Driving Miss Daisy

The Argus: Don Warrington as Hoke Coleburn and Gwen Taylor as Daisy Werthan. Photo by Nicholas Dawkes Don Warrington as Hoke Coleburn and Gwen Taylor as Daisy Werthan. Photo by Nicholas Dawkes

Eric Idle described Gwen Taylor as “the best comedy actress I ever worked with. She could do anything.”

One thing he convinced Taylor to do, before inviting her to be Mrs Big Nose in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, was be pushed around Brighton in a pram.

She describes the BBC Two sketch show Rutland Weekend Television, written by Idle with music by Neil Innes, as “very interesting”.

“He based it on a little television company with parochial programmes,” she explains from her home in London.

“I remember we did a wonderful sequence where I was a Brighton woman suffering from flashbacks.

“It was bad continuity and I was the woman whose life changed every time she turned a corner.

“I got younger and younger wandering the streets of Brighton and ended up in a pram outside the Pavilion.”

She remembers Python fondly – and liked all the Pythons.

“I never forget all the good that came out of it. It’s good to drop the name in with younger people: you say you were in Monty and you suddenly get all this kudos.”

Not that she’s lacking notoriety at the moment. Taylor’s last role was as over-protective mother Anne Foster in Coronation Street. Her fictional son, Frank, was a rapist. She believed his lies and defended his reputation blindly before cracking to eventually be revealed as his killer.

Prior to that short stint as Foster, which ended in spring this year, she spent five years in 1960s Yorkshire as Peggy Armstrong in Heartbeat.

Armstrong was an old battleaxe, with a penchant for poaching game, but Taylor she sees a link between her character in Heartbeat and her latest role as Daisy Werthan in Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Driving Miss Daisy.

“Daisy is very sharp, prickly and well educated and doesn’t suffer fools. Aunty Peggy didn’t really either, though she was much commoner. Miss Daisy was a schoolteacher who married a rich businessman.”

Uhry based the Jewish widow – who lives in Atlanta in the late 1940s and is forced to employ a chauffeur because she cannot get insurance cover after a car crash – on his grandmother and her driver.

It was well-received even before Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy helped a 1989 film version score a handful of Oscars, though Uhry does say he is still astonished the three-character play interests anyone outside Atlanta.

But every- one has a grandmother and mother – even if they might not be as aware of the civil rights movement.

“Daisy is 72 and sees her independence going and is angry about it. She doesn’t want a driver thank you very much. It’s about recognising other types of people and their value.”

Opposite Taylor in a new stage version of David Esbjornson’s production (originally produced for a run in October 2011 at London’s Wyndham Theatre starring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones) is Don Warrington, still best known as Philip Smith from Rising Damp. Warrington plays driver Hoke Colburn.

“There is a difference in the way we attack the play but we have got it,” says Taylor. “It can be difficult if people come because of what we have done before, but these characters are so strong people will love it.”

She says there is no pressure in being in a revival so soon after Redgrave and Earl Jones played it in London.

“I am very different to Vanessa. There is something about seeing two icons like that, because they become more important than the performance. There is the excitement of seeing the figures suddenly there in front of you.

“It takes over the performance.”

She says the aim is to give the play on a plate, especially after she spoke with Esbjornson by telephone for advice about the production.

“The set and music remain the same, so we are setting it to an existing structure of a performance. You usually start from nothing and talk it through but in this case the design was already there.

“We spoke to [Esbjornson] on the phone in New York and talked to him about what he sees.

“He said, ‘Look, this is not Vanessa, you must do what you need to do to make it real. Don’t be like an understudy and just take on Vanessa’s things.’”

  • Driving Miss Daisy is at Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, from Monday, November 12, to Saturday, November 17. Starts 7.45pm, tickets £10 to £35. Call 0844 8717650

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