BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Programmes: Breakfast  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Breakfast Tuesday, 15 October, 2002, 05:13 GMT 06:13 UK
Brenda Blethyn

It's been six years since Brenda Blethyn appeared on the West End stage starring in Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus.

Since then the Oscar nominated actress has been wowing us with one fantastic film role after another - in 'Little Voice' alongside Jane Horrocks, Mike Leigh's 'Secrets and Lies' and more recently 'Lovely and Amazing' to name just a few.

Now she's back on the stage starring in George Bernard Shaw's 'Mrs Warren's Profession.'

Brenda spoke to Sophie and Dermot about her new role and life as a celebrated actress.

Brenda Blethyn returns to the London stage in the title role of Mrs Warren's Profession, by George Bernard Shaw, at the Strand Theatre from Wednesday 2nd October 2002.

Peter Hall directs this production of Shaw's once-scandalous play about 19th century moral complacency. Brenda is joined on stage by Peter Blyth, Laurence Fox, Rebecca Hall, Richard Johnson and James Saxon.

The play, which was originally banned by the Lord Chamberlain, had its first performance in 1902, eight years after it was written.

Brenda plays a woman who discreetly works in prostitution to achieve financial security and a place in polite society.

It is hoped that adding Brenda's name to the cast list will boost ticket sales. There are even mutterings that she is being groomed to succeed Dame Judi, Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave as Britain's national treasure.

Brenda is probably best known from her Mike Leigh film 'Secrets and Lies' in which she plays down-trodden Cynthia - a worker in a box factory who is shocked when a young black woman contacts her and tells her that she is the baby that the character played by Brenda gave up for adoption 30 years earlier.

Her role as Cynthia saw her nominated for an oscar. A further oscar nomination was for her fantastic role as Jane Horrock's mother, Mari Hoff in 'Little Voice'. In Saving Grace she played a widow who tries to pay off her husband's debts by buying and selling marajuana. More recently we saw her with Emily Watson in Lovely and Amazing.


Brenda Blethyn was born Brenda Bootle on 20th February 1946 in Ramsgate, Kent. She was the youngest of nine children, her father was a mechanical engineer. Her parents took her to the movies weekly, introducing her to the magic of the cinema. At school she excelled in maths, graduated from technical college and then worked as a secretary and book-keeper in a bank.

After the breakdown of her marriage to graphic designer, Alan James Blethyn who she met when they were both working together for British Rail, she decided to give-up her job. Having saved-up enough money she applied to Guildford drama college, for which she was accepted, and from that moment has never looked back. She was 27 at the time and, realising the risk she was taking, didn't tell her parents just in case it didn't work out as she could always go back to shorthand and typing.

Obviously Brenda's big risk paid off and after some early stage experience with the Bubble Theatre and at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, she joined the Royal National Theatre in 1975 where she worked with many of the UK's most acclaimed theatre directors.

Her work at the National included Tamburlaine and Bedroom Farce which were both directed by Peter Hall; The Passion and A Midsummer's Night Dream, directed by Bill Bryden; The Beaux Strategem and The Provok'd Wife, directed by Peter Wood; and Tom Stoppard's Dalliance. She then went on to join The Royal Shakespeare Company where her work included Tales From the Vienna Woods and Alan Ayckbourn's Wildest Dream. She has also worked at the Manchester Royal Exchange where she has played Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House and Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday. She has also played Mrs. Chieverly in Oscar Wilde's Ideal Husband.

Brenda's British television career started in 1980 when she appeared in the BBC2's playhouse presentation of Mike Leigh's Grown-Ups as Gloria, this was followed in 1981 when she made a guest appearance in the comedy series Yes, Minister alongside Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.

She then gave a couple of classical performances in the BBC Shakespeare series, playing Cordelia in King Lear (1982) directed by Jonathan Miller, alongside Michael Horden's as Lear and Anton Lesser as Edgar. She then played Joan in Henry VI, Part One (1983) alongside Peter Benson as Henry VI.

In 1983 Brenda played Angela Foley in the first of the television adaptations of the PD James novels, Death of an Expert Witness in which Roy Marsden played Commander Adam Dalgliesh; and in 1984 she moved into comedy when she played the part of Alison Little in Chance in a Million with Simon Callow and Bill Pertwee. In the same year she made a number of guest appearances in Alas Smith and Jones with Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones; and Who Dares Wins with Julia Hills and Rory McGrath. Her next comedy role came in the form of The Labours of Erica with Clive Merrison in 1989.

Brenda then moved into the big screen making two films during the period between 1990 and 1992, the first being the Jim Henson film of Roald Dahl's The Witches in which she played Mrs. Jenkins, other parts were played by Rowan Atkinson, Jane Horrocks and Anjelica Huston (1990). The second film was the Robert Redford movie A River Runs Through It in which she played Brad Pitt's mother, Mrs. Maclean. In 1993 she returned to television when she played the part of Gwen in the TV drama The Bullion Boys alongside Tim Pigott-Smith and David Jason ; and the part of Margaret Amir in the mini-series The Buddha of Suburbia with Naveen Andrews as her son Karim. In 1994 Brenda played the terrifically funny character Miriam Dervish in the comedy series Outside Edge with a cast which included Josie Lawrence, Robert Dawes, Timothy Spall and Michael Jayston. This earned her Best Comedy Actress in the 1994 British Comedy Awards but also saw the end of Brenda's television appearances for the next five years as she was to finally to well and truely make her name in the world of film.

In 1996 Brenda was cast as Cynthia Rose Purley in Mike Leigh's Secret's and Lies for which she won a Golden Globe Award and a BAFTA Film Award, and was nominated for an Oscar. At the time Brenda's comments about the role were "I was a novice as far as film was concerned. I'd been working over 20 years at the time, and then all that happened". In 1997 she returned to the screen to play Shirley in Michael Frayn's comedy Remember Me? with Imelda Staunton and Robert Lindsay. In 1998 she appeared in five films - with Julie Walters and Kris Kristofferson in the British comedy/ drama Girls' Night; the Australian drama In the Winter Dark with Ray Barrett; the Irish drama Night Train with John Hurt and Lorcan Cranitch; the romance Music From Another Room with Jude Law; and finally the role of Mari Hoff, which won her another Oscar nomination, in Little Voice with Jane Horrocks and Michael Caine .

In 1999 Brenda made a brief return to television in RKO 281 but then swiftly returned to the big screen in Keeping Time with Peter Fonda. Her biggest film in 2000 was Saving Grace in which she played Grace Trevethyn (right), a wealthy widow who discovers that she is 300,000 in debt, thanks to her late husband's failed business ventures, but with the help of her handyman they come up with a plan to grow a marijuana in her greenhouse. In 2001 she appeared as Mrs Delaney in On the Nose with Dan Ackroyd and Robbie Coltrane; as Julia Montgomery in Daddy and Them with Billy Bob Thornton, Jamie Lee Curtis and Ben Affleck; as Jane Marks in Lovely and Amazing; as Mrs. Louise Tutwiler in Yellow Bird; and The Sleeping Dictionary with Bob Hoskins, which she filmed in Malaysia. She also appeared on television as Auguste Van Pels in Anne Frank with Ben Kingsley. In 2002 she will be appearing in Pumpkin as Judy Romanoff; and Plots with a View as Betty Rhys-Jones alongside Alfred Molina, Christopher Walken and Lee Evans. She will also be supplying the voice of Mrs. Fairgood in The Wild Thornberry's.

In the 1990 Brenda returned to the stage when she appeared on Broadway in Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends for which she won the Theater World Award for Outstanding New Talent; she also won Best Supporting Actress in the British Drama Awards for her performance in Neil Dunn's Steaming in 1996. She was also nominated for an Olivier Award for Michael Blakemore's Benefactors at the Vaudeville Theatre. In 1997 she appeared at the Donmar Warehouse in Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus directed by Sam Mendes.

Brenda shares her home with long-time boyfriend Michael Mayhew, an art director for the England's National Theatre, which is where the two met. He tries to join her on movie sets when he can. They live in the same "unfashionable" southeast London neighborhood that she moved to five years ago, and she still plans to keep a foot in the theatre as it is her first love. Brenda is an ambassador for the Prince's Trust charity.

Brenda Blethyn talks to BBC News Online's Bella Hurrell

"I can't wait for my boyfriend to get here so I can just hide away," says Brenda Blethyn, who has been immersed in what she calls the "rather tedious" round of pre-Oscar interviews and chat shows in the US.

Oscars '99
Blethyn was nominated Best Supporting Actress for her role as the foul-mouthed northern floozy Mari in the film Little Voice.

Dame Judi Dench was the winner fo the award - before the ceremony, Blethyn said she thought she had "zero" chance of walking away with the award.

But Blethyn had been through the whole process before - two years ago she was nominated for the Best Actress for her role in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies.

"I know what to expect now. I thought I had more chance of winning last time than this time and my optimism was pretty low even then. But I suppose it is quite a close run thing this year. I meet people in the street and they say 'Oh you're going to win, you're going to win', but then they said all that last time. I take it all with a pinch of salt."

Speaking up for Little Voice

Blethyn as Mari with Michael Caine's seedy Ray Say in Little Voice
Mari is a fish factory worker who has nothing but contempt for her shy daughter and lusts after a local showbiz agent, the seedy Ray Say, played by Michael Caine. It is an unsympathetic role and a long way from the put-upon, kind at heart characters Blethyn normally plays. But it was this that attracted her to the role.

"I normally play sympathetic characters. I also have to understand why she is the way she is. She is a desperate woman, but she also has an optimistic take on life which I find enviable. Whilst I don't approve of her behaviour, there is a reason for it and it was my job to work that out.

"I also knew that people might not like her and might not like me. But where is it written that we must always play nice people?"

The fact that many fail to distinguish between personality and fine acting irritates Blethyn.

" I thought Warren Beatty was wonderful as Bulworth and I thought he'd be nominated. And they said 'he won't - it's such a horrible character'.

"I said 'Well, it's the performance of that horrible character, not the horrible character that we should be looking at.'"

Like all the other nominees in Hollywood Blethyn has been going to a relentless round of parties. But the down-to-earth Blethyn is not angling for sympathy and says it has been fun so far.

"At the nominees luncheon there was a great feeling of camaraderie, everyone comes away with a certificate of nomination and a gift of some sort. On that particular day there are no winner or losers, in fact they are all winners and that's quite nice."

Hollywood's annual fashion show

For the big night itself she had a dress specially made, which she describes as "kind of nice". Diamonds and jewels "come at you from all angles" she admits, referring to the offers that Oscar nominees get to wear glamorous jewellery for free as a promotion for the designer.

"It's as much a celebration of fashion as it is a celebration of film and performance. Every camera crew one stops and talks to on your way up the red carpet wants to know what you're wearing, who made your shoes, who made the dress, who did your hair, who did your make-up. I mean it's bizarre."

Although she looked forward to the chance to dress up, Blethyn cautiously admitted that it is a bit of a circus.

"The Baftas we are nominated for in April, well they are is probably a little classier."

Back to business

Blethyn will soon be gracing our screens again in Daddy and Them, a film with director Billy Bob Thornton which will be released later this year, and another with John Hurt called Night Train.

She is also about to start shooting RKO 281, a film about the making of the Citizen Kane. Blethyn plays Louella Parsons, an American gossip columnist.

Her hectic schedule starts straight away and involves no sunbathing beside a pool or recuperating from a post-Oscars hangover.

Leaving Hollywood on 22 March - the day after the awards - hopefully with a golden statuette stashed in her hand luggage, she starts shooting in London a day later.

"I won't be jetlagged at all, will I?" she says with a giggle.

Brenda Blethyn interview

When we are on air
Recent forums
Programme archive
Studio tour
Today's information
Contact us
Your comments
See also:

22 Mar 99 | e-cyclopedia
17 Mar 99 | Entertainment
22 Mar 99 | Entertainment
02 Apr 99 | Entertainment
18 Mar 99 | Entertainment
16 Mar 99 | Entertainment
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Breakfast stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |