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The NS Interview: Anna Friel, actor

“When I got pregnant, I thought: I’ll never be lonely again”

You were born in Rochdale. Do you still feel connected to the north of England?
I'm 35 and left the north when I was 18, but I go back as often as I can. Even though accents don't define who someone is, it's weird for me to hear very different sounds coming out of [my daughter] Gracie's mouth. We live down south but my roots are still very much there. For my last two jobs, I've been using my northern accent for the first time since Brookside.

How has Rochdale changed since you left?
The saddest thing is that the local butcher's isn't there; the local fishmonger's is gone; so is the little newsagent. The school that I went to has closed. The accents are as thick as ever and the people are still as warm. It was a beautiful town to grow up in and home to [the actress] Gracie Fields. My daughter was named after her.

You started acting at 13. Do you feel that you missed out on anything in your childhood?
All the friends I went to school with say that the best time of their lives was at university. I did a year of my A-levels and then I went to do Brookside. It was absolutely guaranteed that I would go back to finish them . . . but it never quite happened.

What subject would you have studied?
I loved history and English. I didn't do drama at school, so I have the excitement of discovering plays, rather than having studied them.

Do you have a favourite writer?
Because he's my namesake, Brian Friel. I've recently been reading Dancing at Lughnasa and a lot of Shakespeare plays. I would love to play Juliet before I get too old.

Are you worried about the parts that are available to older actresses?
It's a worry for any actress, no matter what position you're in - whether you're an A-lister earning £20m per picture or you're treading the boards in Wolverhampton. It's all about longevity. That's why I try to mix up the roles as much as I can. In the big blockbusters, all the lead characters are getting younger and younger. I grew up watching Back to the Future - Michael J Fox was 24 and he played 18. Now, it's 16-year-olds playing 18.

What do you look for in a script?
You have to like the story and want to be part of telling that story. Also, things are dictated at the moment by Gracie being at school.

Have the roles you've taken changed since you became a mother?
When I got pregnant, I had a weird sense that I'll never be lonely ever again. I felt really, really strong, like nothing would ever affect me as long as that thing inside me was OK. It changes your outlook on life and makes you a little braver.

Is your family life affected by fame?
We wouldn't let [Gracie] watch the Harry Potter films, because we thought that they were too scary - but she's now starting to get a sense of all of that and she says: "Yeah, my dad [David Thewlis] is in Harry Potter." And she comes out with funny lines about the paparazzi and stuff. She says things like, "The paparazzi come and they photograph me all the time, because my mummy is Anna Friel and because I was in Bathory," which is a film she was in when she was a little baby.

You're starring in Neverland, a prequel to Peter Pan. Why are we so obsessed with the idea of not growing up?
Everyone is trying to look as young as they possibly can, because they're living to a much older age yet the body is still ageing.

Did you base your character, a female pirate, on anyone in particular?
No, but there was one pirate I came across, called Gráinne Ní Mháille. Elizabeth I allowed her to sail down the Thames on her ship, because she found this woman who controlled the Irish Sea fascinating. I think her sons were kept in the Tower [of London]. She insisted that Elizabeth board, and they spent three hours chatting. She left with a pardon.

Do you vote?
I haven't always. I was encouraged to vote Green as a kid - Margaret Thatcher was not popular in our household. Whenever people would say, "How do you vote?" and I'd say Green, they'd see that as a cop-out - but I don't. What's the point of political parties if there's no planet left?

Was there a plan?
Definitely not. I wanted to get better and, to do that, you work with directors who you think will be teachers.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
Until we have a time machine so we can go back and redo things, what's the point? I think that meditation is the way forward: allowing your mind to be still.

Are we all doomed?
I'm an optimist, but there are times when I'll choose not to put the news on. I wish there was a programme called The Good News.

Defining Moments

1976 Born in Rochdale
1994 Films the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss in UK history as Beth in Brookside
1999 Stars in Closer on Broadway
2001 Begins relationship with David Thewlis, who goes on to play Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films
2005 Her daughter, Gracie, is born
2008 Nominated for Golden Globe for the television series Pushing Daisies
2011 Films Neverland for Sky Movies

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State