Brenda Fricker: 'I lost my husband, dad, best pal and sister, but found a way to cope'
The former star of BBC1's Casualty Brenda Fricker gives a searingly honest insight into life on her own
There's very little I miss about acting since retiring. I'm just too old for the s**t that went on. When you make a film, it depends how long it takes to find a distributor. It can take five years and then you find yourself doing publicity for something you can't even remember the name of.
I shot my last film, A Long Way from Home, so long ago, I had to take out the script to remind myself of the story the other day. I could barely remember the name of it.
It's a love/hate film. A couple who have retired to the South of France find their marriage shaken when the husband (played by James Fox) falls in love with a younger woman.
It's a film that you get or you don't, but I think Virginia Gilbert (writer and director) is an extraordinary talent who does extraordinary things with her writing.
She writes about the little things in life that pass you by, that turn out to be the big things.
And working on the film reminded me of one of the few things I do miss about acting: that tiny moment between 'action' and 'cut'. I loved that, because there's the only place you're free as an actor.
Everything else around work deteriorated so much in the last eight or nine years, and I'm too old and too tired to put up with it, if I'm honest with you.
People asked me have I lost my identity since retiring, and I can honestly say I never in my life felt like I had lost my identity and I hope I never will. Jesus, I may as well be dead if I felt that.
It's only a job, yet there's all this nonsense with it. It's a hard job – you're up at five in the morning, getting to bed at 10. Learning your lines for the next day, six days a week.
You do it for 40 years and you're very tired after that. But it wasn't my identity; it was a job.
I had a rich life outside of it. I was very balanced and was lucky to have good people around me who kept me balanced, if I needed it.
I'm fine, my identity is quite safe.
Another part of retirement is dealing with the loss in income. Now that's unavoidable, but it's causing very little concern for me.
It's certainly a reduction and I've had to save up to go on holiday this year, whereas before I could just write a cheque and go off. But it's much nicer and almost better in a way to do that. I was quite rich at one point, when I was 'hot' and earning big, big cheques and everything else.
But I've never been materialistic. I always had a little car, little house, little dog ... That was it. I bought an obligatory mansion in the country back in the day and got so embarrassed I sold it very quickly.
I actually gave most of my money away.
I'm fine, what do I need? Pay my electricity bill, buy some food, pay for the dog, petrol for the car, that's it.
When I did that interview ('Living The Life', in which Brenda admitted that she was "broke and lonely") talking about having no money, people thought I was complaining and giving the poor mouth, but I was just telling the truth.
I hadn't a penny at the time – I was absolutely broke, which I was, more or less. It didn't matter a s**t to me.
But I obviously said it in the wrong way, or picked the wrong words to use or whatever. That's not the way I meant it at all. I wasn't destitute.
As of now, I'm not broke. I've a lot more money than a lot of people. But yes, I am lonely. I meant every word of that. It happens when you reach my age. It really began when my husband died (director Barry Davies in 1991); then my father passed away. And soon afterwards, my best friend died. Then another good friend of mine in England passed away.
I've deleted it all in one way – there was a whole string of deaths.
Then about six years ago, my sister died and that was the end of my family. I was now an orphan and that does bring an awful loneliness.
And loneliness is loneliness – there's very little you can do about it. It's part of life, just like sadness or pain. You have to deal with it.
It didn't trigger a bout of depression as they say, which I've lived with all my life.
Things don't trigger clinical depressions. I'm on medication for it now and I'm happy to say it's certainly working. I did the Mozart technique (listening to the composer's music for two hours a day) which was fascinating and extremely helpful.
There was none of that around when I was in my 20s, when I had it. Nobody said they had depression – you just didn't say it. No-one said 'depression' out loud, because you were too ashamed to say it. And look, nowadays we'd all be dead but for modern medicine, let's face it.
Anyway, I hate this talk about "the dark awful days". It's not cancer. It goes away.
I have people I can reach out to and very close friends, but they know to stay away from me if I'm feeling extremely low or when the Black Dog is on my shoulder.
It's actually much easier to cope when nobody's disturbing you. If you can focus your brain really, really strongly on coping with something, you can't get distracted.
After that interview where I said the broke and lonely stuff, there wasn't a big reach-out.
What I did get was letters from people who suffer from loneliness and that's a great thing to be able to say – that you touched someone enough, they sat down to write a letter to you.
Proud would be the wrong word to use. It touches me. I know what they're saying in their letters and I know what it felt like when I was younger and there was no-one to talk to. These people who write are usually people who have nobody to talk to.
Out of desperation, they pull themselves together enough to write to you, and I just take that as a huge compliment, that they feel enough confidence to confide in you. And I still get them – even now – and that's very important to me.
You know, before I retired, I thought, "It'll be lovely. I'll walk the dog and look at the blue sky and listen to the birds".
But I haven't had a minute off since I stopped. Life keeps surprising me.
Yes, I am involved with a lot of charities. They take up a lot of time, which is gladly and willingly given.
It's funny how busy you remain. You wake up with three things to do and suddenly it's eleven o'clock at night.
Maybe I'm getting too slow in my old age. But looking back, I was quite happy with what I'd done in the acting world. Maybe I didn't hit all the bullseyes I wanted to, but I'm pretty content all round.
I'm very proud of being the first Irish actress to win (an Oscar). I'm very proud of the fact that it puts me into encyclopaedias and history books.
That little piece of luck, where your peers and fellow actors think you're good enough to get this little present, that pleased me no end.
But the whole thing ... it was just pure luck.
FROM TV'S CASUALTY TO AN OSCAR
Born in Dublin in 1945 to a teacher mother and journalist father
Her breakthrough role as an actress in the UK came in the hit television series Casualty as nurse Megan Roach
In 1989 she was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in moving drama My Left Foot
Following this, she enjoyed roles in US films such as Home Alone 2 and So I Married an Axe Murderer
More recently, she appeared in Sir Richard Attenborough's film Closing the Ring, which starred Christopher Plummer and Mischa Barton, and was partly shot in and around Belfast
HOW TO GET HELP
According to the Campaign to End Loneliness organisation, between 6% and 13% of people aged over 65 in the UK say they feel always or very lonely, with half of all older people (around five million) saying the television is their main company. The organisation has suggested some helpful strategies for coping with loneliness:
Think about yourself – think about what you would like more of – maybe time with friends or family. If so, invite them to visit. Often, if you are lonely, you think people do not want to visit. This is understandable, but often people will respond to an invitation and will come and spend time with you
Look after yourself – take small steps to eat well, take gentle exercise and keep active
Share your skills and time with others – offer your time or specific skills by helping out in your street, neighbourhood or with local organisations.
Find out what local activities are being planned and book them up: walks, singing groups, book clubs and bridge
Speak to a health worker – long-term loneliness can contribute to later depression and other health problems
For details on these and for access to other organisations, visit www.campaigntoendloneliness.org
Brenda Fricker was in conversation with Stephen Milton