She won our hearts playing put-upon Cathy in Mum, but Lesley Manville confesses that she’s much less saintly in real life – especially when stealing the Oscar limelight from her ex Gary Oldman.
Actress Lesley Manville, 63, grew up in Brighton in the 1960s and 70s, at a time when her generation saw themselves as completely different to their wartime parents – bolder, more free. Yet it was only many years later that her mother revealed that she and Lesley’s dad had been rather bold themselves, sleeping together before marriage when she was a teenager, because he was being sent to fight in Europe.
‘They got married the day after my mother turned 18, which was rather romantic, but she told me that when she was 16 they had sex, which for her was a big thing. He was older and in the RAF, but he might never have come back. And I mean, people are having sex at 16 for far lesser reasons – and quite rightly so – but I think my parents had a good reason to go, sod it, let’s do it. It’s funny, because they actually remained quite racy,’ she explains, over a cup of tea near her home in West London, grinning at the memory of her parents who are both now gone. ‘There’s a great home movie of them in a nightclub in Brighton, and my mum is in this fabulous black cocktail dress with a cigarette holder, and my dad’s there with a gin and tonic.’
When the makers of the BBC’s forthcoming Second World War drama series World on Fire asked Lesley to play the role of a woman left behind because of the war, she jumped at the chance. It also stars Oscar-winning US actress Helen Hunt, alongside our own Sean Bean, and tells the emotionally gripping stories of people caught up on every side of the conflict, including a German family trying to hide their disabled daughter from the Nazis. Lesley plays Robina, the well-to-do mother of a soldier in Manchester, and says the series will be beautiful to watch: ‘Very epic, very cinematic.’
Lesley drew inspiration from her own family, but her father hadn’t told her much about his war years. He was proud of the shrapnel stuck in his chin, and would often joke about it, but was less forthcoming about why he had lost his nerve as an RAF pilot and been reduced ‘to ground duties. But, you know, a lot of people of that generation didn’t talk about the war. We were working-class so it wasn’t that upper-middle-class “don’t talk about emotions” thing – I think people just didn’t talk about their war experience because it was trauma, and they didn’t want to revisit it. My neighbour who is 80 still won’t go in the cellar of her house because it reminds her of air raids.’
While World on Fire is set to be the big autumn TV launch, it’s the quietly hilarious BBC2 sitcom Mum that means Lesley gets recognised by strangers in the street. Recently finished after three series, it has been lauded for its rare brilliance in celebrating a woman over 50. Lesley played the lead, Cathy, recently widowed and surrounded by an array of idiots including her useless son. Cathy’s own emotional needs are quashed until she gets into a secret will-they-won’t-they romance with her late husband’s best friend, who is secretly in love with her.
Lesley says how pleased she was that her long-suffering character ended the story by speaking up and making her desires known. ‘I’m not as saintly as Cathy, by any means. She’s got a humorous twinkle and understands the human condition; she quietly lets people come to an understanding of something in their own time. I’m a bit more, “Well, come on, it’s because of this and this.” But the story had the most beautiful arc, ending with Cathy thinking that the family can make of it what they want: she no longer feels that she has to account to them.’
Lesley has been a hugely successful actor for several decades, her career having begun on Emmerdale Farm before Mike Leigh discovered her and cast her in his films Secrets & Lies and Another Year among many others. Last year she was nominated for an Oscar and a Bafta for her role in Phantom Thread, playing the sister of Daniel Day-Lewis’s obsessive fashion designer character.
She has been married twice, first to the actor Gary Oldman, who left her a few months after she gave birth to their son Alfie (he was later briefly married to Uma Thurman), and then to Joe Dixon, another actor. She is currently single, and as a single mum, she was always on the go, doing three things at once. ‘Alfie’s 31 now, but I don’t think my mindset’s shifted since he popped out of the womb, frankly. I find juggling quite effortless, and the norm. It’s really hard for me to stop and sit. I’m not saying I can’t relax, but…’
Lesley grew up in Brighton, the youngest of three sisters. Her mum was a housewife who had been a dancer, and her dad a sometime taxi driver and a ‘happy gambler. We weren’t poor poor, but it fluctuated a lot. Sometimes we’d have lots of money. I had a pony for a while when I was little. We’d go out for lunch. My dad would spend – always on treats.’
At school she was well-behaved, never late and always did her homework. She would sing with her sister in music competitions, developing real talent as a soprano. ‘I got very used to winning, and I know that hasn’t left me – not as an automatic thing, but because I had put the work in. Oddly enough, I never liked it when my mum and dad used to tell people about it.’
So it was surprising, perhaps, that she more or less left home at 15 or 16, first to study at the Italia Conti stage school in London, then to present a children’s TV show called Young Eyes. The producers would put her up in seedy hotels in Plymouth, where men would watch her eat her dinner alone and try to take advantage of her, ‘so I used to have to go and sit in restaurants on my own, when women didn’t do that. It was 1973. Nobody from the show ever said, “Are you all right? Do you want to come to our house tonight?” I can smell the gravy still. It was awful, but, you know, I wasn’t crying into the pillow. I just got on with it.
‘Working put me in a grown-up world, so I was careful and I saved my money. I’ve always enjoyed being responsible for myself, making sure that nobody else has to look after me.’
I wonder how this self-sufficiency works in relationships – don’t some partners need to feel needed? ‘I don’t know,’ she replies, though she seems to agree with the theory, ‘because it’s such a long time since I’ve had a relationship with anyone. But God help the next one!’
Lesley enjoys her own company, and last had a bit of time off during Wimbledon. But no sooner had she turned on the telly to watch the tennis than she found her mind saying, ‘Right! What can I do now?’ So she started painting her windowsills, as you do. She always puts up her own shelves and doesn’t see the need to pay others to do these jobs ‘when I can buy a drill and work out how to do it myself. I’m good at looking at things and working out the logic’.
She applies her forensic brain to scripts, and is fascinated by the plight of Lydia, her character in the brilliantly written drama series Harlots (on Amazon Prime), about madams running brothels in Georgian London. It’s 1763 and in the latest series, Lydia is in Bedlam to rid her of what is perceived to be madness. Lesley notes that Lydia is always strapped into a corset, ‘and in Phantom Thread, which is set in the 50s, I’m wearing what my mum did – roll-on elasticated girdles. Now it’s 2019 and people think Spanx are a good idea! You think, how many centuries did it take us to get out of corsets?’
Lesley describes herself as a ‘chameleon’, never typecast. She has just made a film with Kevin Costner called Let Him Go, in which she plays a gun-toting matriarch in North Dakota. ‘I said to Kevin, “I’ve never held a gun before.” So he started showing me, and took it seriously. I picked up the gun; it was quite heavy…’ She mimes holding up a rifle with a perfectly straight arm. ‘And he says [she does a slow, deadpan American accent], “Lady, you don’t look like you’ve never held a gun before to me.”’
Hollywood offers have been pouring in since Phantom Thread. She says that getting the Oscar nomination ‘changed my life overnight’, but it was clearly the sort of sudden change that you only get after 40-plus years of work. So she is understandably scornful of the thirst for instant success that has become the norm.
‘Every 20-year-old I work with now wants to go to Los Angeles, do pilot season and be on the cover of every magazine,’ she says. ‘There’s this social-media thing where younger actresses want to be famous. They want to be good actors, too, but it’s all about how the media sees them. I do try to say to them that you have to let the work speak for itself. I think all that quick fame is ever so hard to sustain. You have to build careers with foundations and backbone.’
She laughs when she adds that they could do with being a bit more punctual, too. ‘Actresses are always late now. Drives me mad!’
Lesley might not be on social media, but she can’t stop scrolling through property websites. She isn’t moving, and for nine years has owned the same West London house with a long garden and a garage at the end, for which she has planning permission to convert to a one-bedroomed coach house. I ask if it’s for Alfie, perhaps? ‘Honestly, I don’t know who or what it’s for – it’s probably for me and I’ll go on holiday to the end of my garden. I’m sure I’m going to want to live in it. But not as a retirement plan, because who knows if I am ever going to stop working? I don’t plan to.’
As for whether she would marry again, she pauses to really consider the prospect. ‘I like men. I wouldn’t say no, but I have nobody on the horizon and I honestly don’t know how much wardrobe space I’d be willing to give up. I like my lifestyle too much – is that selfish? I just can’t imagine the man at all.’
You don’t think, right, the next one’s got to be good with his hands? ‘I’m afraid I’ve only ever been out with actors and directors, which is probably silly of me – I should have gone out with a carpenter. So if there are any carpenters out there… actually, I don’t need one, as I’ve already said I can put up my own shelves!’ She is really laughing. I tell her we’ve clearly obviated the need for men. ‘We have, haven’t we?’
One of her sisters died last December, ‘and we’re feeling it,’ says Lesley. ‘She was only 71, which doesn’t seem old enough to me. It’s awful. Grief is a process and we’re all dealing with it.’
As Lesley reflects on her own life, she says there were positives to being a single parent ‘in that you can do it your own way. I jokingly call myself a control freak, but really, I’m in charge because I’ve had to be. I probably did too much for my son when he was a kid. If I was doing it again, I would still give all of that proper heart stuff – that love – but on a practical level I’d make him do a bit more for himself. But, you know, I grew up with a mother who was a housewife and who did too much for all of us, and that looking-after thing, it stayed with me.’
She took Alfie to the Oscars and it was ‘a big year for him because his dad was nominated as well, so he’s one of the few children in history who have had both parents nominated in the same year’. (Gary won for his role as Churchill in Darkest Hour.) Lesley is keen to stress that she and Gary get on very well nowadays, with the three of them functioning as a modern family. So how did Alfie know where to sit? Lesley is quite clear. ‘With his mother, obviously!’
She laughs. ‘It was a lovely day and Gary and I happened to arrive at the same time, so we queued up to go on the red carpet together.’
Does it feel strange now that suddenly everybody is looking at her and realising she has this huge body of amazing work? ‘No,’ she replies with calm confidence. ‘It’s absolutely as I always thought it would be.’
World On Fire will be on BBC One this autumn
Interview by Sophie Heawood