Present Laughter is a touring show stopping at:
Richmond Theatre – 1st – 6th August 2016
Theatre Royal, Brighton – 8th – 13th August 2016
Malvern Theatres – 15th – 21st August 2016
How do I possibly begin this one? Every so often I have the honour of meeting and interviewing one of my childhood heroes. Phyllis Logan needs no introduction whatsoever, I was first enraptured by her when she played Lady Jane in Lovejoy. I followed her career fairly avidly, thereafter and of course, I loved Downton Abbey. Her return to the stage is a welcome sight, I’ve already seen Present Laughter once (as a punter, not press) and I can tell anyone who intends to go and watch it that they won’t be disappointed. This lady is akin to the actress who inspires her! So, without further ado…
Phyllis, thank you so much for talking to Break A Leg, first of all, tell me what it’s like to be back on stage after a lengthy break.
A very lengthy break, indeed, yes, it’s been good fun, actually. It’s been a long time since I was on stage in a cross-arch theatre, as opposed to in a studio theatre where I was the last time I was on stage. So, it’s a different animal altogether appearing in a 600 seater cross-arch theatre, it is quite nerve-wracking. I do get a bubble of nerves before I go on, but once you’re on and you get your first laugh, hopefully it’s all plain sailing-ish!
What was your reaction to the script and do you feel that your character, Monica has changed much as you’ve rehearsed? Did the rehearsal process change our initial thoughts about Monica?
I had known the play before, anyway, I thought it was a very funny play and I thought that Monica was a fun part. I went through several avenues during rehearsal, but your initial reaction to a character is the right one for you. Although I did challenge myself to see if I thought my initial reaction was right for the part.
Have you based your portrayal of Monica on anyone in particular?
Not anybody in particular. I’ve based her on types, I suppose, she is quite acerbic and she’s got a very, very dry sense of humour. You want to strike a balance where she’s not an out-and-out horror. She’s got wit, she’s got humour and she’s a match for Garry (Essendine, played by Samuel West). She’s loyal to him but she’s got his measure.
Going right back to the beginning, when you first went to Drama School, was there any particular ambition that you held for your career?
Not really, the only thing that mattered was keeping in work and you don’t really think beyond what your next job is. When I first started, theatre jobs cropped up, I didn’t have an agent in those early days, it was just word of mouth. My only ambition was that it would be a job that I could keep doing without having to worry about finding other work or having to find a new career. So, touch wood, I have been doing this job for nearly 40 years!
Is there anybody who inspires you as a performer?
Well, there’s Dame Judi Dench, she’s been an inspiration right from the word go, she’s so fabulous and she’s just got it all, really. She’s got the whole package. Also, John Hurt, I like the old school performers.
Moving on to your television career, what are your favourite memories from filming Lovejoy?
Oh, I loved Lovejoy, what I remember most is that the sun always seemed to be shining, I’m not sure if it really was always sunny, but that’s my memory of it. It was great to work with Dudley Sutton, such a character, and McShane of course. What was great about Lovejoy was we always had such fantastic guest appearances from different actors. It was just such a joy to do.
I absolutely loved Secrets and Lies, what a brilliant film. Do you feel that working differently i.e. using improvisation affected your future performances?
I suppose it did for a bit, I did rather resent having to be given a script to learn and having my character and everyone else’s character laid bare in front of you. I did think, no, improvisation is the way forward, I liked not knowing what everybody else is up to. So, during the Secrets and Lies process it came as a great shock to me when we eventually got around to doing some of the filming. When I was watching the cast and crew screening I thought “oh my god, that’s what happened!”. It was quite liberating not having to adhere to a script because you are the one that’s created this character, along with Mike Leigh. Obviously, he has a huge input into the way your character develops and he influences certain things your character might say. However, you take on the responsibility for creating to a large extent, this character. Afterwards, I did wonder if I was ever going to be able to revert back to the way I’m used to working. Of course you have to, don’t you, because you’re not going to get a Mike Leigh film every day of the week are you? Unless you’re Tim Spall!
Would you work with Mike Leigh again, if the opportunity came up?
I wouldn’t say no, but it’s hard, it really is quite tough, it’s not like being at the coal face of course but it’s quite challenging. It’s good to scare yourself every now and then so maybe I should give myself another scare. Although I’ve scared myself going back to the theatre, so maybe that’s enough for one year!
Of course you went on to work with Brenda Blethyn again in an episode of Vera…
I did and we had great fun doing that, a friend of mine produced it. It was fun to-ing and fro-ing to Newcastle and working with Brenda again.
Was it easy to try to achieve a Geordie accent?
No! In fact I don’t think I even did that, I went for something else. I did do something years ago called And A Nightingale Sang where I had to be Geordie and I had to go to a voice coach for that. It’s not an easy accent to try to do, even though geographically Newcastle is so close to Scotland.
You appeared in Sondheim’s Follies as a one-off, playing the role of Phyllis. Would you be tempted to do musical theatre again?
That was for a charity thing in Glasgow. Talking about scaring yourself, that was for my lovely friend Pat Doyle who’s now an Oscar nominated film composer. I first knew him at Drama School, it was the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, then, it’s now called the Conservatoire. We didn’t cross-pollinate with the music students, particularly, but Pat did get to know all of the actors and he was great. Although he’d been at the music college, when he left he decided that he wanted to act. In the late 70’s we did a hilarious show together as part of the Slab Boys Trilogy by John Byrne and that was fantastic.
So, then a few years back he said to me come up and do this musical and I said “I can’t, Pat, it’s singing”, but he persuaded me and I said I would. So I found myself up in Glasgow with my tiny son who I dumped on my mum and my sister. Then after a minimal number of rehearsals we were in this great concert hall in Glasgow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra behind us and the hallelujah chorus behind us, it was the scariest thing ever. On top of that it was a Sondheim musical! But, I did it!
So, we really have to get onto Downton, now don’t we? The chemistry and friendship that developed between Mrs Hughes, Mr Carson and Mrs Patmore as a trio, do you think that it was there from the start in the first series or did it evolve naturally as the show moved on?
I’m quite pleased that it seemed to be taken on board that we all got on well, on screen as well as off screen. If you remember, at the beginning, Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore were daggers drawn because Mrs Hughes had the keys to the cupboard. Which is ludicrous, really, but that’s the way it was. I think Mrs Hughes loosened her corsets as the series went on. I’m so glad that the relationship with Mrs Patmore did develop, because it makes sense with them being two women of the same age, from the same background. It didn’t make sense that they would be working together and constantly at loggerheads, although it was funny at the beginning. It established the characters really well, but it was nice during the third series where Mrs Hughes thought she might have had breast cancer and she consulted the only person she could, really, Mrs Patmore. Having gone to Mrs Patmore, who’s such a straight talking person, you wouldn’t want anyone else on your team, so that started off their relationship and by the end of it I’d say they were really close friends.
As far as Mr Carson goes, she was always taking the Mickey out of him for his stuffiness, but she obviously had a great fondness for him and a respect and likewise he felt he same for her. I think everyone we ever met prior to them used to say “when are they getting together?” and it used to shock me that anybody would be interested in these two old fuddy-duddies getting together. I think Julian Fellowes must have taken that on board and said let’s go for it.
Have you got a favourite scene or episode?
I don’t have a favourite episode, as it were, but I did enjoy those end of season scenes where you would have all the cast together, such as when there was a fete in the garden. I liked it when we were all together and then off set we’d be there playing bananagrams and do the crossword together, chew the fat and all that. I loved all the big set pieces where most of the cast were together.
If there is a movie, would we see Mrs Hughes ‘retired’ with Mr Carson? It wasn’t clear whether she would have to leave with him?
Oh, no, I think she’ll carry on until she’s shoved in a box! I don’t think she has to retire with him, I don’t think she’d want to be a housewife, and we’ve all seen what he’s like at home, haven’t we?
So, finally, going back to Present Laughter, what would you say to encourage potential audience members to come and see the show?
Noel Coward is very much a part of British theatre-going, an still is after all thee years which is amazing. If you haven’t seen a Noel Coward play before this is a good one to start with because it’s got an element of farce, it’s very funny, very witty, lots of great characters in it and if we do it properly you’ll have a good laugh.
I would like to extend further thanks to Phyllis for allowing me to take up her time, it was an honour, a privilege and beyond! I will be forever thankful, truly.
Photo Credits: United Agents, Theatre Royal, Bath and ITV