When Cathy Tyson won a Bafta last year for her moving performance in the Covid care home drama Help, viewers might have been forgiven for thinking, “where has she been?” The actress, who shot to fame as the star of Neil Jordan’s 1986 film Mona Lisa, and almost blazed a hole in the screen as a single mother and prostitute in Band of Gold in the mid-1990s, seemed to have slipped below the radar since then.
“I didn’t feel forgotten,” she tells me, when we meet for coffee in Soho. “I just didn’t get the work.” That’s part of being an actor, she insists. For those who were watching closely, there were roles as a clergywoman in the early evening ITV soap Night and Day, as deputy head Miss Gayle in Grange Hill, as Lady Bracknell on stage in The Importance of Being Earnest, and lots of others, but perhaps not always the ones that her talent deserves.
One of the many joys of Boiling Point, BBC One’s intense, involving four-part spin-off of the Bafta-nominated 2021 film, is to see Tyson turn up in a small role. She plays the less-than-supportive mother of the restaurant’s head chef Carly (Vinette Robinson). “Darling,” she tells her daughter, when presented with a test plate of Carly’s new main course. “I love you, but if I eat that before breakfast, I’ll be sick.”
Boiling Point is the first fruit of Matriarch, the production company created by the actor Stephen Graham and his wife, the actress Hannah Walters, who both appear in the drama. Tyson reveals that her own character was the source of in-depth discussions. She claims she’s ill and is demanding of her daughter’s time and attention. “It’s a contentious, problematic issue when somebody is sick, but also manipulative – do they milk their illness? It needed to be handled very carefully.”
There’s nothing enervating about Tyson in person. She’s smartly dressed, thoughtful, and passionate. When she was younger, she says, “I would have never done an interview with The Telegraph,” but she has come to feel that “it’s great to talk to people who have different views to you”. Studying for an English degree at Brunel University in west London, in later life, she says, “taught me how to open my mind to different viewpoints”.
She does have one issue, though: “I imagine some of the readership use the word ‘woke’. For me, it’s as bad a term as an offensive racial slur. The terms ‘woke’ and ‘race card’ are deeply offensive to me.” Woke, she believes, is used to “undermine” progressive ideas, and “the term ‘race card’ is thrown in your face if you make a criticism of anything. Even the term ‘white privilege’ is very, very divisive. I’m not about sides.” More important to Tyson is, “How do we all get on together?”. It’s to do with being mixed-race, she believes. “It’s complex, there’s a lot of people of all colours who are suffering financially, who are hungry, at the moment.”
She grew up in Toxteth, the inner-city Liverpool district that has become synonymous with the 1981 riots. Her mother was a senior social worker, her father a barrister in Trinidad. “My father didn’t live with us. He visited us occasionally from Trinidad, but I’m still proud of his achievements.” She experienced racism as a child. “My mother was called, you know, a ‘N-lover’, by certain people”; she was of Irish heritage and “a great storyteller, I’m indebted to her that I know so much about my past”; Tyson’s great grandfather, she learned, was an early member of Sinn Féin.
The young Cathy didn’t have the fashion accoutrements that other teenagers had, “which I yearned for… I wasn’t cool. I wasn’t streetwise. I was exposed to books from an early age. I was in a book club, and had books delivered every three weeks. And my mother spoke poetry when we were out in the shops – it was so embarrassing, and I was like, ‘Why can’t you just go to the bingo like all the other mums?’”
Liverpool back then “wasn’t a multicultural city”, she says, “only Toxteth was. And there were two sides of Toxteth, one was white, predominantly, and one was more mixed. I lived in the white area and there was conflict… There were problems between Catholics and Protestants, then you had black and white, there was joyriding at night, there were juvenile delinquents.” She had just turned 16 when the riots broke out, but she wasn’t out on the streets. “I was aware of why it flared up, but there was a level of drama all the time, I was used to it.”
That said, she stresses, “I had three discos a week I could go to. I don’t think you could say that of kids today. It was a rich tapestry. And the drugs weren’t there then. It was idyllic in a way. I was in the Everyman Youth Theatre – it was a very inclusive place where again, four nights a week, we could go in there after school. We would rock up – Dave Morrissey, Ian Hart – we were around the amazing theatre director Roger Hill.”
She graduated from the youth theatre to the main Everyman stage, appearing in The Liverpool Blitz Show in 1983, singing the Vera Lynn standard, When They Sound the Last ‘All Clear’ – “I felt very self-conscious, because I had to wear a camisole.” Soon after, she was plucked to join the RSC, becoming, at 18, its second youngest member (after Dexter Fletcher) at the time. “I remember when I left to go to the RSC people did say to me, ‘Don’t give up your accent, whatever you do, girl.’ There was a seriousness within them, you know, and I thought, ‘OK, that’s important’.” “I’m still in love with Liverpool,” she adds.
Mona Lisa brought with it the shock of fame. At the time, she was married to the actor and comedian Craig Charles with whom she had a son, Jack, in 1988. Being in a high-profile relationship only added to the intensity of the spotlight, but she says, “I enjoyed it as well. I was successful.” There was a brief flirtation with Hollywood, but “I was distrustful of America… and I didn’t have the confidence then. I remember just wanting to see my mates. I had already been severed from my friends to go into the RSC. And I felt, ‘When am I going to have a youth?’”
In 1994, she appeared in Antonia Bird and Jimmy McGovern’s film Priest, and a year later in Kay Mellor’s ground-breaking drama about women working in the red-light district in Bradford. “We were scared when Band of Gold first came out, because we thought, it’s a taboo subject, how are people going to respond?” Tyson recalls. “Then 18 million viewers watched it. That’s unheard of today.”
When she began researching the role, she went to meet some sex workers; “I met some lovely people,” she tells me. She came away with a lot of respect for them. “I saw what they went through. I also dressed up in a miniskirt and walked down Bradford High Street one day with my hair out, just to see what looks I would get. And I got some scornful looks from women, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what they’re faced with every day’; it’s difficult to live in that environment, where you’ve got such hostility towards you.”
She doesn’t believe casting should be limited in any way. “Colour-blind, size-blind, age-blind would be good. Society is always ahead of the industry – there are women of my age doing all sorts of amazing things.” In 2020, she formed her own production company, Brown Girl Films, and has just made the short, Lilian, about the first black woman in the RAF, written by her partner, the actor Kammy Darweish. She now has plans to direct a feature film.
“We do smile because we’re two middle-aged people just embarking on a new career. But there’s a lot of people doing that now.” It’s good to have her back.
Boiling Point begins on BBC1 on Oct 1 at 9pm, with all episodes available on iPlayer