Diana Quick: 'For the first time in my life I can have non-sexual relationships with men'

Turning 70 seems to have had an energising effect on Diana Quick. The actor who for so many of us will always be preserved in a sort of aspic of retrospection - thanks to her pivotal role as the cool beauty Lady Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited in the early Eighties - is very much not living in the past.

“As I enter a new decade,” she says, “I’m taking stock. You watch another 10 years unfurling in front of you, and there is this sense of a marker. It’s an opportunity to think: what do I want to contribute? What do I want to do next?”

She adds, “I’ve just become a grandparent” – Béatrice, six months old, is the daughter of Mary, Quick's child with former long-term partner Bill Nighy – “so I find myself, asking what do I want to leave for this tiny new life, what do I want to say to her?”

Whatever advice Quick decides to pass on will no doubt have a clearly feminist, activist agenda. She is presently an ambassador for HeForShe Arts Week, a programme of events organised with the UN to promote gender equality.

I’ve always gone from relationship to relationship. And you risk defining yourself by relationships

So how does she feel now - in the week that sees International Women’s Day - about progress for women?

“There’s not a simple answer. When I was young in the Sixties, we did think it would be a matter of getting equal pay and maternity rights, and then women would have an equal place at the table.

“And some things are so obviously better. Other things haven’t changed at all. It is still often the case if you are neither confident, nor beautiful, nor intelligent, as a woman in the world you will have a hard time.”

But it’s not easy if you do tick all those boxes, either, she points out. Her fellow HeForShe campaigner actor Emma Watson has been criticised in the press this week for appearing in a glamorous publicity shot bra-less.

Quick sighs. “It is extraordinary for me that feminism is still a minefield.

“Emma is a very serious and brave person. She is a prominent actress who happens to be articulate and attractive. What is she supposed to do? Cover herself in sackcloth, never bare her breasts?

“It is such a double standard. We live surrounded with flaunting sexual images, on billboards, music videos, and media. But as a woman if you dare to speak out, you cannot also look attractive.”

It is not always men who suppress women’s voices; women still must beware women it seems.

For example, this week, Dame Jenni Murray has been embroiled in a row over trans-identity. Murray suggested that women who transitioned from being men cannot understand that full female identity which comes with never experiencing male privilege. As a result she was criticised heavily online.

Quick is supportive: “Jenni is clearly interested in opening up the debate – she’s making Simone De Beauvoir’s point that one is not born a woman, but becomes a woman through a series of defining attitudes. It’s as much to do with how others perceive you as your own biology.”

When you still want to be as attractive as you can there are lots of things about ageing which are hard

But she adds..“Who is to say what is female and what is male? This violent reaction to Jenni’s words could stem from feelings of exclusion. But we have all been in this transitional state, exploring what it means to "become feminine" as de Beauvoir says, for a long time. It is an evolutionary process.”

Quick began reading de Beauvoir as a 19-year-old when first at Oxford, where she was appointed the first female president of the Oxford University Dramatic Society in 1966. She had attended grammar school in Kent first, daughter to Joan and Leonard, a wealthy dentist. Quick was knocked back by his early death at 50 from a heart attack; the pair had been very close. Plans to study as a postgraduate at RADA had to be abandoned; money was suddenly tight.

She has also written about growing up under the shadow of a family secret in her memoir A Tug on the Thread. After Leonard died, she discovered that her family were Anglo-Indian, a shame his own parents had been desperate to hide.

Perhaps nonconforming genes were also passed down. Quick has been married once (to actor Kenneth Cranham) and in two long relationships, first Albert Finney and later Nighy. She is now in what she calls a “necessary stage; I’ve always gone from relationship to relationship. And you risk defining yourself by relationships.

“The advantage of not being in one is that you discover an awful lot about yourself; you make autonomous choices.”

She is enjoying, too, “strong friendships with men whom I have known all my adult life. One can have friends who are men – relationships which are loving and caring, but with whom you have not had a sexual relationship. You don’t have to explain yourself and you can enjoy each other’s company.”

There is an idea of writing a book on love and relationships. “A private journal about my secret love life for Béatrice to read one day. About one’s internal feelings and choices one made to do with that. To steer her a little, help her make informed choices.”

She was clearly able to educate her Mary about women’s issues. “My daughter went to Westminster school for sixth form, in the late Nineties, and I recall her coming home and saying she was the only one who called herself a feminist. I found that shocking.”

Quick is not – she is clear – frustrated by young women who say they are not feminist. “It’s not that simple. It’s just that progress has been slower than we thought.”

Is she energised then by recent waves of global women’s marches?

“To an extent. People marching is a glorious thing. But it is not enough – only a step on the way. And I don’t think there are any short cuts. Everything comes back to education. UNESCO said the way to change the world is to educate a girl till she’s 14. It is the single most transformative thing we can do. And, of course, keep the conversation going.”

As a woman in the public eyes, Quick is just as exacting on herself as she is on the state of the world.

“I miss having no lines,” she admits. “As an actor, you spend so much time looking in make-up mirrors, and an awful lot of stuff is filmed in High Definition now. One is left under no illusions about one’s appearance. But I have resisted going under the knife and will carry on doing that.”

There is less cheer about watching her hair get thinner – “I always had a great mane of hair,” she says ruefully. “When you still want to be as attractive as you can there are lots of things about ageing which are hard.

Our mortality is inevitable. The sooner one gets used to it the better

“The way your habitual expression seems to be reflected constantly back. The way you start to hunch forward. Collapsing arches and having to do lots of Pilates to remedy that.”

She laughs. “It’s the maintenance. When I was younger, I used to splash my face with water and clean my teeth. Now it is creams, unguents, and exercise in order to be minimally healthy.”

But she doesn’t fear death. “The reality is I’m in my 70s and have seen many of my friends pass in the past few years. I am much closer to the end of life than this boundless vista I saw when I was younger.

“Our mortality is inevitable. The sooner one gets used to it the better. I try to live in the day as much as I can and not do things I would regret.

“I used to be defiant and careless; I thought I was immortal. Now one is more careful - and I hope, more celebratory.”

HeForShe Arts Week runs from March 8-13. For more information, click here.

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