This life, Geraldine James

Geraldine James tells Daphne Lockyer she is busier than ever and she’s more than happy to play older than her 62 years in her latest role

Geraldine James was spending her milestone 60th birthday on a plane bound for New York. It was not how she’d have chosen to celebrate, but the transatlantic journey proved more memorable than expected.

“I look in the mirror and think ‘This is the face that’s taken me forward into my life. Why would I want to change it?’”

  “I was working on the movie Arthur and the film company had kindly put me at the ‘pointy end’ of the plane,” she laughs. “I looked across and spotted Paul McCartney. He came over and we started chatting. He was on his way to Ringo’s 70th and when I told him it was my birthday, too, the champagne started flowing.

“I’d been miserable about spending my 60th somewhere over the Atlantic but suddenly I was partying with one of the absolute heroes of my youth. It was the nicest present ever.”

Having just celebrated another birthday (she was 62 this month) the luck has not deserted her. Well known for TV roles such as Sarah Layton in The Jewel in the Crown and sassy hooker Rose in Band of Gold, the award-winning actress is still constantly in demand, both on stage and screen.

Today, James is in Dublin where she is working on ITV’s two-part adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s contemporary thriller, Thirteen Steps Down. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a woman never without male admirers, she has elected to play Gwendolen, an elderly curmudgeon. “No sexuality required at all,” she grins.

Having been away from the small screen for a while she hopes the audience won’t think, ‘God what happened to her?’ I trust they’ll realise there’s a lot of make-up, costume and acting involved in creating Gwendolen.”

Gwendolen’s hair is grey and tied back in an unflattering pony-tail in contrast to James’s, which is usually well-cut and gently highlighted. Her face is unadorned with any kind of flattering make-up. Her clothes are shapeless, too – lots of baggy cardigans and shapeless skirts.

It’s been illuminating to think like a much older woman. “Poor Gwendolen is reaching the end of her life and she’s discovering what a waste it’s been. I feel terribly sorry for her but I can’t ever imagine ending up like her.”

Personally, she’s looking forward to later life. “I imagine myself down at our cottage in Sussex with my husband, Joe, the pair of us just pottering around the garden and squabbling – which we do all the time anyway, but in an extremely amicable way.”

It’s a rosy picture that she hopes will endure. Her mother had battled alcoholism when James was growing up, only to succumb to Alzheimer’s in her last years. “I’d hate to go the same way because it is such a terribly distressing condition especially for the people who love you because the sufferer often doesn’t know they’re ill,” she says.

“Still, I do remember my mum having flashes of clarity. Once, to my shame, I was being impatient with her, and she suddenly said, ‘Do you have any idea what it’s like to lose your mind, Geraldine?’ And I was never cross with her again.

“But I have also said to my husband and my daughter that if I go the same way they should do whatever they feel necessary to hasten my end. I can’t believe that this disease has gone on so long without us finding a way of helping people.”

Her husband and daughter, Ellie, are the backbone of her life. She and Joe Blatchley, a director and actor, have been together for 35 years. “I can remember when Olivia Harrison was asked how she and George had stayed married so long she said, ‘By not getting divorced’ and that is exactly how it is with us.

“Like every couple we’ve had our ups and downs. But, perhaps because each of us had known the misery of coming from divorced parents, we were always determined to work at it and stay together. My life would not have been remotely the same without Joe’s love and his utter steadfastness.”

The ups and downs have included their thwarted attempts to have more than one child. “We tried and tried, but it didn’t work and it’s wrong to build your life around an absence.”

There was a time, she admits, when she felt slightly needled that Ellie rejected her parents’ profession, becoming a human rights worker instead. “But really it wouldn’t have been a good fit for her.”

On the plus side, too, she won’t suffer the actress’s insecurities, rejections, as well as the tyranny of remaining eternally young. “And none of us is immune,” Geraldine admits

“You look around and see so many actresses having ‘work’ done. I haven’t been down that road myself and would probably be too scared to try it, but I can understand the pressures.

“In the old days they used to take two hours to light a scene and two minutes to shoot it. Now it’s entirely the other way round. Care isn’t taken to make older actresses look their best and HD TV, which shows every pore and wrinkle, is an added nightmare.

“It’s sad,” she adds, “because ageing faces are also beautiful. I look at myself in the mirror these days and think, ‘This face has taken me through 62 years of weather, anxiety, happiness, misery, love, growing up, learning. This is the face that’s taken me forward into my life. Why would I want to change it?’”

Nor, she says, would she return to her youth. “I was so driven and desperate to prove myself. I’d like to tell my 20-year-old self ‘Don’t worry so much, it will all work out, I promise.’

If it ended tomorrow, then, she adds, “I’d be able to say, ‘I’ve had a wonderful life, a fantastic career and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Thirteen Steps Down starts on ITV1 on 13 August