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Everything’s looking fine and dandy
Until a few years ago Patricia Hodge was best known as a “serious” actress, the go-to for a director looking to cast an upper-class ice maiden. Then Miranda happened and Hodge added a new and entirely unexpected string to her bow.
The hit comedy, written by and starring comedian Miranda Hart, started life on Radio 2 and Hodge, 65, recalls enjoying her role as Miranda’s pushy mum Penny “more than I’d enjoyed anything in a long time”.
When it transferred to television, there was no question she would go with it. “What’s lovely is the huge age range it appeals to,” she says. “People would often come up to me and mention enjoying things I’d been in over the years but now I get children coming up who, before this, wouldn’t have known me from a bar of soap.” Such fun, as Penny would say.
In true sitcom fashion, Penny is a nightmare mother, obsessed with marrying Miranda off and prone to embarrassing her daughter in any situation. “She’s the extreme of well-meaning,” says Hodge. “But she’s also a completely ignorant parent who tries to impose their own values on to their children.”
While Hart has affectionately dubbed Hodge “Mum Two”, the actress is quick to point out how far removed the character is from Hart’s real-life mother, Dee Hart-Dyke. “Dee’s a much more modest, charming, sensitive individual. But people do assume my character is based on her, poor woman.”
Hodge was an unlikely candidate for comedy glory. She is most frequently associated with weighty theatre for acclaimed directors including Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn, and roles in TV dramas such as The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil, Jemima Shore Investigates and Rumpole Of The Bailey. But she’s thrived on the challenge of a live studio audience (a format that had fallen out of fashion until Miranda) and developed something of a taste for comedy. “We’d all rather make people laugh than cry.” She returns to the stage in another – Theatre Royal Brighton’s Dandy Dick, which marks the theatre’s first foray into producing as well as receiving work. Written in Brighton in 1887, the play is directed by Christopher Luscombe for its first major revival in 40 years.
“It’s lovely to see a play that hasn’t been seen for a long time,” says Hodge. “There are too many obvious revivals around. I think this will resonate with modern audiences because these are recognisable characters in situations that will have echoes of present-day life. The human condition doesn’t really change and I think that’s a nice thing to recognise – in so many ways we move on and in other ways we don’t.”
The play hinges on the Very Reverend Augustin Jedd (played by Nicholas Le Provost), a pillar of Victorian respectability whose promise to contribute £1,000 to the church steeple renovation has left him desperately out of pocket. Hodge stars as Georgiana, his tearaway sister whose visit shakes up the deanery and leads to her respectable brother gambling everything he has on a horse. “She was out of her time in many respects,” Hodge says of her character. “She’s a very liberated woman who’s chosen to live in a man’s world among the horsy fraternity. She’s spirited and independent and a breath of fresh air.”
After opening here, the show will embark on an eight-week tour, with hopes it will transfer to the West End later in the year. It will be the first major tour Hodge has done since Calendar Girls in 2009; she tried to avoid them when her two sons were young and still misses home when she is away.
“None of us chooses to be away from home and that’s the difficult bit but if I feel something is worth doing, as here, and it’s the only way to make it as good as we can, then that’s what you do. And it’s wonderfully rewarding to take a play to a different place every week – people are appreciative in a way that London can’t be because everything is on the doorstep there.”
Hodge came late to motherhood, starting her family with music publisher Peter Owen at the age of 42. It wasn’t a statement, she says. “That was just the way it worked out.” Alexander and Edward are now flying the nest – a salutary moment. “But that’s what you’re there for, that’s what parenthood is about – to get them to the stage where they can take flight. If you can’t acknowledge that then you’ve sort of missed the point.” She is enjoying having more time to work although she warily admits it does get harder for an actress once she hits a certain age. One of the things she most enjoyed about doing Calendar Girls was “the joy” of being on stage with a group of women of her age.
“We just don’t get opportunities like that. It’s one of those things you can’t really discuss because it looks like you’re just being a grumpy old woman and that’s not really the point. There’s an entire raft of the populace that’s being ignored and when you take a show like Calendar Girls out, you see it.
“We’ve had crowds weeping and holding our hands because that was them – that was us – up there. And it’s not right. We can’t do anything about our heritage – roles tended to be written for men rather than women but if there’s any chance of correcting that in the future then I think we should try to do it.”
Originally qualified as a primary school teacher, Hodge took acting lessons when she was 22 before getting her big break in a play called Happy Yellow in 1977, when playwright John Mortimer scouted her for his new series, Rumpole Of The Bailey.
She has been acting ever since, with highlights that include appearing in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a Bafta-nominated appearance in Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac and an Olivier award for her role in Money at the National Theatre.
Does acting continue to hold the same appeal for her? “It does, as long as I feel the challenge is there. When you read a script and the adrenaline goes through you and you think, ‘Oh yes, I could do something with this!’ In the past, I would have done pretty much anything, but now, I have to see myself doing a role and it has to excite me.”
* Patricia Hodge stars in Dandy Dick, at the Theatre Royal Brighton until July 7. For tickets, call 0844 8717627