Susan Penhaligon first hit the headlines for her controversial role in the 1976 drama Bouquet Of Barbed Wire. Dubbed the “British Bardot”, she appeared in No Sex Please, We’re British, Under Milk Wood, and more recently, Emmerdale.
She appears as Queen Charlotte alongside Simon Ward in The Madness Of George III at Eastbourne Devonshire Park Theatre from today until next Saturday. Call 01323 412000 or visit www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.
Is there a performer who made you think “I want to do that”? For me it was not just one performer, it was all those stars from the golden age of musicals, such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly. I loved every musical I watched as a child.
A wonderful experience for me was watching the musical Gigi and years later starring alongside one of its leading men Louis Jourdan in an adaption of Count Dracula for the BBC.
Do you remember the first record you bought – what was it, and where did you buy it?
Gosh, that takes me back. It was Living Doll by the ultimate bachelor boy – the wonderful Cliff Richard. I remember I went down to my local Woolworths in St Ives in Cornwall and queued up to buy it when it came out. I taught my brother to jive to that song.
Tell us about any guilty pleasures lurking in your CD or film collections …
I just can’t help myself watching The Matrix, the first one. I love the concept and the CGI effects and the mindless violence!
Do you have a favourite film?
I love films so much that I only have a favourite film of the moment. Currently that is the stunning A Single Man by Tom Ford. Colin Firth’s performance as Professor George Falconer was absolutely wonderful – he so deserved to win a BAFTA for his stunning performance.
Is there a TV programme couldn’t you live without?
I love Question Time – it is great to have a good shout at the TV. I love political debate, too. I also watch The Parliament Channel.
Do you have a favourite album?
Currently my favourite album is Mika’s The Boy Who Knew Too Much. I first saw him on Jools Holland’s show and was knocked out by his performance. I think he is an original in an age of manufactured music.
Is there a song or individual piece of music you always come back to?
For me It’s a song called Refugees by the progressive rock band Van Der Graaf Generator [Penhaligon is namechecked in the song].
It was written by the founding member of the band, Peter Hammil. The song is very special to me as it was about our friendship when we use to share a flat together in 1968.
What are you reading at the moment?
During my spare time from rehearsals I am actually reading a book about the madness Of King George III. It’s such a fascinating story and great research for me on the period. I really can’t wait to start performances at Devonshire Park.
Do you have a favourite book?
I guess if I had to make a decision it would be the book of poems for children When We Were Very Young by AA Milne. My favourite poem starts, “Wherever I am there’s always Pooh, there’s always Pooh and me ... “. I used to know it off by heart.
Is there a live music or theatre experience that stays in your memory?
Over the years I have loved going to theatre and concerts but the most outstanding production I have seen recently is Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, with an amazing central performance from Mark Rylance.
I would recommend everyone sees it.
The Madness Of George III is much admired and is on school and university curriculums all over the place – do you think a big part of its appeal is that everyone can relate to the family politics at its centre?
I think everyone has family politics and this story is no different. I think audiences might be surprised at how different an experience the play is from the film and how many laughs there are in it – after all it is written by one of the greatest playwrights the country has seen, the brilliant Alan Bennett.
You rather admirably warned of the dangers of Botox after a bad experience of your own [Penhaligon said an allergic reaction left her looking like she was “from the Planet Of The Apes”] and said you’d decided to embrace the ageing process. Is acting a tougher business for women?
Many people talk about the lack of parts for older women and there is certainly a pressure on women to stay looking younger, particularly now we have high definition TV. There are approximately 30 well-known actresses in the country who are chasing about five good leading parts on television and perhaps one odd leading role in a film.
I talked about my Botox experience because I happen to be in the unlucky one per cent who had an allergic reaction and I thought people should know it’s not for everyone. Actually what it showed me was that I’m quite happy with who I am and the ageing process. There are still good parts in the theatre like Queen Charlotte, even if there are few parts on TV.
Do you have any plans for another novel [Penhaligon’s first, For The Love Of An Angel, was published in 2008]?
Yes, I have started another but the second novel is always the most difficult to write, as all writers would know. It was such a great experience writing my first novel. I can’t tell you what this one is going to be about yet.