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  1. Culture
9 October 2014

Emma Thompson’s leap into the dark

Thompson is best known for playing complicated intellectual women, often in period dramas. But at the outset, sketch comedy was where she saw herself.

By Caroline Crampton

As I enter the auditorium, there’s a woman on the stage wearing denim dungarees and a hoodie, scrubbing a desk. Thinking that I’m clearly very early for Emma Thompson’s lecture on screenwriting, I take a seat and study the programme.

At the edge of my vision, I see the woman finish her cleaning and lie down on the yoga mat next to the desk. She sticks her legs in the air and groans. Slightly bemused, I watch her get back up again and sit on the arm of a chair and weep for a while, before getting a Hoover out and giving the stage floor a going-over. Finally, she sits down at her desk and starts to scribble furiously on a pad. Her hood falls back and I see her face at last – this isn’t a member of the BFI’s cleaning team. This is Emma Thompson, the only person ever to win Oscars for both writing and acting, and she has come to her lecture early to act out how she writes.

Thompson is best known for playing complicated intellectual women, often in period dramas (her Oscars came in the 1990s for Sense and Sensibility and Howards End). But as she explains, once she has changed out of her dungarees and returned to the stage, at the outset sketch comedy was where she saw herself. She began writing sketches at school and went on to be part of the Cambridge Footlights crowd that included Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

As difficult as it might be to imagine now, she wasn’t always the star of the show. “Stephen and Hugh were always so brilliant and funny,” Thompson says. “It was very difficult to get in sideways, really, because they were so wonderful and Footlights was quite male-dominated.”

Her early material was always political – “It was about everything that I cared about,” she says nostalgically – and the monologue from those days that she performs now is a tight, satirical take on Hampstead liberals and casual racism. But then her 1988 TV solo sketch show Thompson was ripped apart by critics – something she describes as “a very violent experience”. “I never wrote another monologue, I never wrote another sketch,” she says.

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The show has disappeared from view, never having been released on DVD, but the excerpts that are online don’t seem to justify the mauling it received. (The Victorian mouse sketch in particular, which skilfully draws out the tragedy and comedy of a young woman’s sexual naivety, is very funny.) You wonder if the critical reaction was born more of the blustering perpetuation of the “Women aren’t funny” cliché than of genuine critique.

Since leaving comedy behind, Thompson has found time to craft her screenplays between acting jobs, often taking years to bring a project to completion. She proudly exhibits a crate retrieved from her attic that contains the 17 drafts of Sense and Sensibility and says that the children’s film Nanny McPhee was even harder to do (it spent seven years in development). Her latest effort, a biopic of the Pre-Raphaelite muse Effie Gray that has had a similarly long gestation, finally opens in cinemas in October.

It is clear that the actor and writer in her are inextricably linked. As she answers a question about the uncertain nature of the industry with a quotation from the choreographer Agnes de Mille, her voice takes on a lilting tone that demands to be heard. “The artist never entirely knows: we guess,” she says. “We may be wrong but we take leap after leap in the dark.” 

Listen to Emma Thompson’s Bafta Screenwriters’ Lecture in full at: guru.bafta.org

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