Interview: Shirley Anne Field

The acclaimed actress talks with us about Saturday Night Sunday Morning, Peeping Tom, turning down 007 and more...

Shirley Anne Field has appeared to acclaim in some of the very best of British cinema, including The Entertainer, Alfie, My Beautiful Laundrette and Hear My Song. She also has considerable theatrical and TV credits to her name, as well as cult status for surviving a run-in with the serial killer of Michael Powell’s controversial Peeping Tom.

Her career was elevated permanently with a truly break-through role as Albert Finney’s strong-minded girlfriend Doreen in the  ground-breaking social realism drama Saturday Night And Sunday Morning in 1960. With the release of the special edition DVD, we were lucky enough to have a chat with Shirley Anne about a film that almost single-handedly shifted the goalposts of British cinema…

You mention in the extras for Saturday Night And Sunday Morning how Tony Richardson may have used The Entertainer almost as a screen test for you…

I don’t think it was just for me. I think he was also screen-testing Albert [Finney]. One of the young soldiers in The Entertainer, if you remember.

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What qualities was he looking out for in Doreen, as regarding your casting for the part?

You’d have had to ask Tony that. You can’t start talking about your own qualities – you don’t know what they are [laughs]! You just hope the public will pick up on them. It would make one very self-conscious to think about one’s own qualities. You tell me what you saw and I’ll tell you what I was trying to do.

In real life you set out for London to make a name for yourself when you were very young, and you were very independent-minded – so I guess that was what made sense for your casting as Doreen.

Yes, I would have thought so really. I think you’ve hit it on the button. It’s interesting that you see that, because I think that’s what I thought, and that Tony and Karel Reisz, that was their view of the woman as well, and what they wanted. It was very much ground-breaking if you think about it, because it was before The Liver Birds and women earning equal money, and that kind of thing.

You talked also about the difficulty of persuading [director] Karel Reisz that you were an authentic candidate for the part. Is this because young actors were still coming from the provinces to get a ‘received English’ accent at RADA?

Karel’s not around, but I don’t think he’d mind me saying this; Karel was from Czechoslovakia originally, and came here aged thirteen. He thought I was a ‘posh girl’ pretending. I didn’t think that I was talking at all posh. I just thought that one should be…it was the sort of thing that was taught me by these religious sisters: ‘One’s as good as the queen and no better than any dustman, as long as he’s honest’.

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That was my code, my modus operandi. But Karel, I believe, thought I was a posh girl pretending to have come from the provinces. Of course when he found out that I wasn’t, he was more than pleased. But it should have been unimportant anyway. He wanted it all to be completely realistic because he learnt English himself from the age of thirteen, and he probably didn’t have quite the ear for accents that everybody else did.

So he maybe thought something was being put over on him?

I don’t think he thought he was being put over. I think he thought that, because of the way that I looked, that I must have had a very prosperous background. Other than a struggle.

Alan Sillitoe said that it was really Italian social realism that was truly able to honestly present hard social issues like abortion, a little later in the sixties. Were there any examples on set where the tone of Saturday Night had to be drawn a little towards ‘the safe side’?

No, we were all committed. We had not a second thought. We knew we were doing the right thing and we know now, because forty or so years on, you’re talking to me about it. Not only was it a statement that needed to be made, but people – not just older but younger people – still quote the dialogue, so obviously it’s relevant today.

I was surprised at how the figure of Arthur Seaton as a rebel really holds up now. Do you think the message of non-conformity in the film is the key-note?

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Yes. I think that if you’re individual, it’s harder. I think what he did was so marvellous. You could see that his parents had been beaten down by the system, but he wasn’t going to be, and neither was she going to be. Remember the last scene, where he throws the stone and [Doreen] says ‘Why did you do that?’ and he says ‘It won’t be the last one I throw’…

I’m always asking Alan to write the sequel [laughs]. It’s still applicable today.

What was it like working with Albert Finney? Did he have anything particular that you learnt from?

We’d already worked together on the stage in Lilywhite Boys. We were already working together as we began the film, and we’d met on The Entertainer. You can always learn as an actor. You learn from everybody and everybody learns from you.

When I’m on stage I miss the placing that they have in a film, where they put you in the right spot and photograph you well. On stage the director does give you blocking, but you have to work harder at being in the right position so that you can communicate naturally with the other actors and be seen by the audience, whereas on film you’re placed in a good position, so that takes that worry away.

But we all learned from each other. I don’t think that I would have been as good as people think I was if I had had too much training. I think I wouldn’t have had the naturalness for film. I didn’t spot it, somebody else did for me, a Daily Mail editor. It stood me in good stead, having all those…not really happy experiences in filming before I did The Entertainer – which was pure joy to do – but then Saturday Night was just fabulous, because we were all a team.

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Was it easy to spot the gems like Saturday Night, when you were doing such an extraordinary number of films in that period?

Yes, immediately easy, and it still is. You can always tell – you get a feeling about it. I’ve been lucky in some ways; I haven’t always worked and I haven’t worked as much as I’d like, but if I could have lived my life as well as I’ve done with my films…[laughs]. It’d be easy. With My Beautiful Launderette, I immediately knew it was a good film. Hear My Song, I immediately knew it was a  fantastic story.

You’ve seen the British film industry liven up a few times in your career, with the social realism of the early sixties and the revival in the mid-eighties. What would it take, in your opinion, for British cinema to find its heart again now?

To realise how good we are, and to stop being negative. It would help to have a few tax breaks, but even if we don’t get them, the Australians and the Irish have done it. For us to not copy any other industry but to make films that we believe in, and that appeal to people. And if they appeal to the English, often they have a market worldwide. More often than not. Look at Danny Boyle with Slumdog Millionaire, and Stephen Daldry with The Reader. Albert Finney and I were at the Royal Court with Lilywhite Boys when we started Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. Lilywhite Boys, by the way, was directed by Lindsay Anderson.

Bearing in mind what Peeping Tom ultimately did to Michael Powell’s career, did you hesitate to be involved in the project?

No, I had no idea. I was a young nineteen year-old girl – I’m not a hundred and five now, you know [laughs]! Like these girls that you read about and who are talked about all the time now, I was learning on my feet. I liked Michael Powell. Everybody warned me against him and thought he was this, that and the other. He did have strange clothes, wearing jodhpurs to come to work, and sometimes he looked like he was carrying something you use to deal with horses. But he was a gentleman. Nice and polite, and enormously talented.

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Do you think the film deserved the harsh treatment that it got at the time?

I don’t know, I’m not a film critic. I did think it was a frightening subject. I’m not drawn to horror, especially realistic horror. I thought it was brilliant, and that Moira Shearer was brilliant. The actor, Carl Boehm, was good. But it’s a very creepy subject, no doubt about that.

This was a period where you were transiting from glamorous parts to serious acting…

For Gods’ sake, what glamorous parts? What a word – glamour. It was being a so-called ‘special girl’ it was hideous! You were picked for your appearance because you were photogenic. If you were lucky, you got one line. I was ready to leave the whole business behind. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. And then I got The Entertainer. It changed people’s perception of me and suddenly I got offered wonderful things.

Were you happier doing more glamorous parts once you had been accepted as a serious actress with genuine talent?

I don’t see why one should deny the other. I think as long as you’re real it doesn’t matter whether you’re glamorous or frazzled or whatever. Much later on I talked to Cubby Broccoli about this. I used to keep seeing him at the White Elephant, and he said ‘Oh dear, now you’re a leading lady, you won’t want to do our Bonds, will you?’ [laughs]. And of course these parts used to be one-liners or two-liners.

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At the time I thought ‘No no, I’ll do the kind of films I’ve got sympathy for and empathy with’, and things like that. So I didn’t do one. And of course, anyone who has ever touched a Bond film is pensioned for life because they can always go to the film signings. Very good films? I don’t know who gets the royalties from them, but certainly not us creative people, the actors and actresses who get older and are still looking for the roles to play.

Looking back, would you like now to have taken parts like that, in projects like a Bond movie?

No. No, I wouldn’t. I had too much professional pride. I would have taken a good part…but I was much younger and I wasn’t as clear about the business. It was all a whirl and it was all exciting. You didn’t plan it – it happened.

Did you ever think of joining the Brit-glam exodus to the likes of Dynasty and Dallas in the 1980s? You seemed a very obvious choice to get involved there.

Well I did go, but I didn’t do one of the great big ones. I did one that’s played all the time called Santa Barbara, but that was in the late eighties.

I would have done the frivolous stuff [Dynasty etc]  if they had asked me. I would have been glad to in the eighties. It was a frivolous time! But it didn’t quite work that way. I think people see you as your film roles, you know, rather than as yourself. I’d sometimes go up for glamorous roles, and they saw me, but I think they put me into a category: ‘Oh, she’s done very serious things…’.

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How do you use film-clips from your career to illustrate your Staying Aglow talk?

I just put bits and pieces of my favourite film moments and show them when I give these talks. That title is just for women’s organisations who ask me how I keep myself together. I’m glad they can’t see me now, I’m so tired [laughs]. I put them together with a friend, a very good man called Alan Fitter. We put them together and we don’t break any laws or anything like that, and I just show my favourite moments.

And of course, what I do is to include the actors that I like, and the ones that I’ve had a rapport with. For instance, I’m so thrilled that David McCallum’s got a great big part in NCIS. He’s great in it, and I include a scene from Hear My Song with him and I talking and smoking and that kind of thing, just because I like the scene; but I also like him, he’s a friend. As well as Albert [Finney], who I’d include, obviously.

Can you tell us about any new projects? I read of an ‘over-fifties romance’ in the works…

It’s called The Power Of Three, and it’s being developed by three women. I play a character called Jenny, who’s a film co-ordinator. The three women are trying to make a film and because of their age, they’re discriminated against. My character comes out of retirement…I should be so lucky [laughs]. She comes out of retirement and restarts this film and runs it as the assistant first director.

Can you tell us about the talks that you give aside from ‘Staying Aglow’?

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The other one is ‘Reflections: A Life In Pictures’, and I talk about film moments and ups and downs, and I actually put in what’s happening to me. For instance, in one speech I gave to  a group of women recently, a woman’s institute…this is how I started, because I was muddled that day, I said ‘You’ve heard of the domestic goddess – now you’re looking at Miss Domestic Chaos’ …

Shirley Anne Field, thank you very much!

Interviews at Den Of Geek