Derbyshire's Gwen Taylor

PUBLISHED: 11:52 31 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:15 20 February 2013

Derbyshire's Gwen Taylor

Derbyshire's Gwen Taylor

Pat Ashworth speaks to Gwen Taylor who returned home this autumn in a new production of 'Driving Miss Daisy'

Actors frequently cite some great performance they saw in their youth as the inspiration that drew them into the acting profession. Not so with Derbyshires Gwen Taylor, one of the best known faces on television and in the theatre and soon to be seen here in the title role of Driving Miss Daisy.

No, it was actually the very first time she saw a TV set, in the window of the small shop adjacent to her fathers garage in Chellaston. It was a Japanese plot about a woman who killed her husband by boring a knitting needle into the top of his head. Can you believe it? she says with mock relish. Ive looked for the play ever since... I just remember being amazed and fascinated by the whole thing.

She was born in the Nightingale Maternity Home in 1939 in Derby, where her father worked for the Corporation until war broke out and he was called up. The family moved to Crich to live with grandparents and Gwen has happy memories of her childhood there. My Uncle Charlie used to be a scoutmaster and run a scout camp in the lee of Crich Stand, she remembers. We used to go camping as a family there and I loved it. And on Sundays we used to go out on our bikes with dad. One of my scariest memories is of some kind of mine, which had been boarded up with corrugated iron but if you threw a stone down it, it went on for ever. I remember having quite a few nightmares about that.

The family moved to Alvaston, where Gwen attended Parkfield Cedars School, was in lots of school plays usually as a young bloke, because we were an all-girls school and remembers having voice lessons and learning to speak like some of the other girls. It wasnt elocution but I was encouraged to speak slightly better than when I was in Crich. My brothers used to say, Listen to our Gwen! Shes got posh.

She was in the Marlowe Players later but there was never any question of drama school We werent well off and I needed to earn money for the family and after her first job as a wages clerk with the council, she took banking exams, came third in the region and spent the next eight years with the Westminster Bank. At 27, she put the bank and a failed early marriage behind her and went to train at the East 15 Acting School in London. But she doesnt look back on the bank years with any kind of impatience.

I dont regret it, because it was very interesting. All those people who came in, with a different attitude to the day, depending on whether it was wet or fine, she says. I draw a lot on my younger life and my first working life and my family for the characters I play. I dont always play nice women, though I play a lot who underneath their rough exteriors are the salt of the earth.

Her first break after drama school came with a part in Alan Platers Land of Green Ginger, about a girl from Hull deciding whether to go abroad and work or stay behind and get married to someone with no future in the fishing trade... It was a really good political but heartwarming piece, an important point in life for me. She played the 15-year-old pregnant schoolgirl, Jo, in A Taste of Honey at Sheffield Crucible Theatre. She was 32, and its been an advantage, she says, that she has always looked younger than her age.

But it was her role as working-class Amy Pearce in the Yorkshire Television series, Duty Free in 1984 that made her a household name. Her fellow stars were Keith Barron, Johanna Van Gyseghem and Neil Stacy, and the show set in the context of a Spanish package holiday attracted 16 million viewers at its height. It brought her a succession of high-profile stage and TV roles, including The Billy Plays with Kenneth Branagh, written by her husband, Graham Reid; the BAFTA-nominated A Bit of A Do, with David Jason, and Class Act with Joanna Lumley.

She starred as the opinionated Yorkshirewoman, Barbara Liversidge, in the sitcom, Barbara, which ran for eight years from 1995, and she won hearts with the comic role of the disreputable Peggy Armstrong in Heartbeat, from 2005-10. She has had guest roles in everything from Inspector Morse to Holby City, Wycliffe to Murder Most Horrid, and tours have included Calendar Girls, Picassos Women and Shirley Valentine. Eric Idle with whom she worked extensively in the 1970s, has described her as the best comedy actress I ever worked with.

Im extremely lucky in being given parts Ive loved and could get behind and throw my heart into, she says. Even Auntie Peggy it didnt matter how ugly I looked because Im not one for being titivated when Im ready to go on and do a scene. She is looking forward very much to playing Miss Daisy, the 72-year-old widow who develops an unlikely friendship with her African-American chauffeur, Hoke. Im following a line of very thin women whove played the part... originally Julie Harris, whos a very wonderful actress, then Jessica Tandy and then Vanessa Redgrave. All thin ladies... Well, theyve got a plump Miss Daisy now and theyll have to put up with it. The play has a real point to make and is nice and gentle but engaging, and we have the gorgeous Don Warrington who is going to play the driver.

Now 73 herself, she has rarely had any length of time without a job, and reflects, Its because Im prepared to play the less glamorous people if the writings good. I dont see it as saving my appearance or my career, I see it as an interesting and rewarding thing to do, and Ive never been a great beauty, so Im not trapped into that as I get older, trying to stay young. My god, were so lucky in our profession, with actresses like Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins and Diana Rigg at the top a wonderful selection of fantastic women, a really stalwart bunch able to pull in the audiences.

Local audiences have had the privilege of seeing Gwen recently in Michael Morpurgos enchanting The Butterfly Lion, a small-scale touring production from New Perspectives. Driving Miss Daisy comes to Derby from 19th to 24th November on its national tour and I ask Gwen whether it still feels like home when she comes to the city. Yes, because people are so kind and lovely, she says. When I present the Eagle Awards [for amateur drama productions, and including the Gwen Taylor Award], I always burst into tears, you must know that. I walk on to the stage and they go Wow and I have this terrible thing about my mother, who would have been enormously proud. I always imagine her sitting there.

Its lovely, she says, to see people whom Ive known for years but havent really known for years: people I was at school with or in the bank with and who come up and remind me. And I still have some good old friends in Derby who I see when Im there, and my family my brother Dereks garage in Chellaston is the same one our dad had. Im still Our Gwen or Sis to them all. And they dont take any rubbish from me, so thats quite nice.

She is wary of getting too involved in duties here that she cant fulfil because she lives in London. But she has accepted the invitation to be president of the Derby Hippodrome Restoration Trust, a cause she thinks is well worth supporting. Ill ask them especially to please make sure the backstage conditions for the actors are superb. Future generations might thank me for that, she says.

I marvel how she does what she does and manages to keep so fit in such an arduous profession. She acknowledges, I do find I have to harness my energies to go on stage at 7.30pm and do my best, and on matinee days as well. Youve got me on a very good day everyone has aches and pains that affront them a bit as they get older but Im lucky: I have good health and a great family. My husband keeps reminding me to have a rest. Hes wonderfully supportive and drives me everywhere.

She has an honorary degree from the University of Derby and a city bus named after her. Im very proud of that. It was on my birthday, she remembers. I came to Derby driven by one of the drivers from Heartbeat, and then went over to Granada in Manchester to audition for a part in Coronation Street. I didnt get it but they must have liked what they saw because a year later, they invited me to play Anne Foster.

Now there was a part: a woman who killed her rapist son. And if anything is illustrative of the great range of parts Gwen Taylor plays, what she was also just about to embark on at the time of our interview was a little independent film in Cumbria no money and it may be in a field. Theyre talking about a double tent for me and Graham. But Ive spent a lot of time being safe with what I do, and if I dont do something outrageous now...

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