Interview: Liza Goddard's still the golden girl
Five decades of acting, two failed marriages and a battle with cancer have not dented Liza Goddard's winning smile
It is mid afternoon at the floral Pavilion Theatre perched on the promenade in New Brighton on The Wirral. In the lobby, pensioners sit around quietly sipping tea. This is the matinee audience, a sea of grey perms. Among them, Liza Goddard with her bright blonde hair and long legs in jeans, looks as youthful as a teenager.
The Skippy the Bush Kangaroo actress is thrillingly luvvyish. She has the finest, Home Counties accent, and speaks in long, gushing sentences. She's prone to overblown hyperbole; things are either BRILLIANT or TERRIBLE. And she has perfected the stand-up-and-deliver charm that is the hallmark of the true, veteran working actor.
At 63, she looks fabulous. As a young woman, she had a face that was beautiful as much for its character as its symmetry, which has served her well as she's got older.
Goddard has enjoyed more than half a century as a working actress and now, at a time when most actors have hung up their boots, is as busy as ever. Sure, she's not primetime on the BBC anymore, but she's doing respectable, well-attended and critically acclaimed work. Her latest turn, as Miss Williams in the Agatha Christie thriller Go Back For Murder has been playing across the UK and is headed over here to the Gaiety for a week from tomorrow. She's enjoying something of a late-career bloom – in the last few years, the legendary playwright Alan Ayckbourn specifically wrote roles with Goddard in mind to play – an experience that she counts as a great highlight of her career.
She's certainly a trooper, cheerfully embarking on a gruelling touring schedule for weeks and weeks, never flagging or letting her performance as the clipped, no-nonsense, blue stocking governess Miss Williams in Go Back For Murder lose its lustre. "Concentration is the key," she says. "The minute you allow your mind to wander you make a mistake."
The rigours of being a part of a show on tour keep her young, she says. "It's a wonderful lesson in total concentration. I think in many ways it keeps you fit." Though, she admits, "it will be nice to be home, when we finish in four weeks, it will be wonderful to be home. Wonderful!" Home, these days is the house she shares in Norfolk with husband number three – the nature-film director David Cobham. They've been happily married for almost 20 years. Third time was clearly the charm for Goddard. Back when she was the BBC's darling, she had her head easily turned, and after finding herself pregnant in her twenties following an unhappy affair, married twice in quick succession. First to Dr Who actor Colin Baker, whom she met and married while working on the television series The Brothers, and later, to the '80s glam rock star Alvin Stardust. The final straw for her second marriage, which was already failing, came when Stardust was converted to Christianity on the way to Waterloo.
"It wasn't the only thing. I think it was probably going to break up anyway," she says.
Was it a shock? "Yes, it was hilarious," she says. "Obviously it was something that was needed for him. So obviously he was looking for spiritual fulfilment and then found it one day on the train to Waterloo. But he stuck to it, so you know, it wasn't just a fly-by-night thing."
So what, I wonder, did she ultimately learn about marriage, who to choose and how to make it work?
"I think I learned really to stop rushing into things. I was the sort of person who would rush into things and then go 'Oh My God!' And you want to rush out of things. And I think it's very important to have a great friendship. And I think it's important to have somebody that you are married to who makes you in some ways a better person. That they have qualities that are kind and clever – for me it's important to have someone who is cleverer than me – someone I can look up to."
It hasn't always been all roses with David, but he's the right one for her. "He's been ill, he's had a lot of illness in the last few years, so that's been the downside of it, but he's a very kind, generous and admirable person," she adds.
Goddard was born into an entertainment industry family, and grew up in Surrey. Her father was a director at the BBC, and she started working when she was tiny. "I worked at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, in Surrey. I worked in my school holidays, and I did everything. I was allowed to be a student ASM (assistant stage manager) and I did everything – I made the coffee and I did the lighting, I did the sound, I helped paint the sets, I helped make the costumes, I was prompting on the book."
At just 13, she begged her parents to let her go to the Arts Educational School, and effectively left home. But when Goddard's father got a job with the Australian Broadcasting Company, she was wrenched from her London life halfway across the world. She responded by rebelling against her parent's wishes, refusing to go to school and getting a job instead. "I lied about my age and went to work at the theatre."
She started out doing classical roles: "I also played Juliet and did that on television. And played Antigone." But it wasn't long before the lure of the Australian TV drama caught her. She was cast as teenager Clancy Merrick in the famous series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo – which was to become the early defining role of her career. "It was then two years of my life – from 17 to 19," she says.
"I learnt on Skippy that the take in which the animal gets it right is the one they'll use. You learn that you can't afford to make mistakes. You have to get it right every single time. So it's very good training."
It was the kangaroo who launched her, and off the back of the show's success, she moved back to London and promptly landed a starring role in a landmark new BBC sitcom, Take Two Girls, a flat-sharing comedy that sounds like a forerunner to Sex And The City, or Girls.
"It was the first series to star young women, the first drama series in colour, amazing!" she says. "And a first series to have a pop song as it's theme song, so it really was groundbreaking at the time. And of course hugely successful."
She became one of the BBC's main stable of stars. "The BBC was an incredibly exciting place to work. And of course I'd been there at the beginning when it first opened with my dad," she says. She's hung out at studios since she was very young, so it was an environment in which she felt very comfortable. "I used to go and watch Top Of The Pops – stand there listening to the Moody Blues with my collar up," she says with a laugh.
As much as it was a time in which creativity flourished at Broadcasting House, she remembers well the underlying culture of sexual predation there that has since been exposed. "It was known by everyone, they were going 'oh, don't go near (so-and-so). Don't be alone in a room with him'. Top Of The Pops was full of bands that were incredibly creative – and then you had these people who preyed on it of course. And of course there were thousands of girls coming to Top Of The Pops."
When she met Colin Baker, she married him almost straight away.
She has said before that she was "desperate for a father and Colin fitted the bill". Her stab at stability wasn't to last, however, and she soon found herself a single mother, having to juggle her son Tom, and life as a working actress.
She went back to work six weeks after having Tom. "And my mother looked after him, but, even so, I can't say I was sane," she says. And then with Sophie (her second child, with Alvin Stardust) I took a bit more time off – but only three months. It's really hard when you're leaving. And obviously you've got sick down the jumper and all of that."
Her children are grown up now, and have families of their own – she's got three grandchildren. In 1997, the year her eldest grandchild was born, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and later had to have a mastectomy.
"I was very affected by it, but you don't obviously show that. And then in 2000 I had to have a mastectomy and a reconstruction. And that was an extraordinary year, because my granddaughter was born in the March, and I had the mastectomy and reconstruction in the October, and of course feeling that I may not live. I went to her Christening and then got the train down to the hospital for major, ten-hour operations. They take muscle from your back and hoof it round to the front, it's huge. And then I was two weeks in hospital, and it took me six months, really."
It was her instincts as a consummate working actress that got her back on track. "But what got me back more than anything, was Bill Kenwright giving me a job in An Ideal Husband. And I had to wear a low cut frock, and it was just the best thing."
As favourite roles go though, top of them is probably her late life role as a grandmother. It is, she says, "the best thing in the world. There's something about it".
She remembers vividly the day her first granddaughter was born. "I was in Nottingham in a play with Christopher Biggins, I remember leaving after the matinee, driving to Norfolk and going to the hospital ... she seemed to be stuck, and they were getting the ventouse, and I was there in the ward going 'Oh my God get this baby out!' She came out, she was navy blue and had the cord around her neck. And so they gave her oxygen, and she went pink, and then, they gave her to me. Well, that's it. Finished. My daughter was going, 'can I hold my baby?' It's MY Baby. It's not your baby it's my baby," she says laughing. And she's still my baby."
'Go Back For Murder' is at The Gaiety Theatre from the November 11 to 16. Tickets from €17.50 are available from the box office (0818 719 388) or Ticketmaster.