Lesley Manville: From Emmerdale to the Oscars

It is hard to think of a British actor busier with promising projects than Manville

Lesley Manville raises a hand and launches into a ferocious hacking cough.

“It’s my first day of testing negative,” she says. “I feel fine. I’ve not had bad Covid at all.”

The British film industry wouldn’t want to lose her. Most profiles begin by noting her long association with Mike Leigh. She spent years at the Royal Court Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Yet one could reasonably argue that it was not until the last decade or so that she became a proper “name” — someone acknowledged outside the cognoscenti. Her role in the celebrated TV comedy Mum helped. An Oscar nomination for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread really helped. It is hard to think of a British actor busier with promising upcoming projects. Her warmth and emotional openness are now fairly celebrated.

You get a fair bit of both in the indecently charming Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. Anthony Fabian’s sentimental film sends Ada, a widowed 1950s London cleaning lady, to Paris where her rough-hewn honesty shakes sense into snooty French fashionistas at the House of Dior. We are a little more sensitive about social distinctions now. Right? We wouldn’t lean into that notion of the working class being charmingly unpretentious.


“Probably not. No, probably not,” Manville says. “Would anybody do that now? I don’t think so. We still do have a class system, as you’re very aware. It can be brutal. It can be unfair. But you really got the short straw in the 1950s. But they let me into the House of Dior. And I’m a working-class girl.”

Is that how she would regard herself? Manville was born in Brighton and raised in adjacent Hove on the English south coast. Her performing career began as a prize-winning juvenile soprano. At 15, she secured a place at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. That institution has an honourable history of educating performers from all backgrounds.

“We lived in a council house,” she recalls. “My dad was a bookmaker and a taxi driver and a plumber. My mother was a housewife. She brought up three girls. Yeah, we were definitely working class. I left school at 15 and went to Italia Conti. The reason I could do that was because I got a 100 per cent grant. They even paid for my train fare.”

She says she didn’t want to go the “classical route”. She did panto. She used her strong singing voice in musicals. In the mid-1970s, she secured a break that, had she stuck to the road attained, could have kept her comfortable for decades.

“I did Emmerdale when I was 18 or 19,” she says of the durable soap (then Emmerdale Farm). “I met Mike when I was about 23. Emmerdale was a great learning curve for me. It was a twice-weekly soap opera [at] lunchtime. There was time to make it. We had rehearsals. We shot all the exteriors on proper single-camera film. So, I learned about film-making.”

I wonder how you become part of Mike Leigh’s unofficial repertory company. Reading an audition piece will give little indication as to whether you are suitable for his famous improvisational process.

“I was doing a new play at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London,” she says. “He was coming to the Royal Shakespeare Company to do his own play. For economic reasons he had to cast people who were already in the company. So I did a session with him. And I was dreadful. I was absolutely not a candidate. I was acting my socks off. He just wanted me to be this woman I knew personally — in a quiet and unassuming way. But I was an Italia Conti girl. I was taught to perform.”

It seems Leigh talked to another actor in the company who convinced him that, despite the jazz hands, Manville would be perfect for his process. Her first work for Leigh on screen was the TV play Grown-Ups in 1980. When he moved back to the cinema, he took Manville with him. You can see her in seven of his films. She could have happily progressed at that pace until the time came to retire to the country with a big dog. It feels, however, as if she shifted to another level — Hollywood, baby! — with her role in Phantom Thread. The Oscar nomination came with a moment of delightful serendipity. Her former husband Gary Oldman was up — and subsequently won — for Finest Hour. Their son Alfie is thus in a rare club whose parents were both nominated in the same year.

“I believe he shares it with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s children,” she says merrily. “Yeah. Well, of course, he was thrilled. And he was there with me. And it was just a lovely, lovely, lovely event, you know? It was great. It was not to be forgotten.”

What surprised her most about the evening?

“At the Baftas everyone sits down and shuts up,” she says. “It’s not at all like that at the Oscars. Every 10 minutes there’s a commercial break and everyone gets up and shouts at each other. I went off to the loo in good time. Helen Mirren was at the bar and said: ‘Oh, come on over’. I said: ‘Really? I’ve come all this way.’”

Key members of the Mike Leigh family move into unlikely (and, as events have transpired, poignant) territory later in the year. Imelda Staunton, Oscar-nominated for Leigh’s Vera Drake, takes over as the now-late Queen Elizabeth II in season five of The Crown. Manville plays the declining Princess Margaret. The queen’s younger sister remains a controversial figure.

“There was criticism about her lifestyle. They didn’t feel she was earning money,” she says. “All of that aside, anyone can read about her — and I read most of what was available — and you ultimately see a picture of a lonely woman. She was kind of devoting herself more to supporting Elizabeth and being there for her.”

There is more. Manville has two other big TV series on the boil: a new version of Dangerous Liaisons with Alice Englert, and an Apple TV+ thriller called Disclaimer, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and co-starring Cate Blanchett. There is still more. She is hoping to shoot a follow-up to Magpie Murders, the adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s detective novel she filmed in Dublin last year, as soon as the rest of the work is put away.

“Yes, we’re hoping to do the Moonflower Murders next, which is the sequel novel,” she says. “And then who knows what?”

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris opens on September 30th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist