We chat to Birds of a Feather’s Lesley Joseph, starring in hit musical Annie at the Ipswich Regent
- Credit: Archant
Annie and Birds of a Feather star Lesley Joseph talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage about roles for older women, trying to find something likeable about Miss Hannigan - and why playing the villain is always more fun.
Birds of a Feather’s Dorien Green never let age bother her. The actress who breathed life into the man-eater from Chigwell is the same. While she’d like to see more roles for women, the 70-year-old confesses she’s never been busier.
“I can only speak for me personally... So as far as I’m concerned it’s very good, but I did read a slightly alarming research paper the other day that said there are still many, many, more lines in films spoken by men than there are by women.”
Lesley is referring to a study by Polygraph which discovered women get less dialogue in Hollywood films the older they get. It follows a 2014 report by Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television, Film and New Media at San Diego State University, which claimed Hollywood reduced women on screen to 30% of all speaking roles.
Polygraph surveyed 2,000 movies, revealing female actors started to suffer as they hit 40, while their middle-age male counterparts get more lines. From 65, both genders feel the burn, although men still come out on top, with 5% of dialogue and female actors with just 3%.
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Women aged 22-31 had 38% of all female dialogue, falling to 31% for 32- to 41-year-olds and 20% for those 42-65. Meanwhile, 42- to 65-year-old men got more lines (39%) than those aged 32-41 (32%) and 22- to 31-year-olds. The publication also revealed women found it hard to get lines in so-called women-led projects. In Disney films Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid, men got the lion’s share of lines (at least 70%) although more of its latest movies, such as Frozen and Inside Out, swayed the opposite way.
You won’t be surprised to hear that action movies were the worst offender, with only nine films out of more than 300 surveyed featuring a majority of speaking women. Hardcore Henry, shot entirely from a first-person perspective, has come under fire in the States for its portrayal of women purely as sex objects.
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“It’s really interesting but I don’t have a great thing about it. I just get on and do what I do. My work is part of my life – it’s not the be all and end all – and, at the moment, personally things are very, very good,” says Lesley, appearing as Miss Hannigan in Michael Harrison and David Ian’s new touring production of the musical Annie.
“The thing is you’re not going to cast me as some ingénue ever, even when I was young. In a way, you end up playing what you can play and what you’re best at. I know a lot of older women who have wonderful careers – Alison Steadman, Celia Imrie, Helen Mirren... If you look at it, there’s always a huge tranche of the business that isn’t working, but that’s just the nature of the beast of the business.
“I would love to see more and more roles for women. That was one of the exciting things about Birds: that the three main characters were all women. I don’t think that had really been done before, other than The Liver Birds, but certainly not at the extent Birds did, so it was quite exciting and quite groundbreaking in a way.”
The sitcom starred Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson as sisters brought together when their husbands are jailed for armed robbery, with Lesley as their man-hungry neighbour. It ran for nine years on the BBC, returning in 2013/14 on ITV for another three series.
Some actors have reservations about returning to roles that have defined their career. Not Lesley, who’s just hopped out of a car and is heading to her dressing room ready for a matinee performance.
“Not reservations so much. I think we were all a bit nervous about how the public would take it. We were all very keen to make sure they didn’t think it had outlived its usefulness. We saw at the end of the day that wasn’t the case at all, so it went down really well, which was lovely.
“I don’t think we ever sort of thought we’d bring it back after 15 years. But we’d done stage shows and I think after those we knew there was an appetite for it; we knew there’d be an audience.”
Right now, she and the rest of the cast don’t know if it’ll be back. Her focus is playing Miss Hannigan, a role she last played 17 years ago, at the Victoria Palace in London’s West End.
“It’s a fun character and I love playing bad, anyway; you’re never really going to cast me as good,” says Lesley, whose other touring credits include Calendar Girls and Hot Flush!
“She’s an iconic character in the world of musicals; she’s a character. I try to give her some sort of semblance of vulnerability but it’s quite hard,” she laughs. “You do (have to connect or sympathise with her) in a way. It would be very easy, a bit like Dorien in Birds, just to play out and out comedy, whereas you really need to find something to justify why they do what they do.
“There’s not a lot that’s comic in her, unless you do out and out sloppy drunk acting all the time. For me, the main thing is the nastiness of her and I try to make that as real as possible. Then, when things are funny, that’s a bonus, but I think of her as essentially not a very nice person who can be quite amusing sometimes, as opposed to being a comic cut-out.
“With Hannigan. it’s one of those things where she’s got no money, probably comes from a criminal background; her brother’s a criminal... She hasn’t got much hope in life, she’s stuck in this job, hates children, it’s The Great Depression and it just gets worse and worse. She becomes not a very nice person at all, but I keep digging to try to find something that people like about her. I think I’ve found a few bits.”
It’s set in 1930s New York. Young Annie lives a life of misery and torment at Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. Determined to find her parents, her luck changes when famous billionaire Oliver Warbucks picks her to spend Christmas with him. Spiteful Miss Hannigan has other ideas and hatches a plan to spoil Annie’s search. It boasts an award-winning book and score, including unforgettable songs like It’s the Hard Knock Life, Easy Street, I Don’t Need Anything But You and Tomorrow.
The tour, adds Lesley – looking forward to a three-month holiday once her run is done – is going really well; describing it as a lovely production. She loves the role, which really comes alive once the costume goes on.
I confess the musical’s not one of my favourites, going as far as suggesting Miss Hannigan isn’t hard enough on the extremely wilful Annie.
“They (the orphans) run rings around her, to be honest. If one was to play her absolutely for real, the kids would be quite terrified but we’re talking about a musical here, so we can’t have it too Dickensian. It’s going to have to slightly more, I suppose, veer towards musical comedy. But yeah, the kids run riot around her.
“I try to make her as nasty as possible and the kids go as far as they can, but you can (only) go so far. They’re frightened but at the same time they know they’re never really going to get hurt. Also, on stage, you can’t really hit them,” she laughs. “So it’s never going to be that real.”
The original Broadway production opened in 1977 and was turned into a film in 1982. Lesley’s not a fan of the latter.
“On film they tend to make the characters too extreme; I’m not a fan of it and, to be honest, don’t really watch it much. If I’m going to do something, I tend not to watch the film, because you think about what they did, as opposed to doing what you want to do. You (want to) find it (the role) yourself.”
She did see Strictly Come Dancing’s Craig Revel Horwood, who played Miss Hannigan earlier in the tour.
“Of course I saw Craig, but it didn’t affect what I’m doing at all. Obviously it’s going to be completely different; you’re not going to be able to see any similarities at all. You just approach it in the way you want to approach it... But he was great.”
Annie runs from April 25-30 at the Ipswich Regent.