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Alone again, naturally

Childhood illness and years spent in hospital taught Oscar-winning actress Brenda Fricker how to keep still, a skill she honed for her renowned roles as strong, expressively silent women. She is not short on entertaining stories, but she's had her share of sadness as she tells Declan McCormack

IT'S AT least five years since she saw My Left Foot. But she can recall as if it were yesterday the glorious moment in the Shrine Auditorium when she was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as the mother of disabled writer Christy Brown, and the media mayhem which followed.

``It was all weird,'' she said, sounding like a rural sub-postmistress who suddenly finds herself on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on a busy day. ``I thought I'd been beamed up to a different country.''

But despite her acute shyness and innate aversion to parties, she managed to enjoy the whirligig of celebrations. She may be shy, but Brenda Fricker is well able to talk and be a party animal. She likes having a few pints and ``getting pissed'', as long as it's all spontaneous jollification.

But the neo-Gatsby lifestyle of LA ``the one-business town'' in the Mia Farrow phrase which Fricker likes to quote soon lost its appeal for Fricker. ``LA's celebrity carry-on embarrasses me ... even if it's where the big money is.''

Shortly after her Oscar triumph in March 1990, she was back on the set of Casualty, playing Nurse Megan Roache in the hospital soap that often commanded audiences of 11 million plus. She left Casualty rather abruptly and somewhat controversially, and in 1991 headed to Australia to play Sister Agnes in Brides of Christ.

Her Oscar success had opened up new possibilities and considerably strengthened the hands of her agents. A part in the Home Alone sequel was in the offing.

Then suddenly the real-life script changed dramatically. Barry Davies, the love of her life and her husband for more than 15 years, fell down the stairs and died. Drink had been the cause of the fall. She was devastated. ``I couldn't come back. It was dreadful.''

They had fallen in love 20 years earlier, but drink had bedevilled the relationship and they had been divorced in 1988. However, soon after, their friendship was rekindled and by 1990 they were reconciled and had become ``very good friends again''.

``Friend'' is one of the most important words in her vocabulary. The tears are in her eyes. No actor's gift of tears. This is for real.

WE'RE in the Setanta Suite of the Shelbourne Hotel. In the twilight world where media and PR mingle, she has a reputation for being difficult. Crusty and fiery. Handle with care. Approach with caution.

My first impression is how radiant she looks in comparison to the frumpy actress who plays hard-done-by women of autumnal age. Her hair is tinted blonde and she looks as if she has been abroad. I discover later that she has just returned from a package holiday in the Middle East. Not a very Oscarish thing to do, but then Fricker eschews the trappings of the screen diva.

She lives in the Liberties near the Coombe (albeit in three converted cottages), shops in Meath Street and is treated as one of their own by the locals.

For someone who is renowned for her masterful silences, she's a good talker. And she smiles. Sometimes through tear-misty eyes, but she smiles. So unlike the worn face that is her trademark on both small and large screen.

``I'm through with playing Irish mother victims,'' Fricker announces with a laugh.

Ironically, her role in the new TV film Relative Strangers which she is publicising is that of another mother who seems more sinned against than winning. But this time her character, Maureen Lessing, is a modern woman who is suddenly set on a white-knuckle emotional rollercoaster.

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The real-life Brenda Fricker tried to be a mother. ``I had five or six miscarriages. I can never remember which.'' She's philosophical about it. ``If your body doesn't work for you, you can't do it.'' She smiles. Barry was ``keener'' than Brenda, though Barry had children from a previous marriage. And recently the older daughter had a baby. ``I got terribly emotional if Barry had been alive we'd have been involved. But it was not to be.''

Death has been her undoing in life. It has certainly triggered the depression to which she is prone. When her father, the other great love of her life, died three years ago she was devastated. ``I took to bed for three years.'' Laid low by depression. There has been a succession of deaths since which have traumatised her.

After a titanic mock struggle, she confesses to being 54. ``In your 40s it's your friends' parents who die. In your 50s it's your peers who die. The people who know your story you lose all your points of reference.''

The list of lost ones include Fionn O'Shannon, Marie McCree and just last summer Joe Pilkington, who was ``top of the list'', a ``life-long buddy''.

Joe was an actor perhaps best known for playing Francie Meagher in Glenroe's precursor, The Riordans. Brenda herself almost ended up in Leestown. She auditioned for the part of Maggie Riordan but lost out to Biddy White Lennon. It was one of the few parts that got away in a very successful career.

``I've been very very lucky almost always in work.'' Fricker first appeared on the flickering screen in Tolka Row, the 1960s' forerunner of Fair City.

There was no thespian tradition in the family, though her mother Bina had sent Brenda and her older sister Grainne to Eda Burke's Drama School. Grainne did some radio drama with Radio Eireann, but she was ``too bright and brilliant'' and was regarded as ``a difficult child'' so she was shunted off to a St Louis Convent in Co Mayo which was ``the saving of her in many ways'' but was curtains for her acting career.

Brenda, who had followed her father into the Irish Times, stepped into the radio breach and from there got a part in Tolka Row as a girlfriend of Sean Nolan (Jim Bartley). ``Ah, Jim a lovely boy. He turned up at my mother's funeral.'' Sometimes Brenda sounds like the Emily Dickinson character who has a funeral in the brain.

After Tolka Row she went to London, did stage work with the Royal Court, The National and the Royal Shakespearean Company, and remained there until the 1980s when she moved to Bristol (``a lovely city, like Dublin''). After Tolka Row she didn't work in Dublin again until her triumph in the title role of Big Maggie in 1988. But she did do an important audition in the Gresham in the early Seventies; important not for the part which she got, but for the director who was auditioning. He was Barry Davies. They fell in love and married shortly after. ``Yes, he was the love of my life.''

The other great love was her dad Desmond Fricker, a Dubliner who worked as a journalist in the Irish Times and then became the PR for the Department of Agriculture during the turbulent times in the Sixties when Charlie Haughey was Minister and the farmers were marching. Desmond also presented an agricultural programme called Down the Country. He was ``a wonderful man ... an intellectual, an academic ... I adored him. He was so nonjudgemental''.

Her mother by contrast was a ``mad roaring Catholic'' who got up before 6am every morning to walk from their Dundrum house to Mount Argus for early mass. She was a twice daily mass-goer who regarded evening mass as ``not real mass''.

Brenda didn't go because she wanted ``to annoy her mother to rebel'' and because she was going through the Oedipus Complex. Or rather Electra.

The spiritual rebellion has persisted despite school in Loreto on the Green and despite the fact that she has played nuns on two occasions: as Sister Agnes in the acclaimed Australian TV film Brides of Christ, and Mother Bernard in the Joe O'Connor play The Weeping of Angels in 1997. In fact, doing the research for those parts ``recharged my disbelief'', she quips.

Her mother was a Kerrywoman, from Gneeveguilla a name she loves pronouncing the Kerry way. Brenda loved her mum too. ``In a different way.''. She did ``all the hard work ... he just handed over the wage-packet. She made great sacrifices''.

Bina was a teacher (``Irish, English, French, I think'') who for all her Catholic ultra-orthodoxy taught in Stratford College, the Jewish school. She taught at one of the first summer schools for foreign students in Ireland in Stratford.

One of the summer school teachers was a young man called Peter Caffrey, who later took to acting and almost married Brenda in ``bizarre circumstances'' in 1992.

Apart from her teaching and homemaking, Bina also saw to it that the girls took music, drama and Irish dancing lessons. Brenda was national junior hard dance champion three years in a row. Hardly surprising, given Bina's training methods: Bina played the fiddle on the hip and, while playing ``a really fast jig'', used to whip Brenda's legs with the bow (while continuing to play) if the dancer wasn't leaping high enough. ``Jesus I jumped higher and won, my legs covered in welts. She was very driven, very competitive ... I haven't a streak of competitiveness in my body.''

While family life was very happy, the smallness of the family and Grainne's dispatching to Mayo meant that Brenda spent a lot of time alone. It seems as if she was predestined to play the part of lonely people, like the kindly bag-lady in Home Alone 2 in 1992.

She also spent years in hospital, as if destined for her role as Meg Roache in Casualty and as a hospital administrator in Relative Strangers. When she was seven she experienced kidney failure and spent almost a year in hospital. When she was 14 she was knocked off a bike, was hospitalised for two years. And then when she was 16 she developed TB. Her mother, ``a snob'', wanted to nurse her at home to spare the family the stigma of having one of them in a sanitorium a word which ``came up through people's feet then''. Her dad was having none of it and she was put into Blanchardstown Hospital, where she stayed for eight months.

TB victims were not supposed to move, as movement activated the germ. So she lay still and used a bell under the bed to summon assistance from the nurses. It was very ``isolating'' she read and listened to radio. The memory of this isolation informed her eloquently silent performances in The Field and My Left Foot. As she says, ``It is difficult to say nothing. Stillness is hard to achieve, but in films the less said is often the better.''

During this time she became ``terribly close'' to her father because they used talk ``for a whole hour'' every Friday which was one of the two visiting days. But they shared happier moments together too. For example, when he taught her to drive on Dollymount Strand ``reversing through stakes, changing gears smoothly with a jug of water balancing on the bonnet''. She developed a passion for fast cars (``the engine is my icon'') and nowadays loves to get out on the road in her sporty Honda Prelude (``very violent, isn't it?''). During the filming of Lethal Innocence she took over from a double and frightened her director by driving a jeep at speed over rough Massachusetts terrain.

Her relationship with her father further deepened after the death of Bina back in the Seventies. He died three years ago at the age of 83. She took to bed ``under the duvet''. For three years she didn't socialise. And the bouts of depression to which she was prone were intensified.

Depression just descends ``like the black dog, the black cloud ... it's just like getting a cold, but it's lurking all the time''.

She's on medication at the moment and it's working for her ``I'm not putting on weight, and I'm not lethargic.'' She has great faith in psychiatrists, too.

She also praises the Samaritans ``they saved my life a number of times''. She wasn't always as uninhibitedly confessional. ``I used not to talk about it it's much better to talk. I spoke first on radio and people came up to me after and told me that their sister and aunt had depression.''

THE Christmas before last, depression struck with a vengeance. She became ``literally catatonic ... paralysed, couldn't move, couldn't function, couldn't even answer the phone''. For days she didn't eat, couldn't feed the dogs. But the dogs are ``a good discipline''. Eventually she brought herself around to feeding them and heard the comforting message on the answering machine from friends.

When she thought the worst was over, it wasn't. She started vomiting and was rushed to the Mater. She was put on a drip. Her own saliva made her sick. She distinctly heard three doctors deliberate about her condition one said ``this was what babies died of in Africa''. Then she heard her psychiatrist's reassuring voice and the recovery had already begun.

But the support of friends is ``just as important as professional assistance ... they're like gold dust''. She has ``five or six wonderful friends''.

Despite the importance she attaches to friendship, she feels incapable of having another deep relationship. Living alone makes you ``territorial ... it's difficult having a relationship when you're so good at being alone; it can annoy people. They think you're neglecting them''.

She did have one strange relationship in 1992. It was with Peter Caffrey, recently of I Went Down and A Love Divided and also starring in the forthcoming series Relative Strangers. They had known each other for years, but suddenly LA laladom got to them. ``It was madness. I was living in a huge mansion James Cagney's old house ... it went to our heads ... it was total madness. We were swept along on the craziness of it all.'' They got engaged and were almost married. They pulled back in time and have stayed good friends which they ``mightn't be if we had been married''.

She had another serious relationship in the Nineties. It ended in 1997. ``We'll slide over that one. Too soon to talk about it.''

The three Ds death, divorce, depression have played havoc with her life. As did drink though drink is no problem for her, ``apart from hangovers''. Her problems are deeper and more universal. Her problems are with life, love and death the great divider. She stresses throughout that her experiences are not unique. That everyone suffers. All she has a monopoly on is the knowledge of her own experiences.

She has shared that knowledge obliquely with cinema-goers,TV viewers and theatre-goers during a distinguished acting career which has included a myriad of work ranging from the popcorn entertainment of Home Alone 2 to the repetitive soapiness of Casualty to the loving stoicism of My Left Foot.

But it is her portrayal of women stolidly enduring life's cruelties and indignities which have made the deepest impression. She is rightly known for her eloquent silences, her quiet expressiveness. The still, sad music of hurt humanity.

* Relative Strangers, a four-parter, begins on January 10, RTE1 at 9.30pm.

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