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The NS Interview: Harriet Walter, actress

“The good guys have got to shout louder. It’s always the way”

Your success, in your own words, has been a "slow burn". Do you mind?
I'm glad that happened to me. I was not emotionally mature enough to accept any kind of success when I was young. I needed to go that long route. Some people are instantly brilliant. The Kenneth Branaghs of this world are ready-formed actors at 23 - he has used his success in lots of different ways - but there are people out there for whom acting is: "Ooh, I can get on the telly and be famous." I felt it was a lifetime thing: this is what I want to do with my life.

Is there a part you've most relished playing?
There's probably a part per decade. Nina in The Seagull, when I was young; as I got older, Masha in Three Sisters; and then Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra. Those are the ones that stick out.

And is there one that haunts you?
Hedda Gabler is hard to crack. I don't even know if I want to, because she was a hard person to live with.

You've become a champion of older women and written a book on the theme. Why?
I wanted another project. It was a preoccupation - the transitions of those strange years called middle age. Who are the role models out there? Why are we invisible in the media? Why aren't we in drama? Why is there so little reflection of ourselves?

How have you been treated in middle age?
The roles that I am asked to play are different and smaller. My skills and experience have increased but I am being asked to use less of them. This isn't just my story: it's echoed by other actors and friends. I'm questioning whether it is a new phase in life or if it's predominantly a reflection of society. It is a biological fact, but what happens to each of us can be very different.

You have continually worked as you've got older. Was that hard to achieve?
I haven't had children and I've only just got married. Work has been the central column for most of my life; it has always been my identity. So I can't tell what it is like for that not to be the case. In almost every line of work, it gets harder just at the point when you think, "God, I actually know something about my profession."

Did the age discrimination case of Miriam O'Reilly at the BBC help your cause?
That was a historic moment. It focused on the inequality of how we respect a man who has accumulated a lot of experience, but when a woman has got to that stage, it's curtains. We'll challenge that now.

Do you feel this government supports theatre?
Maybe I'm a bit cloud-cuckoo but I'm optimistic. I have lived through several funding crises and antipathetic government policies. We don't
admit that we love the theatre as a country, as a nation, as a people. Luckily, each generation brings forth great writers, actors, directors and designers. There's so much talent coming out that has to find a place. Funding is always going to be a struggle.

Is it frustrating to have to keep making the case for the arts?
I find it exhausting, tiring and depressing to have to go through the same old arguments we were going through 30 years ago. It's important that people get their chance. It is an example of what is happening at large with young people - it is much harder to get started. I'm still optimistic that, somehow, talent will out. I've witnessed the survival of the theatre several times when it was meant to be dying.

Do you vote?
I vote, but I don't feel that I'm achieving much when I do. I write letters to people and do old-fashioned things like signing petitions.

You supported the London Philharmonic musicians who were suspended for their protest against an Israeli orchestra playing
at the Proms. Why?

Whatever you think about the politics of any one of the individuals in that group, I don't think that anybody should be allowed to stop people performing.

How is newly married life?
It's an adventure. It's more different than I thought it was going to be. We are only three or four months into it; we don't have a routine; it's never dull. And it's not conventional. It's not like when you get married, start a home and a family - we've already done that bit. We are trying to accommodate our eccentricities.

Is there a plan?
Not really. I respond in the moment. What do I feel like doing now, in relation to what I have just done? I don't shape my career as proactively as people think I do and I have to work with what I'm offered. You can't have it your way as much as people think you can. You operate with the great power of being able to say no, and that's about it.

Are we all doomed?
Of course not. The good guys have got to shout louder. It's always the way, isn't it?

Defining Moments

1950 Born in London
1988 Wins an Olivier Award for roles in Twelfth Night and Three Sisters
1999 Publishes Other People's Shoes, an autobiography about acting
2006 Plays Cleopatra to Patrick Stewart's Antony for the Royal Shakespeare Company
2011 Becomes a dame and marries for the first time. Publishes Facing It and speaks on acting and ageing at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on 9 October

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression

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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