Interview: Maureen Lipman

BY Richard Barber

17th Aug 2022 Celebrities

Interview: Maureen Lipman

The Corrie actress describes finally being old enough for her next stage role, finding fame in BT ads, and why she loves Prince Charles

Actress Maureen Lipman has been a permanent fixture on stage and screen (large and small) ever since she graduated from drama school in her early 20s. Whether in serious films like Polanski’s The Pianist, in TV sitcoms like Agony, as the suffocating Jewish mother, Beattie, in the long-running British Telecom TV ads and currently as the monstrous Evelyn Plummer in Coronation Street, no one can doubt her ubiquity. 

Now, at 76, she’s taking on one of her most challenging roles ever. Playwright Martin Sherman wrote Rose at the end of the 1990s with Maureen Lipman in mind. “But I was then in my early 50s,” she says, “too young for the role.” In the event, it was played by the late Olympia Dukakis at the National and then by Janet Suzman in Chichester. 

 The Pianist, from the left: Maureen Lipman, Adrien Brody, Frank Finley, Jessica Kate Meyer

The Pianist, from the left: Maureen Lipman, Adrien Brody, Frank Finley, Jessica Kate Meyer © Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo 

“But when director Scott Le Crass came to me last year with the suggestion that I was now the right age for the part, it turned out to be a marriage made in Hendon. We quickly eased into lockdown mode where we rehearsed either in the garden of my basement flat in Paddington or in a greenhouse in Media City in Salford, if I was up there for Coronation Street.” 

Working with Martin Sherman

She has nothing but praise for Sherman. “He’s American but with a European sensibility and he writes quite extraordinarily well for women.” Almost 40 years ago, she’d appeared in his play, Messiah, an experience that brought her to the brink of a breakdown. 

“The play was all about love and refugees, a companion piece to Rose. The main character, Rachel, used to have conversations out loud with God. It was extremely intense and went to parts of my psyche I didn’t really want to examine. I got through it but I almost cracked up.

 Maureen Lipman as the titular character Rose in Scott Le Crass’s new production

 Maureen Lipman as the titular character Rose in Scott Le Crass’s new production © Channel Eighty8

“When it was in Hampstead before it transferred into the West End, a man in the audience stood up and shouted at me for blaspheming. Somehow, I managed to carry on with my lines but, after the final curtain, I collapsed. I couldn’t stop crying.

“And yet, here I am doing the companion piece. With some trepidation.” It’s a considerable feat of memory. “Actually,” she says, “it’s not learning the 45 pages of script that’s the most difficult part of it. It’s learning what’s between the lines to propel you to the next bit.” Now she’s having to learn it all over again. 

"And yet, here I am doing the companion piece. With some trepidation"

She recorded Rose for Sky Arts last year on stage at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester but in front of an empty auditorium. That’s all about to change. She opens at the same theatre on August 29 until September 11 and then transfers to the Park Theatre in north London from September 13 to October 16. 

How will she get through it? “I need to sleep and I’m a very poor sleeper. I’ve got to be in the best of health and then I’ll be on top of it. I’m trying to tell myself that it will be like An Evening With… except not with Maureen but with Rose.” 

A British icon

To complete this daunting task, the producers of Coronation Street have sanctioned her absence from Weatherfield’s cobbles. Since 2018, she has played Tyrone Dobbs’s grandmother, Evelyn Plummer. “She’s an appalling old boot. I really love her. They keep trying to give her a soft side which I enthusiastically resist. 

“I like playing baddies. As Joyce Grenfell once pointed out, it’s very hard to play good people.” She’s not complaining, happily acknowledging that certain roles in a career stick much longer than others. “It’s never the things you’d like to stick. It’s never the Princess of France in Love’s Labour’s Lost. It’s Evelyn and, before that, it was Beattie.” 

 Maureen playing the beloved Beattie in a BT advert

Maureen playing the beloved Beattie in a BT advert © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Maureen was cast in the British Telecom TV ads in late 1987. “They were going to call her Doris. I put them right on that.” What started as a clutch of eight short sketches mushroomed as the character took off.  “The only trouble was that I’d agreed to a buy-out. But eight ads became eight more and so on, until I ended up doing 58 and I didn’t get a penny more.  

“I got a bit queeny about it at one stage but, with the passage of time, I can see it gave me a certain kind of kudos. Beattie made me something of a household name while also attracting a degree of casual envy because people assumed she’d made me a rich person.” 

She’s just signed another year-long contract to keep playing Evelyn. “I like the steadiness of it and the fact I have to keep learning. It’s good for my brain: I’m not a crossword or Suduko person.” 

"I won't hear a word against Corrie. It's full of quite exceptional actors"

Nor is she jealous, she says, of actresses like Lesley Manville or Suranne Jones. ”They’re younger than me but would you buy me as a TV detective? Absolutely not.” She could have played Nicola Walker’s mother in The Split. “Well, yes, although Deborah Findlay was excellent in the role. 

“But I don’t have a snob feeling about Corrie. When taxi drivers ask me what I’m doing and I tell them I’m in Coronation Street, they tend to go: ‘Aah, something will come up. I never watch it.’ And I mutter, ‘Well, I never drive a cab.’

 Maureen Lipman plays Evelyn Plummer in Coronation Street

Maureen Lipman plays Evelyn Plummer in Coronation Street © TV / Joseph Scanlon / Shutterstock

“I won’t hear a word against it. It’s full of quite exceptional actors working with very little rehearsal, very little direction. Am I envious of some of my peers? Sometimes, yes. Do I have the right to be? Of course not. Would I like to be in Sex Education? Yes, of course. Am I sorry I’ve signed up with Corrie for another year? No, I’m not.”  

She has a flat in Manchester. “Rula [Lenska] stays there when she’s in Corrie playing Claudia. And Lesley Joseph will stay when she tours in Sister Act.” 

She’d love it if the producers came up with a storyline that involved Evelyn and Claudia. “Rula and I always have such a laugh when we’re together. I’ll never forget the tornado that hit Media City three summers ago and, quite literally, blew us off our feet. It was terribly dangerous but we were helpless with laughter.” 

On her longest-running role

The other “job” Maureen cherishes is that of mother and grandmother. Amy, 48, her daughter by the late writer, Jack Rosenthal, is herself a playwright, waiting these last Covid-ravaged years for her play on the Mitfords to see the light of day. In the meantime, she’s been writing an original screenplay about someone who came to the UK via the Kindertransport initiative in the Second World War. 

Son Adam, 42, and Taina have two children: Ava is ten; Sacha, five. Adam works for The Breakthrough Prizes, a set of international awards bestowed in three categories in recognition of scientific advances, organising the prizes, writing the speeches and so on. 

Dame Maureen Lipman with her son Adam Rosenthal after receiving her Damehood from Prince of Wales

Dame Maureen Lipman with her son Adam Rosenthal after receiving her Damehood from Prince of Wales © PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Maureen has collared a couple of prizes of her own: first a CBE and, last year, a DBE. Because of the pandemic, she was only allowed to take one guest and chose Adam, a man she describes as being a bit like Professor Branestawm, his mind on higher things.

The ceremony took place last October. “We were driven to Windsor but dropped at the wrong entrance which meant hiking over the Castle’s grounds, me in high-heeled Ferragamo stilettos that meant I sank into the grass with every step. 

“When we reached the correct destination, I suddenly looked down and saw that Adam’s flies were undone. ‘Uh yes,’ he said, ‘the zip’s broken.’ With a commendable effort of will, I held on to my fury.

“But it’s why, in every picture taken on the day, you will see Adam clutching my heart-shaped scarlet patent leather handbag in front of his crotch. He hates me talking about him in print but, sorry, I think I’m owed this one.” 

"We hiked over the Castle’s grounds, me in high-heeled Ferragamo stilettos"

Prince Charles was the officiating royal—and she’s a big fan. “The fact that he’s got opinions which have been proven to be right all along, and despite the laughter which initially greeted them, says much about him. He was ahead of the curve on climate change. He was derided as a tree-hugger. He was one of the first to talk about GM foods. Why on earth shouldn’t we have an intelligent King?”

Maureen herself isn’t someone short of strong opinions, made more palatable, more noticeable, because they’re laced with humour. “I am an actress,” she says, at one point, “not an actor, and, if somebody tries to take the word ‘woman’ away from me, I shall be very cross. 

“Yes, some of my views can be a little old-fashioned. But don’t attack me for them. Consider my point of view. Demonstrate a little kindness. Be patient.  

"If you have to kick a** at someone like Joanne Rowling who’s literally taught a generation to read, something’s not right. Don’t wipe out the good a person does because they’ve done or said one thing you don’t agree with.”  

Maureen Lipman

Maureen Lipman

She drops her shoulders and smiles. Her husband, Jack, who, incidentally, wrote over 120 episodes of Coronation Street back in the day, succumbed to cancer in 2004. 

In 2008, she met retired computer expert, Guido Castro, an Egyptian Jew, and enjoyed a happy relationship with him until his death following Covid in January last year.  

“I was just lucky to find another really nice bloke. I think of both my men all the time.” Ask her if she’s happy right now and she says that “content” is a better word. “And that’s not bad at my age.” 

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