ACTORS Derek Griffiths and Dame Sian Phillips discuss their roles in a play that has not lost significance or poignancy since its premiere in 1987.

DEREK Griffiths and Dame Sian Phillips are currently visiting the Deep South every night as they bring Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy to life.

The play is set in Atlanta, Georgia over a period of 25 years. On one level it explores the relationship between an elderly Jewish woman, Daisy Werthan, and her African-American chauffeur, Hoke Colburn. In a deeper sense, it encompasses over two decades of social change, especially civil rights progressions. Slowly, Daisy and Hoke form a true and affecting friendship, both learning from each other and bridging social obstacles.

Needless to say, there’s plenty for Griffiths and Phillips to ponder as they tackle the production. But as the show rolls into the South Coast, it’s Brighton not Georgia that’s on the actors’ minds – at least initially. Both have vivid memories of the Theatre Royal Brighton.

“That’s the theatre where I grew up as a girl,” says Phillips, who scooped awards aplenty for her performance in I, Claudius and is also known for her roles in epic films Dune and Clash of the Titans. “Every West End play I was ever in when I was young toured through Brighton.

“I’ve had so many nerves in Brighton. I’ve watered most of the cobbles with nervous tears in my youth. I was always terrified in Brighton.” Griffiths is a Royal Shakespeare Company actor and children’s television presenter, most recently seen as retired mechanic Freddie in Coronation Street. He calls Brighton “a joy”.

“I love Brighton,” he adds. “We went there when we first did a pre-West End run with The Travelling Music Show with Bruce Forsyth, who sadly left us recently.” Neither actor say they can identify much with their respective roles and indeed the initially crochety Daisy seems to share little with Phillips’ bright personality.

As for Griffiths, he laughs that the only thing he has in common with Hoke is that they both drive. “But I’ve always liked character work and playing someone who is so outside of me,” he adds. “Strapping on a character is part of the joy of business.” Another thing Phillips and Griffiths agree on is the enduring relevance of the play – a relevance which might be considered a damning indictment on how far we still have to go to achieve racial equality.

Hoke is discriminated against because of his skin colour in the play and several recent incidents serve as a reminder that such prejudice is still alive today, not least the white supremacist activity and subsequent rioting in Charlottesville.

Phillips says: “Alas, everything about it resonates today, I’m afraid, especially with what happened recently in the South of America. Nothing has changed.” Griffiths goes into more detail, bringing the US president into the discussion. “Yes, absolutely it’s still relevant, especially with Mr Trump. It’s amazing how it’s all come back to the fore and has become far more relevant.

“If you think in terms of the rioting that’s happening, the play goes right through that 1963 period where there was riotings and bombings in Alabama, as well as lynchings. It’s all there within the piece [Driving Miss Daisy] but it’s very gentle, in the background.”

The timescale in the play presented a challenge to the actors, in that the action traverses 25 years. Whether it’s something as practical of making the characters look suitably older or as complex as rendering more than two decades of change, it’s no picnic. Griffiths says playing characters of various ages – even in the same show – is all just part of an actor’s skillset.

“I know quite a few octogenarians who haven’t slowed down at all, so it’s quite difficult to gauge it really. People like that in our business go on until the end whereas I know people outside of the business who are acting like old men at 50.” For Phillips, travelling back centuries has been a learning curve in itself. She says that “everything” surprised her when carrying out research out for the role.

“For instance, I didn’t know what things cost in a certain year. The geography changes, attitudes change, clothes change. The changes in America over those years were huge, even bigger than over here. It’s very interesting and wonderful to be able to relive that – sometimes we jump six years in a page.”

Daisy is another highlight in Phillips’ long and illustrious career on the stage. It’s almost impossible to mention a well-known play that she hasn’t starred in. And yet she isn’t one to dwell on her career. While Phillips enjoys “almost everything I do”, she also forgets a job soon after she’s completed it. “I hardly ever look back,” she says.

The only regrettable part of Phillips’ acting life came when she was “sort of financially wiped out” and had to make a lot of money in a short space of time. “I did everything I was offered,” she says of this period. “But normally I’m not cursed with wanting a lot of money. Once or twice I’ve had to do something I’ve not wanted to do and I’ve hated it, but mostly I’ve chosen to do things and loved them.”

Meanwhile Griffiths plays down the notion that he left Coronation Street specifically to focus his energies on this production. “No, I didn’t leave for that reason. I’m a nomad and I signed a contract for a year. Corrie was so enjoyable and I loved doing it. I loved the cast and I loved the crew.

“You couldn’t fault that job, but I was travelling 2,000 miles a month [to film the programme] and towards the end of that year it was wearing me out. I thought, I’ve done a year and that’s it.”

When two fine actors come together like this – especially in a play that requires such emotional intimacy as Driving Miss Daisy – you might suspect that egos could clash. But Phillips and Griffiths aren’t like that. Phillips calls Griffiths “marvellous” and he returns the compliment – and then some.

“It’s a joy. It’s like opening a Christmas present every day. She’s a joy to work with and a consummate professional. You couldn’t ask for better.” The bond might not quite be as strong as Daisy and Hoke’s yet, but the two actors relishing each other’s company – which can only be to the benefit of their audience.

Driving Miss Daisy Theatre Royal Brighton, September 18 to 23, For tickets and more information visit or call 084487 17650