LONDON, England / The Telegraph / Culture / May 12, 2011
Harriet Walter: 'Why I’m getting married at 60’
She’s not afraid of growing old. But before that she has an important date to keep in church.
Photo: Geoff Pugh
By Cassandra Jardine
Actresses complaining about ageing is a hoary old topic. No parts, stock characters, prejudiced directors – tap any actress over 40 and it’s the same. Dame Harriet Walter is different. She doesn’t believe that surgery or invisibility are the only choices facing women whose faces are part of their fortune. There is a third alternative: women can start enjoying, even glorifying the lines that time and experience have added to once bland faces.
Sir Walter Raleigh described Queen Elizabeth I as “a lady whom time had surprised”. That could not be said of Dame Harriet, who has long been looking in the mirror for tiny changes in her own face, an obsession that she has turned into first a photographic exhibition, and now a book. The message of Facing It is simple: look on these faces and do not despair. The wrinkles of painter Georgia O’Keeffe are a work of art in themselves. White hair doesn’t make Sheila Hancock less humorous or Anna Ford less poised. Annie Lennox, Caryl Churchill, Joan Bakewell, Françoise Hardy and hundreds of others have grown more, not less, interesting with age.
Coming to grips with the loss of youth is a theme of our ageing times. In The Stranger in the Mirror, Jane Shilling has written about turning 50, detailing each moment of panic with searing exactitude. But rueful acceptance is not the whole story. Jill Shaw Ruddock, a former big-hitting banker, takes an aggressive line on the future for women over 50. She argues in The Second Half of Your Life that, once their oestrogen levels have subsided, women are ideally placed to run the world because they have higher testosterone levels than men of the same age.
Older women are already becoming the protagonists, not the walk-ons, in the drama of later life.
But art often trails reality, as Harriet Walter has found. Five years ago, she was awarded five-star reviews for her Cleopatra at the RSC; earlier this year, she was made a Dame for her services to acting. Financially, she hasn’t been wasting her time, playing a detective in the ITV series Law and Order, and in between whiles, she has been cast as sundry dowagers and royals, among them Queen Adelaide (wife of William IV) in The Young Victoria – but there’s no part to equal the Egyptian queen in the offing.
However, true to the advice that she dishes out in her book, she has been trying new things. Self-publishing is one of them. Horse riding is another. But, most boldly, in a gesture of middle-aged adventure, she is about to marry for the first time, aged 60. Repeat, six zero. Behind that very late start lies a saga of bad luck, fear and displaced energies.
Whatever the reason for her late start, she talks about the forthcoming event like a dizzy teenager, not a grand Dame. “I’m marrying in off-white,” she says, “something pretty and feminine – all the things I don’t normally go for.” Her 61-year-old fiancé is also a first-timer, an American actor – stage name Guy Paul, real name Guy Schuessler – whom she met two years ago when performing Maria Stuart on Broadway.
The relationship was “slow and cautious and tentative” to begin with because both were terrified of failure but, on May 21, they will exchange rings in the Minneapolis church where his father was a Lutheran minister. Parties in Los Angeles and England follow. If that weren’t enough to organise, they are also writing their own pledges. “Mine will be: I shall try to control my temper.”
On a sunny day in a Stratford-upon-Avon hotel, it is hard to imagine Walter ranting and raging. Nervous and intense, certainly – she had a breakdown aged 12 when her parents split up – but anger doesn’t fit with the eager-to-please woman leaning forward from the corner of the sofa, waving her long hands around expressively as she chats about the curtain going up on this new stage in her life.
The plan is to live in England where she hopes that Guy will relieve directors of the need to cast English actors with cod American accents. As for her career: “He’s going to make me less of a workaholic.”
Harriet “the nun” Walter has a reputation for working constantly, if she can. Given a few weeks off, she doesn’t relax, she writes a book or worries about “doing something serious”, such as learning a language or improving her piano playing. True to form, only 10 days after her wedding she won’t be lying in a beach hammock, she will be appearing at the Telegraph Hay Festival talking about Facing It.
Growing older has always worried her, she admits, but long ago she decided not to become a surgically enhanced fembot like those she observed at a meeting of old Bond girls. Their appearance, she says, brought to mind a passage from The School for Scandal in which a Mrs Evergreen is likened to “a mended statue”, because “the head is modern, though the trunk’s antique”.
On stage, Walter would deliver that line with a withering look, poker back and the slight lisp that makes her voice as instantly recognisable as her high-cheekboned face. Forty years of playing upper-class women with humour and humanity earned her the honour that brings a broad smile to her face: “I’ve been taking lessons in Damehood from Judi Dench. Being a Dame is useful in restaurants, hotels and restaurants, Judi says, but you have to get someone else to do the booking.”
A lifetime’s achievement award could make her feel past it, when roles for women over 60 are scarce and those that there are always seem to go to Judi Dench or Helen Mirren. She sighs. “It’s a game of musical chairs and there are fewer chairs as you get older and lots of us still in the game. I yearn to make a really good, intelligent movie before I die: I don’t completely rule out the possibility but, in Hollywood, I’m not bankable.”
Don’t whine, create your own roles, women are often told. She did and the result was “the most boring role imaginable: I was a humourless, middle-aged adolescent who was estranged from her war-hero father”. One reason why women have few roles, she argues, relates to the nature of romance.
“Romance is about investing in the future – with older people there is less time for happy ever after.”
She discovered that for herself, quite recently. Perhaps because she had an uneasy relationship with her father, until her mid-forties she had passing romances, but nothing permanent. “Work became a substitute for private life, and that is difficult to dismantle.”
Finally, she met Peter Blythe, an actor. After eight years together, she proposed to him in 2004, a leap year, but shortly afterwards Blythe was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died later that year, before they married. Aged 53, she was left, in effect, a childless widow who had briefly, tantalisingly, tasted companionship.
“Afterwards, I did what Judi Dench says she did after her husband, Michael Williams, died: 'More of me went to work’. I wasn’t expecting anything to happen, when I met Guy. I’ve spent a lot of my life alone and I was fine about it until I met Peter and experienced how great it is to do things with someone.”
She still wears Blythe’s ring (with her new fiancé’s approval), but a new man in her life seems to be the answer to many problems, not just loneliness. Now that she is too busy worrying about food, frocks and flowers to spend much time confronting the passage of time, ageing doesn’t seem to bother her. Happiness has also taken her mind off the hunt for a good part. “The next role I am playing is getting married,” she says, delightedly.
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