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Actress Gwen Taylor on the Billy plays, husband Graham Reid and coming back to Northern Ireland

 

She'd a key role in the legendary Billy plays and went on to marry Graham Reid, the Belfast writer who penned them. Now Gwen Taylor, one of the UK's best-loved actresses, is coming back to Northern Ireland next week as part of an all-star cast in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Grand Opera House. She talks to Una Brankin about life with Graham, her breast cancer diagnosis and why she's thrilled to be on stage at 79.

Gwen Taylor is all apologies for the racket in her dressing room at the Courtyard Theatre in Hereford. "Oh darling, I'm so sorry I missed your call earlier - it's noisy here and there are some very peculiar sounds coming from this phone," she says. "I do hope you can hear me."

Warm and cheery, the Derby-born actress is playing the iconic Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's endlessly popular The Importance of Being Earnest, which comes to Belfast's Grand Opera House next week, and coincides with her 79th birthday.

She'll be celebrating the occasion with her Belfast-born husband, the Billy trilogy playwright Graham Reid (73) and her two stepdaughters and stepson, from Graham's first marriage.

"It will be just a wee cuppa tea in your hand, as Graham would say," she says, in a wobbly Belfast twang. "He still has his Belfast accent, although when we go back, people say, 'you've been living in England too long by the sounds of you', and he has to repeat things, but I think his accent is still very strong, despite all these years living in north London."

From her glamorous publicity shots, it's hard to believe the former Duty Free star will be 80 next year. Then again, she has never looked her age - at 32, she was able to play the 15-year-old pregnant schoolgirl Jo on stage in A Taste of Honey. She went on to work extensively with the Monty Python team, notably in The Life of Brian, and Eric Idle described her as "the best comedy actress I ever worked with".

However, her career was stalled in her twenties by her first husband, who "wanted a housewife and three meals a day". She took a job as a bank clerk but, after the break up of her unhappy two-and-a-half marriage, she left to train at the East 15 Acting School in London. At 34, she met Graham at an audition for the part of the Mavis Martin in A Matter of Choice for Billy, the second in the famous Billy trilogy on a Protestant family scarred by the Troubles. Mavis was the new English partner of patriarch Norman Martin, who had left Northern Ireland for a new life across the water. The pair arrived back in Troubles-torn Belfast to fetch Norman's two younger daughters and take them to a new life in England.

"I was nervy about doing the audition; you know how it is, but Graham said it was love at first sight for him," she recalls. "I won't be getting a Valentine's card from him this week though - he doesn't do Valentine's. He thinks it's an advertising swizz from America.

"We do Father's Day and Mother's Day, when I always get a nice card from him and my three stepchildren - one of them still lives with us - and our two lovely grandchildren.

"It's lovely to have the brood around you - without the mess! I didn't have to produce them myself. We talked about getting a pet but it wouldn't be fair with us on the road so often. I'm a cat person but we'll have to wait until we win the lottery and can retire to a big house in the country. We always do the lotto."

The stepchildren are from Graham's marriage to his first wife (now deceased) when he wed when aged 20 and serving in the Army. Graham had left school at the age of 15 but returned to education in his mid-20s, and graduated from Queen's University in 1976, later working as a teacher in Bangor before becoming a full-time writer. He married Gwen (who didn't want to bring children into her unstable first marriage) in 1996, after a 13-year courtship, and now acts as her "PA and chauffeur - very handy!" she laughs.

As a country girl from Derbyshire, where her father worked as a car mechanic, Gwen "had no idea" about the conflict in Northern Ireland until she met Graham in 1983.

"I'm ashamed to say I wasn't aware of what was going on at the time. Like many people in the UK, I thought 'this is stupid; how long is it going to go on for? What silly people - grow up!'

"I learned more through Graham and from coming and going to Northern Ireland. Graham was from Sandy Row, a hardline area. I never felt frightened there, but I was shocked to see armed soldiers and police officers on the streets. I remember once my mum ringing me to see if I was okay because she'd seen the centre of the city ablaze, on the news. She was really worried about this conflagration."

The Billy plays launched the sparkling career of Sir Kenneth Branagh, and the year after her nervous audition for her part, Gwen hit the small screen as working-class Amy Pearce in the Yorkshire Television series, Duty Free, a role that made her a household name. The show, set in the context of a Spanish package holiday, attracted 16 million viewers at its height and made a star of the popular actor Keith Barron (whose death last November, at 83, is described as "quite a blow" by Gwen).

After Duty Free, Gwen starred as the opinionated Yorkshire woman in the title role of the sitcom, Barbara, which ran for eight years from 1995. She won more hearts with the comic role of the disreputable Peggy Armstrong in Heartbeat, from 2005-2010, and has had guest roles in everything from Inspector Morse to Holby City, Wycliffe to Murder Most Horrid.

Her theatre tours have included Shirley Valentine - the last time she performed on stage in Belfast - and Calendar Girls, with the late Bernie Nolan and Lynda Bellingham, who both died of cancer. Gwen had her own experience of the disease in 2014.

"I'd gone to the doctor about a bladder problem; I was having the odd leak," she confides with a bit of a giggle. "He said 'you better have a mammogram while you're here,' and thank God he did, because they found two little lumps in my right breast.

"Graham was more scared than I was. For me, it was 'there you go. It's your turn.' I didn't dwell on it."

Gwen had surgery as a private patient at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, 10 days after her diagnosis. As the cancer hadn't spread to her lymph nodes, she didn't need chemotherapy, but she had three weeks of radiotherapy at the London Clinic in Harley Street.

She says one of the most difficult issues to deal with during her treatment was having to come off the hormone replacement therapy (HRT) she'd been on for 25 years since approaching menopause, in a bid to avoid hot flushes on screen, as well osteoporosis, which her mother suffered from.

"I had to give it up to take Tamoxifen for the cancer, and the menopause symptoms were quite difficult - I'm a bit old to be dealing with that," she says drily.

"I had so many good years on HRT. It does make such a difference. I really don't know if there's a link to it and the cancer. It could have been one of the factors, but it's hard to say.

"I really don't like the Tamoxifen - it blows you up dreadfully. But, as a friend asked me: 'What would you rather be - dead or fat?"

Gwen's mother died at 86, after a lifetime of smoking and virtually no exercise. Her father died at 56 from lung and liver cancer.

"He was an engineer in the Army, dealing with the lorries during the war, and he didn't have a very nice time," she explains. "He was exposed to asbestos when people thought it was a great thing, like tobacco being thought to be restful and peaceful.

"Mum lasted to 86, despite the smoking. I don't smoke - I'm a bit lazy, but when I'm working with a travelling theatre company, I get all the exercise I need. I joined a gym but I don't go - that's just what they want. They get you in there; then you don't go."

Although she is made- up to look suitably severe and starchy as Lady Bracknell, with the help of a black wig, the veteran actress remains remarkably fresh-faced. She doesn't do Botox or fillers but admits to a neck lift in the past.

"My face always looked younger than my neck - it was really saggy and horrid," she says with distaste. "Even my husband said, 'yeah, do it'. It was about 30 years ago - I had this lift and it was so painful and uncomfortable, I swore never again. It was appalling and it was my own silly fault.

"It did tighten up my neck and gave me another six or seven years of playing that age on TV, which is so harsh and unflattering. So, it did give my career a lift but it's not for me now.

"I simply wash my face every day with Dead Sea Salt soap," she adds. "My mum used to use Anne French, and she had lovely skin. And I'm very careful what I eat and I keep regular. Bran flakes and prunes for breakfast every morning. The only problem is the Tamoxifen - it makes me fatter."

She's touring with The Importance of Being Earnest until the end of May and would like to do more television work (she admits she would have loved a part in Downton Abbey). Last seen on the small screen in Coronation Street, as Mrs Foster, a well-heeled lady who killed her son (a rapist), she says she'd jump at the chance to go back on the cobbles.

"It's a bit of a limbo with that character - I'm not sure whether she went into a loony bin or prison after she killed her son! I'm open to coming back. It was a joy. I've always loved Coronation Street but I haven't see it recently, because of the tour."

There aren't many 79-year-olds treading the boards on a regular basis, and this lady shows no signs of slowing down.

"The big 8-0 looming next year does fill me with trepidation but I'm fit and healthy," she concludes. "I have the usual aches and pains and everything, and I can't run for the bus any more, and it's only going to get worse. But you just have to get on with it.

"When I reached 56, which was the age my father was when he died, I thought, there you go Dad - I've done better than you'.

"I hope to get to Mum's age, even if I don't remember my lines. And I do have a lovely man to look after me, my toy-boy. He's only a wee lad!"

The Importance of Being Earnest, Grand Opera House, Belfast, from Tuesday, Feb 20 to Saturday, Feb 24. For tickets tel: 028 9024 1919 or go to goh.org.uk

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