■ The actress and former MP, 84, on her tidy lockdown, playing the Queen and her role in Elizabeth Is Missing
How have you been handling the lockdown?
I have the tidiest knicker drawer in the world, my brass is gleaming and I keep finding things to keep me occupied. I wouldn’t say it’s the most exciting time but at least I can keep moving around. I’ve been at home and haven’t been outside the front door in almost four months. Fortunately, I live in a basement flat and have a garden.
Are you shielding yourself?
I can go out but my problem is not the Covid-19 thing, it’s because I have a bad leg. I can hobble around with a cane that was thoughtfully and lovingly provided for me by my family but I haven’t done much other than gardening yet — but I will when I get some physio appointments.
Are you worried about the theatre industry?
They have the boost that they needed with the money the government is pushing towards culture [a £1.57billion arts support package] but the big issue is when will people feel confident enough to go back to a theatre, cinema or concert?
They found a way for the Baftas to happen last Friday. You won Best Actress for gripping mystery/dementia drama Elizabeth Is Missing…
The real win is for the people who vote for you but it’s always very nice to have your work noticed. Elizabeth Is Missing is a marvellous book by Emma Healey — it was based on the lovely young writer’s experience with her own grandmother.
What attracted you to the role?
The story. I’d been banging on about how we are living longer but have these diseases such as Alzheimer’s, which because we died earlier in the past nobody knows that much about. The one good thing about the Covid-19 pandemic is that the issue of social care is rocketing up the political ladder.
Have any of your relatives suffered from dementia?
Fortunately no, but I have friends who did experience it and I saw the havoc it wreaks on people. There’s something tragic about not being able to recognise or be recognised. That’s what it is to be human.
This is your first television role in almost three decades after retiring from politics. Has production changed a lot?
I remember rehearsing a film and then being told to go away while the set was put up and the camera lined up and all that kind of thing. Now you rehearse and different camera lenses arrive in a box that are just screwed in and off you go and do your scene. You shoot in longer bits than I was used to because the technical side of filming has changed so dramatically.
Were you keen to return to acting?
I’d never really missed acting. It’s always amazing when work is offered to you that’s actually worth doing. The first return was on the radio and I love radio — no make-up, no costume and you don’t have to worry about kicking over the furniture! And then I was offered the opportunity to play Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Old Vic. I said to a friend, ‘I wonder if I’ve forgotten how to do it…’ and she said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it’s like riding a bicycle, you never forget how to do it!’ That was a comfort.
Parts such as King Lear aren’t easy. How do you keep up your stamina?
Lear is a perfect example. There’s so much energy in that play that it feeds you. I’m not big on exercise but I do take liquid iron because I’m anaemic.
Were you nervous about it?
Of course, it’s an extraordinary play. There’s no sense of permanency about acting. It’s a hard life. It’s not a game and it’s not playing, it’s serious!
In 1971, you played Elizabeth I in Elizabeth R. What did you make of Dame Helen Mirren and Olivia Colman’s versions of today’s Queen Elizabeth?
I haven’t seen them. Someone asked me about playing The Queen in The Crown and I said, ‘How would you know how to play her, who is she?’ We know her as a queen but we don’t know her as a person. She’s the best-kept secret in the world.
What do you hope to do next?
I’ll have to wait and see if anything comes through the door. I just want to get some normality back. One of the other few good things about the lockdown is that it’s caused many people to be amazed at just how awful the realities of life are for some people. It gives us an opportunity to restructure society.
Is there anything you miss about politics?
I miss the constituents but I can’t say there’s much about the business of politics in parliament that I miss. There are egos going up and down those corridors that wouldn’t be tolerated in a theatre for 30 seconds.
■ Elizabeth Is Missing is available now on Acorn TV