My Suffolk days, by Spider-Man's aunt

IT'S a bit like that scene in the film Notting Hill, with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Grant's diffident bookseller character arrives at the Ritz, expecting a quiet meeting with the film star he's hoping to woo, and is instead swept up in a media whirlwind.

IT'S a bit like that scene in the film Notting Hill, with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Grant's diffident bookseller character arrives at the Ritz, expecting a quiet meeting with the film star he's hoping to woo, and is instead swept up in a media whirlwind. Every reporter and his dog is in town for interviews promoting the new movie.

He's taken for a journalist, but nerves stop him pointing out the mistake and he's soon embroiled in a comedy of errors. In a panic he grasps at straws and announces he's working for “Horse & Hound”.

Miserably out of his depth trying to maintain the facade within earshot of a PR minder, he lamely asks the actress “Er . . . and are there any horses in the film?” Hardly, she replies, teasingly. It's a sci-fi film thriller set in space. “Ah . . . right . . . right.”

Today at the Dorchester, where Sony appears to have requisitioned most of the first floor for a real-life media junket, there are distinct echoes. (But no embarrassment, luckily.) Yes, Rosemary Harris is playing Spider-Man's Aunt May for the third time - the first two blockbusters having taken about £800 million at the box office - but we've really like to hear about life in East Anglia in the 1940s, if that's OK . . .

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The wonderful thing is that Rosemary, a Tony award winner in America, is happy to oblige - and throw in anecdotes about Elizabeth Taylor and Julie Andrews to boot.

She's clearly grounded. Today, amid Park Lane luxury, decaffeinated coffee arrives on a tray; but when she started in rep, working for free, she was simply grateful the theatre covered her bus fares.

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The actress's father, Stafford, was in the forces. He and sweetheart Enid married young, in their late teens or early 20s, and Rosemary's sister was born in 1920.

“My father was sent out to the north-west frontier” - India - “and was told you couldn't take a new-born baby out there. So they left my sister behind. My grandmother was losing her 'baby' - her only daughter, who was 18 or 19 - and she said 'Why don't you leave the baby with me?' My mother and father were young and in love, so they went shooting off to India and didn't come back for eight years.

“My sister was really brought up by our grandmother and grandfather. It didn't seem to do her any harm. She was brought up by a loving family and always knew her mummy and daddy would one day come back and whisk her off. They did come back when she was nearly nine, and my mother was having me.”

Grandmother Maud Campion lived in Ashby - a tiny place up in the Suffolk border country near Somerleyton and Blundeston. It was here, in the old rectory, that Rosemary was born in the autumn of 1930.

It wouldn't be home for very long. By now the authorities were happy for children to accompany their parents to India, so baby Rosemary and her sister accompanied mother and father. Rosemary would be abroad for some six years, but it wouldn't be the last she saw of East Anglia.

Just as her mother had enjoyed a nomadic existence as the child of a naval man, including spells in Cape Town and Newfoundland, so young Rosemary would often find herself on the move. “I think there's a phrase in America: 'being an army brat.' I was an air force brat; my mother was a naval brat! We never had any roots.”

At one time her parents sent her back to the Waveney area to board at All Hallows School in Ditchingham, near Bungay. “It was connected to the Community (of All Hallows) - the convent there - and I think at the time it was the oldest girls' school in England, because originally it had been a place for girls with babies whom the nuns had taken in.”

Did she enjoy it?

“Oh no! I was so homesick. I hated it. The school was fine, but I was so lonely without my family. I wouldn't normally have been sent to boarding school, but the war broke out.

“My father was in the air force and my mother wasn't allowed to live near him because he was a CO of Stradishall (between Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill) - there was this bomber command there - and she wasn't allowed within 30 miles. It was all rather fraught. So they bundled me off to Ditchingham.”

Then, as fears of invasion grew, Rosemary was living with her grandmother, who by this time had moved to the old priory at nearby St Olaves, bang on the Suffolk/Norfolk border.

Grandfather had needed a job when he retired from the navy. “He was offered either to be secretary of a golf club in Sussex, I think, or to be secretary of the Lowestoft yacht club. He decided he'd like to be near boats.

“Being naval people, they'd never owned any property, but when he retired they bought the priory in the 1930s. He was secretary of the yacht club; but he was playing bridge at the club, bent down to pick up a card, and never came up again - had a heart attack.

“My grandmother came out to India - we were all in India at the time. Then we came back, and when war broke out we went to live with her, because we had been living in Hampstead. My father was in the Air Ministry. Then we had to give up the house (the old priory) during the war and we never went back. We became nomads and went from pillar to post during the war; and then ended up in Sussex.”

The priory had held a strategic position by the bridge across the Waveney. “An officer took over the house and the courtyard and everything, and said 'Mrs Campion, we'll take care of you. If there is an invasion we'll evacuate you in 24 hours, but the dogs will have to be shot.'

“We had three dogs; that was enough to send us all scampering down to Land's End! We went to live in a beautiful little thatched cottage at Sennen Cove.”

She doesn't much get back to East Anglia. “I'm not here (in England) long enough - though I have been back to the house where I was born.” That was about 15 years ago. “It happened to be for sale, and I wondered about buying it,” she smiles, wistfully.

Rosemary is still in touch with a lady called Jill Rutley whose father - Commander Reginald Rutley OBE - bought the priory after the war. “I've been back to visit her, and we talk on the phone about once a year. Last time we were there she had llamas in the garden, which was fun!”

She has a soft spot for east Suffolk. “I love that part of the world. Peter Hall” - the Suffolk-born theatre luminary who directed both Rosemary and her daughter Jennifer Ehle on TV in The Camomile Lawn 15 years ago - “and I always feel we have connections, because his father was a stationmaster of a small village railway station not far from St Olaves; and, of course, Sir John Mills came from Suffolk, and could do a wonderful accent.”

Rosemary was 14 when her mother died from pneumonia. She stayed with her grandmother.

“We'd ended up after the war in Bognor Regis. There was a little theatre there, The Roof Garden Theatre. I was talking to Julie Andrews just about three days ago; she and I ended up in LA Airport together. She had sung in the Esplanade Theatre in Bognor when she was a kid, and I said I appeared at The Roof Garden Theatre, which was just a few yards away, 'and here we are both in Hollywood!' Life's strange.”

Rosemary thought about becoming a physiotherapist, but there wasn't the money to put her through training. “That's when my sister said 'Well, you're always acting at home; why don't you try making a living of it!'

“I applied to work at The Roof Garden and the man running the company said 'Yes, I think we can use you. I can't pay you anything . . .' But I said 'Can you pay my bus fares, then?' - which I think were four shillings a week or something. He said 'Yes' and that's how I started.”

There was a different play every week in rep. One week she'd be a schoolgirl, the next the leading lady.

Then she landed a job in Bedford's Royal County theatre, with twice-nightly shows. “I was living away from home, in digs, and I bought myself my first alarm clock, because I had to get myself up in the morning - instead of my grandmother saying 'Rosemary! Rosemary! Time to get up!' I felt that was a coming of age.”

When she's killing time between takes, chatting to the likes of Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spider-Man) or Kirsten Dunst (his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson), does she ever tell these wealthy young actors what it was like learning the craft in post-war Britain?

“No . . . It's so beyond their realm, isn't it? I didn't know anybody who had a car. We had bicycles, and I would bike to the theatre and bike home. You were lucky if you had a bicycle bell and a basket in front in which to keep your script!

“I never owned a car. I think I bought my first car, a little second-hand one, during my first movie, which was Beau Brummel (released in 1954 and starring Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor). I think I earned something like a thousand pounds, which was a fortune, and I think I spent £300 of that on a car.

“So now it's a different frame of reference. People don't know about twice-nightly weekly rep and things like that - and making your own clothes. No wardrobe mistress; no wig mistress. You had to do it all yourself - but that was the joy of it, really. It was wonderful. I was in hog heaven!

“It was total immersion; there was no time for thinking about anything else. There wasn't even time to go home and have a pint of beer, because you had to go home and learn your lines. You don't think of it as hard work if you love it. I expect life is hard work if you're sitting in front of a conveyor-belt all day; but just to play-act and pretend is a wonderful game.”

Do young stars seek her advice on set? “Oh no! I'm so new to filming. I think whatever medium you start in is the one you love. I started in the theatre and never dreamed I'd be in films. I feel I've grown gills.” She holds her neck. “I've got little flaps here for the stage, and breathe in a different way.”

After rep, Rosemary trained at RADA - something of a star pupil - and first appeared on Broadway in the early 1950s in Climate of Eden. She went back to Britain for her West End bow in The Seven Year Itch - she'd won the contract as a prize at RADA - and then did some classical acting with Bristol Old Vic and then the Old Vic in London.

So, why does acting thrill her?

“Well, it's an addiction, I think. I found that at a very early age. As long as I was acting, I was totally happy. I let my own life slide by because it wasn't nearly as interesting as the life I had on the stage. When I was quite young I didn't have love affairs - I didn't have time - but I had so many on the stage that it satisfied me!” she laughs.

“I remember reading about Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne” - a famous American acting couple from the early half of the 20th Century - “that they were always in love with each other, but they were always different people! There was that variety. I think Lunt said 'I live with my wife but every evening I go to the theatre and I make love to another woman.'”

HOME today for Rosemary and American author husband John Ehle, whom she married 40 years ago, is a house in North Carolina, “a pad in New York and a little pad here”. Then there's a “lovely, lovely old log cabin up in the Blue Ridge Mountains” that her husband owned. The couple were married on the porch.

“Would you like to see pictures?” she asks, very Aunt May. Definitely. She pulls out a small album. There are photographs of the log cabin in both spring and autumn.

“I saw a picture - John had it on his drawing-board - and I said 'Where's that house? That's the house I've dreamed of all my life.' And he said 'That's where I'm taking you tonight!'”

The main house in Winston-Salem is, she laughs, “a big old pile”. It's pink stucco, in Moorish style, and wouldn't look out of place in the Hollywood Hills. Hope they have a gardener! “No. That's why I have no fingernails! We do have somebody who comes and mows the lawn, because that would take forever. I'm the one who grubs around. I've got bluebells growing there.” She points at the picture. “I love Scottish bluebells.”

Disarmingly, she reveals she's going to be cremated when she dies. She has no particular religious leanings, but has asked her ashes be scattered under the trees at “a lovely little country church in the Blue Ridge Mountains”.

There's also a picture of the real-life house in Queens, New York City, that's used as Aunt May's home in the Spider-Man films. The owners sit outside, smiling.

What with living in India, then England, then more than 50 years of criss-crossing the Atlantic, it's no surprise the actress is at home in many places.

“I think it's partly my upbringing. I remember coming back to England when I was about eight years old and seeing houses and green fields. That was all so new to me. So in a way I never felt that England was my birthplace.”

THEATRE might be her first love, but the teenaged Rosemary Harris wasn't immune to the attractions of the silver screen.

“Every child has a fantasy of going into films and I've still got a little cutting that was in the Daily Mirror. It said that the Boulting Brothers were interviewing unknown girls for the part of Rose in Brighton Rock.” (It was released in 1947.)

“I secretly got on the train and came up to Victoria station. I went to that telephone booth in the station that is no longer there and put in my two pennies or something, found the Boulting telephone number in the book and dialled it. A woman answered, which rather took me by surprise - I don't know what I was expecting - and I said 'Could I speak to Mr Boulting? I've come to see him about a part in the film.'

“She said 'Do you have an appointment?' 'No, I'm, afraid not.' 'Well, I'm afraid he doesn't see anybody without an appointment.' So that was that. I went back on the next train, and that was my first foray into trying to break into movies! I see that film sometimes and wonder if my life would have been different if I had got the part.”

A few years later her stage appearances on Broadway caught the eye of Warner Brothers. She was offered a film contract - and turned it down.

“Jack Warner himself called me on the telephone and said 'I can't believe you're not going to accept.' I said 'I'm sorry, Mr Warner, but I'd rather go back to England and do theatre.' I just couldn't imagine sitting by a swimming pool for seven years. You had no power over what you did.”

What chance a fourth Spider-Man outing as Aunt May Parker?

“That's a big question. It's sort of in the ether - a twinkle in certain people's eyes. I keep hearing a little more about it - echoes. As someone says, 'When you've got a good brand, why give it up?'”

THE Dorchester brought back memories of the actress's first film: Beau Brummel, in 1954.

“Elizabeth Taylor (the female lead) was staying here when she was married to Michael Wilding, and her two little boys were here. She sometimes would give me a ride back in her limo from Elstree. She said 'Do you want to come up and bath the babies?' I would come up to the suite with my dachshund - my 'baby' was a long-haired dachshund” - and see the little boys. And now they're grandfathers, I think!”

A star is born . . .

Rosemary Harris's awards include:

Tony for best actress in a play: The Lion in Winter, 1966.

Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a limited series: Notorious Woman, 1976

Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a limited series: Holocaust, 1978

Tony for best actress in a play: Pack of Lies, 1985

Numerous Broadway shows include Waiting in the Wings (1999-2000), Lost in Yonkers (1991- 1993), The Merchant of Venice (1973), War and Peace (1967) and Troilus and Cressida (1956-1957)

Film credits include Being Julia (2004), Sunshine (1999), Hamlet (1996), Crossing Delancey (1988), The Boys from Brazil (1978), and the Spider-Man trilogy

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