Quirkily svelte with a hint of her Papa around the eyes, Lucy Briers has performed just about everywhere during the course of her career with the notable exception of the West End. Until now that is… Briers is currently making her West End debut in The Solid Gold Cadillac at the Garrick theatre where Tom Bowtell caught up with her in her dressing room to chat about Cadillacs, abseiling and pretty much anything apart from her dad.
Lucy Briers is one of the UK’s most versatile actresses. In addition to working in theatres from Sheffield to Salisbury she has also enjoyed considerable success in television, radio and film. This versatility was elegantly showcased in her recent acclaimed appearance in Cloud Nine at the Sheffield Crucible where she played both a nine year old boy and a middle-aged woman. This performance earned Briers a nomination for a TMA Best Actress Award – something she is clearly still on um, Cloud, err, Nine about. (Sorry):
“It was totally unexpected and really, really wonderful because it was a fantastic job – far too short – but fantastic. It’s an amazing piece. It was written in the late 70s and it was workshopped by a group of actors who have gone onto great things – people like Antony Sher and Miriam Margolis – and they worked alongside with a whole range of people – mainly women – about sexuality and all sorts of things; and then Caryl Churchill went away with what they’d devised and came back with Cloud Nine, it’s extraordinary.”
"It's very naïve and charming with a subtle political underbelly"
A cursory glance at Briers’ CV shows that she has always revelled in the variety a career in acting offers: she’ll do a cameo in Red Dwarf one week and embark on a Shakespearian tour the next. It almost as if, in light of how her Father’s profile has developed, she has done all she can to avoid being typecast. It is thus no surprise that the much-discussed cosiness of Solid Gold Cadillac is a very different from the subversive and challenging content of Cloud Nine. “One of the reasons I did Cadillac was because I love the fact that it’s very naïve and charming but has this wonderfully subtle political underbelly to it. We now live in a time where everything is so hard-hitting, and it’s a miracle to see anything where people aren’t being gang raped. When I read this script I thought it was a nice difference to have a show that has something to say without ramming it all down your throat. People can enjoy the show for what it is but come away thinking ‘oh that’s a bit like Lord Black, or a bit like Enron.’”
In an effort to maintain this rather more genteel brand of satire, the director of Cadillac (lan Brown) has resisted the temptation to make any modifications in light of the American Corporate scandals of recent years. “There have been about two lines changed simply because there’s no way to know what people are talking about, but apart from that it’s exactly how it was written."
Briers plays the intriguingly-monikered Amelia Shotgraven in Cadillac, a character she describes as “a sweet, lovely innocent 1950s girl.” Shotgraven is drafted in as the secretary for Mrs Partridge – (the character played by the legendary Patricia Routledge) and undergoes the sort of transformation which will be all-too-familiar to aficionados of romantic comedies. “She starts off very corporate, but after a few weeks with Mrs Partridge she blossoms – it’s so charming – she gets sent to a hairdresser to change her hairstyle, whereupon the man she has been in love with for years suddenly notices her and she finds love! The whole thing is just a lovely fairytale!”
Having not yet seen the show I inform Lucy that I’m particularly excited by the prospect of the West End’s first entirely golden Cadillac vrooming its way, Chitty style, across the auditorium. “No, it’s nothing like that! You do get to see it in a way – but it’s more a symbol… I think that because there’s this whole thing of it being a fairytale and it’s almost like the car is Cinderella’s coach – that’s what Mrs Partridge gets at the end of all her hard work.”
"I just want to do good work"
There will be some who see Briers’ West End breakthrough as her own ‘reward’ for serving such a varied apprenticeship in regional theatre. While she quite expressly does not think along those lines, she has definitely identified some clear differences between West End and regional audiences. “I do think that London audiences can be tougher: because they have a range of entertainment on their doorstep and also, to some extent, because ticket prices are that much higher. There is something very exciting about working in the regions because you are quite often doing work that many people haven’t seen before whereas in London you’ll be doing plays where people will say ‘oh I remember this when it was on in 1983’. Having said that, it’s wonderful to have this experience, as I’ve wanted to do something in the West End for a while, but it’s not my be all and end all – I just want to do good work.”
This ethos of doing decent work regardless of where it takes her has allowed Lucy to enjoy flourishing screen and radio careers, although she has no doubt about her first love: “I love theatre, theatre is my home – although TV is really nice for the money!” As an avid teenage fan of the space age sit-com Red Dwarf, I am incredibly excited to see that Lucy has appeared in the show. “That’s so funny – I mean it was SO long ago and I was only in one episode yet I literally still get fan letters about that!” Unaccustomed to the obsessive ways of Red Dwarfites, she seems surprised by this. “TV’s a wonderful medium but you don’t get as involved – you can’t, because there’s no time for rehearsal, you’ve got to do it in two or three takes. Pride And Prejudice was different because we did have time for rehearsal before we started shooting and we were all living in the same place for five months, so that did become like a repertory company, and that was wonderful.”
If Lucy were to look for prime examples of how successfully to combine stage and screen careers, she need look no further than her esteemed co-stars in The Solid Gold Cadillac – Patricia Routledge and Roy Hudd: “It’s been a fantastic experience working with them. There are very few people of their experience or calibre around and when you get offered the opportunity to work with them you say ‘yeah! – immediately, thank you!’ And I know actors always say that everything’s lovely when they’re actually all at each other’s throats, but it actually IS ludicrously lovely and we all run up and down between each other’s dressing room during the show and drink lots of cups of tea. It’s lovely.” Lucy also confirms the happy news that Roy Hudd has recovered fully from the slight wobble he suffered during rehearsals for the show: “Yeah, he’s great – he’s back in full health – he just needed a break. He’s completely back on form – and the audience just loves him!”
"Had I consciously rebelled I'd have become an accountant or a dictator…
Having held out for nearly 17 minutes without mentioning her illustrious father, I cave in without warning and ask her if her dad (the legendary Richard Briers as if you hadn’t already guessed) encouraged her to take up acting. “No, in fact he discouraged me.” So she consciously rebelled? “No – I just had to do it! Had I consciously rebelled I’d have become an accountant or a dictator or something extremely big in corporate business! I think the reason he discouraged me was simply because it is a tough business for women, in some ways it’s harder for women than it is for men: there are fewer parts and there’s this whole age thing with women. So he did discourage me before he realised that I was going to drama school and he couldn’t stop me! Both he and my mum have been incredibly supportive ever since.”
As all true Briers acolytes will know, there has been one historic occasion when the entire clan – Richard, his wife Ann Davies and Lucy – all appeared together on stage: “the sad thing was that my sister, who was a stage manager, is no longer a stage manager, otherwise there’d have been four of us!” The trio appeared in new play called Spike by Simon Day (who recently starred as Lord Evan Oakley in Anything Goes) at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton. “Simon’s a brilliant man: he wrote this play about the most horrifically dysfunctional families you’ve ever seen on stage: and that was my parents and me! It was great fun and there was this wonderful electricity in the audience because my father had to hit me at one point and threaten my mother with a golf club and people were aghast, because it seemed so real. It was a thrill.” How did die-hard Good Life fans deal with this monstrous version of cuddly Tom? “My Father is very careful with the roles he chooses because he doesn’t want to alienate his fans or his public, and he did get a few letters appalled at what he did, but the majority of people were thrilled at him doing something so nuts.”
"Cad I lack"
Seeing as she has brought all things nuts into the conversation I take this opportunity to ask Lucy whether she currently has any cads in her life. “Any what?” asks a momentarily wrong-footed Briers – “any cads” I reiterate to which she suspiciously answers “no…” It is only when she is finally cajoled into announcing “Cad I lack” that Lucy realises that the interview has been infiltrated by a very bad pun. “Yes, I do lack cads at the moment, I’m very happy to say. I was more cad-bound in my younger days, but I got rid of those!”
The open-minded gusto with which Briers entertains such extremely silly questions seems to be typified in her career: she throws herself into each role she is given and is even willing to throw herself down vertical walls in the name of drama: “I get vertigo standing on a chair, so I was pretty shocked when they asked me to do abseiling for a production of Othello when I was playing Desdemona [at the New Victoria Theatre]. To learn the skill was very frightening – I get terrible vertigo and some very scary things happened, but I suppose I’m pretty glad I did it.”
At the end of an interview it is my usual custom to ask the actor/director/conductor of the moment what they are looking forward to doing in the future. With Lucy Briers, however, I don’t bother. Not because I don’t care but because it is quite clear that it could be literally anything – “as long as it’s good”. It may not be a complete coincidence that ‘good’ is what shows featuring Lucy Briers almost always are.