Emma Williams

Published April 17, 2008

Emma Williams has a good tip for dying your hair: rub cigarette ash and water on your hairline and it removes the dark stains. This, the naturally fair actress usefully found out when fulfilling the requirements of her role in new musical A Model Girl, namely: “must be brunette, or a blond willing to dye”. It is required, because the woman she is playing became one of the most famous brunettes in the UK when a sex scandal threw her into the tabloids and made her image the epitome of the swinging sixties. Williams tells Caroline Bishop why she loves playing Christine Keeler…

Emma Williams is like a mini whirlwind of enthusiasm. If she could bottle it and sell it as a daily pick-me-up she would make a packet. When she breezes into the room this lunchtime she has already spent the morning at the Old Vic rehearsal rooms in a run-through of her latest show, before which she got up at “crazy hours” for a costume fitting, and she didn’t go to bed until 01:30 the night before because she was finishing an essay for her Open University degree (Humanities, in case you ask). Now she is forgoing her lunch break to talk to me, and yet she apologises while she nips to the kitchen to heat up the soup she brought from home.

But Williams doesn’t mind any of this, because she loves her job. She loves her job so much that she would rather talk about it – and she loves to talk, too – than eat her soup (which was surely cold by the time she got round to finishing it). “It’s so enjoyable,” she beams, a hint of her Yorkshire roots coming out on the ‘en’. “I love this job so much. Every day I wake up and I go, my God, I’m actually an actor working in London. People pay me to do a job that I love. If they didn’t pay me I’d still do it. They probably couldn’t stop me from turning up at random theatres going, can I come on stage tonight? I adore my job and it’s still gob-smacking to me that I’m allowed to do it. People let me. It’s just silly!”

People have been letting her for quite some time now. Still only 23, the girl from Halifax has packed a fair bit into her professional acting career since she landed her first West End part aged 18, originating the role of Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium and becoming the youngest ever female lead in the West End. So she’s an old hand at rehearsals and costume fittings and press interviews by now. This time around, they are all in aid of her current show, A Model Girl, which opens in Greenwich on Friday.

"I adore my job and it’s still gob-smacking to me that I’m allowed to do it. People let me"

Based on the real-life events surrounding the married Conservative MP and war minister John Profumo’s brief affair with 19-year-old former showgirl Christine Keeler in 1961, A Model Girl is a new musical dramatisation of the scandal that rocked Harold Macmillan’s Tory government in the 60s and dramatically altered the relationship between politics and the media. Unlike today, where the sexual misdemeanours of politicians are, as Williams puts it, “fish-and-chip wrapping the following day”, the Profumo affair happened in a time when the press didn’t seek to devour the private lives of politicians, when sleaze was still shocking, teenage girls were meant to keep their knickers on and Cold War paranoia was rife. When the affair came out in 1963 and it emerged that Keeler had also slept with a Soviet spy, press coverage of the scandal became hysterical. The fall-out resulted in Profumo’s resignation after lying to the Commons, the trial and suicide of Keeler’s socialite companion Stephen Ward, a nine-month prison sentence for Keeler (for failing to turn up to the trial of another former love, Johnny Edgecombe) and, some say, led to the early downfall of Macmillan and his government.

It is a juicy story and, not surprisingly, Williams is loving playing Keeler. She has been enthusiastically researching the events, including reading biographies of all the major players and the official Lord Denning report. She is enjoying the challenge of playing a real person, made even more of a challenge here because “you can’t get one set of straight facts, everyone has their own opinion. Even Christine’s books differ from book to book ever so slightly. You get to the point where you have to stop reading because the facts start to contradict each other so much that you don’t know what to believe anymore. You have to take a step back and go ok, what do I think?, and try and understand what type of person she was and why she did the things she did, good and bad, and what in her life formed those decisions.”

The creative team has tried to contact Keeler and others involved for their input, but Keeler, as yet, has not responded (though they have received support from another of the main players, Edgecombe; Profumo died last year). In fact, Keeler is loosely involved in another production based on the affair, insomuch as she sold the rights to her autobiography The Truth At Last, which is being turned into a play Upstairs at the Gatehouse later this year. A Model Girl, however, is based on public access information surrounding the saga and seeks to take into account all the various sides of the story, not just Keeler’s. “We are trying to give a very unbiased version. We’re hoping that audience members will make up their own minds,” says Williams. Though she says she is not aiming her portrayal as a “redemption” for Keeler, nor is she playing her as a victim, she’d love her to come and see the musical and hopes “that if she does come to see the show she would think that my portrayal was respectful of her.”

For someone of Williams’s age, growing up in today’s sexually liberated and sleaze-laden times, it is also something of a challenge to understand why the affair had such an impact. “To be honest, nowadays if a 19-year-old girl was caught sleeping with three guys at once or just enjoying sex, nobody would have a problem with it because we are in an age of hyper-sexuality, it’s almost that we’ve gone too far the opposite way now,” she comments. “It’s only because of the social aspects of the time, and having to put yourself in that situation is the interesting factor, trying to understand the fact that women were not allowed to be sexual objects and have that as an acceptable way of life. It’s quite interesting to try and put yourself back into that mentality. I think for everyone on the show that’s been an interesting challenge.”

"You have to stop reading because the facts start to contradict each other so much that you don’t know what to believe anymore"

Given the extent that times have changed, how relevant is such a story today? “I think the nice thing is that people can now approach the subject from a new point of view, with fresh eyes, particularly younger generations who don’t know the story from the press at the time, and maybe everybody can form a new opinion of it,” says Williams. “Because of a few crazy years in Christine Keeler’s life, it affected the rest of her life completely. This is the woman who lost jobs because people thought [she] was ‘that woman’. It’s just incredible.” She adds: “I think people will relate to it. Anyone who’s ever tried to fight their corner and not managed will relate to this piece.”

Besides, other draws include an original, era-inspired musical score – Williams claps her hands with glee at the prospect of working with the band for the first time – and 60s costumes that she is thoroughly enjoying trying on. “It’s so much fun!” she grins, “flouncing around in dresses, like, can I have this afterwards? Is it hired or can I buy it?!”

Her natural enthusiasm for everything – from the long hours of research and line-learning to the pretty costumes – makes her impassioned declarations of love for her job easy to believe, but that’s not to say it has all been plain sailing, far from it. From a young age Williams – a self-confessed realist – has had her eyes open to the realities of the business. At 17, she took the surprisingly mature decision to delay a move into professional acting in order to complete her education. She was in the middle of doing her A Levels, planning on going to university to study translation, when an agent saw her work on the Steve Coogan film The Parole Officer and wanted to sign her. “I walked away from it and said I’m not signing to you for the moment, I’m going to go back to school and finish my A Levels off and I’ll call you when the film comes out.” She took her exams and did call that agent, who duly signed her and has represented her ever since. “She respected my decision to go back to school and get those A Levels because they are a fall back. I called it my mattress plan. They give me an option to do something else. It could have been that I did Chitty and finished at the end of it and went, I don’t want to be an actor. But it didn’t happen – hurrah!” says Williams cheerfully.

So as an 18-year-old she left home for the first time, replacing the wilds of Yorkshire for the West End of London to play Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opposite Michael Ball. “I coped ok. I wouldn’t say I coped particularly well,” she says of the experience. “I literally had two days to say goodbye to my family and friends, and then it was straight into rehearsals. I didn’t prepare myself for it because I didn’t have the chance to.” Was she homesick? “I don’t think I was at first because there was too much to do. But suddenly going back to my flat at night time, because I was living by myself as well, that was very hard. I spoke to my parents most nights.”

"I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason"

Although it was a “shock to the system”, she feels the experience made her grow up quickly and gave her the stamina to do eight shows a week. Luckily, it also cemented her love of theatre and she has since collected many stage credits across the country, notably Bat Boy The Musical at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and in the West End, Sex, Chips And Rock ‘N’ Roll at the Manchester Royal Exchange, Tomorrow Morning at the New End last year and the Burt Bacharach musical Promises, Promises at the Sheffield Crucible.

There is one notable absentee from that list though. Last year Williams was due to play the alternate to Connie Fisher’s Maria in The Sound Of Music at the London Palladium, but parted ways with the production by mutual agreement with the producers. Williams won’t comment on why, but says, “You just have to accept these things happen sometimes. It’s hard, you know. But then you go, well I wouldn’t be here doing this. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.”

She has done well to stick with that belief over the years, given the various ailments that seem to have conspired to keep her off stage. During her A Levels she fell quite seriously ill, leading her to wonder if she would ever be an actor; while she was in Chitty she had her feet operated on (“But I was back on stage within a day and a half so that’s not bad!”), and early last year she broke her ankle near the end of her run on Promises, Promises.

You’ve got to hand it to her, she’s a trouper: after breaking it just 15 minutes in, Williams still managed to finish the performance. “I told them to put a strap on it and I’ll carry on going. The character actually spends most of Act Two in bed, so that was quite useful! That was when I knew I’d done something more serious. I tried to commit suicide in the show; I had to lie still for about 10 minutes under very hot covers and I’m on my side. I thought, this isn’t a sprain, because this is really, really painful. The heat got to me so much and the pain from my foot, I was nearly sick. You can’t move your position because you’re supposed to be possibly dead. You’ve just spent a number singing and crying so you’re trying to wipe the mascara up surreptitiously with one arm, while preventing your nose from bleeding because you had a bad nosebleed earlier in the day, and not vomit on the covers.” She laughs raucously. “It’s so glamorous this business! It’s why I love my job, it’s the nosebleeds and the vomit.”

CB