Gwen Taylor

Stage and screen actress Gwen Taylor takes on the iconic role of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, touring the UK until late April.

Did you go to the theatre a lot as a kid?

No, not at all. I only remember one pantomime, and I remember specifically because it was in the Derby Hippodrome. Now they're destroying that theatre and I've been part of a campaign to keep it going, because of that memory of my one pantomime when I was little.

When did you decide you wanted to be a professional actor?

I decided it quite late on in life, really. I was a bank clerk for eight years in Derby, and I was doing amateur dramatics and thoroughly enjoying it.

Then somebody suggested I should take it up professionally, which was incredible. It was the kind of change I needed, so I applied to drama schools when I was nearly 28 and I got in at East 15 Acting School. And the rest is history, I suppose. That was in 1965!

You went to drama school quite late - did it change anything in your career?

It did, because you have to be realistic! You're never going to play Ophelia and Juliet in any major production; nowadays, all those characters are played by children! You have to be realistic and realise that a couple of things have passed you by, and that's OK.

I've had the most wonderful career. It's not international, but it's been wonderful and it's kept me going. I haven't had to get another job while I've been doing it, so it's kept me alive, and that's fantastic.

What was your first professional job and what did you learn from it?

I played a character called Beatrice in Servant of Two Masters, which is One Man, Two Guvnors, and it's Commedia Dell'Arte. It was in Canterbury, I loved it because I had this wonderful costume. It was boots and a short skirt, oh it was gorgeous! I think I learnt how costumes can give you a lift.

It's not always important, but it was to me back then as it was my first time on a proper professional stage earning my living in a rep company. I felt endless, I felt wonderful, I felt invincible. I had a sword as well!

You career spans different types of media - what do you prefer doing?

It all depends on the part and the circumstances you're working with. I would say the stage is my true love because that's where I began. When I started there weren't as many openings in television as there are now for young people, and I wasn't actually a young person. I like the audience reaction, I like the feeling of being in a theatre and working with a company.

But, my goodness, it's lovely to do a decent telly and get a bit more money and not work such punishing hours. So, it's a difficult one, it all depends on the quality of the writing and the character. But you can't have much better than Lady Bracknell really, can you? Terrific part.

What aspect of playing Lady Bracknell is most challenging?

First of all, Mr Wilde's words - he's almost as specific as Shakespeare. The rhythm and the beauty of his dialogue is incredible and you have to get it right. I found that a challenge. She's an iconic character and she's been played by almost everybody, so you've got to try to make the role your own, but at the same time realise that those ladies weren't wrong and some of the things they did were right for the character. It's a question of making what you've got, the character.

What I've got is different from, say, Edith Evans and Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, so I had to give my particular qualities to the characters as much as I could. It's a strange part, you know, because you come on in the first act and you kind of have your tantrum and everything, then walk off and you sit around for a whole second act in your corset, your wig, your hat - it's too difficult to take it all off and put it all on again.

It's not the most comfortable evening I've ever spent, I must say. I have discovered a way of sitting in a comfortable chair and have a few moments by myself with my hat and wig on. But it's not the most comfortable time, you can't wait to get back on stage.

I have given her a little bit more sense of humour, I've made her slightly less than a gorgon although she has to be. I don't know whether Oscar Wilde purists would probably say. I don't care, I've enjoyed doing that.

What's this production like?

It's pretty classical and true to its style - many people do it in two acts but we decided that three fit better. We have a nice young cast, who are stunning, and I think it works because people bring their own qualities to the part. The audience love it, they still do after all these years. They enjoy the comedy - it's terrific! To look down on the front row and to see people actually cheering is really nice. It's lovely to be in something like that.

Do you have a favourite part in the play?

There's a moment when Jack Worthing says "I am engaged to be married to Gwendolyn" and I say "You are nothing of the kind, sir", and I fix him with my eyes and he crumbles and sit down in a chair. I quite like being powerful and strong.

Do you have any advice for young actors?

This is so difficult. Unless you know what potential they might have, it's very difficult. All I can really say is, hang in there! Because what you need is to stay in par, that's the most important thing. You need the talent, but you need to stay in par. You need to be at an audition and hear someone say "Oh no, no, she's not right at all" and say "Well, I'll be right for something else". You can't get into a little ball and say "Nobody wants me".

You've got to believe in yourself. And also, you've got to work hard because there's so much competition in this business. You don't go into it thinking "Oh this is going to be a doddle", you need to work hard and not stop.

I am now 78, and I still believe that I have to work hard - before I start on a job, and when I am on a job. It's not easy. It may look easy, and if you can make it look easy it's brilliant, but it's hard work.

The Importance of Being Earnest is on tour until 28 April.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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