Although she doesn’t like to name-drop, Lesley Manville can’t resist telling me a story involving David Bowie, Gary Oldman (her then husband) and her swollen breasts – for reasons that will become clear. The setting is Mustique; the year, 1988.
“We were there with our newborn baby, staying at David’s house, and I got severe mastitis,” says the 67-year-old actress, matter-of-factly. “No one on the island knew how to treat it, so I had to fly home for emergency treatment. The next day, David rang and said, ‘It’s a shame you had to leave, because last night there was a party and Princess Margaret was there playing the drums all night.’” She laughs. “So I missed her by 24 hours because I had mastitis!”
Manville’s failure to meet Princess Margaret in the flesh hasn’t prevented her from becoming one of the stand-out performers in The Crown, playing the late Queen’s sister, who died in 2002. Following what she calls the “pizzazzy party girl” portrayals of the younger Margaret – first by Vanessa Kirby in series one and two, then by Helena Bonham Carter in three and four – in the penultimate and concluding series (the final four episodes of which will be released by Netflix on Thursday), Manville gives us Margaret in her dotage. Although she is still a magnificent blend of indolent glamour and peppery wit, she is also hurt, embittered, increasingly tipsy and bedevilled by ill health.
As the royal drama approaches its denouement, we see Margaret suffer a stroke at a party and the subsequent, humiliating rehabilitation she endures to regain her mobility and speech. We are also shown the awful moment she collapsed in the bath on Mustique and catastrophically scalded her feet. Throughout it all, Manville’s Margaret keeps smoking and boozing and jetting off to her beloved island retreat with enraged gusto, a defiant good-time girl almost to the last, outwardly at least.
“I did adore that death-defying spirit of hers,” says Manville, whose performance exposes perfectly the damaged, lonely soul behind the decadent façade. “In her prime, she had been the Diana of her age – she appeared on more magazine covers than Diana ever did – but now she is a princess without portfolio. She hated the diary being empty – and she had the devil in her. A bit of me loves her for that.”
Manville’s Margaret is precisely the tonic The Crown needs after the first half of its final series, released last month, failed to impress the critics. (For The Telegraph’s Anita Singh, it was nothing short of a “demolition job on the late Queen’s character”, which reduced Elizabeth II, as played by Imelda Staunton, to a “sour old boot”.) In her final exchanges with her sister, we get to see a softer, more tender monarch; episode eight brings the immensely touching sight of Elizabeth reading a Jeeves and Wooster story to an ailing Margaret while propped up beside her in bed.
“She and Margaret were terribly close,” says Manville. “From everything Imelda and I read, it’s clear they spoke most days, if they could. They had a real bond that stems from when they were little girls. And yet when Elizabeth suddenly became Queen, then – whoosh! – their lives hurtled off in different directions.”
I can’t help wondering if playing that relationship has made Manville reflect differently on the apparent tensions between Princes William and Harry; one sibling destined for the spotlight, the other always to be the spare? “I don’t want to talk about Harry, because I don’t know enough about it and I would hate to make a judgment,” she says. “Besides, who really knows? That’s what I like about The Crown, that all Peter [Morgan, the series’s creator] can do is speculate on what happens when the palace doors are closed.”
We are in a suite at the palatial Langham hotel, in London, where Manville, wearing a full face of make-up for a photoshoot and brown leather trousers, is surrounded by fussing publicists. She has always been a tremendous performer, but in the past decade she has become unstoppable, an actress at the very top of her game. She excels in particular at revealing the anguish within often comically prickly women: whether playing a wrenching Mrs Alving in the Richard Eyre production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, which won her an Olivier award in 2014; or stealing scenes from Daniel Day-Lewis as his quietly formidable sister in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2018), for which she got her first Oscar nomination.
Her recent screen successes are almost too numerous to mention: a widow tentatively finding love again in the BBC sitcom Mum; a guileless, chirpy cleaner in the film Mrs Harris Goes to Paris; another emotionally ravaged widow in James Graham’s television crime drama Sherwood. This year, she has also been directed by two titans of world cinema, Luca Guadagnino – in the forthcoming William S Burroughs adaptation, Queer – and Alfonso Cuarón – for the TV miniseries Disclaimer.
Conventional wisdom has it that the parts dry up for female actresses once they reach a certain age, not madly proliferate like mushrooms in the night. Could Manville’s sky-rocketing career be just one more sign that the industry is finally getting over its obsession with youth – and waking up to the true value of older actresses?
“Absolutely, because there are enough of us, these days, defying the call to inject ourselves and cut ourselves and push it and pull it and make it bigger or smaller,” she says. “There is definitely a tide of older women moving away from this preoccupation with youth. Women in their 40s and 50s, because there are now plenty of women their age to look at [on screen], they think: you know what, I’m fine. But also, I’m comfortable with how I am; I’m so much more interesting now than I was when I was 30. There is more of life in our bones.”
Manville grew up in a council house in Hove, the youngest of three sisters. Her mother was a former ballerina, her father a taxi driver. A talented dancer herself, she left school at 15 for the Italia Conti Academy, then, the following year, moved to London. She credits her prodigious work ethic with having to manage by herself from such a young age, but also to having been a single mother for much of her career. She and Oldman split up three months after their son, Alfie, was born; between 2000 and 2004, she was also married to the actor Joe Dixon. Her early career combined West End theatre, Emmerdale and the Royal Shakespeare Company; then, in 1979, in a pivotal encounter, she met the film director Mike Leigh, with whom she would go on to make eight films. She has said that Leigh was the first person who made her feel as though she had talent. Does any part of her still relate to that insecure, 20-something actress, unsure whether she had the ability to succeed?
“I think about that feeling all the time,” she says. When she performed opposite Jeremy Irons in a 2018 West End production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, she says, “I went at it so hard because I thought I needed to prove to myself I could do it. I’m like this in all sorts of things. If I’m baking a cake, it’s obviously not catastrophic if it fails, but I do want it to be really good.”
While performing Long Day’s Journey, she was also filming the TV drama Harlots during the day – and mid-run, she jetted off to Los Angeles for a night at the Oscars for Phantom Thread. (Oldman, with whom she remains on friendly terms, won that year for his role as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.) “I’ve no truck at all with younger actors who complain of feeling tired,” she says crisply.
She does, however, look on with horror at the social-media-fuelled celebrity whirligig into which rising stars are now routinely thrust. “Oh my God, I wouldn’t want to have to go through all that,” she says. “Young actors today are made to think ‘I need to be Instagramming and self-promoting, I need to be everywhere’. I want to shout ‘No, you don’t!’ It doesn’t matter if you are on the front of a magazine or what brand you are ambassador for: the only thing that matters is the work. Nobody thought of going to America when I was in my 20s, and I say that with immense gratitude. You were here, you did the work, you did as much theatre as you could.”
All the same, celebrity came looking for Manville – and found her. “It’s funny the places I get recognised now,” she says. “They tend to be wealthy, middle-class places like Marylebone. And the National Theatre.” She takes the attention in her stride – but only up to a point. “The other day, a woman came up and said, really tenderly, ‘Lesley Manville, I just love you in Mum.’ I was so touched, I wanted to suggest we go and have a cup of tea,” she says. “But if I’m on the train and people shout, ‘Oi, Lesley’, which sometimes happens, I get so embarrassed. I just want the ground to open up.”
The concluding episodes of The Crown are on Netflix from Dec 14