TIM WALKER on Eileen Atkins and how she likes to disappear into a part as she feels stardom can be an encumbrance.
Not long before lockdown, I went to a cheering lunch in Chelsea with Sir Ronald Harwood, the playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter. Men always love the sound of their own voices and we are no exceptions, but a woman joined us just after the hors d’oeuvres – she’d been stuck in traffic – and we had no problem switching from transmit to receive. She was charming, warm and witty and seemed to be congenitally incapable of saying anything uninteresting.
This was Eileen Atkins, the third glittering jewel in the crown of British acting talent after her fellow dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson were the greatest actors of the generation that came before, but this time around – and this is too seldom acknowledged – they are every bit as great, only the triumvirate happens to be female.
Although she’s had some big television hits – The Crown, Doc Martin, Cranford and she was the co-creator of Upstairs, Downstairs – Atkins is probably the least famous of the great dames and that suits her fine. She likes to disappear into a part as she feels stardom can be an encumbrance for a serious actor. Her success in the film adaptation of Harwood’s play The Dresser – she played the dowdy manager of a small repertory company – was attributable to her understatedness. Everything about her demeanour in that film she intended to be overlooked – her wardrobe even chosen to blend into the background – and that’s what gave her performance its power.
Atkins is a woman of fierce loyalties and long and continually evolving friendships. She and Harwood go back years and that film was a reunion for the two of them and Albert Finney – who played the domineering ‘Sir’ – as he had trained as an actor with Harwood at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It’s striking how all of Atkins’ friends are protective of her, but in our hearts we probably all know that the only person Atkins needs protection from is herself.
She has always been recklessly, dangerously honest and that’s what makes her such compelling company. She has talked to me about her ‘big mouth’ almost as if it is an external entity, quite beyond her control. There was a time when I was going to write her authorised biography, but we eventually came to a mutual agreement that it wouldn’t be a great idea. She knew she wouldn’t be able to help herself and I’d have felt guilt about letting her.
One thinks of all the fuss when she let slip to a journalist that The Batman heart-throb Colin Farrell – 42 years her junior – had made a pass at her. She didn’t of course mean to embarrass Farrell – and he took it very well and even came to see her in a play in New York just after the story broke – and until she saw the headlines she hadn’t imagined anyone would have been interested.
Farrell may have wanted her, but Atkins recognised her allure lay in his mind rather than her body and she insists their relationship was never consummated. They remain great friends and I can see why as Atkins has acquired extraordinary wisdom over the course of a life that began in abject poverty in East London. She has battled cancer and her private life has been eventful and often painful. She understands the preposterousness of sex and told me that the one thing it’s never worth falling out with anyone over is infidelity.
Her first husband – whom she married at 22 – was the actor Julian Glover, but he had an affair with Sarah Miles and they divorced. It’s characteristic of Atkins that she remains friends with both Glover and Miles. She also owned up to a long-running affair herself with a well-known American who is now dead, but whom she has so far resisted naming lest it upset his widow. There was also a dalliance with Edward Fox, but, as much as she loved him, it ended after an ultimatum. ‘A job came up for me in America and he said to me that if I took it then we would be finished,’ she said. ‘I took it and we finished.’
Atkins accepts that her career has always been her first love and it’s that she will be remembered for. Her private life and what she knows about some of the luminaries of her profession, would, however, have made one hell of a book. Still, least said, soonest mended.