Anne Reid: “I regret going to Rada”

Anne Reid opens up about her lack of self-belief, the deaths of her husband and mother – and her 'wonderful relationship' with Victoria Wood

At 16 I was just starting Rada. I didn’t take A-levels. I was a very average pupil. My parents lived abroad and I lived with an aunt in Golders Green. I’d travelled quite a lot but I didn’t know much about the world. I don’t think I really believed in myself, maybe because I didn’t go to university. I wish now very, very much I’d believed in myself more. But I think I was a nice girl. I was the girl with three older brothers so I was well loved. And I had parents telling me I was wonderful all the time. But I think, looking back, I could have achieved more if I’d had more belief in my ability, been more motivated. I didn’t know how to play life, seize the day. I know how to do that now.

I went to boarding school from the age of 12. My father was a foreign correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in the Middle East. And my mother naturally wanted to be with him. My brothers were much older than me and had left home by then. I think it was a terrible wrench for my mother. I used to fly out to see my parents in school holidays and I did have a very good time when I was with them, going to nightclubs. But when I talk to people like Derek Jacobi about our ambitions growing up… He went to the theatre loads of times when he was young, and I hardly went at all. It was my elocution teacher who suggested I think about acting, and she entered me for Rada. I don’t believe I’d have had the confidence to think of that. It would never have occurred to me that acting could be a career for me.

This new play I’m touring with James Bolam – it’s the first time I’ve ever had my name over the title!

I regret going to Rada. I never played the leading parts. They told me I wasn’t the leading-lady type. I don’t think they served me very well. They’re supposed to train you for when you come out. I spent my time playing grannies and aunties and Roman soldiers, people like that. When I left I didn’t feel equipped to become a juvenile lead. So I became a stage manager, then a waitress. Which was mad because I was quite a good actress. I now know that my instincts are very sound. And you need that to become an actress. But I haven’t played the leads. I was in Coronation Street for a while (from 1961–1971), and that gave me confidence and good money in the bank. But this new play, Fracked!, I’m touring with James Bolam – it’s actually the first time I’ve ever had my name over the title!

When they told me at Rada I wasn’t leading-lady material, I took that to mean I wasn’t attractive enough. I tried to get into Central but they wouldn’t have me. I was always put down, always told I wasn’t the kind who would make an actress. I didn’t feel attractive at all, which is a shame, because when I see pictures of myself I was really quite pretty, if a bit overweight. But I felt that for a long time. I look back now at things I did with Victoria Wood and I remember I felt fat then, but now I think I looked quite good.

Anne Reid in Dinner Ladies with Victoria Wood

If I could go back, I’d tell my younger self that music, more than acting, is actually my greatest passion. I wish I’d gone to Guildhall instead of Rada. I wish I’d gone on with my singing training and my dancing. I loved to dance. I couldn’t get myself motivated and that is my biggest regret. I could have been a dancer in a musical or something. Or I could have worked at my piano and tried to get into the Royal College of Music. I was quite a good pianist but one day I was asked to play in front of the school and I lost my way in the music. I cried on the stage and my teacher had to come out of the audience and help me get through it. The humiliation, all those giggling school girls. I’ll never forget it. It was just horrible. And I thought, I will never play the piano in front of other people ever, ever again. It’s still in me, that fear of playing music for people. But I am very musical, I know I am.

Looking back at it now, it was a horrendous time

The 1970s were very difficult. My husband was very ill. When someone is ill like that, you just take it one day at a time. Looking back at it now, it was a horrendous time. I had a little boy to look after as well. And my mother had Parkinson’s. I was stretched very thin as a person. My mother was very upset to watch me. She thought my life was slipping away. My  husband died in 1981 and I thought, what do I do now? Then I began working with Victoria Wood, and doing other TV and theatre. My career really started when I was 50. I did believe that if I just kept going, and was happy to take lots of smaller parts, everything would be alright. And it has been. The best time of my life has been in the last 10 years, doing my cabaret, my music, and telling funny stories.

I remember my husband, who was head of drama at Granada, coming home from work one day and saying, “I’ve found this wonderful funny girl in Sheffield.” It was Victoria Wood, and he put her on television. I was just a mother with a baby at that time. When Pete died, Victoria asked me to do a sketch with her, out of kindness I think. I didn’t want to do it and turned it down. I regretted that afterwards but then a year later she asked me to do a sketch on her show As seen on TV. And we began this wonderful relationship. I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately – she would have been 64 on May 19. It makes me feel very sad.

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I’m really sad that neither of my parents saw where I ended up. They were always very encouraging. They weren’t especially interested in plays but my father would have loved the cabaret and the comedy. I think about my parents literally every day. There are so many things I didn’t say. I said I loved them all the time but I do wish… My mother died in 1980, just before my husband died, so I’ve always felt she was short-changed. I was so caught up with my husband and my little boy. I wish I’d had the time for my mother that I really, really would have wanted.

If I could go back to any time in my life, it would be when I was 17, back at the Saint-George Club in Beirut with my mum and dad. I would spend the day swimming, then have dinner in the courtyard. Then at night we would dance on the roof. Oh, it was magical. If I could have one wish, it would be to have my parents here today. Just as they were then.

Anne Reid will be at the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival, Melrose, on June 15