Interview: Vanessa Redgrave

Anna Walker

Back in cinemas thanks to Park Circus Films, Look Back in Anger has as much to say today as it did in 1959. We spoke to director Tony Richardson’s former wife, and acting legend, Vanessa Redgrave.

Despite recently celebrating her 81st birthday, Vanessa Redgrave can still run rings around any interviewer. A six-time Academy Award nominee, celebrated for her turns in Julia, and Howards End, and dubbed the finest actress of her generation by such greats as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller*, she makes for a somewhat formidable interviewee.

Perhaps the most famous member of the legendary Redgrave family, Vanessa speaks in deliciously slow, smoky tones—despite giving up cigarettes after a near-fatal heart attack three years ago—turning every question over in her hands before offering a careful answer, or a sharp rebuke.

We’ve come together to discuss the legacy of her former husband, director Tony Richardson, with whom she had two daughters, actresses Joley and Natasha Richardson, and in particular, the rerelease of his New Wave classic, Look Back in Anger.

Despite only being married for five years (between 1962 and 1967), the couple’s professional relationship lasted until Tony’s death from AIDS complications in 1991. Vanessa’s voice softens when she speaks about Tony and her continued affection for him is palpable. The pair weren’t yet an item when she first saw the film in 1959, and the actress remembers feeling, “Oh, staggered. I was quite a conservative girl, and I was absolutely staggered.”


Vanessa Redgrave and then-husband Tony Richardson. Image via What Culture

She had known Tony for a few years by this time. He’d been working with her mother on a BBC TV production, so she’d met him around the house, and then worked as a walk on in some of his plays.

I will always remember being invited, because I was working for Tony as an understudy for Mary Ure [who plays Alison Porter, the long-suffering wife to Richard Burton’s “angry young man” Jimmy in Look Back in Anger] at the time. We were all invited up to this sort of tin shed, which was the cinema at the time. And we saw this film which blew my mind. Completely blew my mind.”

"I was quite a conservative girl, and I was absolutely staggered"

“I had been in one of the ghastly old British Cinema films myself,” she laughs, “and I’d thought it was awful. There were some good films like The Dam Busters, which my father was in, but Look Back in Anger was extraordinary. It was brilliantly shot, and I was amazed by Mary Ure and Richard Burton—they were wonderful. I remember thinking that it was more like the Continental films, the French films and the Italian films, not the old British way, which was stuck in war movies and stiff upper lips, which wasn’t fair to our British actors and actresses, who were brilliant.”


Tony Richardson behind the camera. Image via Senses of Cinema

1959, which saw the release of Look Back in Anger was a transformative year for Vanessa Redgrave.

“I really got to know Tony in Stratford that year. He was directing Othello, and it was an incredible season because it had some extraordinary actors and actresses like Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, Paul Robeson, you name it. Paul Robeson had gotten diminished in his voice with his illnesses [he’d been hospitalised for bouts of dizziness and heart palpitations], and not working for a long time having been in the Soviet Union because of the Blacklist thing in America, so it was a staggeringly wonderful production, and it was a brilliant year.”

There’s a fleeting silence, where Vanessa seems to have retreated into that time entirely, before she snaps back, sharp as a tack.

Of course, our society has completely changed [since then]. I mean fundamentally, and films and literature and theatre assisted in that change.”
 

"The clothes that actresses wear are deemed more important than the fine details of the work that they do"


“I was just reading about the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, which was in 1967. There was this ghastly kind of glue that was still the main authority in Britain. That’s government. So, if you think of Look Back in Anger in ’59 and then think well in ‘67 you had the obscenity of a trial of a publisher for publishing this great writer, DH Lawrence,” she exhales dramatically, and her pause somehow contains all the tension of that time. “Britain has always had consistently extraordinary writers, but this awful, backwards, reactionary authority was ferocious. And it’s still lurking away up in Westminster. And of course, in the media.”

The media is a chief cause for concern for Vanessa, and an aggravation she revisits throughout our conversation.


An activist throughout her career, Vanessa speaks during a demonstration organised by Amnesty International to show support for refugees in September, 2016

I remember, Tony, me and somebody else in the company—I don't know if it was Charles Laughton or Peter Hall—were interviewed by the BBC. They used to be interested in things like Shakespeare and Stratford-on-Avon. Not anymore!” she crows, exasperatedly.

“I don’t know how the subject came up, but Tony was saying absolutely, categorically that there must be no censorship of any kind and the interviewer was absolutely reeling from this revolutionary statement, he didn’t know what to say! What do you say when somebody just tramples down all the barriers that have been accepted by the majority of people, including the BBC?” She descends into a throaty, warm laugh.

Those early memories of Tony are clearly still very dear to her. “Tony was an iconoclast. And I happened to be an extremely conservative young woman. So, I was both astounded and delighted by his iconoclasm”, she chuckles. “I soon became much less conservative. I admired him so much.”

"The circumstances are pretty difficult for the majority of young people today"

Over their careers, the couple worked together countless times, even after their controversial divorce in 1967. Tony allegedly left Vanessa for the French actress Jeanne Moreau, and his later life was dogged by rumours in the press, especially after his bisexuality became public knowledge following an HIV diagnosis.

I worked with him a lot after we divorced because I admired him totally, absolutely adored his work and everything about how he worked.”

“[His directing style] was a very rare and very unusual combination of great relaxation and good humour. And fun! He generated that atmosphere in his films and in the theatre and in rehearsals and onstage. I thought his style was completely unique, but I've just worked with Stephen Daldry and Stephen Daldry does the same thing,” she laughs. “So now I can't.”


Vanessa with a young Natasha Richardson, her first daughter with Tony. Image via Core Memory

It’s somewhat surprising to hear that Richardson’s productions were so relaxed, given that his films—especially Look Back in Anger—were so brooding. Did that creative tension never spill over onto set?

No. No not at all, and actually it's not the English way. When I filmed The Sea Gull with Sidney Lumet in Stockholm, we worked with a lot of people who'd worked on Ingmar Bergman films and they were astounded that we all laughed a lot [while working] on this serious play.”

“They didn’t understand Chekov for a start because Chekov is the first to laugh at the farcical nature of human behaviour—which leads to tragedy after tragedy—but more so they were astounded that we loved our work and were happy and merry and all the better focused on what we were doing for it. They didn’t have that kind of set with Ingmar, but that doesn’t make Ingmar any less of a director. Good humour doesn’t make a good director either. It’s very, very rare, but some people like Tony really do have what I would call a mastery.”

Vanessa maintains that her personal ties to Tony never affected their professional relationship. “Being as involved as me and members of my family have always been in theatre, film television, you name it, we’re used to working completely as professionals. That’s our criteria and it has to be, it couldn’t be anything else. You know, our business is to try and understand better human beings and assist writers and directors in communicating some of the extraordinary facets of human behaviour. You have to have compassion and humour and everything else.”

“I just think Tony was a great moviemaker, to use a silly, simplistic group of words. He used to bounce our first baby [actress Natasha Richardson, who tragically died following a skiing accident in 2009] on his knee and say, ‘Movies, movies, movies!’”

“It was very cute and shows his great humour. Of course, she then grew up on sets, and wearing the clothes, and became a wonderful actress. My second daughter [Joley Richardson], who’s still alive is also a wonderful actress. We’ve all grown up watching movies and applauding and being thrilled by them.”


Vanessa walks the red carpet at the  Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013 with her daughter Joley Richardson and granddaughter Daisy Bevan

The fervor of Vanessa’s nostalgia for those innovative days, is perhaps only matched by the fervor of her disappointment in the media’s current involvement in the film industry.

What I hate about our present-day film environment is that there's some wonderful work being done that I love, but the way that media treats film is appalling. Absolutely appalling.”

“Now I suppose I could be written off, and quite rightly perhaps, as an old fuddy-duddy because old fuddy-duddies tend to go on about how things used to be and aren’t anymore. Well, that’s the nature of life. It seems to be a period of very extraordinary work being done internationally, but the media, generally speaking, is appalling because it's only interest is the commercial value of a product. Therefore, the clothes that actresses wear are deemed more important than the fine details of the work that they do.”

“Personally, I feel women have gotten sort of trapped in this charade of selling fashion and jewels and huge luxury items. I'm ashamed. When I look at women's magazines, I really am ashamed to be a woman.”

“The terrible thing is that women—including myself, I'm not speaking as somebody who hasn’t trodden the red carpet—have allowed ourselves to be gobbled up by the fashion houses. It’s understandable that we get gobbled up because with PR, we say that we’ll help [promote a film], but then comes, ‘Oh wonderful our film has been nominated’ or whatever and then it becomes well, ‘What are you gonna wear, what are you gonna wear, what are you gonna wear?’ And it’s rubbish.”

“Let people wear what they want to wear. They can wear jewels or coloured glass, or some beautiful ethnic things, just dress how they want to feel, but the fact that you’ve got to have boobs hanging out everywhere, I find appalling. I just come from a different sort of place where I think a woman's figure looks most wonderful in a different way.”


At a photocall for her role in Howard's End

“[The media] is insidious, it’s infected and it’s infectious. It’s just not what it’s all about. And it’s teaching young people the wrong things. Luckily young people do by virtue of the fact that they are young, also have a built-in thing that does battle with their acceptance of what’s fun, what’s fashion. The circumstances are pretty difficult for the majority of young people today, pretty horrendously difficult, so the media have a great duty and responsibility to assist in keeping the goal posts wider.”  

As our interview comes to a close, we chat a while longer about the closure of Vanessa’s favourite cinema, near her home in West London. She sighs, caught as this legendary actress is in her love for the past, her utter adoration of the arts and her frustration at the present state of the industry. “I think a real cinema is as important as a library”

 

Look Back in Anger will screen until April 12th at the BFI. It will be in cinemas across the UK in June