■ The actress and author, 72, on ‘being Jane Asher’, the importance of Lycra-free undies and why Time’s Up needs celebrities
You’re in a stage version of An American In Paris: The Musical, which is being screened in cinemas. How would you define its appeal?
It combines the stunning music of Gershwin with a very moving love story and this updated adaptation has more darkness than the Gene Kelly film — which was wonderful, of course. Moving the date to immediately after the end of the war, rather than into the 1950s, underlines the trauma of the recent occupation of Paris.
Any other favourite musicals?
The first one to enthral me was West Side Story, which I saw at the age of 12. From the first entrance of the Jets, clicking their fingers and threatening us with that macho aggression, I was scared and excited, and from then on I was hooked. It’s a wonderful art form.
Which TV show or film are you particularly proud of?
A film we made for Channel 4 many years ago called Closing Numbers explored the then very contentious subject of HIV and Aids in a way that was unsensationalist while still making a very good drama. I played the wife of a man who turned out to be bisexual and to have contracted HIV during a one-night stand. I think all of us were proud to be part of a piece that didn’t pander to the hysterical and misleading reaction to the crisis at the time.
What do you get recognised for most often?
I never know when someone comes up to speak to me which ‘Jane’ they are seeing — the actress they’ve seen in something like Holby City, someone in a play or film, or the woman who bakes cakes. It’s even sometimes the writer of a novel they’ve enjoyed. I’m happy to answer to any description. I did once get asked by a taxi driver, ‘Didn’t you used to be Jane Asher?’ I found it quite hard to answer, although ‘yes’ was perfectly true, I guess.
If you had to live as one of your past characters, who would it be?
Having played lots of period characters I know I’d be loath to give up modern fabrics and have to spend my life in Lycra-free underwear and corsets, so it’d have to be someone from recent history. Maybe the wife in Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourn. Anyone who can come up with the witty advice she gives her daughter-in-law — ‘if s-e-x ever rears its ugly head, close your eyes before you see the rest of it’ — is someone I think I’d be very happy inhabiting.
How often do you cook and do you have a go-to dish for dinner parties?
I still enjoy cooking most evenings for my husband [Gerald Scarfe] and me, although I tend to keep baking and more ambitious meals for the weekends, when we often have family members with us. Dinner parties sounds a bit grand: I’d rather cook a big relaxed Sunday lunch and the old favourites still go down best — roast lamb with all the trimmings followed by a steamed syrup pud is always much appreciated.
Do you watch Bake Off?
Yes, although like most of the UK I was upset when it all changed, having known Mary [Berry] for many years. But as Prue [Leith] too has been a friend for a very long time I was extremely pleased when she took over.
How do you feel about the Time’s Up movement?
It has the potential to achieve real change. People get annoyed when they see ‘celebrities’ doing what they consider to be jumping on the bandwagon but we have to face the fact it’s those glamorous, mega-famous stars who get the coverage to spread these important messages across.
What’s your ideal night in?
Putting on an old pair of jeans and eating rare steak and salad on our laps, washed down with a bottle of dry, crisp white wine while watching a thriller or romcom on TV.
What surprises people to learn about you?
Maybe that I’m very fond of horror films. The more psychologically weird and disturbing, the better — and with gruesome sections. It’s real-life horror I find impossible to watch but as long as the premise of a film is clearly unreal and impossible, I enjoy being seriously frightened while deep down knowing I’m actually safe in a cinema eating popcorn.
Do you have any trivial pet peeves?
I’m pedantic about spelling and grammar, and I know it irritates other people so I do my best to subdue it.
Which word do you think is most often used to describe you and is it accurate?
‘Redheaded’… yes, it’s true, although nature gets a lot of help nowadays.
An American In Paris: The Musical will be screening in cinemas on Sunday, anamericaninpariscinema.com