Anna Chancellor: “I loved my mother, but she was very cold”

Anna Chancellor

The Hour's Anna Chancellor, 47, on her Covent school days, the 'stifling' family home, and her unconventional life as a single mother

At 16 I was just leaving school, my convent in the Dorset countryside. Looking back, it was like a whole other era, living with this old-fashioned order of Catholic nuns. I still remember hearing them in the corridor, skirts swishing, keys jangling. I was bright but I couldn’t organise my brain and I failed every exam. I had quite a lot of fun though. I was a bit wilder than most of the other girls.

We were a modern, divorced step-family. At times we were happy and at times it was very difficult. Seven kids thrown together – we brought each other up in some ways. I grew up in this big country house and in a way it was privileged but I found it stifling. The women didn’t really work. And I longed for a close relationship with my mother. I actually really loved her but she was very cold and upper-class and removed.

We lived near this bohemian artists’ commune. I remember my mum and I going to visit one of the women. She opened the cottage door and it was all cosy and warm and this little kid was wrapped up asleep in the afternoon, rather than at bedtime. And I remember wishing that was my life. I think now I must have made some deep choice then that I would fight for this kind of life, this kind of cosy mother/daughter relationship, with my own child one day. I think that’s why I had a child so young, when I was just 22, without a husband.

I never wanted a conventional life. My daughter and I didn’t have stability but we never had that stifling life of rules and routines. I took her everywhere I went, so we’d both go out late together. We were incredibly close. At the same time, it was incredibly hard. I’d been brought up in a sort of privileged way and I found myself with a child and without those privileges. Ultimately I’m grateful for that experience – it’s given me a greater depth of understanding – but at the time I was all over the place.

My first real proper acting job was probably Four Weddings and a Funeral [as Duckface]. Someone told me they were making a film about lots of fucking in the back of horseboxes and I’d be perfect for it. They clearly turned out to be wrong – about the film – but I got the job. I couldn’t believe I was there, with Rowan Atkinson, Andie MacDowell. And Hugh Grant – I adore him. So funny. So witty and naughty. I’ve always liked people like that.

I had a great time working with Peter Capaldi on The Hour. I felt such an affinity with Peter. We’d sit on the stairs in our old-fashioned costumes – we both looked extremely old-fashioned, from another world, and somehow I think we felt that. The scene where I told him our long-lost daughter was dead – we stood there looking at each other and we said, this is just so sad. Brilliant writing. Abi Morgan is genuinely interested in middle-aged women, as I am. Often you do a part and think, well this is interesting but not as interesting as my life. Not with this.

The one thing I’m not crazy about in myself is always being in a hurry. I long to be able to slow down and observe details. My mum lived on Exmoor and we used to go for long walks and talk and swim in the river, freezing our nuts. The strange thing is, the last time I swam with her, just a few years ago, I remember driving back to London afterwards feeling unbearably sad and I didn’t know why. I just had a feeling it was the last time for something. Not long after, my mum got cancer and died quite quickly. I realised that was the last time we’d ever swim together.

In 1981, the year Anna Chancellor turns 16… Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer get married... Bob Marley dies of cancer aged 36... Liverpool FC win the European Cup for the third time, beating Real Madrid... Bobby Sands dies on hunger strike in HM Prison Maze...

Pramface, starring Anna Chancellor, is on BBC Three, Tuesdays at 10pm

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