If you are trying to lose a ‘mumsy’ image, probably the worst thing you can do, short of spitting on a tissue and wiping an interviewer’s mouth, is offer the same interviewer a cup of tea and a biscuit the minute they arrive. Eight years after the last OXO family advert was broadcast there is still something very much of the comfortable middle-class mother about Lynda Bellingham the person, but as an actress she is pushing the boundaries in her new show Vincent River, as Matthew Amer found out.
Bellingham probably won’t thank me for reinforcing a stereotype she has done her best to escape from since the OXO adverts began back in the 1980s, but there is surely nothing wrong with being a caring, amiable, consummate hostess – as far as you can be with plastic cups rather than bone china – as long as you can leave such homely habits behind when you step onto a stage.
This is exactly what Bellingham is doing in the new production of Vincent River, currently at the Trafalgar Studio 2, in which she plays a mother informed of her gay son’s untimely death. “To lose a child is like the whole order of the world is wrong, and there’s panic there, the balance is completely off key, how do you go on with life?” she says. So emotionally draining is the experience, that Bellingham says she could not have played this role five or ten years ago while she was actively bringing up her two sons, who are now both old enough to look after themselves, as she “would have been too emotionally involved in the wrong way”.
Having plunged straight into the traumatic side of the story – luckily the tea helped me through – Bellingham takes time to point out, before any possible audience members run screaming from their computer screens, that “what you want to give to the audience, and one must never forget this, is entertainment. I do not want people to sit there and feel got at, preached to, dragged through a hedge emotionally whether they want to or not. I think this is watchable; you’d feel as though you’d had a good evening out. There’s no jokes, necessarily, but I don’t feel you’d be disappointed.”
"In certain areas of the theatre it crept in that I couldn’t be taken seriously"
Starring in the two-hander with the 59-year-old actress is relative newcomer Mark Field, who, as you might expect, has already been taken under Bellingham’s experienced wing. “It’s the kind of play,” she explains, “because of the subject matter, that you need trust.” Rather than suggesting clubbing as a way of getting to know each other – “that would have caused us all a lot of pain, me more than him!” – they have bonded over curry and lifts to rehearsals.
It is actually this stage of the process, rehearsing rather than performing, that Bellingham prefers; meeting new colleagues and connecting with them for a limited amount of time. “It’s like a relationship,” she says, “you’re allowed to have this affair knowing it’s going to end, so it doesn’t matter what comes out and what you do, it will end, but you can give it your all while you’re in it, which is just lovely.”
As one of theatre’s more experienced practitioners, the chance to work with a younger generation of performer particularly appeals to Bellingham. It is not because she doesn’t have regular interaction with youth – her sons and their friends are youthful enough for that – but the relationship is different because, yet again, of the ‘mum’ factor. In Sugar Mummies, her last London outing, she “had to get down and dirty on the sand with [co-star] Jason”, which isn’t strictly appropriate behaviour with friends of her sons.
After years in the business, working with new performers is as enriching for Bellingham as it is for those coming through the ranks who can learn from her experience. When I arrive at Pineapple Studios, where Bellingham is rehearsing, she is diligently working her way through the script, annotating each line with a verb to represent its feeling. It is a technique entirely new to the veteran performer, and when she talks about it, she sounds rejuvenated by new ideas and new energy.
Talking about acting, though, is not something she enjoys. She finds actors discussing techniques and ideas dull, stating that only Michael Caine has ever made it interesting. It is not just the boredom of such chat that bothers her, but the loss of mystery: “I don’t want the general public to think we’re all arty-farty, better-than-you, ‘aren’t-we-wonderful’, but equally I think a bit of mystery never goes amiss, and I think that if I go through some extraordinary process, I just want you to watch it and enjoy it and forget who I am, forget how it’s done. I don’t want you to see the workings of it.” She exudes professionalism and you get the feeling that should even one audience member leave the theatre disappointed, Bellingham would consider it a personal failing. Her stage is a sacred place, and the enchantment should never be broken. “That’s the magic,” she says, “you’re peering into a world that is absolutely existing in a parallel universe at that moment, and you’re being lucky enough to look in and see it.”
"Before I die I want to have my moment again"
Talk of parallel universes brings us back to the fabled OXO ad campaign which, along with appearances in All Creatures Great And Small, Second Thoughts and Faith In The Future, cemented Bellingham’s position as number one mum in the minds of a nation. Such recognition, it seems, was a bit of a poisoned gravy boat. “I can’t complain,” Bellingham says, “but I can now, in retrospect, say [the ad campaign] didn’t help me in certain areas to maintain a kind of respect. In certain areas of the theatre it crept in that I couldn’t be taken seriously, which is really frustrating.”
It didn’t help that her OXO contract was somewhat of a straight-jacket, limiting the jobs she could take to those that would not reflect badly on the brand. When she did take on anything slightly more risqué, it was inevitably met with tabloid claims of a Mrs OXO scandal.
The result of 16 years of career constriction is that since leaving the gravy train behind, Bellingham has preferred playing “Mrs Nasty” rather than “Mrs Nice, to completely kill, flatten the image”. When talking to Bellingham, there is a sense that she feels it is a constant struggle to be taken seriously as an actress, to be spoken about more with a sense of reverence and respect than with an ‘ah’ and a feeling of warmth. She isn’t shy about the fact that she intends to strive for the rest of her career to have her name inextricably connected with quality. “I would like to establish myself as one of our top actresses,” she states, “as opposed to being famous. I’d like to make sure I’ve absolutely crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s and deserve whatever acclaim I achieve. Before I die I want to have my moment again.”
It is a grave statement, tinged with regret, to come from someone who appears so naturally cheerful. But it is a cheerfulness, I feel, that has come from years of struggling, and after a moment or two of realisation. Though Bellingham is not one to bleat on about a troubled life, you don’t have to do much research to uncover the tabloid stories that have surrounded her marriages. Her first marriage, to Greg Smith, producer of the Confessions films, lasted only a year. Her second, to Nunzio Peluso, was abusive and ended with a restraining order being taken out against the restaurateur. Growing up, though her home life was as loving as they come, she couldn’t understand why, at school, she was not very liked. She makes no claims to have had a harder life than anyone else, but has clearly, and often publicly, had experiences that have driven her to the very brink of despair.
“In between all the horrid bits, there’s been wonderful bits, like my sons, like friendships,” she says, looking on the bright side. “One of the hardest things to understand for any of us is that a lot of it…” she pauses, as she arranges her thoughts. “This is the journey I had to take, so rather than waste energy going ‘it’s not fair’ and whining, or trying to look back all the time, you go ‘okay, at least I got here, I know this much, I’d better now enjoy that and move on again.” It is a revelation that will serve to keep her away from the pit of self-despair that she knows only too well. “You can go there if you want to,” she mutters, matter-of-factly, “but it’s so boring, and you don’t deserve to have any friends after a while.”
"You’re only as good as your last husband"
Bellingham has certainly moved on. The staggering diamond pyramid currently adorning the ring finger on her left hand like an early Christmas decoration is a sign that she is engaged to new love Michael Pattemore. In fact, she announced the engagement on television show Loose Women – where she is a regular panellist – before it was even official, somewhat of an about turn for a woman who was “categorically sure that I was never going to get married” again. “It’s really important to Michael, my other half,” she says, divulging the two reasons she has changed her matrimonial mind. “Obviously in life you don’t do things because it’s important to the other person, but sometimes there’s give and take, and I feel he deserves that for the relationship he’s given me. And secondly to prove, albeit late in the day, that I can do it properly and successfully. You’re only as good as your last husband.”
It must be an interesting, if not confusing time to be Lynda Bellingham. Career-wise she is fighting to create a persona and a back catalogue of work that is credible and does not play up to the middle-class super-mum image. Many would say she has already achieved this, though you get the feeling Bellingham has lived with the tag so long, she will always feel the need to fight it. Her personal life, meanwhile, is a struggle to become the perfect wife, proving she can be, in reality, the person the nation grew to love her as on screen.
Vincent River runs at the Trafalgar Studio 2 until 17 November. .