FOOTLIGHT ANI FANCY FREE
Fortune has smiled and the media have seized on Emma Thompson recently as she excelled in both Tutti Frutti and Fortunes of War. But Thompson now returns to her original stamping ground of the comedy sketch. with a self-penned TV series. She told Lucy Ash why.
The door swung open and fora moment I was dazzled by the bright afternoon light. 'l‘hen I saw the silhouette of Emma 'l’hompson come hobbling towards me. ‘I think we’d better do this lying down — something‘s happened to my back.‘
She ushers tne into an etnpty (ireen Room and cautiously drapes herself across a row ofchairs. We are in the BBCs North Acton Studios where Emma is rehearsing 'I’erence Rattigan's The ll't'ns'lon- Boy. She plays the heroine suffragette out to clear her brother‘s name when he is accused ofstealing a five shilling postal order. "I‘his part is just a treat‘. she says. munching a ham sandwich. ‘lt‘s great to be working with such a nice hunch of people.‘
Too many actors gush over ‘wonderful' casts and ‘fantastic' people but this one has a good excuse. Few have experienced the kind ofsolitttde Emma did when she locked herself away to write the material for her new comedy series. Thompson. For six gruelling months she sat alone in a small office in (ireat Portland Street thinking of ways to make people laugh: ’lt was frightening — at first I was paralysed with terror. It was as ifsomeone had given me this huge piece ofgranite and I was scared to start chipping away in case I had nothing to show for it at the end.‘
Emma panicked. burst into frequent floods of tears and ‘drove people mad' by whipping out her notebook and frantically scribbling
in the middle of conversations. Why. with a BAFI'A to her name. did she do it'.’
‘I don't want to spend the rest of my life waiting for the right parts to turn up. So it seems my only option is to create things for myselfand at the same time hope to find work I like with other people. I was so lucky to get Kettles (the red-haired rock 'n' roller in Tutti I’rutti) and Harriet (female lead in Fortunes of War) but how many good parts for women like those exist'.’ Very few.’
‘Anyway. I discovered your head is like an old attic filled with some quite servicable bits of furniture. In fact'. she says. dreamin chewing her sandwich. ‘given halfa chance. it‘s a magnificent repository ofideas and bits ofinformation. Most ofus are encouraged to fill our heads with crap day in. day out and never look beyond the surface.‘ Scripting a whole TV series is ambitious but didn‘t Emma have plenty of experience starting with the Footlights Revue as a (‘ambridge undergraduate?
‘No. at that time Stephen Fry did most of the writing. That sort of thing seemed to come so easily to boys. It was an insidious system and it's only now. looking back. that I can see how scared I was. You get your tiny little foot wedged in the door but fear it might suddenly slam in your face.‘
The power games men play with women feature strongly in the new series. One sketch. written for
Emma’s mum. actress Phyllida Law. is set 300 years ago in the nightmarish world of Arthur Miller‘s The ( 'rueib/e. It involves a witch-hunter who makes a surprising discovery about his mother—in-law. ‘l‘m fascinated by witches and the persecution they suffered — it symbolises the oppression of women at its most vicious and most extreme. People turn the things they mistrust into monsters so they have an excuse to destroy them.’
In one of her favourite pieces. Emma plays a disgruntled Maid Marion who feels she is entitled to a little bit ofstolen jewellery after five long years with Robin Hood. ‘But. like many men. he’s so obstinate‘. says Emma. eyes glinting. ‘l le insists the jewels are for The Poor. blind to the fact that they are the poorest couple in the village.‘
Another period sketch features a l-lth century peasant woman who accidentally splits the atom when she wanders into her alchemist husband's laboratory. "l‘his one is about women who sacrifice their own achievements to protect their man's ego. Women know that ifthey puncture the male ego they will suffer for it but also. like any decent human beings. they don‘t want to hurt people's feelings.‘
The team for the six half-hour Thompson shows includes Iimma‘s mutn and 26 year-old sister Sophie. Imelda Statmton. Kenneth Branagh. Robbie (‘oltrane and Prunella Scales. Some of the sketches are ‘just
daft'. others are what Ben Elton might call ‘a bit pol-iti-caaal'.
‘A lot ofarguments would fall to pieces if people only saw what was right in front oftheir noses. I mean. how can the Tories say the Ni lS is safe in their hands when you only have to walk into a hospital to see what an appalling state we‘re in'.”
There has been plenty of ‘not just a pretty face‘ hype surrounding Emma — as if there was something intrinsically weird about an actress with brains. She has always been genuinely concerned. however. about world problems. and tends to admire those who have the courage to do sotnething about them — one of Emma‘s ‘role models' is ex-.\Iirror journalist John l’ilger. whose coverage of Pol l’ot's atrocities has encouraged her to take part in the annual ()xfam-sponsored fast (4—6 Nov) to support relief work in Kampuchea. ‘Pilger inspires me because he's a truth-teller and we have precious few of those left since the death ofJames (‘ameron .'
Emma says her most enjoyable work to date has been north of Hadrian's Wall. with her solo 198-1 Edinburgh show. Short Vehicle. and BBC Scotland‘s Tutti I’rutti. She worked hard on Suzi Kettles‘ Glaswegian accent because it would have been ‘very shaming to get it wrong’. especially when plenty of Scottish actresses would have jumped at the part. But Emma does not feel like an imposter as her mother is Scottish and she spent a big chunk ofher childhood at her grandparents' house in A rdentinny. Dunoon.
‘l‘ve been going to Scotland at least twice a year since I was six months old and spiritually I feel it is home. I also think it's the most beautifully country I know. along with Sri Lanka.’
Some actors would moan like hell about getting up at the crack of dawn to film in windswept seaside resorts. Not Emma: ‘Sitting on the sea wall in places like Salteoats or Ardrossan. eating a bacon roll and seeing that special early morning Scottish sunlight was just bliss. It felt so romantic.‘
Emma also likes (ilasgow — ‘one of the tnost exciting cities in the world‘ — but thinks people in Edinburgh are too easily shocked: ‘l.iz Lochhead and l were having a very loud conversation about contraception in a restaurant and the table next to us stopped eating to listen. 'l'hey seemed so interested that I asked then tojoin in.‘
With one feature film. ('anulen Town Boy. already in the cart limma has another lined up for next year. She plays Catherine of France in Shakespeare‘s Henry l'opposite Kenneth Branagh who is directing the film. And is it true that she and Kenneth Bra . . . '.’ ‘l.et's just say I'm spoken for. I think that sounds quite sweet. doesn‘t it‘."
Thompson starts 1 () .\'()i' on I} B( 'l . See Media listings:
The ()xfam ‘I’as‘tfor Ix'umpuehea' runs from 4—6 Nov. For details and spmts‘orshtp form ring ()4 I 22/ 407.3 or()3] 225 9330. See ()[)(’II listings:
The List 28 ()ct — ll) Nov 198811