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Back Page interview: Wendy Craig, actress

02 November 2006

I was talking about elocution lessons only the other day. They do not seem to happen any more. In my day, to be on the stage or act, you were required to have a posh accent. As I came from the North-East, it might have been difficult for me to play kings and queens; so I was sent for lessons. I still do some of the voice exercises, and it was certainly my introduction to poetry and the beauty of words.

When Tom Courtenay and others came to the Royal Court a little later, suddenly regional accents became very trendy and acceptable. But by then I had had my elocution lessons.

No mother should want her daughter to be on the stage unless the daughter is absolutely determined herself. It is a very tough life. Backstage is not glamorous, but rather grim, not to mention the very long hours. I have always loved it, but it would not be for everyone.

I am afraid I am a terrible giggler. Christians should be happier. It really is a wonderful thing to know that, whatever happens, you have that assurance. That is why I have chosen the John Betjeman poem “Diary of a Church Mouse” for my new book*, because of its delicious sense of irony and humour. The hymns and poems in the book all illustrate little bits of my life.

I always set aside the first half-hour of the day to pray and read my Bible. I only have to look out of my bedroom window and see the trees to feel full of praise. But I pray at different moments in the day, either prayers of thanks or cries for help.

Being typecast as a mum, as I was in Not in Front of the Children and Butterflies, did not really bother me. I was very happy on my shows, particularly Butterflies, which was very well cast. I have always been proud to be associated with it.

It was a bit confusing for my children at the time. When Ross was young, he could not understand how he could watch me on TV at the same time as being in the same room with me.

I came back to God in quite a dramatic way. I had reached rather a low ebb after my dog had died (among other things), and suddenly was aware of this real need for God, as I had known when I was much younger. I was sitting in my orchard and felt prompted to go down to the local church. There was nobody there, and I just prayed. I felt a very deep peace descend. It was like a whole weight had been lifted.

For me, working was the way I coped with bereavement after my husband [the trombonist and scriptwriter Jack Bentley] died in 1994. We had been married for nearly 40 years. Working kept me busy, and meant I was with people.

My family was also an enormous help. I see them all the time. I have two sons and am about to become a grandmother for the sixth time. One of my sons is a professional musician.

I did my first panto aged 59. I had not deliberately left it so late, but I had never been asked before. I really enjoyed it as the fairy godmother, and did it for a number of years after that.

The food served up in Butterflies will always be one of the funniest things from my working life. The family always had to taste what Ria (my character) had come up with, and it had to look disgusting. I think the chef in the BBC canteen had great fun creating these awful- looking dishes. Courgette soup was one of his favourites. We had a bucket at the side of the set so they could spit it out, as it often tasted as dreadful as it looked.

When I was filming The Royal, I often was mistaken for a real Matron, and was once even asked where the gynaecological ward was. We did some of the filming in a hospital in Bradford, and people were very puzzled when I could not help them out.

I am a great lover of novels, and am currently reading The Château by William Maxwell. I also like a good old Aga-saga, and really enjoy Joanna Trollope’s books.

I went back to Durham recently where I grew up. I re-established links with my secondary school, and helped them raise money for a new drama unit.

Getting married was the most important choice I have made. But the choice about whether to take your faith seriously or not is very important, too — although, I suppose, it could be said that this is something that is decided for you.

I have lots of regret, things I wish I had not done or said. I used to wake up in the night thinking about them all, but I have learnt to give them to the Lord, and I do believe he takes care of those worries. I would like to be remembered as someone who made people laugh.

I used to go to Martin Lloyd-Jones’s church in London. I found his preaching very inspirational. The life and teachings of Selwyn Hughes, who died recently, have also always inspired me.

In the Bible I love the Psalms and St John, but I am not so keen on those chapters of names. I know they are necessary, but they are certainly unpronounceable.

Litter makes me very angry. People should take care of God’s creation. I am happiest when I am sitting with my family having a meal with music on and it is a nice sunny day. It is not a lot to ask.

I regularly buy fairtrade coffee, which I really love. Up in Harrogate, I often visit Betty’s teashop, and it does its own brand of fairtrade coffee, which is very good.

The open field at the back of my house is a wonderful retreat . People are allowed to walk through it, and it plateaus before dipping down to the Thames Valley, showing the countryside all around. To relax, I listen to music or walk. I also like to potter in the garden.

I would love to get locked in a church with Selwyn Hughes. I’d have a real chin-wag, as well as asking him to pray for me.

*Show Me the Way by Wendy Craig is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99; 0-340-86394-3.


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