‘I’ve never really minded banter but hopefully now younger actresses won’t encounter some of the things that I did’
After playing Barbara Windsor in the television biopic Babs, Samantha Spiro has returned to the London stage in Lady Windermere’s Fan. She tells Nick Curtis how she wanted to act since the age of 10 and why she hopes the culture that enabled men in the industry to abuse their position is over.
Samantha Spiro is a national treasure in stealth mode. She may not have the name-recognition of a Dench or Bennett, but you will have loved the breathtakingly versatile 49-year-old Londoner in something that she’s done. She’s been fiery and moving on the capital’s major stages in plays by Shakespeare, Arnold Wesker and Mike Leigh, won Olivier awards for musical lead roles in Merrily We Roll Along and Hello, Dolly! and was named breakthrough artist, aged 42, at the British Comedy Awards in 2011 as the defiantly unlovely, moustachioed Auntie Liz in Simon Amstell’s bittersweet Jewish sitcom Grandma’s House.
She’s been in Game of Thrones and London Spy, and was an uncanny Barbara Windsor in the biopic Babs. Now Spiro tops the bill as the notorious Mrs Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan, directed by Kathy Burke and co-starring Jennifer Saunders and Kevin Bishop, as part of the Oscar Wilde season at London’s Vaudeville Theatre.
“This is my first Wilde since I played Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest in school,” she says. “I’d never read or seen the play and it was a slow-burn, to be honest. On first reading I got hardly any of the depth we are now finding. But I have completely fallen in love with it and the part of Mrs Erlynne. And the way it deals with women in that (Victorian) society feels extremely relevant. The wit I anticipated is all there, but I had underestimated his genius. In the second half it becomes quite Ibsen-esque.”
Mrs Erlynne is — spoiler alert — a glamorous, intelligent, modern woman who once left her husband and child for a lover, and 20 years on tries to crowbar her way back into an unforgiving social milieu, only to be waylaid by feelings of compassion and heroism.
Spiro, who has two daughters with her actor husband Mark Leadbetter, thinks Mrs Erlynne’s fall from grace could be ascribed to post-natal depression “and with a feeling of helplessness and being trapped in this society with a child and with a husband”.
Spiro was born in Whitechapel Hospital and grew up in Mill Hill, her father a property dealer who started out in the rag trade. “He sold linens on Petticoat Lane and all around the country. That’s what my mum and dad both did when they got together,” she says. “My father wanted to be an actor, but coming from the East End, and not from money, he felt if he was going to be a provider and have a family, that he needed to do something else.”
Her parents are still together and, even though Spiro is not herself religious, she still likes “going round to my mum’s on Friday nights — if I’m not performing — to light the candles, say a prayer and have lots of lovely food”.
The urge to perform was clearly passed on because, aged 10, Spiro decided she wanted to act after seeing a production of Androcles and the Lion at Regent’s Park. “It was just a desire to be up there,” she says. “I had no idea what form it would take. And I still don’t. I’m lucky it’s fallen out that I have jobs in lots of different areas.” She joined the National Youth Theatre and then trained at Webber Douglas, where she met her husband — they’ve been together for 28 years, married for 15.
I remember Spiro’s larky charisma in her stage debut as First Fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park and then in 1998 both knocking the dust off Arnold Wesker’s Roots in Watford and bringing the house down in her first incarnation of Barbara Windsor in Terry Johnson’s Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick at the National.
Her first Olivier award followed three years later, for Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar. Then she was picked by Mike Leigh to star in Two Thousand Years, his first play for 12 years, in 2005.
“My first child, Harriet, was a week old, so I fed her and passed her to Mark — for the first time — and walked into the rehearsal room thinking: ‘Don’t mention the baby’. Mike said, ‘So what have you been up to?’ and I just started crying. So obviously I was the complete lunatic he wanted for the part.”
Two years later she had a part at the Royal Court lined up after her second child, Heidi, was born, and thus avoided the parent trap that stalls many actresses’ careers. It helps that her husband, who now works mostly in corporate training, runs the family home in Queen’s Park and is not jealous of his wife’s starrier career.
There was a period of unemployment in her twenties when she sold mirrors on Portobello Road and envied the famous actors strolling past, “though they were probably out of work too”.
Since then she’s worked constantly, with 2011 being a standout year: with a second Olivier already under her belt, she won the comedy award for Grandma’s House and triumphantly played the matriarch in Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley through three decades of her life at the Royal Court.
As well as having good fortune, she has dodged the bad. She says she has never experienced anti-Semitism, though she is concerned with what’s happening in Europe. “Right now fascism feels like it’s not very far away, but my faith in mankind is that we are about to turn another corner, and kindness and goodness and forgiving will come out of that,” she adds.
Her industry’s problem with older women hasn’t touched her either. “Ageing has been a bonus for me. As a young actress I never felt quite right — I always went for character roles rather than the straight ingenue. But as I’ve got older, the parts have got better. Though you never know when they’re going to dry up.”
And she has never experienced the extremes of harassment so many actresses have reported, though she says men often exploit the unique dynamic of the rehearsal room.
“I have experienced men who felt they could take advantage, who have used a feeling of power that comes from the air of sex in the room that happens when you are working in theatres — because it is all about charisma and sexuality, even if you are doing a play that has nothing to do with that,” she says.
“I have never really minded banter but hopefully now younger actresses won’t encounter some of the things that I did that might have tipped over the edge.
“Having two daughters I am really pleased things are going to change. It’s exciting. Even if it comes down to people being fearful about their behaviour, it is going to stop.
“And I really do hope it is not just in this industry, that it spreads out, because this is not just about actresses, and not just about women, it is about power, right across the board, and people not feeling that they can take advantage of that.”
Mrs Erlynne — and Oscar Wilde — would surely applaud.
Lady Windermere’s Fan, Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2 (nimaxtheatres.com)