Tuesday 22 October 2019

'Seeing a 50-year-old woman with slightly younger men is still quite surprising' - Susie Blake talks Mrs Brown, Miss Marple and snogging Keith Duffy

She's bantered with Brendan O'Carroll and shared an on-screen kiss with Keith Duffy, now actor Susie Blake is coming to Ireland for a stage production of an Agatha Christie mystery with a difference, writes Regina Lavelle

Actress Susie Blake by Gerry McManus for Weekend magazine
Actress Susie Blake by Gerry McManus for Weekend magazine
Actress Susie Blake. Photo: Gerry McManus

Regina Lavelle

Some Agatha Christie classics need no reminder. Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express are works so frequently exhumed that watching a new version is more an act of suspending memory than disbelief. Not so with The Mirror Crack'd however. The Miss Marple mystery is set in St Mary Mead of 1953, and is, as with seemingly all such stories of such vintage, a simmering brew of class war, snobbery, sexual politics, impropriety and intrigue.

The locals - prim, buttoned-up and self-contained - appear almost as alien when compared to the American actress who descends upon the village to join her new husband at his pile. With tantalising echoes of modern celebrity, a strand of British versus American culture, this is a surprisingly apposite work.

The contrast between the glamorous Americans and the timid British could not be more striking. And given current comparisons between the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, it appears that despite being published in 1964, we still ruminate on the same obsessions.

Susie Blake plays Marple. But she is instantly recognisable to Irish viewers as Hilary, Maria Brown's snobbish mother from Mrs Brown's Boys. She took over the role from Sorcha Cusack in series two and three and the subsequent specials.

She doesn't think she will return to Hilary, however, as she feels she may have exhausted Mrs Brown's patience and is prepared to quit while Hilary is ahead. "I think that's probably it for me because she was so nice to Hilary the last time. So I don't know where that can go."

Brendan O'Carroll himself is, of course, something of a divisive figure in showbusiness. "He's Marmite," she agrees. "But he's honest and he loves the fans and he really looks after them. Even after the recording he'll always go out and talk to the audience. He really values the audience."

It so happens that another recent prime time role involved an Irish household name.

She acted alongside Keith Duffy in his early Coronation Street days when she was playing cougar-of-note Bev Unwin, a character who generated oodles of column inches.

"Lovely Keith Duffy. We had a snog. And gorgeous Bill Ward, we had a snog. I was very lucky, wasn't I?"

Blake admits that, at the time at least, her character was something of an anomaly. "I was around 50 when I did that and seeing a 50-year-old woman with slightly younger men is still quite surprising. But people seemed to be very supportive and saying thank you for representing older women as still having a sex life basically."

She liked working with Duffy, she says, finding his honesty particularly charming. "He was huge fun. He was quite new to it and he was honest about that, but he knew what he was doing. It's very hard doing soap because you don't record anything in order. We had a scene together which was quite fiery and argumentative and then he was going off to propose to somebody. And I said, 'Oh great, now you know what you're feeling when you do that. And he said, 'Ah no, we've already shot that'.

"That's what's hard about soap. It's not like in theatre where you can use the scene you've just come from to inform the next one," she says. "It's gruelling because they have so many episodes and a massive cast. They have two or three storylines. The people that work the hardest are the crew and makeup and wardrobe. They just never stop. I had no social life."

Now she's returning to the stage in a role once played famous by Angela Lansbury in an exceptionally star-studded 1980 movie, which featured Liz Taylor, Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and a cherubic Pierce Brosnan in his film debut. Where the film took a certain amount of poetic licence, this is a more faithful adaptation of the original book, The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side.

This production has a new script (by Rachel Wagstaff, who most recently adapted a stage production of The Girl on the Train) and the cast have just begun rehearsals when I meet Blake.

And while Marple might not seem an especially controversial choice, given the current culture wars this particular work seems more contentious than usual.

There is snobbery aplenty, but it is the unalloyed phrases of the characters which now sound antediluvian. These, she says, have not been censored for a modern audience. But this is not without purpose. "It is really up to date but it sticks to the 1962 influences with music and fashion and also what seems to us really shocking - the expressions and the un-PC way people saw the world.

"What Melly Still, the director, has impressed upon us is to go for it, as in the course of the play, we all learn something. Rachel Wagstaff has interpreted the book so even if you read it you would still get a few surprises," she says, sitting by the gas heater in the yawning third-floor rehearsal space. "There are a few clues and outcomes that are different but the characters are still all there."

Christie was a most astute observer of the human condition and never failed to illuminate its flaws. Here, too, one has to look to find a likeable character. "Inspector Craddock is brought up short by Marple when he says things that are inappropriate. And she realises that she's being inappropriate when she talks about the people that live on the development as somehow less worthy than the people who live in the village. There's that whole thing, which still exists today, let's be honest. So all of that is brought into sharp focus from the very beginning."

Blake herself was born in North London's Highgate, now home to the likes of Kate Moss and Jude Law. At one she moved to Broadstairs in Kent - a quaint seaside town on the east coast of England and perhaps best known in recent times for being the seat which was contested by UKIP's Nigel Farage.

Her career was a passion project. From the age of eight, she says, there was no doubt as to her ambition. "The superstar when I was seven or eight was Margot Fonteyn. It wasn't to do with film stars, it was to do with ballet. Maybe my mother sowed that seed because she wanted to get me into boarding school. And I loved boarding school. Absolutely loved it. I know that's not very fashionable to say.

"I went to Elmhurst Ballet School, because some of my cousins went there first. And then I went to Arts Ed school and then to LAMDA (London Academy of Dramatic Arts)."

Having started in theatre, she is self-deprecating on her move into comedy. "You leave drama school and you think you're going to go into the Royal Shakespeare Company and then suddenly I was doing Russ Abbott Madhouse which was quite surprising, although I'm glad I did because Victoria Wood saw it and knew me from there."

Her stints on Victoria Wood - you can watch some of the sketches on YouTube - made her a household face. (For evidence of how popular Wood remains, a tribute Twitter account, @VictoriaQOTD has over 35,000 followers.)

Her continuity announcer, "she never had a name, but in my head she was always a Penelope or a Pamela", was a key part of the show, the character being deliciously bitchy.

When Wood approached her for the part, however, there was nothing in her routine which made her an obvious casting. "I was working in the King's Head, which was a pub theatre, when she met me. I was playing three different American characters. She wanted people around her who could act. She didn't need to typecast. If she thought you could do it then she'd give you a part. It didn't have to be immediately what you would assume.

"We met there and I went along to read. At the time the scripts were long monologues of this woman who was left alone in the studio at night with the television on and she's got the controls and so she just rabbits on and on. And then she thought, 'No, I'm going to use her as a continuity lady throughout the programme. And that was amazing. What a gift!"

"She was a complete craftperson. She tried things. She knew what worked so nothing was altered - at all. None of her scripts were altered, a comma or a full stop."

It's clear that she was very fond of Wood, who died from cancer in 2016, and speaks of her with great warmth. "She was huge fun to work with. In those early days she didn't have the pressure that she did, I think, afterwards."

The stage production comes to Dublin on March 12 and then on to Cambridge and Cardiff. I ask her what she's up to next. "I've no idea. No actor plans. And if they tell you otherwise, they're lying." Well, no censorship there then.

'The Mirror Crack'd' runs at the Gaiety Theatre from March 12 to 16. See gaietytheatre.ie

Irish Independent

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