Newton's laws of television

Susan Hampshire

An interview by Richard Amphlett

A picture of Susan Hampshire
Susan Hampshire is, without doubt, a minor deity. That she has temporarily vacated her seat around Mount Olympus' boardroom table can only be of the benefit of us unworthy mortals, particularly this unworthy mortal to who she spoke at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham one cold night back in January 1991 during the run of "The King And I" in which she was appearing.

Considering that she is one of the UK's most accomplished actresses, Susan Hampshire is surprisingly free of primadonna-ish airs. Whilst being extremely photogenic - as three decades of film and television bear witness - her fine-boned and very English beauty comes across even more strikingly in person. There is little superficiality about her pragmatic and astute demeanour, and an intuitive intelligence in her mode of thinking.

We began by asking Susan if she had any clear memories of her work before The Andromeda Breakthrough: "Yes. I started off my work in theatre, in repertory in Bognor Regis, then I went to Oxford Playhouse. After that I may have gone straight to the Art Theatre, then I probably did a musical called Expresso Bongo with Paul Schofield. After that I don't know. What I did was one of those very important television plays. When that was shown I was whisked off to America pretty well three days later, then I came back to do Andromeda.

"Before Andromeda I did Katy, the What Katy Did series which I absolutely adored. I came straight back from America and did The Andromeda Breakthrough, which was of course the sequel to the one which Julie Christie had done. In those days, I wasn't terribly interested in science fiction. Right now I'm married to a man who finds science fiction fascinating, but then I thought "Oh dear". It was considered rather down market to do a science fiction television series." This surprised me somewhat, as we are told with what respect the Quatermass serials were greeted. "There were exceptions, but mostly science fiction was considered rather down market, even though this one was written by a very eminent scientist [Fred Hoyle]. People respected him, which gave the series a respectability.

"I never guessed it would have such a huge following, but people were fascinated by this woman who was virtually a sort of robot. The nice thing about it was that, unlike today when I'll have to get all fluffed up for the show, for that series it was most unusual. You just washed your hair and left it absolutely straight. It was a really nice job to have - you didn't have to spend hours in the hairdresser! That was the thing I remember most about it, and being asked to speak in a monotone the entire time and look as if you weren't a real person."

Susan shared her Andromeda credits with the likes of Peter Halliday, Mary Morris and John Hollis. Did Susan remember working with any of these? "Mary Morris was very kind to me, very helpful. She'd been a very big star in her time and was very constructive about giving advice about what I should do with the part. Peter Halliday was just a very nice person. John Hollis was very interesting..." At this point Susan pauses to switch off her heated rollers and over the intercom we hear her co-star, Koshiro Matsumoto IX, rehearsing his chorus...this is an extremely bizarre situation.

The heated rollers now deactivated, we were able to ask Susan about how she felt about stepping into the metaphorical shoes of Julie Christie, at the time working on "Darling", the film John Schlesinger had created for her. "Julie was already the idol of the entire United Kingdom at that time. I'm not sure why she didn't do the second series, but because she was such a big star (a) I was very flattered to be able to go into her shoes and (b) I was worried that someone who was not anything like as pretty as her would be able to play the part." It is clear that modesty is another notable Hampshire trademark. "It was a good opportunity, and I was happy to do it."

The Andromeda Breakthrough was one of the first BBC series to use a foreign location, Cyprus. Did Susan film there? "I didn't film anywhere! Everything I did was at the BBC studios - I don't even think I went on location! I've a funny feeling that my character was always in a room or...ahem...being put on a bed or something." There are however scenes in episode one with Peter Halliday carrying Andromeda across some beaches. "I've a feeling that was done while I was still in America with a double. I've never been to Cyprus in my life so it couldn't have been me! On the other hand, I may have gone to Scotland, but I think at that point they were still hoping that Julie Christie would do it."

Moving on a few years, Susan worked alongside Patrick McGoohan on Dangerman ("Are You Going To Be More Permanent?" and "You're Not In Any Trouble Are You?") Did she encounter his alleged temper? "No I didn't. In the two episodes I did he was very nice to me. I knew he had an aversion to being associated with any woman on screen. He wouldn't be in a kissing scene or anything like that. I think he was a very devout Catholic...I'm only saying what I think." And she's right, as endless Prisoner documentation substantiates. "I always found him very pleasant. But then again, I was very young and not particularly a troublemaker, and he said...I recall him saying "This girl's rather good", so I'm biased!

"When you're just starting, it's a great thrill for someone so established to give you any praise at all. After that we even did a movie together, "The Six Lives of Thomasina"."

We went on to ask Susan if ITC had a policy of a "repertory company" of actors which they used regularly, and if there was a policy for people to return on Dangerman. "I have a funny feeling that, in those days, when someone found somebody easy to work with, or quite good, or quite reliable, or whatever, they tended to say "oh, we'll use her again". Then you got on a circuit where you'd work with people then you'd do something else and work with the same people. Also, in those days, a lot of the more serious actors didn't want to do those sorts of things; television was not the thing to do. Musicals weren't the thing to do either, whereas now musicals are the thing to do.

"It's funny how fashions and snobbisms change: people in serious theatre say "ooh, I don't want to make films" and people in films or in Shakespeare say "I don't want to do television". There's a lot of very interesting things to do with that; when I was in musicals in the 60s I wanted to get out of that and do straight theatre, whereas now straight theatre is having a terrible time and one is lucky to be in a musical. This ("The King and I") is packed. It has been since the day it began its tour. Everything changes."

Some things do not change. One that does not is the fact that The Forsyte Saga is still regarded as the definitive period costume drama. A colossal 24 fifty minute episodes, Susan Hampshire appears as the venomous and manipulative Fleur Forsyte in the latter 12. What memories did Susan have of the series? "The photography, filming, for my early episodes was exquisite. Very, very, very atmospheric and very remarkable. The cameraman [Tony Leggo] was working in black and white with us wearing, so I thought, very strong make-up. Fleur's early episodes were all photographed in some woods. There's a lovely shot in my first or second episode, done from a helicopter, of me running down a hill with Martin Jarvis singing "The Lass of Lavender Hill" or something like that. There was a lot of very good camera work on the train, the Bluebell line, running over bridges, outside the house where Fleur's parents lived. Beautiful stuff."

The Forsyte Saga was a comparatively more sophisticated series than The Andromeda Breakthrough, being produced on 625 line videotape and, so I thought, allowing post-production work which would negate the need for long, continuous takes. I asked Susan if this was the case. "We did a two day shoot, but they still had this system where they didn't want to cut the tape. I think the lines for recording on came from the Post Office, so they wanted to cut the tape as few times as possible, because that cost money. We would do a scene, people would change as quickly as they could so they would not have the lines for more than a certain amount of time, and so they would have the least number of cuts possible, to reduce the cost. That was even more so with the first colour television I did, Vanity Fair. Then they could not stop the tape or release the lines because the colour quality would change. They just had to keep the whole thing going. You'd run out of one scene, into your changing room, you'd change, then they'd do another scene and you'd run back on to the set panting, do your scene, then run off again. You'd have people pulling your wig off, plonking another wig on, pulling your clothes off...I can't believe it now."

Did Susan relish the opportunity to play a character as manipulative and downright unpleasant as Fleur? "It was very much a turning point in my life, because there's no better part than a nasty person. After Fleur, I played a whole series of them: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, was in her own way a monster, Becky Sharp was also a monster, and in the theatre I've played a lot of monsters, but for some reason people only ever remember me playing these sweet simpering girls who wouldn't say boo to a goose. It must be something about my personality which is deceiving people!"

Still on the subject of The Forsyte Saga, I asked Susan about the actors and actresses with whom she worked. "Most of my work was with Eric Porter and Martin Jarvis, whom I not only admired but had a very, very good working relationship with indeed. It was a great joy, a great, great pleasure and I just wish certain other parts of my working life had been so joyful. I had hardly anything to do with Nyree Dawn Porter and Kenneth More, just two tiny scenes...

"The Forsyte Saga really swept the country as eventually it swept the entire world. It was a huge success in Russia as it was everywhere else. They changed the times of church services and there were things about The Forsyte Saga all the time. All I know is that we all had our careers catapulted into great prominence and those in the series who were already big stars received a great boost."

With time now shortening before Susan would have to prepare for her performance, I asked her what she thought of her other BBC Classic serials. "I loved Becky Sharp (in Vanity Fair). I know that from Thackeray's point of view she was thought of as being almost an upper class whore, but in those days if a woman were to so much flirt with a man, or give the eye...well, morals were so strict in Victorian times that anyone who was a bit flirtatious, full of fun, was thought of as an immoral woman. Becky wasn't nearly as calculating or wicked as Thackeray wanted his readers to believe. But I really enjoyed playing her.

"The Barchester Chronicles I just thought was exquisitely cast, acted and directed and I was very proud to be involved in it. In fact, I've enjoyed all the television series I've done for the BBC anyway. I haven't done any for any other stations!"

The time had now come for the end of the interview. Shaking hands, I leave. Ahead is a long walk and an even longer and colder wait at the station, but I am at least more than satisfied with my brief insight into the life of one of this country's most respected actresses.

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Copyright RJW Amphlett 2003. All rights reserved.
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