Tamsin Greig interview: ‘I probably shouldn’t have been in Friday Night Dinner’
Tamsin Greig is telling me about the first time the actor Simon Callow met the theatre agent Peggy Ramsay. “He went to her flat and she was wearing this diaphanous robe with nothing on underneath,” she says. “She had put thousands of candles all through the flat like some sort of romantic grotto. She was 70. Seventy! Simon went away as though he had just encountered real love.”
They don’t make them like Peggy Ramsay anymore. The agent extraordinaire, who would go on to have a passionate platonic love affair with Callow, who is gay, represented in her heyday the cream of British playwrights: Alan Ayckbourn, Robert Bolt, Joe Orton. She was known – and feared – as much for her caustic tongue as for her ability to absorb a script on first reading as though it were a fully staged play.
And she was utterly sexually unabashed. “She would put her leg up on the table and sometimes the skirt would fall just so. People would say, ‘Oh, put your fanny away Peggy’ and she would think that hilarious. Now, obviously, we are not doing that for the good audiences of Hampstead Theatre. I’ve made it very clear nothing will be see-through.”
Greig plays Ramsay in the Hampstead’s forthcoming revival of Peggy For You, Alan Plater’s deliciously funny, unexpectedly poignant 1992 theatrical love letter to his former agent. The role suits this most light-footed of actors down to the ground. She is known to millions for a string of roles, including the Jewish matriarch Jackie Goodman in Channel 4’s sitcom Friday Night Dinner, which recently ended shortly after the death of Greig’s beloved co-star Paul Ritter from a brain tumour.
Greig brings a silky gimlet wit to every part she plays, yet there is often a deeper, less visible sadness at work in her characters, too. “Simon describes Peggy as being like a flame that was never still, but also as someone who was very much alone. I am pretty interested in melancholy. I think we spend a lot of energy creating a top-spin of witty repartee to disguise the natural melancholy of being alive.”
Of course, with series such as Episodes and Black Books, Greig is known for her comic work, but she is also a stage actor of considerable acclaim. For many theatre lovers, it was her Malvolia in Simon Godwin’s 2017 gender-bending production of Twelfth Night at the National Theatre that really drew attention to her talents. Olivia’s puritanical sourpuss servant, Malvolio, was recast as a desperately lonely woman stricken with unrequited love for her mistress, and thanks to Greig this figure of fun became heartbreakingly tragic.
The role was not without controversy – there were concerns expressed at the time, including in this paper, about whether women should be taking male roles, but Greig gives such objections short shrift. “I think the big male leads will be just fine,” she says with a pointed smile. “Of course, today we might have other arguments over who should be playing what role. Someone might say, well, why were you playing Malvolia at all? You are married to a man [the actor turned writer Richard Leaf, with whom she has three teenage children]. How can you possibly know what it is to play a woman in love with a woman?”
Well, indeed. What would Greig say if someone were to make that argument? “I’d say that you don’t know my past or where I stand,” she says. “But I also think we should always be ready to grapple with our decisions.” Still, it’s a hornet’s nest.
What about Friday Night Dinner? Greig had a paternal Ashkenazi great grandfather, who was a Rabbi, but she doesn’t identify as Jewish – in fact, she is a practising Christian. “I think, given our sensitivity today about these issues, I probably shouldn’t have been in that show,” she says. “We are much more conscious today than we were when that show was first aired. For instance, Cleopatra has long been on my list of roles to play but I have to step back from that now, because Cleopatra needs to be played by someone who looks like they may have come from that area of the world. That’s absolutely right. But I’ll keep Lady Macbeth on the list,” she adds mischievously. Thankfully, Greig is a Scottish name.
Greig has a disarmingly silvery voice – she would make a great therapist – but she is also a very sharp thinker. She makes all the right noises about the need to learn constructively from other people’s sensitivities, but she is also concerned about the wider implications of modern cancel culture.
She expresses admiration for people who are prepared to stand up for free speech, such as Jordan Peterson who, in 2016, refused to adopt gender neutral pronouns as requested by his students at the University of Toronto. “You have to have these people with their hot knife who cut through the butter,” she says. “Peggy Ramsay would have done, too: she was unafraid. She would be so vitriolic about shows being ‘cancelled’. There is a line in Peggy For You when a playwright tells her the women’s movement would have her shot after she says something cavalier about women and sex. And Peggy says: ‘I sincerely hope every political movement ever invented would have me shot.’”
Greig’s career has remained firmly this side of the pond, apart from her stint in Episodes, which was filmed in Los Angeles. Does she wish she could have worked more in America? “I always thought I wouldn’t,” she says. “I haven’t done stuff to my face, I look my age. I got onto Episodes because I think you are probably allowed to be a bit [older] in a comedy drama. But there was definitely a bit of touching up going on in the edit.” Did she resent that? “I think it just made me became slightly self-conscious, because I didn’t used to think about my face and then I did. But maybe it’s changing.
“During the summer, I worked with Andie MacDowell on the film My Happy Ending. She hasn’t had any work done. Of course she’s naturally extremely beautiful, but she can move her face. I found it thrilling to be in the presence of an American woman who goes, this is how I am.”
This Christmas, Greig will be seen in Mark Gatiss’s television remake of the children’s classic The Amazing Mr Blunden for Sky. Then there is her long running on-off role as Debbie Aldridge in The Archers. She is surely heading for national treasure status. What would she prefer, to win an Oscar or a damehood? Greig gives a howl of laughter. “I’m going to quote Peggy on this. She says: ‘Everybody gets an award, it’s just a matter of time. They give them to you for staying alive.’ I think we sometimes look for value in the wrong places.”
Earlier this year, she recorded a 10-part adaptation of Meet Me at the Museum, written by her husband, which was broadcast on Radio 4. Paul Ritter was also in the cast. It was the last piece of work he produced. “He was quite all over the place by that point, but when he was reading he was utterly alive,” says Greig and her eyes start to glisten. “And this is how miraculous art can be.
“After he died, his sisters wrote to me to say that hearing him on the radio during that last week of his life was like him squeezing their hands when he couldn’t move any more. Those words will always mean more to me than any damehood or Oscar.”
Peggy For You previews at the Hampstead Theatre from Friday. Details: hampsteadtheatre.com