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Patricia Hodge

Published 17 April 2008

A slightly dingy company office, hidden in the bowels of the Comedy theatre, with the mildly fluorescent glow that comes from being lit entirely by electricity, is the last place you would expect to find Patricia Hodge. The immaculately turned-out actress speaks with perfect Received Pronunciation and would be much better suited to sipping a cup of tea in a restaurant. Still, it is in the less glamorous office, and with a plastic cup of water, that she meets Matthew Amer to discuss stepping into the cast of Boeing Boeing.

If refinement was to be personified, it would assimilate to something near the form of actress Patricia Hodge. The perfectly groomed locks – blond, with just a whisper of grey insinuating wisdom – neatly studded gold earrings and calm controlled speech make it very surprising when she describes the rehearsal process as "manic on every level". To observe and hear her, she exudes the calmness of a professional with many years' experience. It is only when you listen to what she is saying that you discover a surprising insecurity.

Hodge, a veteran of more than 30 years on the stage, nearly did not take the role of housemaid Bertha in Boeing Boeing. To her, the show seemed perfect and she "didn't want to be the person to spoil it". Still, she was persuaded that her efforts would not bring the successful farce crashing down, and she replaced Frances De La Tour on 30 April.

When we meet, the rest of the continuing cast have just begun rehearsing with Hodge. She has in the past worked on productions that have undergone cast changes, so she sympathises with the current cast having to look after the new girl and adapt to her style of performance. She will be giving a different performance to De La Tour, of this she is clear, unconsciously employing a steely gaze that comes over her as she turns to serious issues. "I'm not seeking to reinvent the role at all," she says. "I just have to make it work for the kind of person I am, providing I still honour what everyone else is doing. There's no reason to reinvent for the sake of reinvention if something already works."

It is hard coming into a show that has been running for a while, especially one that has received strong reviews. The other actors all know what they should be doing and when, and have been doing it for a number of months. With a farce, things can be even harder as so much of the comedy comes from being in the right place at exactly the right time. Hodge, though, is not worried about that. As long as she honours the mechanism of the play, she says, "these things are always more elastic than you imagine".

Hodge's varied theatrical CV includes musicals such as Hair and A Little Night Music, a touch of Shakespeare, comedy, drama and even some dance. On television, her only long-term role has come in Rumpole Of The Bailey, and even then, after the first few series she became an occasional character. The rest has come in a rather more one-off capacity. None of this has happened by chance.

"I just laughed and my instinct was absolutely no way"

A mere 18 months after graduating from LAMDA, Hodge found herself in the West End, working with Bob Fosse on Pippin at Her Majesty's. But having found theatrical success, television casting agents pigeon-holed her as a stage actress and would not employ her. When she finally broke into screen work, moving from bit parts to bigger roles, she found the reverse discrimination a problem on trying to return to the stage. At that point she made a decision: "I would deliberately go back into theatre whenever I could," she says, "and different types of theatre to keep nailing myself to the mast, because I feel that theatre is where it really happens."

Hodge is vehement when discussing career progression. You can be the best actor in the world, she argues, but the likelihood is you will always be offered certain types of roles as that is how people like to see you. With that in mind, and now that she has spent time building a reputation, she is deliberately picking roles in which people might be surprised to see her, roles that stretch and improve her. Hence the housemaid Bertha in Boeing Boeing and playing Robert Maxwell's long suffering wife Betty in BBC drama Maxwell.

Working on the tale of the publishing tycoon, Hodge says, was "not unlike [Boeing Boeing] in terms of it being a farce". It is not that someone on the project was hiding multiple lovers around the set, but that the filming took place so quickly that the cast had one day of rehearsal before diving straight in to filming. "There was no time to go deep heart searching," Hodge states, "just hope that in the moment you'd engage enough to tell the story properly." Whether Hodge has managed that or not she does not know, firstly because she cannot judge her own work – "you're always going to fall short of the mark, you're never going to be pleased with what you see" – and secondly because she has not yet seen the finished film. She may never have done, as she doesn't like watching her own work, but on this occasion she will, to see David Suchet's performance. "He just absolutely understands the balance of that man, the balance of the avuncular against the lethal," she says of Suchet's portrayal of Maxwell.

"I think what struck me above everything else is that the story is one of Greek epic proportions," she says, describing Maxwell. "It takes people to the absolute brink. Every body knows the ending, but what you don't know is how you got to the ending. This is a boardroom drama, it takes you through the minutiae of how it all unravelled, how the whole thing unravelled, and that’s always interesting."

It is not, though, the first time that Hodge has played a 'real' character. Early on in her career she played Lady Diana Cooper in Edward And Mrs Simpson – which she filmed at the same time as performing on stage in The Brian Cant Children's Show – and, most famously, she took on the role of Margaret Thatcher in Ian Curtis's The Falkland's Play.

Like taking over in Boeing Boeing, this nearly didn’t happen. "I just laughed and my instinct was absolutely no way," Hodge says of the day she received the script through the post. "You don't play one of the most famous women in the world; she's there on celluloid for eternity. You don't go in and try and make a better version of what she is already." Time and persuasion saw to it that she took the part and, having done so, she is vociferous in the defence of the project, arguing that those that saw it as sympathetic to Margaret Thatcher are simply interpreting it in that way. It was, she says, like both Maxwell and Peter Morgan's award-winning film The Queen: "a fantastically well-written drama about a person in a position of great responsibility in a moment of crisis".

It would be easy to assume that Hodge is simply defending The Falkland's Play either because she starred in it or because she was emotionally attached to it. It would be a mistake to make such an assumption, as the actress is very honest about her work. Her last London role, for example, playing the evil Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials, is fondly remembered for the experience it gave her, but not for the role itself: "I went into it with my eyes open," she says. "I knew that, as an actor, you were never going to get the most out of it as you would out of playing something that's 'peeling back the layers of the onion', a dense, wonderful text like Ibsen." Nicholas Wright's adaptation of the Philip Pullman trilogy condensed so much action into such a short space of time that, for Hodge, the show was more about pushing the plot forward than exploring the depths of her character. Though the puppeteering, the spectacle and the atmosphere at the National Theatre at that time made it an exciting project to be a part of, it was hard for Hodge to maintain interest for a long run. "It doesn't sustain your soul," she concludes, "but it was a jolly nice thing to be part of."

There was a time when Hodge may not have been part of the theatre world at all. On finishing her A-levels, though she knew she wanted to be an actress, Hodge embarked on teacher training, teaching for a year at the end of her course while she applied to LAMDA. "Nobody in my family had ever done it," she says of her reasoning for not going straight into her chosen profession. "I lived in Lincolnshire, which is a cultural desert, there was nobody going to help me, I had no idea how to get into it."

Growing up in a cultural desert didn't stop Hodge achieving her ambitions. Looking back, she says there are roles she was never offered that she would have liked to have played, and roles she turned down that in hindsight she might have taken, but this is a reticence that is barely there.

"I just told the truth. I felt I had a sense of responsibility to talk about it"

She remains unflustered and calm throughout the interview, but talk of her family does cause her to retract a little, the hint of a tremor sneaking into her voice and a slight moistening of the eyes. She is proud that, for most of her career, she has kept her work and family life separate. At home she has an office for anything work related, with only her Laurence Olivier Award, won for her performance in Money in 2000, on open display in the house. "It was a decorative choice," she says.

There was a time when the two worlds did overlap and private issues got dragged into the public sphere. "I just got challenged at the wrong moment," says Hodge as she refers to the time when a journalist suggested that she had made the decision not to have children. Hodge's reply: "What makes you think that?" The actress had struggled to conceive for a number of years and the story quickly became headline news. Once it was in the public arena, Hodge decided the best course of action would be to talk about it. "I just told the truth," she says. "I felt I had a sense of responsibility to talk about it because it might help other people… I don't mean to be patronising saying that at all." She doesn't; she sounds, and looks, like someone forced to live publicly through a very emotional and painful period of her life.

There is a happy ending. Hodge did have children in her forties who, having not known what their mother did until they were seven or eight and someone said something at school, are now very interested in Mum's job. In fact it is the eldest, who is now 18, that the West End has to thank for Hodge taking the role in Boeing Boeing.

With age, Hodge says, has come the ability to talk herself out of almost any job. She needed a little persuading to take this one, which is where the eldest child came in: "He said, 'you've got to do something; then we can come and see you.' That was really quite sweet." em>MA

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