to Andrew briefly. I’ve been in lots of Andrews series I was in Bleak House. I also did one of his first plays which was called Inappropriate Behavior. I did talk with the director, Olly Blackburn, a great deal, however. And, Jack and I met up. We were more or less thrown into it but I think as you said before, it was so clearly laid out in the novel and the part of the novel that Jane Austen did write. I just sort of knew how it should be.
It was slightly difficult at the beginning because I think they thought I was going to be much different. I always felt that they thought I would be much bossier in the beginning, but I knew how I wanted to do it. I think you can be evil without being loud all the time, and manipulating. She’s very manipulating. He didn’t write the middle. I think next time, I’d like him to write the whole lot.
It’s a great shame if they don’t commission it now because I’m sure he would have plenty of time to write it during lockdown. So, I do hope it happens. I spoke to the producer, but I haven’t I haven’t spoken to him for a while for the last several months but it would be so lovely. I think they were waiting to see how it would go in America because it’s important, the size of audiences in America.
With Hold the Sunset, they said find a song that’s suitable because I’m very musical, I play the piano and sing and everything. And they said, find a song that would be suitable for the wedding, and it couldn’t be about you. It had to be a song about love, and I thought, you know, I’ve always loved Love is a Many Splendored Thing. Then, I found that they cut the blooming middle out. I was absolutely furious I said you’ve ruined the song and we could have had the whole thing.
I was really gutted and the guy playing the piano. Jason Carr is my musical director I roped him in. We do the cabaret together. It was great fun you know I love playing her, she was so mad. Well, if it’s going well in America either. I’m sure John would be up for it.
Speaking of America, I’d love to see the Grand Canyon with the giant redwoods and things. My grandma was born in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania. My great grandfather worked on the railways. I like to think she was born in a covered wagon, you know. I like to think I’m a bit American, a quarter America, anyway.
BY: Looking at your career, obviously there’s comedy and there’s drama. Which you think is harder to do comedy or drama?
AR: No comparison. Comedy. My ideal actor is Tom Hanks, because he just can do everything. I actually through lockdown I think I might write to him. I’ve been listening. He’s been having lunch with me because somebody gave me all his stories.
He wrote a lot of stories and he’s recorded them and I listen to them, because he can do everything. I think there are a lot of solemn actors who couldn’t make you laugh for their lives, they don’t have funny bones. To be a really good actor, you’ve got to have a kind of silver streak. You know like through a five-pound note. Silver piece of silver that does through the middle and I think of wit, like that. I think it’s so important to be a complete actor to have that comedy in your actors bag, because otherwise it’s kind of dull and I can’t be bothered with solemn. There is a so much solemnity in this business.
I think is vital to be funny. It gives a color to everything. Look at Hugh Laurie, who I absolutely adore as well. And, you know, doing House. He was this serious man but he there was always that sort of halo of wit over his head.
BY: Watching Blackadder, all the Jeeves and Wooster programs, you can look at Hugh Laurie and Tom Hanks, those are the very few of today’s actors that can, in a sense, rival the Jimmy Stewart’s of years ago.
AR: Exactly! I was watching a program on SKY called Discovering Film, which is all about film stars and their lives and it was fascinating. I get really cross because there’s a woman called Bonnie Greer, who is she’s an American who keeps saying the director got this wonderful performance out of Jimmy Stewart and I’m shouting ‘No, he didn’t. Jimmy Stewart got the performance out of himself. It was the director who got it out of him’.
BY: Today, it’s the same thing with feature films, I think. What I loved about Sanditon is that it’s a story. What we’ve lost over the years, whether it’s TV series or in feature films, is how important story is, it’s more about special effects.
AR: Oh, absolutely! We must meet some day!! We are on the same wavelength. My two favorite directors are Billy Wilder and James L. Brooks. I would kill to work with James L. Brooks. Broadcast News is one of my all-time favorite films. And of course, anything Billy Wilder did because he constructed it, he constructed a story. Now if you work with directors, they’ve said to me, ‘we don’t know what film we’ve got until we get in the editing room’. What’s all that about? It’s ridiculous.
Billy Wilder knew exactly what he was getting before he ever set out what he wanted before he ever sent off. People just think oh you’re old and you don’t know what’s going on.
I’ve always thought I had to keep up with the times but these times I don’t particularly want to keep up with actually! I think the films of the 40s and 50s, the Hollywood movies I was brought up on. And when I went to LA, I was heartbroken that Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor weren’t actually dancing around down Sunset Boulevard. Not what I was expecting at all.
BY: If you are able to based on your entire career if you are able to pick up the phone right now and call a 21 year old Annie Reid. Is there something you can say to them?
AR: Oh, God, there’s a lot that I’d like to say. The first thing is you need to lose weight (laughing). That would be right at the top of the list. I’d definitely say to go for the music. I don’t know whether I would have been an actress I would have gone to music college I think because it’s in my bones. That’s what I would like to have done.
Don’t give up the music. Just believe in yourself because you know, much, much more than you actually think you do and stop trying to please the directors, because you’ll do much better when you’ve pleased yourself. That’s something I learned over the years.
I was always trying to do what I was told. And I look at young actors with confidence. I’m quite sure Benedict Cumberbatch, didn’t listen a lot to directors, he just went for it, what he believed in.
And I think actors would know much more now. I was very unworldly. A very innocent young girl. I knew nothing about the business or about life and so oh that would there would be a lot I would have to say, but take too long, actually.
BY: Is there is there one role in any series that you’ve enjoyed over the years that you would have loved to have in a series you would have loved to have been in?
AR: I’d like to have played Mrs. Bennett in the Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. A lison Stedman is a dear friend. And I’m so jealous that she got that part, because I would have killed to have played Mrs Bennett. I played her on the stage once. And I would love to have played that.
There was a film on last night that I made in 1958. I didn’t have a line but I had to come out onto the steps of a registry office having just married Michael Caine. Neither of us got credit. But we came out on the steps, it’s called Passport to Shame. And we came out on the registry, kissed each other and I threw my bouquet to the crowd and then I think we left. I don’t know if he had any lines but he didn’t get a credit.
Jackie Collins had one line, you know, the novelist. I’ve never seen it before until last night so that was quite funny. I’d like to meet Michael and remind him that we did kiss when we were very young.
BY: I think you need to write a book.
AR: Oh, don’t you start! I’m supposed writing. People have been telling me that. Ever since I started doing cabaret, I had publishers come about six years ago wanting to know if I would write a book. So, this is what everybody’s saying in lockdown. And they commissioned me but I said I don’t want any money because I don’t want somebody breathing down my neck.
My friends, do you know a singer called Barbara Cook? She’s a New York legend. She was my idol. And she got paid and then she’d ring me up and say, I’ve got to write this damn book. I didn’t want somebody breathing down my neck but everybody’s saying to me now. Are you going to get on with that memoir. I’d rather play the piano really than write.
BY: Where did your love of music come from?
AR: My Grandma, really, and my father. I’ve always loved music. I love the American Songbook. I just love it. My musical director, Jason Carr, who was nominated for two Tony’s for the arrangements of La Cage aux Folles and Sunday in the Park with George is the most wonderful pianist, and we share a love of all that period. Irving Berlin and Harry Warren and Gershwin, obviously. We just love all those all those songs. I lived in a big house before I came to London about 15 years ago and I used to sing all day in the kitchen and my son was trying to work through his exams came down one day from upstairs and said, ‘Oh, can you give it a rest, Mom’? I was driving him mad.
I love music. I’d like to be somebody like Ann Hampton Callaway who can sing and play the piano at the same time. Or, like Blossom Dearie. That’s not going to happen now. I’m going to do one or the other. When I was young, I had to be forced to play the piano. I loved to dance and my Mother threatened to take me away from dancing if I didn’t practice the piano. I’m SO glad that she did that.
And, now, I am dreaming about doing Lady Denham again now I’ve spoken to you (laughing). I’m hoping that something will happen.
BY: What is the one thing that you enjoyed about Lady Denham the most.
AR: I liked being a woman who lived in a mansion with this interesting past. I loved being domineering. And, of course, the wit of the lines, and trying to control other people’s lives. I’ve played lots of parts where other people have controlled me.
As I’ve gotten older and much more difficult…I used to be very much a yes girl. That changed and I’ve gotten much stronger roles. I loved Lady Denham’s strength and she’s such a multi-faceted character isn’t she. Do you know what I mean?
BY: This is going to be a very odd comparison, I look at Basil Fawlty I look at Edmund Blackadder and the ones that you just love to hate, but then you just come back with something so endearing and that’s where I think the harshness and the softness of Lady Denham played so well.
AR: I have to say you get the prize for saying the nicest thing that anybody’s ever said to me. I think I need to ring John and tell him!
BY: That I compared you to Basil Fawlty?
AR: I love it! But, I kind of know what you mean, actually. Only I don’t own up to the mistakes like he does.
BY: It’s the same with the character of Doc Martin.
AR: Oh, yes. I played a dreadful character in that series? I played a woman who kept a lot of cats. And I said, I want you to make me look as smelly as possible. I want to be dreadful. No, that was fun.
Martin Clunes is just wonderful but it took me a while to come around to that at the beginning because I thought the character was so awful.
BY: Thank you so much for taking the time today to talk about Sanditon, Last Tango, Hold the Sunset and your life!
AR: Well, thank you to you because it’s been such fun talking to you. Thank you very much again. I hope I sounded reasonably intelligent. I work at it (laughing). And let’s get another season of Sanditon going! Thanks to the Sisterhood. I’d love to do another six! Fingers crossed!
With that, I had to hang up on what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable mornings I’ve had in some time. Definitely, the most enjoyable one during lockdown!
Fortunately, ITV’s decision to not renew the series has not dampened the hopes of the hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide, The desire for a second series continues to pick up steam on a daily basis. So much so that the petition making its way around Planet Earth to encourage broadcasters to pick up the ball and get the Sanditon band back together is still going strong. Don’t worry, petition organizers only have 6 requests for a storyline for series 2. They may want to add Anne Reid’s thoughts on Lady Denham as #7! If interested in adding your name to the over 60,000 Sanditon fans who have signed the petition, click here.
For those that want to play catch up or watch series 1 again, you can become a member of your local PBS station and enjoy all 8 episodes on PBS Passport or you can also binge watch the entire series on the PBS Masterpiece Prime Video Channel.