“I hated turning 70,” the wildly prolific 87-year-old television and stage actor Anne Reid tells me, “but suddenly, life took off! When you’re young, there are thousands of girls for every job. But it’s not as competitive when you get older, because most people have given up.”
We are sitting in the chilly green room of London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, in what feels a bit like a convalescent home for old sofas (all equally uncomfortable). Outside, a thunderstorm rages. But Reid can make herself at home anywhere, as you’d expect from someone who has spent most of her career playing cosy, domesticated roles.
Her first major part was down-to-earth Coronation Street housewife Valerie Barlow (née Tatlock), who was killed off in an electric plug accident when Reid left in search of sparkier roles. Then, in the late 90s, she played toast-slinging pragmatist Jean in Dinnerladies, before donning frilly aprons in period dramas such as the BBC’s 2005 Bleak House.
But, as she explains, it is only in the past 20 years that her CV has started to fill up with the kind of sexy, juicy roles she spent her younger years dreaming of. In 2003, she wooed Daniel Craig in movie drama The Mother – “He was very attractive, obviously; my friends were jealous.”
More recently, she has played opposite Sir Derek Jacobi in Last Tango in Halifax, the romance between their late-in-life lovebirds Celia and Alan offering the perfect mix of comfort and sharpness, like a lemon curd-smothered sponge.
“He said he wanted to find something for us to do together, which was very flattering. And I thought, yeah…” she says, in a sceptical croak, “people do say these nice things. But he was true to his word, so I was thrilled.”
First staged in New York in 2015, Jordan Harrison’s play is a lightly dystopian drama set four decades in the future, where an ordinary couple buys an android to keep aging matriarch Marjorie company.
This revival feels well-timed, as artificial intelligence programme ChatGPT gives writers and artists everywhere existential crises with its uncannily good literary efforts and illustrations.
“Artificial intelligence is so in vogue now, isn’t it,” says Reid, sounding rather like she’s talking about a new style of jacket. I tentatively ask whether she has had a go on ChatGPT, and she bursts out laughing. “Are you joking! I barely use an iPhone. I hate technology, I hate it, I find it so difficult.”
And she is definitely suspicious of our robot overlords. “Soon, computers will be able to do anything. Except for hopefully having sex, that would be horrible.” (I decide against explaining that sexbots are very much already a thing.) “I do find it all a bit spooky the way things are going,” she says. “But of course, I won’t be here,” she adds pragmatically – although with her seemingly endless supply of energy and good humour, I can easily imagine her going on for another four decades.
“John Gielgud went on doing it until he was 95,” she says, explaining that she is not keen to stop working any time soon. Still, returning to the stage has been demanding: it’s her first time since 2017’s A Woman of No Importance on the West End, also directed by Dromgoole.
“My heart sank the day before we started rehearsals. It’s a huge undertaking having to learn all my lines, rehearse it every day, and actually get up in the morning when I’d rather stay in bed.”
Still, “it’s so important to push yourself,” she adds. She has recently been filming the BBC thriller The Sixth Commandment, as well as the third and final series of ITV’s Sanditon and a new film she is not allowed to talk about yet – “I keep pretty busy, I have to say.”
She even has her own sporadic cabaret show live at Jermyn Street Theatre. “I just love doing it. It’s mostly old songs, for older people. I don’t go much beyond 1960, I’m afraid!”
Reid’s exciting life is a welcome antidote to a society that often sidelines the over-seventies. So it is fitting that Last Tango in Halifax, with its late-blossoming romance premise, is the show she is best known for. It is based on writer Sally Wainwright’s own mother’s story, which shows in its unsentimental home truths about the realities of family, love and aging.
“People bother with you more if they think you’re senile,” says Reid’s fantastically charismatic Celia, deliberately asking for a “crappuccino” to get better service in a café. Is it hard for Reid to relate to this tricksy, snobbish character? “It’s not that much of a stretch, really,” she says. “We’re both difficult Northern women. But I hope I’m a bit nicer than her. And I’m not racist, you know. The difficult characters are more fun to play because you get more laughs.”
Celia’s romance is not something that Reid can see herself emulating. “My husband died in 1981 and I never remarried,” she says as she remembers TV producer Peter Eckersley, whom she married when she was 36 and who died from cancer a decade later.
She is used to being independent. “My parents went away when I was 10-and-a-half and didn’t come back until I was 25,” she continues, explaining that after an early childhood in wartime Newcastle, she was parked in boarding school as her father worked abroad in a series of far-flung destinations as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. “When I think about it now, it’s just dreadful. I didn’t have a home, and I was very much on my own. It made me independent, and it made me very difficult to live with.”
Instead of domesticity, she has a passion for travel that was sparked by childhood jaunts to visit her parents, including a particularly wild seven-day aerial joy ride in a maharajah’s tiny airplane.
She is currently planning a trip to New York with fellow television star Caroline Quentin – “I don’t own much apart from a tiny flat; I just spend all my money on having a good time” – where she plans to indulge her love of jazz clubs and Broadway musicals.
She has a passion for the late, legendary musical theatre composer Stephen Sondheim in particular – “I was so nervous about meeting him that I got drunk, and then I made a big mistake,” she says. “I threw my arms around him and kissed him. I don’t think he liked it; he’s not very touchy-feely – not with women, anyway.”
Dinner parties with musical theatre legends, jaunts across the globe – it’s all a bit incongruous for anyone who has seen Reid on TV wearing sensible skirts and aprons. And she is fully aware of the irony. “I am the least domesticated person there is, but I obviously look better in an apron with a saucepan in hand. I very rarely get to play anyone with a brain!”
This tendency towards typecasting in her mid-career has made her current role as lady of the manor in Sanditon particularly exciting. “Adrian Scarborough and I played a butler and a cook together in [2010 BBC series] Upstairs Downstairs. So when I got the role, he said ‘You’ve got upstairs at last! Because I’d been desperate not to play someone in the kitchen. I’m sick of it. I’m not doing any more of those roles.”
Still, Reid has a soft spot for one apron-wearing role from her back catalogue. She loved working on Dinnerladies with the late Victoria Wood, its writer and star.
“It was a mixture of enormous fun and great fear, because she
demanded a lot and wouldn’t settle for less,” she explains, reminiscing about a set where the actors would serve up laughs (and slices of buttered toast) to a live studio audience. “I used to think of Thelma [Barlow, who played fellow dinner lady Dolly] and I as the oldies on set, never in a million years imagining that [Wood] would die first.”
Reid has outlived so many of her contemporaries. Poignantly, she tells me that she loves re-watching reruns of TV shows she’s been in. “You see so many people that are long gone, it’s a trip down memory lane.” And there’s plenty to catch up with over Reid’s action-packed, six-decade long career, which might never have happened if things had gone differently one night in the 40s.
“We had a bomb land on our house,” she says, “but it was the only one dropped that night that didn’t explode. Otherwise, darling, you wouldn’t be here talking to me. It was fate.”
Marjorie Prime is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6 May