Matthew Amer talks to the Lark Rise To Candleford star about trees, B&Bs and returning to the stage after a decade away.
It sounds harsh, but fabulousness does not come easy to Matilda Ziegler. The former Lark Rise To Candleford star, who is making her return to the stage in Deborah Warner’s revival of Sheridan’s The School For Scandal, can barely summon the energy to tell me that being constantly witty and interesting is leaving her exhausted.
“These people [in The School For Scandal] are spectacularly fascinating. You have to be fascinating all the time and that’s hard. We conduct our lives in quite a subdued and modern way; everything about the way we operate is subtle and sub-textual. They were not in that groove at all. They had salons where they had to be scintillating, flamboyant and riveting. That takes a lot of energy, I’m finding out.”
Sheridan’s 18th century comedy, lampooning a society obsessed with fashion and reputation, which plays at the Barbican this spring, features Ziegler as the plotting, wealthy young widow Lady Sneerwell, a malicious meddler with a talent for trouble.
She is, says Ziegler, “the most exotic creature. She’s psychotic. Nuts. Something awful happened to her when she was young. Her life was ruined by scandal and she feeds on exacting revenge on other people and honing it into a fine art, making it really despicable. The more nasty, the better. She’s the slightly past it It-girl. Well, the very past it It-Girl, but she still has an awful lot of power.”
It is hard to balance this high society harridan with the quiet, self-deprecating woman chatting to me during her long daily train commute back to Norfolk, which today she is finding particularly uncomfortable in a quiet carriage where she is the only passenger talking on the phone.
“As I get older I just really want to bum around with the kids”
It should not be that difficult. The role for which she is currently best known, playing the interfering Pearl Pratt in the BBC’s Sunday night costume drama Lark Rise To Candleford, could be a toned down rural version of Lady Sneerwell. Portraying an interfering gossipmonger must come easily to the actress. “People tend not to think of me as the demure, shrinking violet,” she admits.
The countryside costume drama, a warm, comforting offering to ease the family into the denouement of the weekend, recently came to an end after four series and 40 episodes, leaving a corset-sized hole in the TV listings, but releasing Ziegler from the clutches of Pearl Pratt.
“There were moments,” Ziegler says of her time on the long-running drama, “where I thought it had an integrity and a simplicity that I really liked. Then sometimes I felt it went on a little long. I was very grateful for the pay packets, and I was always happy to play Bill’s [Gallagher, the series’ creator] scenes. He has an empathy and understanding, particularly for women, and I love that.”
I have to admit, I am a little surprised by the notes of disappointment and honesty in Zeigler’s response. So often everything a performer has ever done is a fabulous experience with wonderful people. But there is an earthy reality to Ziegler. Maybe, as she subtly shovels sweets into her mouth to keep herself going after a long day, she is too tired for pretence. Maybe she sees no need to be anything but truthful. Either way it makes our conversation much more interesting.
Director Deborah Warner, for example, is “very demanding”; among the director’s traits is the late notice that actors receive about when and whether they will be needed for rehearsals the next day. With three children at home during the school holidays, it has made Ziegler’s life a little less easy than it could have been. But it was Warner’s involvement that pulled Zeigler back to the stage after 10 years away – her last live performance coming, somewhat cyclically, at the Barbican in a production of Twelfth Night – that, and “I needed a job”.
“I’m quite lazy,” Ziegler admits. “Maybe not so much laziness, but I really look forward to being at home. As I get older I just really want to bum around with the kids. I have no problem having no agenda. If a job comes along I get all excited about it and my brain gets going, but I don’t get crazy when I don’t work at all… I have a really bad work ethic, in other words.”
“It’s all a bit of a namby pamby middle-class dream, but I quite like it. That’s what I am. That’s what I dream”
This is not to say that Ziegler doesn’t love her job or recognise the privileged position she is in, it is just that her career is not her priority. If it was, she probably would not have tried her hand at running a bed and breakfast with husband and fellow actor Louis Hilyer. The experiment, which saw the performing couple invite guests into their Georgian miller’s house, was not a resounding success. “I got a bit fed up with everyone moaning,” Ziegler admits. “It was a really very beautiful and romantic house, but people like everything to be beige and neutral and power showers. That just wasn’t us.” Ziegler laughs as she remembers her husband’s over enthusiastic way with the guests – “He would go in and sit on their bed and say ‘Would you like an Ordnance Survey map?’ You can’t do that!” – and the fact that the kids would sometimes make the breakfasts “just for fun… but that wasn’t really very good.”
With the bed and breakfast long since laid to rest, Ziegler’s most recent project has seen her, or more honestly Hilyer, planting 550 trees to create an intimate woodland on the small amount of land they own. At the moment, though, it is less a mini-forest and more “loads of white plastic spirals” as the trees develop. “Nothing’s going to happen for two years. Then in about five years we might notice something. In 10 years it will be a wood. We will have this natural lovely place where wildlife can thrive and children can bring their mates and camp and pitch tents and make music, that kind of thing.”
If all this sounds like an environmental dream of someone in a privileged position, well, Ziegler probably wouldn’t argue with you: “It’s all a bit of a namby pamby middle-class dream, but I quite like it. That’s what I am. That’s what I dream. I think it will be great and I think when we’re older – which we will be really soon, any minute now – we will be really pleased with that.”
What to do while that decade slowly passes and Ziegler watches the trees grow inch by painstaking inch? There is nothing in the pipeline, and with Lark Rise now consigned to DVD box sets anything could happen. If she enjoys her return to the stage, at least some of that decade might be spent back in the theatre, hopefully in a production where corsetry is not required. “I can’t remember what modern plays are like any more,” she laughs, “I haven’t been involved in one for so long.”
A contemporary piece, then, in which she plays a character who is the subject of manipulation, would be ideal. If not, she can always go back to being marvellously unmotivated and just watch the trees grow.