Thursday 15 November 2018


Sarah Caden

Marriage only recently took centre stage with Anita Reeves and Julian Erskine, says Sarah Caden ...

A change impossible to quantify

Marriage only recently took centre stage with Anita Reeves and Julian Erskine, says Sarah Caden

WHEN they married, almost three years ago, Anita Reeves and Julian Erskine noticed subtle changes in their relationship, something she had feared in advance.

"Any time the subject of marriage had come up," Anita says, "I had an, 'If it's not broken, why fix it?' attitude. But after the fact, I realised that any changes were positive."

It was like joining a club, Julian adds, a club you had no idea you wanted to join until you were in.

After 25 years together, the effects of marriage were surprisingly positive and, laughs Anita, it was surprisingly good to call Julian her husband at last, "boyfriend" having grown a little embarrassing over the years.

Ask Julian and Anita to describe their relationship and they insist that it is easy and yet, they have loved through a time that made things as difficult for them as possible, the best example of which is the fuss made over registering their daughter, Gemma's, birth 20 years ago.

Ever the actress, Anita Reeves does a vivid impersonation of the nurse who filled out Gemma's birth certificate, right down to the look of disgust, followed by an exasperated tearing of the form, when the new mother revealed she and Julian were not married. Starting the certificate afresh, this nurse not a nun refused to put Julian's name as father, despite the fact that he had been present for the birth, and despite the fact that Anita insisted he was the father.

Instead, they were told, Gemma was officially the child of Anita's ex-husband actor Barry McGovern from whom she was long separated. Anita refused to give his name, so the "father" box remained blank. Only years later, when Julian wished to take Gemma and their son, Danny (now 15), away on his passport, did he legally become their guardian.

"I think we caught the wrong person at the end of that Old Ireland way of thinking," says Julian.

When Danny was born, however, they registered him away from the hospital. Between themselves, their family, their friends, Anita's separated status and their unmarried state was never an issue, but until recently, as many couples in second relationships will understand, there were some situations that reminded them they were slightly different.

When Anita and Julian first met, she 24 and he 17 years old, she was married to McGovern. It was a young, impetuous union, she says, they becoming married within five months of beginning the relationship and separated after two years.

Julian was a young stage manager at the time and first encountered Anita on the set of The Flats, though he had first seen her as Principal Boy in a Dun Laoghaire panto when he was only 10. They were friends first, the relationship progressing no further until four years later, when they toured together with the Irish Theatre Company.

"It was a circus kind of life," Julian explains, "with lots of drink and fun and craic, and we were all very young, working hard and living hard. It was the fabulous summer of '76, we were doing beach theatre in Salthill and it was very magical and in the middle of it, Anita and I were falling in love. It was a great time."

They have no definite "start date" for their relationship, Anita explains after Julian's dreamy description of their early affair, though she recalls a night they fell into a ditch full of thorny shrubbery and ended up in a bath together as the moment when "there was no going back".

"Because of Anita's situation, it was a gradual thing," Julian says tentatively, while she quickly adds that her marriage was over by the time the new relationship began.

"It would be fair to say there was no real crossover. It was a quick crossfade, let's say, but no crossover," he sums up delicately, and to much hilarity.

Though Julian's parents were "marvellous" about Anita's separated status her own parents were then dead the couple spent their first Christmas together at a Sligo hotel, to spare any awkwardness. In retrospect, they believe they did not need to and as an experience, it was not to be repeated.

"Everyone else there was either middle-aged or a family, and we stuck out like a sore thumb," Julian recalls. "Not wanting to join in either the treasure hunt or the fancy dress party."

From then on, they decided to play the relationship as easy as they felt it to be.

THE only big bone of contention over the years, they agree, has been the extent to which Julian's work has taken him away from home. As a stage manager he has always travelled a lot, but since he became executive producer of Riverdance, from its beginnings, his work has been all about travel.

When the kids were young it was a strain, Anita says, but long-term she believes a bit of a break is no harm for a relationship and some would say Anita likes a bit of a break, to judge by the number of times she has retired from acting "for good". This time she has been lured away from courses, classes and relaxation by an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's The Unexpected Man, and admits she might never give it up for good.

Though it had come up over the years, marriage did not become a real option until three years ago. Legally, they felt it was of importance, though emotionally it was more complicated.

"Years ago," says Anita, "we had nothing, but now we have a house and children and we're older, and with Julian the idea of things being legally untidy if anything was to happen to either of us. We knew it would make things easier to be married, but that's not why we did it. It was the catalyst, I suppose, the issue that put it on the table."

Playing in Dancing at Lughnasa at the start of 2000, Anita returned from one of her several "retirements" joked to her co-stars, including Barbara Brennan and Ali White, that she might avail of the leap year and propose to Julian. They loved the idea and kept on her case about it and it became a real notion, with Anita ultimately interrupting a telephone argument with Julian, who was in New York, to ask him to marry her.

"Yes, when?" was his response and they married that August, with Danny giving Anita away and Gemma bearing the rings. It was a great day, followed by a great party, and is something they are very glad they did.

"Even the marriage service itself is very different when you're older," says Anita. "When you can look into the eyes of someone you've lived with for 25 years and think, 'This is the person I want to be with, I'm happy to be with and I'm happy to commit to."'

Both agree something changed when they married, and though Julian and Anita attempt to explain it, those changes are almost impossible to quantify. Making the relationship official somehow felt right and had an unexpected reassuring sense, not something they sought or needed, but something that felt good all the same.

And, they laugh, by the time they were ready to marry, the children were past the point of being mortified by it, a consideration that neatly sums up modern marriage for you.

Anita Reeves is appearing with Emmet Bergin in 'The Unexpected Man' at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire until March 15, followed by a nationwide tour. Tickets, ?14/?19. Tel 01-2312929

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