Anna Chancellor

Published April 17, 2008

She is not known for playing the girl who gets the guy, and her face is still associated with one particularly unlucky bride. But now Anna Chancellor finds herself with not just one man, but two, as she plays adulterous wife Dorothy in Howard Brenton’s play about Harold Macmillan, Never So Good. Caroline Bishop caught up with Chancellor at the National Theatre.

Though she was blown up with him outside the Houses of Parliament in spy series Spooks, Anna Chancellor didn’t know Robert Glenister that well before being cast with him in new play Never So Good at the National Theatre. Which is why she found it quite strange to be undoing his trousers. “Second day of rehearsal,” she tells me, “we had to get down on the floor and I had to get on top of him and snog him. Most people couldn’t imagine doing that,” she muses, “but then after a while you’ve broken those barriers down, you get used to it. I said to him, ‘I can imagine being a prostitute now.’”

What a funny life it is, that of an actor. Chancellor compares rehearsing these scenes to the pair of body double actors in the Richard Curtis film Love Actually. “We just so clearly get on with it. We just completely go seamlessly from snogging and undoing his trousers and him going up my skirt, to ‘what’s for lunch?’” she laughs.

Today, lunch is cauliflower cheese, vegetables and salad, which Chancellor is tucking into while she chats about her role as Dorothy, the adulterous wife of Jeremy Irons’s Harold Macmillan in Never So Good, Howard Brenton’s drama about the life of the Conservative politician and former British Prime Minister.

Snogging, it would seem, is an integral part of the role, as Dorothy, who married Macmillan in 1920, had an affair with another Tory MP, Robert Boothby, played by Glenister, for the majority of their married life.

For Chancellor, whose own family tree touches on politics – her great-great grandfather was former PM Herbert Asquith – researching Dorothy’s life has been an interesting process. Reading letters written by the Macmillans to each other prior to their marriage, meeting Dorothy’s “wonderful” 87-year-old daughter-in-law – “she said, ‘Dorothy never liked me because I was frightfully plain’” – and reading the words of the late Boothby have led the actress to form an opinion of her subject as a strong, ambitious woman, both fun and somewhat frightening. Her opinion is compounded by the description of Dorothy on Downing Street’s website as: “a headstrong woman and passionate woman in her youth, she had an earthy charm, a forceful presence and an intuitive understanding of politics.”

"What’s quite fun about her is that she’s very forthright, unapologetic, and that makes her strong"

Hers was certainly an intriguing life. The youngest and favourite daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, Lady Dorothy Cavendish grew up in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire before marrying WWI veteran Macmillan. Despite her aristocratic status, Dorothy and her siblings were brought up to be egalitarian, which, says Chancellor, “really primed her for life as Harold Macmillan’s wife as a Prime Minister, because she was adored by his constituents and adored by the people she met. People were flattered that anyone so aristocratic would talk to you as an equal.”

Politically Dorothy was fiercely loyal to her husband and supported him throughout his career, before and during his time as Prime Minister from 1957-63. But sexually she betrayed him for years – with his knowledge – by having an affair with Boothby, who was even rumoured to have fathered the Macmillans’s youngest child, Sarah, born in 1930. “She was passionate, she was jealous,” says Chancellor of this side of Dorothy’s character. “He [Boothby] kept on trying to marry other women; she would fly to America or wherever to stop him. He could hardly cope with her. It kind of wrecked his career I think. So, on the one hand she had Harold who she was really supporting through his ambition, and Boothby she just wanted to play with. She sort of ruined him.”

Despite the affair, the Macmillans remained together until Dorothy’s death in 1966, three years after her husband retired from government following the Profumo scandal. “He really leant on her,” says Chancellor. “Politically she was very shrewd; she had very good judgement. And it was a marriage that had to live in a sort of compromise. Then when they eventually got to number 10 I think she was very happy. Towards their later marriage I think they were very content with each other.”

In talking about Dorothy, Chancellor speaks carefully, putting great thought into her answers. She has obviously enjoyed finding out about her character and seems to have developed a fondness for the woman. “What’s quite fun about her is that she’s very forthright, unapologetic, and that makes her strong,” she says. “I actually think about their life and read about the affair and the marriage, I find it quite depressing. I don’t think actually she had her cake and ate it; I think it was compromised and it led to difficulties within her family. I don’t think ‘oh my God she was lucky, she had two husbands, that must have been great’. You feel there’s a lot of unhappiness around it. Boothby was very unhappy; I’m sure she was at times.”

Though Dorothy’s relationships with her husband and lover are part of Brenton’s play, the real focus of Never So Good is the political life of Macmillan. “Howard’s interested in her and she certainly appears in the play but I think I might have been more interested in the women,” comments Chancellor. “Howard’s got a very good strong political understanding of it. It’s the politics of Macmillan’s life that Howard is really examining, with the injection of his emotional life, not the other way around; whereas I think some women would have written it the other way around.”

She says it has been “a real privilege” to work with Irons, Glenister, director Howard Davies and playwright Brenton; however, being a woman in this predominantly male environment, Chancellor has found herself empathising with Dorothy’s frustrations on occasion. She describes rehearsing one particular scene between herself and Irons, in which Dorothy taunts the emotionally suppressed Harold with her affair, trying to provoke a reaction. “I think she wants Macmillan to say that he loves her. This goes on and Macmillan can hardly concede and he just says ‘we gave ourselves to each other’,” Chancellor relates. “So I said to Jeremy, ‘did he love her?’ And Jeremy says something like ‘well he stayed married to her’ and I was like ‘Oh God Jeremy, that’s such a useless answer’. F**k it, I was as irritated by that answer as Dorothy Macmillan would have been.”

She laughs lightly, a cheeky glint in her eyes. I get the feeling that Chancellor has more than a few things in common with Dorothy; in fact, when the actress describes her alter-ego as “without airs and graces; she was very straight, great fun”, she could be describing herself. Straight-talking, candid, friendly, with a wry, conspiratorial sense of humour, Chancellor seems like she would be a laugh to go out for a drink and a gossip with.

"I don’t feel it’s a great age to be a woman; I don’t feel that the woman is very highly regarded, not at all"

Also, much like the impression she gives of Dorothy, Chancellor is not shy about expressing her opinion. When I ask if she thinks women are better off now than in Dorothy’s day, she frowns, considers the question carefully and says no. “I think it’s really hard this society we live in where everything is sort of disposa

ble and girls are meant to have sex very young. I don’t feel it’s a great age to be a woman; I don’t feel that the woman is very highly regarded, not at all. I don’t know what’s happened – you open the papers and you see Amy Winehouse endlessly talked about. I actually feel so f**king angry about it.”

She names Winehouse as an example of talented women she feels are treated as fodder by a media which focuses on the troubles not the talent. “I feel that really talented, courageous, inspiring women – or men maybe – they’re just overlooked. A lot [are] overlooked and they promote people who aren’t very interesting. Because people are scared of talent, because that talent is free thinking, whatever field you’re in.”

As an actress who usually plays the character parts – the loser in love (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Pride And Prejudice), the hardnosed career woman (Spooks), the dominatrix lesbian (Tipping The Velvet) – rather than the romantic lead, I wonder if she feels she has been overlooked. She laughs and says without any false modesty: “I don’t actually really feel that about myself. I feel that I have actually been pretty lucky.”

She was never, after all, going to have a career in romantic leading roles after her big break landed her with such an unfortunate nickname. It may have been 14 years since she played jilted bride Henrietta ‘Duckface’ in the film Four Weddings And A Funeral but the name stuck. “People always call me Duckface. In fact now even my family call me Duckface, my friends. It is literally what I am called,” she grins wryly, laughing at herself. “I was walking down the street the other day on the South Bank and this guy walked towards me and went ‘Quack’. I was like, f**k. I get it a lot.”

She doesn’t mind at all though; rather, she is grateful for the part which thrust her onto a fruitful career path that has included major television roles in Pride And Prejudice, Tipping The Velvet, Kavanagh QC, Suburban Shootout and Spooks, plus films Crush, St Trinian’s and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. She may often play the unsympathetic character – “my mother is sometimes like, ‘you’re not playing another awful person are you? Not the villain again? – but Chancellor, now 43, is just thankful to have the career she does, because it could all have been very different.

Leaving her convent boarding school with just two O Levels – “I was totally uneducated” – Chancellor went on to study acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA), where her confidence was so low she “couldn’t ever imagine getting a job. I loved acting but had no confidence. They used to give us tax lessons at LAMDA and I used to sit at the back going, right, as if I’m ever going to have to pay tax.”

Strangely, it took becoming pregnant by then-boyfriend the poet Jock Scott at the age of 21 and dropping out of LAMDA to start Chancellor on her tax-paying career. “You’d think it was a drawback to have a child so young but for me it was an enormous incentive to work. So I’d go for every audition. Every job I had was a necessity. It wasn’t like ‘do I want to go there?’ I didn’t have any back up. So I had to work.”

"People always call me Duckface. Even my family call me Duckface, my friends. It is literally what I am called"

Her first job was on a “really crappy soap opera” on BSkyB called Jupiter Moon, created by Crossroads producer William 'Butcher Bill' Smethurst. “We did 150 episodes, set in outer space. Literally when you went to the Medi Centre you wore a colander on your head and were given a tic tac,” laughs Chancellor. It may have been a tacky soap, but the young actress’s talents caught the eye of Smethurst, who gave her a much needed confidence boost. “At drama school they were so critical of you. But Butcher Bill thought I was great. He didn’t hold anything against you, he liked you. So my first job I earned money and I was appreciated and I gained a load of confidence.”

A few minor television roles later – via a well-known advert for Boddington’s beer, where she met her cameraman ex-husband – and Chancellor landed the role of Duckface. Since then, she has appreciated every job she has had, with particular highlights including working with John Thaw, having fun with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett on the recent St Trinian’s and filming C5 drama Suburban Shootout.

Her career has also given her the education that school didn’t, like researching Dorothy and the politics of the era. “For me, acting is my only way into ever knowing about anything. So now I can go to the library and read books I wouldn’t normally read because I’m hungry for information. That’s why it suits me, my mind.”

Though theatre has featured less frequently on her CV than television – it has been seven years since she was last in the West End, with Boston Marriage at the Donmar Warehouse and Ambassadors – her time alongside Anthony Sher in the Laurence Olivier Award-winning play Stanley at the National in 1996 also features on her highlights list. Now daughter Poppy has left home, Chancellor sees this return to the National as “the beginning of a new stage” in which she hopes to do a lot more theatre. “Work has always seemed like a great gift really,” she says. “I have never taken it for granted and thought I should be somewhere other than I am.”CB

Related shows