Jane Asher: ‘I’d have hated my kids to be child actors’

Jane Asher. Picture: Mark Douet

Jane Asher. Picture: Mark Douet - Credit: Photo by Mark Douet

After six decades in the business, the former child performer tells Bridget Galton why she’s secretly pleased to be acting for the first time with her grown up daughter Katie.

Jane Asher is no stranger to playing mothers. From the gorgon-like Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, to a memorable turn as the matriarch of a horribly dysfunctional family in Festen.

Now fact and fiction collide as she and real life daughter Katie Scarfe appear in new play The Gathered Leaves at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park.

The 69-year-old notes that Andrew Keatley’s play, like David Eldridge’s adaptation of Danish movie Festen, deals with a patriarch’s birthday celebration, as the Pennington Family gather having not been in the same room for 17 years.

But the skeletons that rattle out of the closet are less explosive.

“Revelations emerge during the evening, but nothing quite as terrible comes out,” she says.

“It’s beautifully written with a great cast of characters. In a way it’s a pleasingly old fashioned, well-rounded play, and I don’t mean that perjoratively.”

Most Read

Asher, who’s always particularly enjoyed working with new writing, plays “a home counties traditional wife in her late 60s” who’s been a dutiful wife to the now ailing William, and mother to a son with autism.

“She’s always made things work and looked after other people.

“The main driving force of her life has been to protect this child. We learn there have been situations in her life where she has had to deal with a certain amount of secrecy, and she now has to deal with another crisis with her husband’s health.”

Of course Asher’s life has been anything but traditional.

The daughter of a respected doctor, she made her acting debut in the 1952 film Mandy and went on to appear in numerous film and TV roles, including iconic film Alfie with Michael Caine.

“I played a deaf and dumb child and can just about remember being away from home but loving being on the set and being the centre of attention – treated like a grown up.”

Despite being one of few to make the successful transition from child to adult actor, Asher always fiercely discouraged her own three children from going into the business.

“I saw so many child actors go through such terrible times. When you are that young it’s dangerous. You go for an audition and if you fail it’s because of who you are. You are the wrong shape or not good enough. I would have hated any of my children to go through it.

“Many times I’ve had lovely tempting offers for them to play one of my children. I always said no because they wouldn’t have known what they were doing, it would have been boring, and I didn’t want them to enter into it until they knew exactly what it was all about.”

Asher, who grew up in homes in Great Portland Street and Wimpole Street, praises her own parents’ attitude to her early fame and credits them with keeping her feet on the ground – no mean feat considering she dated Paul McCartney for several years during the height of Beatlemania.

“I got away with it. My parents said ‘it’s just a hobby, do your schoolwork. It was very much to the side, although inside I knew it’s what I wanted to do forever. I never went to drama school, I learned on set from directors and watching other actors.”

So it was somewhat sheepishly that Katie finally admitted she wanted to act.

“She was probably sheepish because I’d been so violently against it and said ‘do something sensible, get a decent education’. but at least by time she decided to give it a go she knew only too well the pitfalls.”

Now she admits to mixed feelings that left her secretly pleased Katie had joined her in a job she’s always loved.

“Acting can be so difficult but also so wonderful. It’s given me an extremely happy professional life and I’m so lucky to do a job I enjoy. When it goes right there is nothing like it.”

Although she doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t “known”, she muses that she’s “sort of used to it”.

“It’s been in waves. The recognisability quotient goes up when you’re on TV whereas if you are in a play everyone thinks you are dead or retired.”

And after having children (with cartoonist Gerald Scarfe) she realised that acting was, finally, just a job.

“When you have kids everything else in life becomes less important. You realise it’s all water under the bridge.”

Asher has always had other outlets, including her successful cake business and it was an act of political altruism that led her to meet her husband.

After receiving a begging letter from Private Eye in the late ‘60s she donated £100 to help with their numerous libel suits.

She has since received dividends, a case of wine and an invite to the 10th anniversary party where she met Scarfe.

“I wanted to help because I believe strongly in what they were doing, exposing government wrongdoing and hypocrisy.

They invited me to a party during a Labour Party conference which Gerald was covering, drawing politicians, He was incredibly good looking, talented, funny and charming, and it just went from there.”

The Gathered Leaves runs at the Park Theatre from July 15 to August 15.