There was always a touch of the regal in the comedy character most closely associated with actress Susie Blake, which should help with her latest role.
Fans of Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, will remember Susie as the archetypal BBC announcer from the 1950s and 60s. Bright-eyed and beautifully spoken, she would pepper her on-screen comments with insults aimed at the working classes or people from ‘the North’, or anybody else who offended against her extensive set of prejudices.
Now Susie is set to play the Queen in Handbagged, Moira Buffini’s Olivier award-winning hilarious but acutely observed comedy about two women who thoroughly deserve that overused description ‘iconic’: Her Majesty and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The two women, born only six months apart, shared a sometimes uneasy relationship, exemplified by the weekly audience which all British monarchs and their Premiers are compelled to observe.
There has been no shortage of actresses stepping up to the plate to give their version of the Queen, most recently Dame Kristin Scott Thomas in London’s West End. Anyone agreeing to take on the challenge of playing Queen Elizabeth has to reckon with the impact of her fellow thespians as well as the monarch herself, whose voice and image is so much part of the national consciousness.
By chance, Susie had seen the West End transfer of Handbagged, while supporting her friend and colleague Jeff Rawle, a member of the original cast.
“I absolutely loved it,” she tells us. “I laughed so much. I’m not a political animal and through the play, I learned such a lot about the times I’d lived through. My career, as far as television is concerned, has been very comedy orientated. So I was worried that they might think that the play was too academic for me. But Handbagged is a comedy, for heaven’s sake, although it does have some serious things to say.”
Handbagged is a comedy, although it does have some serious things to say
Arguably the Queen must be one of the most filmed and photographed women in the world and as a result there is no shortage of footage of our longest reigning monarch. Did this help when crafting her portrayal of Her Majesty?
“We looked at a lot of Christmas messages but these were very familiar representations of her,” Susie says. “They were also a bit solemn – if that’s the right word. Perhaps dignified would be better. I’d also been looking at film of the Queen dancing or playing with her dogs and I was interested in these moments of the Queen having fun.”
Susie has also undergone vocal coaching in order to give an accurate rendition of those very familiar tones. “We discovered that a slightly nasal voice is quite a good amplifier.”
Susie was also intrigued by what happens at the weekly audience with the PM. “Of course, nobody knows what happened on those occasions: not even a footman is allowed into the room where they meet. I think that in the early days of the Thatcher premiership, the Queen may have hoped that Mrs Thatcher might become a confidante and that they would share informal conversations. But in practice Margaret Thatcher had no small talk. She had a single-track mind which left no scope for any chit-chat. The Queen is very good at using small talk in order to put people at their ease.”
It’s tempting to wonder if the Queen has ever slipped into a West End theatre, incognito, to see herself represented on stage. Susie has her doubts. “I don’t think she’d be especially interested in going to the theatre to see plays about herself and I’m sure that one of her staff would report back if there was anything untoward. She much prefers time spent at Balmoral and with her horses and dogs. She knows herself and she is not worried about how she is perceived which is why she was mystified by the whole Diana business.”
Any discussion about the Royal Family can provoke mixed reactions. Susie finds herself occupying the middle ground between royalist and republican. “I think that the family should be smaller because all those stately homes must be expensive. I could live with a smaller family with no more than two palaces and the rest of them could go pedalling their bikes in the way the Dutch and the Scandinavian royals do. At the same time, the country would be a sadder place without the odd carriage and I’d rather the army was protecting the Queen rather than waging war somewhere. She’s apparently more popular than Queen Victoria, she doesn’t put peoples’ backs up and she’s comfortable as the mother of the nation… and the Royal Family make good theatre, after all.”
Susie’s long list of acting credits speaks for itself. She was in the first scene of One Foot in the Grave, giving Victor the bad news about his redundancy, and played Bev Unwin in Coronation Street until 2006.
The recent death of actress Anne Kirkbride brought Susie back in touch with her Corrie colleagues. “It was lovely to see all the cast again but I feel that my time in Coronation Street has come to a close and I’ve sold my flat in Manchester. We filmed Deirdre’s funeral over three beautiful, brilliantly sunny days at Arley Hall and I think that made things bearable. Bill (Roache) found it very difficult. He said that he’d already gone through Anne’s funeral and he was now acting out what he’d already experienced for real. No acting was required to shoot these scenes.”
A seasoned traveller on tour, Susie is looking forward to taking the show to audiences all across the nation. “I like to have a look at the parks and gardens in the towns we’ll be playing and to visit any places of historical interest. In the West End, half the audiences are tourists of course which is one reason why audiences outside London are always much quicker to get the joke.”
Handbagged, Cambridge Arts Theatre, 12-17 October, 7.45pm. Tickets from £15