Phyllida enjoys home comforts in her West Hampstead kingdom
PUBLISHED: 15:38 30 May 2007 | UPDATED: 14:32 07 September 2010
Phyllida Law talks to Tony Padman about her love of West Hampstead, her latest TV role and her long and varied career Spending a morning with Phyllida Law is a bit like visiting your favourite aunt. She fusses over you, makes sure there s enough suga
Phyllida Law talks to Tony Padman about her love of West Hampstead, her latest TV role and her long and varied career
Spending a morning with Phyllida Law is a bit like visiting your favourite aunt. She fusses over you, makes sure there's enough sugar in the coffee and gets out the chocolate biscuits. As it happens, she's playing Stephen Fry's aunt - albeit a dotty one in the new mystery TV drama series, Kingdom, but more of that later.
She apologises profusely for the inclement weather and that I've had to travel to her West Hampstead home. "I'm so sorry, I should have met you halfway," she exclaims with that familiar Glaswegian lilt. Her living room is cosy - a roaring log fire, shelves and shelves of books, stacks of LPs, family memorabilia everywhere and the gentle chime of a clock that's nowhere to be seen.
Law talks about classic British films and one of her favourite actors Alec Guinness with whom she twice shared the Haymarket stage in 1972 in Habeus Corpus and A Voyage Round My Father.
She recounts: "I was only a minor person, but I remember Alec was terribly good to young people. He was a bright guy who would often say he was not good enough. I miss Alec very much."
She also likes European cinema. "Il Postino," she declares affectionately. "With that wonderful actor Massimo Troissi who died so young and that dear Philippe Noiret - weren't they good. We don't get to see enough of those films over here. I suppose if I went to the NFT on a regular basis I'd catch them. Mind you, I'm lazy. It would take a few bob to get me out the door."
Reminiscing about actors whose work she admires, she highlights an "extraordinary" Joan Plowright, a "very generous" Peter O'Toole and the late Hampstead actor Denis Quilley with whom she starred in La Cage Aux Folles who had a "lovely voice and not a nerve in his body".
She asks: "Did you see Albert Finney and Tom Courtney in A Rather English Marriage? Weren't they wonderful? And New Tricks - wonderful, the cast are a joy to behold." When she says 'wonderful' she means it.
But what's particularly striking is how much she cares about the area that she's lived in since 1959. She's animated, full of beans and speaks passionately. "I've got a lot of work to do when I'm queen," she says with gusto. "I haven't darkened the doorway of any supermarket. I go the local grocers - any little emporium and all of them in West End Lane. We used to have three butchers in West Hampstead, if not more, and they've all gone. I love this area, but it's completely changed."
Stephen Fry plays the title role in Kingdom. He's a solicitor with a heart of gold who moves his business to a market town on the Norfolk coast. He finds himself solving everybody's problems while leaving little time for his own. Law acts as a sounding board for his troubles.
"He's into the community like one of those old French village priests. He's enchanting to everybody but with this great problem lurking," she explains.
As the story unfolds, we learn of the real reason he moved to Norfolk and of the dark secret he has been hiding from everyone.
Law, who appeared with Fry in A Bit Of Fry And Laurie and Peter's Friends, was thrilled to be reunited with him.
She says: "I've known Stephen since he was at Cambridge with my daughter [Emma Thompson], so I've known him since he was but a boy. I remember when he got his first computer because you know he's a whiz on the computer - a remarkable chap. If you're playing Stephen Fry's mad aunt you don't have to do a great deal of research - it's not a great stretch, so that was nice."
But did she find it difficult keeping a straight face with this naturally funny actor and writer? "No, not at all, it wasn't," she replies and then stops to reflect. "I wonder why because he's very funny.
"What's difficult I think is his intense ability to do everything with horrifying ease and his astonishing ability to tell stories that you want to listen to. Knowing how he can read a page and go on and do it. He's such an enchanting creature."
Kingdom is a Good Samaritan type who has to deal with several complex characters that surround him - from his family and his office staff to the oddball collection of villagers, especially the quarrelsome Mr Snell played by Tony Slattery who Law has also known since his Cambridge Footlights days.
"Oh, there's a lot of interesting characters lurking. And Celia Imrie as his receptionist is wonderful, wonderful. It's a lovely cast," says Law.
Kingdom is the latest in her long list of credits dating back to the early 50s when she met her husband Eric Thompson whom she was married to until his death in 1982. They were both walk-ons in Romeo And Juliet starring Alan Badel and Claire Bloom in 1952.
She was Bristol Old Vic and he was London Old Vic. Each year groups of students from both theatres were chosen as walk-ons.
"We shrieked and just laughed - there's something about walking on and Julius Caesar was just as funny. We were always in the black book for laughing. We were all mates and we all hung out together," she recalls fondly.
Thompson, whom Law called Tom or Tommy, proposed to her while they were together at Bristol Old Vic. But it didn't exactly go to plan.
"I thought he was drunk, yes. I thought he was drunk. I was furious, furious with him. I didn't speak to him for a week," she laughs. "He said, 'Marry me,' and I said, 'Don't be ridiculous, never heard such nonsense.'
"Then I think I proposed to him. It was a question of a rather deep friendship really that turned into... I think that's a very good way of going about things."
In 1965, the BBC asked Thompson to adapt Serge Danot's French children's programme The Magic Roundabout into five-minute slots. Thompson rewrote the scripts, created the voices and gave the characters their personalities.
The Magic Roundabout was a timeless classic with eight million viewers and an international hit. It lasted for 12 years and 441 episodes.
Law recounts: "It was the reason we managed to get a house in West Hampstead. It was regular work but it wasn't a lot of money. It was only £15 a time to begin with and it never went up to astronomic proportions."
As The Magic Roundabout took off, so did Law's television career with her debut as a WP Sgt in Dixon Of Dock Green.
As for appearing with her actress daughters, she and Sophie were mother and daughter in the film version of Emma, which was "heaven because I was blind, deaf and dotty". And a year later she played Emma's mother in The Winter Guest directed by Alan Rickman.
Does she think Sophie and Emma entered the profession because of their parents'?
"I don't think it's particularly because of us," she muses. "Actor's children are very easy to talk to I always find.
"Coming in and out of the house I'm sorry to have to tell you, it was always actors because you don't hang out with anybody else - shameful really. It's not that you mean it, it's just parochial."
Law, who says she's "never planned anything, is very lucky, finds life interesting and is declared redundant every three weeks", is off to Italy to make a film with John Hurt.
She'll be 75 in May and Kingdom could not have come at a better time.
"I think it's lovely. I was thrilled to become a part of it," she insists. "I'm rather keen on settling down to watch a television programme that doesn't have an AK 47 in it. Your instinct when you look at Stephen in Kingdom is that you're not going to be tortured."
And as Kingdom, Fry will need his supportive aunt more than anyone to help him tackle those personal demons that have remained hidden until now. It's lucky then, that he's got both the Queen of West Hampstead and the Law on his side.
Kingdom is on ITV1 every Sunday at 9pm.