Interview: Last Tango in Halifax's Anne Reid on American Fans, Derek Jacobi and Cabaret

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The Season 3 finale of Last Tango in Halifax is only two weeks away on KQED 9 and fans of this perfect little gem of a show have questions: Will Gillian really marry again? Will Caroline recover from Kate’s untimely death? And what exactly is Gary, Alan’s newfound son, on about?

I didn’t ask the actress and cabaret singer Anne Reid for spoilers, but we did talk about her portrayal of Celia, how she landed her first lead film role in The Mother (2003), and her childhood trip to Iran while her father was stationed there as a journalist (“We stayed in a hotel, which was pink marble. It was like something out of the Arabian Nights.”).

But if you can’t wait to see her and the rest of the Halifax gang when Season 4 returns next year, Reid is bringing her cabaret act to New York City on the 7th of October. And you might be surprised to hear who her inspiration is: “Barbara Cook completely changed my life. She was my idol, and then we became great friends." Prepare to be thoroughly charmed.

What does the series capture about Yorkshire that Americans might not know?

Anne Reid: I think it captures quite a lot. I have American friends and I love going over to New York, and when they come over here I say to them, London is not England. London is very cosmopolitan and it's a real melting pot. To know England, you have to go outside of London. I'm delighted that the Americans have taken to Last Tango. You can see the countryside, and I think northern Yorkshire people have a reputation for being very blunt and very down-to-earth, and I think you see that in all of us actually. We're all strong characters, aren't we really? I am a northerner. Sarah Lancashire and I are both northerners.


There’s also an unspoken undercurrent of class tension, of town vs. country.

Anne Reid: Yes, absolutely, because Celia is a better class than what Alan is supposed to be. They were born together in the same town, but it's what happens to you after that that really defines you, isn't it? You lead different lives. Whether you have money or whether you don't, and I think although we were in the same class at school, we have had very different lives. We've got a nice house, Caroline and Celia, and Alan's lived up on a farm... I think Sally Wainwright [Last Tango in Halifax’s creator, writer and executive producer] is the most wonderful writer.

Your character is based on Sally Wainwright’s mother.

Anne Reid: Right, and I've never met her mother. The character is quite close to me. I mean, I hope I'm not as horrible as she is. Celia is so homophobic and a difficult woman. I hope I'm a bit nicer than that.

From your Desert Island Discs interview and your song choices, you come across as someone with a great capacity for joy, which is very different from Celia.

Anne Reid:  Oh, I'm loving this. I love the idea that you think I'm a joyful person. I am very, very much. The cup is half full with me. It's more than full, yeah. I'm a complete optimist. I think everything's going to turn out wonderfully in the end. Yes. I do have a bit of a tragic face sometimes when I don't really feel very tragic. I think I probably make Celia look a lot more serious. I don't know. It's awfully hard to judge yourself, really. Faces – you find when you get older that the expressions, every expression, seems to be more vivid. It seems to be stronger. The muscles in your face drop and so if you look serious at eighty you look a lot more serious, even though you're thinking the same thought as you do when you're forty. That's my theory about it. I think we look a lot more serious than we actually feel. It's just simply to do with the facial muscles actually.

Why do you think Last Tango has been so well received?

Anne Reid: The script is very, very good, and I do think that it is very, very well cast. It's just gelled. Sarah, who plays my daughter, I've known her since she was twelve. I know her mother, and Sarah's father actually was a writer. He wrote a series, several series on television and worked with my husband, Peter Eckersley, who was a television producer so we had that connection. Derek Jacobi I didn't know. I was introduced to Derek and we got on absolutely from the word go. We share a hotel when we're filming and we're like sort of an old married couple. We meet for dinner and we have a couple of glasses of wine and and I think the fact that everybody gets on so well, it really does help. I have to say, I generally get on with actors, but this is a wonderful cast. I think we all respect each other and it just seems to work.

It's gorgeous there because I didn't know whether it would go in America or whether people would actually like it because you seem to like things like Downton Abbey and thatched cottages and village greens and ye olde England. I wasn't sure how this would go, so I'm thrilled. I think we're all thrilled that the Americans like it.


Sally Wainwright has mentioned British comedian Victoria Wood as an early influence, and you’ve worked with her many times, but her work hasn’t aired widely in the U.S.

Anne Reid: No. It's such a British view. I think she might eventually. I said to her awhile ago, I said, “You've got to write a film for Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins and not stick with the British thing,” because she is a very, very, very good writer. Her characters have such depth, but it's sad that you don't know her over there, but Sally is kind of similar because they both come from the north, you see.

Gradually, Vic built up this team of people around her, of which I was very happy to be one, but the audience kind of knew the team, and I always say that if the audience knows you, if they know you're going to be funny, the minute you come on, the audience is, people are ready to laugh, and you're ahead. I think that's happened with dinnerladies. It is terribly funny. It's on the television all the time here on different channels, and I think people knew us. You're not working from the ground up. They're already with you.

Could you talk about the casting process for the film you made with Daniel Craig, The Mother?

Anne Reid: I've worked most of my life on television and in the theater and I did a play, a wonderful play, called The York Realist, written by a wonderful director here and writer called Peter Gill, who you won't know, but he was at the Royal Court in the famous Royal Court days in the '60s and I did this play at the Court and then in the West End. On the opening night at the Court, I didn't know this, but apparently, because Peter was returning to the Court, they sent out invitations for the first night. Everybody in the business said yes because it was the first play he'd written for a long time. Everybody in the world was in the theater that night, including Roger Michell and the casting director of The Mother. They sent for me and interviewed me.

I went along and I said to my agent, well, this is a waste of time, the lead in a movie. I mean, who's going to give me the lead in a movie? They're not going to get the money. I live in the real world because I'm not a name. They're not going to cast me, but I wanted to meet Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi and I'd also wanted to meet Mary Selway, who sadly now died, but she was the biggest casting director in England, so I went along. Roger said I was very arrogant because I just never thought I had a prayer, you know, so you're not really worried.

Anne Reid in The Mother, 2003 (Courtesy Sony Films Classics)
Anne Reid in The Mother, 2003 (Courtesy Sony Films Classics)

I said to him, if you gave me this part, I'd be very excited, but I'd be a bit apprehensive because I've certainly never taken my clothes off in public before, and he said, “No, neither have I.” I thought, what's that got to do with it? You don't have to direct in the nude. He denies this, but it's absolutely true, and then I said, and I've certainly never had sex in public before, and he said, “No, neither have I.” I thought, what are you talking about? Then I went home, forgot about it, and thought well, that was interesting. About three weeks later, I got offered a part in the movie Calendar Girls and I thought oh, yippee, at last I'm going to do a film.

I said to my agent, I think out of politeness, you should contact the people that saw me for The Mother and tell them that I'm not available. So she rang up and said I just thought you should know that Anne's going to do Calendar Girls and it was wonderful. It was the best week of my life because all hell broke loose and everybody was ringing me up and saying, you can't take that job. We want you for this, and they couldn't get the money. I was right. They couldn't get the money for The Mother because of me, because of my name, and in the end, I said, look, if I don't accept Calendar Girls, I'm going to lose it and I've always wanted to do a movie. This is the first one I've ever been offered, and two have come along in the same week and I'm going to end up with nothing. Roger rang me and he said, don't worry. I know the director of  Calendar Girls and, this was on Thursday, he said, by Monday, you'll be doing one or the other. Then the next day, he rang and said, We've got the money for The Mother and I said, alright, well I'll do that. That's how it happened.

Do you have a favorite memory of being on stage in the theatre?

Anne Reid: Oh, gosh, darling, that's so hard. Blimey. Most of the time you're just thinking, “I don't want to make a mistake.” I think, really, it was when I did a musical comedy called Out of this World by Cole Porter and we used to stand together and sing at the end, “From This Moment On.” I think it might have been that, and it was wonderful. I remember standing there thinking, I love this. I love this.