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Gemma's second blooming

LET'S FACE IT, Gemma Craven's career has had some pretty astounding highs, whether acting and/or singing in stage productions such as Side By Side with Sondheim and Stella byStarlight or appearing in TV and movie productions such as Pennies From Heaven or Wagner, the latter with arguably one of the greatest actors of the 20th Century, Richard Burton.

Not only that. Having been a romantic teenager who thought another Richard, Chamberlain, was "totally gorgeous" in the Sixties TV series Dr Kildare, Gemma got to play Cinderella to his Prince Charming in The Slipper and the Rose and even made her way into Chamberlain's bedchamber - though this story didn't quite have the fairy tale ending most women might have fantasised about, as you will see.

That said, when it comes to her private life, Gemma also has spent many a season in hell. Such as the first six weeks she spent in England at the age of 10, when she moved there with her motherafter her father, a former bus driver, won a scholarship to studyat Oxford. There also were two marriages that fell apart. Even worse, the disintegration of the second coincided with the diagnosis of her dad's incurable degenerative disease Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, and he subsequently died in 2001.

Craven also admits that during the last few years she's been "out of work more than ever". However, during that period Gemma also got involved in a new love affair and has now joined the cast of The Clinic. But her first love affair clearly obviously was with her mum Lilian, dad Gabriel and family. "I had a fantastic family life here in Dublin," she says as we sit in the Merrion Hotel not far from where Craven was raised in theIveagh Buildings.

"Though there was only the three of us in the immediate family, we had relatives all over the place. But I was an incredibly shy child who, nonetheless, always knew I wanted to be on stage and my parents always took me to theatres like the Gaiety. Yet then dad won that scholarship, moved to England and finally, in 1960, we followed him and the first six weeks - by this stage he'd left Oxford, got a job in Fords in Dagenham and was looking for a place for us to live in Essex - were horrendous because we lived in Holloway in London and I went to a school that was mixed, and run by lay teachers rather than nuns, and where kids mocked my accent. So I realised, 'OK, two can play at that game' and that's where I perfected my English accent and started taking the mickey out of them. But it was a really tough school and I shut myself off and hated it."

Even so, life has its little compensations, and among Gemma's fellow students at a subsequent school were actors such as Helen Mirren, it had "a brilliant elocution teacher" and she herself attended stage school for five years and then, as part of her apprenticeship, worked as a stagehand, actor and singer. She first came to public prominence in The Slipper and the Rose in 1976.

But how did she get into Chamberlain's boudoir? "We were filming in Austria, and on many a night, because there were women all over the place in his hotel waiting for him, I'd go up to his room and that, of course, gave people a certain impression," she explains. "But then we'd wait until they'd all gone, the porter would ring and tell us, my car would be waiting outside and I'd be off to my hotel."

While Richard, perhaps, climbed into bed with Martin Rabbett - the man he'd met a year before making The Slipper and The Rose, would later marry and publicly and proudly declare to be his life-long partner when he finally 'came out of the closet' in his 2003 memoir Shattered Love. So the story does have a fairy tale ending in that sense!

But, more seriously, in that book, Chamberlain also tells of how terrified he always was that female fans might discover he was gay. But did he and Gemma ever discuss such matters and was she disappointed to discover Richard preferred men? "No I wasn't!" she responds, laughing. "And no, we never did talk about that - and to tell you the truth, I haven't even read his biography. All I know is that Richard and I got on like a house on fire and he is a wonderful actor to work with and we had lots of laughs. Though I did think when we met 'God, this is Dr Kildare!' and he was gorgeous!"

As for Gemma's memories of Burton, he was "unbelievably helpful" to her as an actor and maybe even more so as a friend. "On the set when the weather was too bad for filming, we'd sit for hours and hours and I'd just ask him endless questions," she recalls. "But I'll never forget, later, I was working in London when the news broke that I was getting a divorce and Richard phoned and said, 'Are you OK?' I said 'Yeah' and he said, 'Don't let those bastards hound you. If you need any help, ring me, I know how to handle them.' Then he told me, 'Listen, we're having dinner in a week or two' and arranged when and where we should meet and so on. So I couldn't believe it when Sally, his wife at this point, called the day before we were due to meet and said Richard had died. She actually rang and told me before it was on the news and I felt really privileged but, still I was totally devastated."

Those "bastards" in question were the media who apparently "hounded" Gemma at this point yet she refused to say anything about the break-up of her marriage to actor Frazer Hines, best known for his role in Emmerdale. Instead, she released a press statement announcing they were parting after two years of marriage. Not exactly a long marriage, was it, Gemma?

"It was too long!" she says. "But even though we were married when I was 31, I had known him for a year before that! So it was three years in all. But that statement just said I was separating from my husband and since then I've never spoken about it, and I still don't."

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But did the break-up make her draw back, even for a time,from romance? "Not at all, I am atotal romantic."

That form of romanticism can be the core reason a woman or man leaves a marriage or a love affair because they, ultimately, believe they can find something better. "True". Parents and relatives, on the other hand, can often tell Catholic wives, "You married the man for better or worse, you have to stay with him." Did Gemma ever hear any of that nonsense? "My relatives did say that but I didn't give a toss. It was my life, I've only got one and it's up to me how I live it. So, yeah, you'd get 'You made your bed now lie in it' and I'd just say, 'I'm changing the sheets!' Yet my mum and dad were thrilled. But it was only when I was getting divorced I found out that they absolutely detested him. Before then, they never said a word because it was my choice and they respected that."

ALL of which leads us to Gemma's dad's PSP which "as often happens, was originally diagnosed as Parkinson's" and that's why, at 62, he took early retirement from his job as a director at Ford.

"And we believed he had Parkinson's but then one day he was going to Mass in the car, crashed, got out, cut and bruised and walked home, saying 'I'm OK'," she recalls. "But mum said he should go to the hospital and he told her, 'OK, I'll get the bus' and she said, 'That's all we need is for people to think they have a drunken Irishman with blood all over him, on the bus.'And PSP does make you act as though you're pissed, staggering, slurring words. Also, doctors don't know what will go first - your speech, eyesight or legs - because it's a mixture of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and motor neuron disease and in the end, the only thing you are left with is your hearing. They tell you that you will be dead within seven years. And dad was. But it really was heartbreaking to see someone who had been so agile and vibrant just slowlywaste away."

Gemma pauses, as if attempting to suppress her sadness and a sudden sense of rage. She fails. "I can't tell you how many times I wanted to get dad's morphine, stick it in his tube and take his life to give him peace. But instead I'd talk and talk to him and the love in his eyes was wonderful. Yet the worst thing was the day dad finally was diagnosed with PSP. I couldn't be there so my husband, David (Beamish) brought mum and him to see a specialist. But after he did all the tests he said, 'Yes, you have Progressive Supranuclear Palsy' and dad was calm, although this news had gutted him. Yet then the specialist said, 'Mr Craven, when you do die, may we have your brain for research?' That, rather than being told 'You have seven years tolive and you'll get worse and worse and in the end won't even be ableto wipe your own arse' hurt myfather more.

"Actually, I met that specialist later and he said, 'How's your dad?' and I just had to tell him, 'Really well, no thanks to you - but I'm glad I wasn't there when you diagnosed him, you bastard, because I'd have killed you.'"

Gemma has one "major regret" about her dad's death. Near the end, she lied to him about one aspect of the break-up of her marriage to Beamish, a financier.

"That marriage lasted nearly 10 years and was fantastic until I found out David had an affair," she says. "But the break-up was horrendous because I knew dad thought the world of David and was thinking, 'I know I'm dying but it's OK because he'll look after my girls.' And I didn't want to add to dad's pain so I told him I'd bought David out of our house in Fulham and it was all mine but it was the other way around. I felt so guilty about that because I'd never before lied to my father, yet when I told him there was great relief on his face so that eased my guilt."

Even so, Gemma Craven agrees that her lie was "the act of a loving daughter" and also believes that if her dad could see her now he would be "blissfully happy".Why? Because she herself could also be thus described, largely as a result of a five-year relationship with her current partner Odin and even the fact that she now has this gig in The Clinic "because it's my first Irish TV series" though she doesn't want to give away anything about the "mystery woman" role she plays.

"I am absolutely blissfully happy," Gemma says. "And it really is great to be able to say that at my age, and after 38 years as an actor, I honest-to-God really never thought things would finally work out this way."

© Joe Jackson

The Clinic returns to our TV screens next Sunday on RTE 1

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