Maureen Lipman speaks frankly to Francine Wolfisz about her relationship with her late mother and the joys of grandchildren
When it comes to having it all, Maureen Lipman isn’t yet convinced women have found the right balance between forging ahead with a career and being a good wife and mother.
“We all know we can be and do what we like if we follow our dreams – but we also have to be seen doing everything else terribly well,” she sighs in her distinct Hull tones.
The plight of today’s woman is a subject close to Lipman’s heart and one that resonates strongly with her latest role in Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should, which opens at St James Theatre next Wednesday.
Set in the mid-1980s, the play is a moving exploration of the relationships between mothers and daughters and the sacrifices women are forced to make.
Lipman plays Doris, a woman who was born illegitimate in 1900, who leaves behind her budding teaching career for marriage and motherhood. Following the Second World War, her daughter Margaret (Caroline Faber) marries an America and has Jackie (Katie Brayben), who becomes a Sixties rebel. When Jackie falls pregnant, it’s decided that Rosie (Serena Manteghi) will be brought up as Margaret’s daughter, but, as is always the case, even best laid plans can go awry.
At the core of Keatley’s work is “the lack of truth between mothers and daughters”, as well as “how easy the relationship tends to be between grandparents and grandchildren.”
Lipman, best known for her stage and screen roles, which include Educating Rita, The Pianist and her memorable turn as Beattie Bellman for British Telecom adverts in the 1980s, explains: “That’s something all four of us certainly tend to recognise. I don’t remember my grandparents, but certainly my mother’s relationship with [my daughter] Amy was fantastic and so much better than my relationship with my mother.
“She was soft and had come from rather a gentle father, which meant she married a man who was rather tough. She had to manipulate in order to succeed – and children see right through that.”
Of the difficulty mothers and daughters have in communicating at times, the veteran Jewish actress says she still has “enormous remorse” over her relationship with her mother, Zelma, and the struggle she herself felt in finding a life balance.
“The one thing I see in common is no-one ever says what they want to say,” she tells me. “It’s with enormous remorse that I regret those times my mother and I could’ve spoken to one another like two human beings, rather than a mother and daughter with a lifelong agenda.
“My mother loved Maureen Lipman the actress, she wasn’t entirely convinced that she loved me.
“She loved all the peripheries of showbusiness, but she had mixed feelings about how I was as a mother and a wife and a daughter.”
That said, Lipman, who was married to playwright Jack Rosenthal for 30 years until his death in 2004, acknowledges how her mother and other “strong women in my life” helped shape her personality and later success.
“Up north it’s always been a matriarchal society,” she says proudly. “The women seem to have so much more personality always than the men. That’s largely due to the fact that women spoke in front of you about things you weren’t supposed to hear!”
Lipman admits her character Doris in My Mother Said I Never Should is perhaps just as strong as the women she grew up with – and describes her wryly as “a tough old bugger” who endures despite having to give up on her career ambitions when she marries.
Did she herself experience a similar grapple between pursuing acting and raising her two children?
“I came up at a time when women were allowed and actually encouraged to have careers,” she enthuses. “We had living grants and could afford to go to drama schools because of them. In truth, in my profession there’s never been that kind of repression of women, because there are very few plays that don’t have both sexes. So while I totally understand the inequality of women, it’s never really applied to me.
“That said I can see how the women’s movement is still in its infancy. It’s not a question of us changing – it’s a question of men having changed. They’ve had it their own way for so many centuries that it’s really been a bit of a shock to them.”
She sees women today and believes “like the French Revolution, the results of it are not yet seen”, but acknowledges “we are far better off than we have been.”
Lipman, who is set to appear in the new series of ITV’s Plebs, adds: “It’s hard to believe it was only 1975 when you could actually buy a washing machine without your husband having to sign for it. Having our own independence and salary has made a fantastic difference.”
During the show’s run, Lipman will turn 70 – “thank you for reminding me”, she quips – and tells me she still feels young at heart.
“I don’t really believe it,” she responds. “You never feel older after you reach 30. You stop growing, you see your friends are getting lines and getting older, but as far as yourself, you feel the same.
“Thank God nothing has tragically curtailed my ability to walk or think, but the only difference is that I see friends who are older and have problems. I perhaps don’t sleep as well these days – but then I’m told I never did!”
Her continuing joie de vivre is perhaps in part to being grandmother to her son Adam’s two children, aged 4 and 1. And it’s a role that Lipman truly relishes above all others.
“The unconditional love just pours into your soul the minute you see them,” she enthuses. “It is a wonderful relationship, non-judgemental and absolutely bursting at the seams with joy at every single thing they do. Yes – I’m afraid so – I’ve become one of those women!”
My Mother Said I Never Should runs at St James Theatre, Palace Street, London, from 13 April to 21 May. Details: www.stjamestheatre.co.uk or 0844 264 2140.