Interview with Isla Blair of Steel Magnolias
Approved by ATG's PR & Communications Officer, David Bradbury
Actress Isla Blair, who plays M'Lynn, the mother of Shelby in this production of Steel Magnolias, comes to this engagement with a close association, at least in her imagination, with the character.
'I remember seeing the film of Steel Magnolias in which M'Lynn was played, marvellously, by Sally Field. I remember thinking what a wonderful part that is. I should like to play it one day. It was that character I felt most drawn to. She's a doting mother -and I'm a doting grandmother - and I can't conceive of going through what M'Lynn has to endure.'
To her regret, Isla has never had a chance to visit the Southern States of America, where the play is located.
'I have the impression that in the South, especially in the 1980s, when the play is set, that there was more of a sense of a traditional way of life. Family values were celebrated and women were expected to behave in a certain way - they wore white gloves when they went to church, for example. The North and South are two very different parts of America - it's almost as if the country were still divided between the Yankee and the Confederate armies as in the Civil War. I think that life was led at a slower pace and so one of the things I've had to do is to slow down my delivery since I have a tendency to speak quite quickly on stage.'
Isla can understand the appeal of Truvy's salon to the ladies of this small town.
'Now there's no such thing as a hair-dryer with women sitting under them for hours. We have our hair tinted these days. But the salon still serves the same function as it does in Steel Magnolias. People are more intimate with each other there. I have a very close bond with my hairdresser who's a man. Everything's very open in his salon - everything's up for grabs. Fortunately my hairdresser is very discreet. He'd never pass anything on - it would be more than his job's worth!'
In Steel Magnolias, all six of the women give each other support in their times of need. How true to life is this picture of female solidarity?
'I'm not saying that all women are perfectly lovely but I have a number of close female friends and I like to think that we're very supportive of each other. If people are competitive then there's usually a reason for bad or starry behaviour, a reason buried in the past. In my experience it is the men who have caused all the trouble. When I toured in Alan Bennett's The History Boys, I was the only woman in the cast and I did find myself longing for a bit of female company.'
Touring- the physical effort of getting from town to town while living out of a suitcase - does have its downside, says Isla.
'The older I get, the more I find things to keep me at home, including babysitting my two wonderful little grand-daughters. My way of surviving on tour is to be perfectly friendly but to have my own space while respecting other people's spaces. It's a matter of keeping your distance and not getting into each others' pockets.'
Last year Isla published her first book, a well-received account of her childhood in India, one of two daughters of a tea-planter sent back to England to be educated at a very young age. A Tiger's Wedding,the title of the book, refers to an Indian expression describing the moment when the sun is shining simultaneously with falling rain. The book was successful enough for Isla to consider a follow-up and she'll be working on the idea while on tour. She's keeping tight-lipped about the subject.
'I think that writing the book has made me settle for who I am' she says. 'I've discovered in writing it that I've come to terms with the fact that I was sent to school at such an early age. I now feel compassion for my parents who felt that they had no alternative to sending us away.'
Isla has worked steadily in theatre, films and television for more than forty years, a familiar a figure on stage and screen as her husband Julian Glover and their son, the actor/director Jamie Glover. One of Isla's earliest jobs was to play the ingenue in Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with a starry cast that included the comedian Frankie Howerd, the Carry On stalwart Kenneth Connor and Jon Pertwee, the future Dr. Who. As men and as comedy actors, they were natural rivals.
'They were very nice to me because I was no threat to them' Isla smiles. 'On stage they were all competing with one another to get laughs. Richard Harris could behave very badly when we were doing a play together in the West End. When I told him off, he'd call me Matron and The Diva.'
In a profession where women can struggle to sustain a career, due to the demands of family or the emergence of younger competition, Isla is a survivor. What's her secret?
'I think it's because I've been lucky enough never to have experienced extreme celebrity. If you are very famous, it brackets you. I've done so many varied things that I haven't been associated in the public mind with a single role and so they haven't given me a particular identity. On the other hand, I'd love to be in a soap and play the same part for six months or so. Unlike Julian, who hates being out of work, I don't mind unemployment and I don't take just anything that comes along.'
Several years ago, all three Glovers joined forces for a production of Hamlet, with Jamie in the title role, Isla as Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and Julian directing and playing The Ghost of Hamlet's father.
'It was one of the happiest jobs I've ever done.' Isla recalls. 'Jamie and I trusted each other completely. We were rehearsing the closet scene one day and suddenly we were back to the time when Jamie was a little boy- aged about ten - and we were having a terrible row. I slapped his face and then he slapped mine and we did the same, almost unconsciously in rehearsal. We kept it in the performance and it always caused a great frisson of excitement to run through the audience.'
Isla may be glad that she has never experienced celebrity and she attributes it to the longevity of her career but she has certainly witnessed it from close quarters. In the 1960s she had a small part in the Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night. One evening, after a hard day's shooting, Paul McCartney, ever the gentleman, offered to drive Isla home. But he reckoned without his hysterical fans who were gathered outside the studio. In their eagerness to touch their idol, they attacked poor Isla, who was left bruised and battered by the experience. Happily, it seems that Isla and Macca are still good friends.
'He came to see me in The History Boys and popped backstage afterwards. I introduced him to the boys who were thrilled and the next day, I received a huge bouquet from Paul. He's great.'
You can see Isla Blair in Steel Magnolias at Richmond Theatre Mon 14 – Sat 19 May.