From: In Company of Actors: Reflections on The Craft of Acting
(London: A & C Black/Bloomsbury, New York: Routledge, 2000.)
I met “Dame Eileen” who was then not yet a dame, at her riverside home in Chiswick in west London, which she purchased for a song when London prices were affordable. Knowing people as well as she does, she gave me the grand tour of the warren of quirky rooms that compose her house, without my asking. She has appeared in more stage productions, films, and television series than I could possibly list, including her writing for and acting in the original Upstairs/Downstairs series, and many people now know her from Cranford with another Dame – Judi Dench. Eileen was what I think most people would call eccentric – in a good way. She was still slender in a black Chinese jacket,and had her trademark grey-blonde bob, no make-up, no vanity. Eileen spoke almost non-stop for close to four hours, and she was a great storyteller. She didn’t pull her punches in talking about herself or her fellow actors. No coyness, no pretensions, no nonsense. She talked about taking sleeping pills for 35 years because of her huge imagination, about why she would never contemplate sharing a room with her husband, (“Why would I want to do that?,”)about money and her hard early life in Tottenham. Eileen talked openly about her battle with breast cancer several years earlier and the grimness of treatment. She had about 15 cats (I couldn’t really keep track) with whom she runs her lines while she is learning a part for a play. They leapt about the house, in and out of open windows, onto Eileen’s lap and off. “Not now, Groucho,” or “Enough, Maisie,” she would say as the cats jumped from place to place, or milled around her legs, mewing, or scratching at the window before tumbling out. I was impressed that Eileen could keep the talk going as she chatted on, tossing the cats on and off, making tea, and most generously, not answering the telephone. I had just seen her in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, which most preoccupied her. How incredible to see a cast of seasoned professionals at work on a difficult, almost impenetrable piece about what? The immanence of darkness, madness, fear, death, the apocalypse? Very few actors, including Eileen, want to intellectualize their work; it takes them out of the moment-to-moment interaction that is so critical to an actors’ performance. I will always remember Eileen’s generosity in giving me so much of her time, and being really there with me, when she had a performance to do that evening. An illuminating, fun afternoon with one of Britain’s finest actors.