I often find myself in discussion with other like minded women where we acknowledge women of note and those that have a particular significance to our lives. More often than not the women we chose are those we’ve never met; they’re famous writers, thinkers, feminists, actors and singers. However I’ve been thinking recently about women in our own lives, the ones who arguably have a greater influence and significance, yet don’t always get the recognition they deserve. These are the women of note that don’t always get to tell their stories. As regular readers of this blog probably know the actor Edward Petherbridge sometimes features, his witty anecdotes and fascinating tales of the theatre make an appearance not only on his own rather excellent blog but over here too. Edward’s wife Emily Richard is also an actress, and with the help of her daughter Dora (who occasionally features here) I interviewed her on her experience of the business. What she has contributed is a fascinating insight into the life of a performer.
Emily’s career began in the late 60’s and has spanned stage, screen and radio. She has worked extensively with the RSC as well as appearing in many television productions. She also performed in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film Empire of the Sun based on J G Ballard’s autobiographical novel about being separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in December 1941. In the film Emily played Mary Graham, the mother of Jim (played by Christian Bale).
Emily has two children, can make lace and has conducted historical tours around London.
What was your time at drama school like? How did you become an actress?
‘In 1966 I went to drama school in London when I was 18 but got kicked out after a year because I was too much of a ‘rabbit’. I was told I was too timid and would never survive the business. It was very crushing. The training was awful because they used to make me do improvisations that I didn’t understand such as inappropriate things for my age and experience. I was very innocent and I just didn’t know anything. I was once humiliated in class when the principal said I was no better than a dog and should go to Battersey Dog’s Home. He made me do an improvisation all in dog noises.
Now I realise that they were trying to push me into retaliating, into saying ‘fuck off I’m not doing it!’ but I just couldn’t then. The only constructive thing to come out of my year there was that the voice teacher told me to get my voice back to my bra strap. I thought ‘how can you talk about my underwear? But I knew what he meant.’
So then in 1968 I sold programmes in West End theatres and one day I walked down the Charing Cross Road looking for an agent. I went into Smithy’s Theatrical Agency and asked for work. The agent just shook his head and looked at me as if I was mad. But he gave me some telephone numbers of children’s theatre companies. Just as I was about to leave he looked at me and said ‘your heart is going to be broken many times.’
When I got home I phoned the first telephone number and was told the company were wanting a young girl who looked a bit like a boy to play Mr Mole in Toad of Toad Hall. I said ‘but that’s me!’
I got the part, got my Equity card and toured schools round the country. Touring is hard work, I wasn’t paid very much so would often have to hitch-hike home to London. I even hitch-hiked once from Bristol to London for my sister’s wedding.’
The theatre is a place of heightened emotion, how do you sustain this night after night?
‘The theatre is my favourite medium because it is the most immediate. I’ve played a few particularly intense and tragic roles and sustaining heightened emotion every night is not difficult when the material is good, you just do. It’s never been a problem for me. In the big emotional plays you trust your fellow actors - it’s such a team thing. But everyone has their own technique; I once knew an actress who in order to prepare herself listened to sad music before she had to do a melancholy scene.
Photograph of a dress rehearsal of Three Sisters taken from the balcony of The Other Place in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The three sisters played by Emily (centre), Janet Dale (left) and Suzanne Bertish (right). Image by Edward Petherbridge.
But I do get awfully nervous. One evening doing Chekov’s Three Sisters I was standing in the wings visibly shaking and Edward, my husband, who was also in the play, came up behind me and said very sternly ‘nerves are waste of time.’ That told me then! You develop different rituals for coping with your nerves in different productions. I used to drink a glass of milk before the play to help calm me down. Also when I was doing The Secret Rapture by David Hare in Newcastle, I used to say to myself every night before going on ‘into thy hands oh lord, into thy hands.’ These were the last lines the actor Henry Irving said when he played Thomas Beckett before he died.
Does costume effect performance?
Edward as Feste and Emily as Viola in Twelfth Night. Photograph by Chris Arthur, courtesy of Edward Petherbridge.
‘To me costume is very important. Some people don’t like corsets but for me in certain roles wearing one has been invaluable because they make you stand and breathe differently. They are difficult to laugh in though; in 1971 when I was playing in Charley’s Aunt, a terribly funny play, I used to have to preserve my modesty by concealing my heaving bosom with my fan.
However on occasion I’ve had problems with costumes. When I played Lady MacDuff in Macbeth the costume designer had made me a dress with great swathes of material, and the coarse serge just swamped me and I said ‘I’m sorry, I’m not wearing that!’ Thankfully they came up with something more fitting - I was playing a Lady after all.’
You were in Empire of the Sun, which was a big budget Hollywood film and was chosen as the Royal Gala film in 1987. That must have been an amazing experience.
'There were women queuing practically around the block to audition for the part. I was pregnant at the time and held a clutch bag in front of my little bump to hide it. Spielberg and I talked a lot about China where the film was to be shot. During the interview he asked if I’d do something, and I said ‘of course, anything’. He asked me to put my hair up on my head, so I gathered my hair and held it up and instantly my face turned cherry red, it felt like a flashing beacon. After that I couldn’t get out of there fast enough and I thought, I don’t mind if I don’t get the job because at least I’ve had such a good talk with Spielberg. By the time I got home the phone was ringing, it was my agent. I’d got the part.
Filming began five weeks after I had my baby. So leaking milk all over the place, I left my children with my husband and I went to China travelling first class and drinking champagne all the way.
With Spielberg there’s no messing about because he is very precise. Rupert Frazer who played my husband and I just used to follow exactly what Spielberg told us to do. I think Spielberg liked working with British actors - they don’t constantly ask what their motivation is like many American ones!
Shanghai street scene. Image by Edward Petherbridge.
The first scene to be shot of the entire film was with Rupert, me and the young Christian Bale running through a panicking crowd in Shanghai to escape the Japanese soldiers. Spielberg had organised 5000 Chinese extras and then I also had special extras like bodyguards to protect me from the crowd. It all had to be very exact. We did the take a few times but then I tripped on Rupert’s legs and fell flat on my face. The camera man shouted ‘Cut, cut, Emily’s hurt’ I just said ‘I’m terribly sorry I think I’ve laddered my tights!’
Falling over isn’t great, but falling over in front of 5000 people is something else! I said ‘I just need a minute.’ So I sat on the kerb and Spielberg came and put his arm around me and said ‘Shall we talk about our babies?’ It was at this point that I burst into tears. I didn’t know he knew I’d had a baby. After a while, I was aware of a man pacing up and down in front of us tapping his watch, Spielberg said ‘Shall we go for it now?’ So Make-Up tidied me up and the next take we got in one.
Afterwards I went back to my Winnebago and Spielberg was the first to come round and say thank you. He was a gentleman.’
What have been your most important roles?
‘One of my favourite parts to play on radio was Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I was part of the BBC Repertory Company which was wonderful fun. We recorded three plays in a week sometimes. Radio is particularly liberating because you are not cast by physical appearance; it’s all down to your voice. While accent is key to creating characters it is their words – their vocabulary – that gives them their individuality. Although the business is renowned for being greatly concerned with what you look like, I personally never felt in competition with other actresses purely on the basis of appearance. You have to know what you are, for example no one cast me as a sex symbol and I was okay with that.
In theatre definitely Viola in Twelfth Night. This was the first time I did a play in the RSC with Edward Petherbridge and Ian McKellen. It was a gift of a part because Viola goes on a real journey, has great progression and speaks the most wonderful poetry.
Irina in Three Sisters was also wonderful because Chekov created such a vivid individual who undergoes profound change as her ideals are obliterated by the harsh reality she inhabits. Also, I was one of three sisters so I particularly related to the role. We performed the show in what is now the rather smart Donmar Warehouse but at the time was literally an abandoned warehouse. I have so many amazing memories from that time, one of which was when Meryl Streep waited for the cast to come out of our communal dressing room after the show. She kissed me on the cheek, as did her mother!
Emily as Kate in Nicolas Nickleby. Image courtesy of Edward Petherbridge.
Kate Nickelby in Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s 1982 RSC production of Nicolas Nickleby – from the minute we started rehearsals I knew I wanted this part, but for six weeks the cast sat in a circle devising the show without knowing which role they were to be allocated. I thought everyone would want to play Kate, but they didn’t. As it turned out the play ended up being eight hours and forty minutes long so the audience were really immersed in the action and it all became something of a phenomenon. This production attracted movie stars and huge cultural icons. One evening Liza Minnelli even told me ‘You gotta take this show on a world tour’. Ironically that’s what we were doing, but I didn’t think it would be right to correct the great Liza. Kate Nickelby was a very personally important role that took me to Broadway.
Perhaps I wasn’t such a dog after all!’
Firstly I’d like to say a huge thank you to Emily for taking the time to answer my questions. She has provided an honest and interesting insight into her life and work as an actress at a time when theatre made more of a cultural impact than it does now.
I would also like to thank Dora Petherbridge for her help with the words and Edward Petherbridge and Kathleen Riley for their help with sourcing images for this post.
More generally I’d like to say thank you to all three for their support and encouragement for the blog.