I am an actress. I did the Acting Course at what is now The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and graduated in 1974. Since then I’ve worked in theatres all over the UK both on tour and in rep, including seasons with the RSC and the National Theatres in London and in Scotland. I’ve appeared in several television series as a regular character – Casualty, Bramwell, The Chief, Wing and a Prayer, The Bill, etc. I think radio may be my favourite form of all – the ability to go anywhere and be anyone.
In 2014 I joined the Council of Equity UK – the union which currently represents over 47,000 performers and creative practitioners in the entertainment industry. In 2018 I became the second ever female President in the union’s history, following in the footsteps of Beatrix Lehmann in 1946.
- Who did you want to be when you were a kid?
I went to a convent school and briefly wanted to be a nun. This was in the days when the sisters wore those extraordinary habits with rosaries clinking at their sides and veils flying in the wind. (I realized later it was the theatricality of it all that appealed – not the life of service and prayer!)
Then I found myself torn between wanting to be a nun and wanting to be a ballet dancer. There was a brief period – after seeing Debbie Reynolds in The Singing Nun – when I thought I might be able to do both, but my mother explained that you really did need to dedicate your entire life to one or the other.
My father was a Variety Artiste and all our summers as children were spent in whatever seaside town he was doing a summer season. I spent whole days in the theatre soaking up the atmosphere and watching rehearsals. I loved it! Looking back I don’t think there was ever much doubt that I would end up working in the performing arts in some way.
- What was your ‘punch in the stomach’ or when did you first realise that this is going to become your career?
There were a few instances really. The first was in year one at high school – we were studying our first Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, which is a work of genius, of course, although possibly a bit much for 11 year olds. I went home after our first lesson and learned Orsino’s famous speech “If music be the food of love……” just because I wanted to. My friends thought that was most peculiar!
The second was when, at the age of 12, I was cast in a small part in a BBC drama series, This Man Craig. I had one line, “2b, Miss Duncan.” I’ve never been more nervous in my life but despite that it was so absolutely thrilling that I wanted more.
The third was when we got to our second year in high school and were studying Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. In the script the character of Eliza is written phonetically and everyone else in the class was having great difficulty understanding what she was saying. I wanted to find out what she sounded like so I had worked out the dialogue at home. The teacher chose me to read Eliza out loud and I remember the feeling of satisfaction when I made sense of the scene for the rest of the class and made them laugh.
- What were the 3 biggest obstacles in pursuit of your career?The constant pressure on me from all corners to lose weight which had the opposite of the desired effect. The unhappiness, the feeling of being somehow lacking, and the guilt I felt made me very uncontrolled around food. I was a compulsive eater and struggled deeply with an image of myself as an unattractive lump of a lassie. I was often cast as “attractive” characters so I found the mixed messages I was getting very confusing. Of course now we understand the psychological background to disorders like compulsive eating, which I hope is helping people get out of those spirals of behaviour. Susie Orbach’s book, Fat is a Feminist Issue, which I read when I was about 30, changed my life. My Scottish accent – when I first went down to London you had to pretend to be English when you went for an audition. Otherwise you would be pigeonholed into specifically Scottish parts. For some reason it was assumed that if you spoke RP you could do any accent. That has changed so much for the better now I’m very glad to say.Sticking with the wrong agent when I should have left. It’s easy to say and much harder to do but it is so important to be represented by someone who believes in you and wants the best for you, and who takes on board your particular wants and needs
- Where do you find inspiration?
In the work of others; in the young people coming into our industry with their passion and commitment and courage; in the sacrifices people in my industry make every day to pursue their dream of making a living out of their talent; in being part of a team all pulling in the same direction to create something extraordinary; in the kindness and support you find everywhere in this industry.
- What challenges do you face in this industry as a ‘50+ artist’?
I have been very lucky because I have kept working into my 60s and, believe me, luck has got an awful lot to do with it. I am no more talented than many of my contemporaries, but I see extraordinary actresses who have done magnificent work in their earlier years who now hardly work, if at all. It is a fact that there is less work for female identifying performers than there is for their male identifying counterparts, and increasingly less work as female identifying performers age.
I believe change has begun but not nearly fast enough. Equity is fighting alongside organisations like ERA 50:50 (Equal Representation for Actresses) and our own Women’s Committee to lobby the Arts Councils, Artistic Directors, casting directors and engagers of all kinds to embed 50:50 casting into their methodology. We represent over 50% of the population – we need to see that on our stages and our screens. We need to see ourselves reflected back to us.
- What advice would you give someone who is about to start their career but is being told that it’s ‘too late’?
It’s never too late. It’s never too late. It’s never too late. If you have a dream – pursue it. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won’t, but you will spend your life wondering “what if” if you don’t give it a go.
Be prepared – Hamlet got it right: “the readiness is all.” Get out there and meet people in the same profession – there is great comfort and support to be found among your fellow performers.
And, of course, join Equity when you can – the greatest support network you could ask for. As Goethe said, “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
- Do you have any idols and if so, who and why?
Well, I prefer the word “heroine” and working with Billie Piper on the production of Yerma at the Young Vic and in New York over the past few years has been utterly extraordinary. Watching her create and then perform the part of Her, as she was known in the adaptation by Simon Stone, was quite simply a privilege. Apart from her mind-blowingly brilliant performance, which became ever more mesmerizing as the runs of the play went on, she remained throughout a team player: always concerned for the wants and needs of not just her fellow performers but for everyone involved with the production. Her courage, kindness, passion, and compassion seem to me to epitomize the very best my profession can be. She also helped launch Equity’s Safe Spaces campaign and our Agenda for Change for which, as Equity’s President, I will be forever grateful.
- What’s your life motto?
Walk your talk.
- You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What colour would you be and why?
The colour of the heather on the hillsides in the Highlands of Scotland.
Equity is the UK trade union that represents performers and creative practitioners working across the entertainment industry. To find out more please visit Equity’s website.