Polack, Joel Samuel, 1807-1882 :Kororareka, Bay of Islands, New ZealandOld London Bridge c1710


Barbara Ewing

Being an Actress



The first dramatic role I ever played was the Virgin Mary at my local Sunday school, I think I was about seven.   I must have got a taste for performance because not so long afterwards I wrote and performed my first play at primary school.  As I remember it was called BARTHOLOMEW.  Bartholomew was a naughty little boy – I played that part – who stole a cigarette from his parents and smoked it, on-stage, amidst great giggling from the audience of my classmates.

I have written elsewhere on this site about getting a New Zealand Government Scholarship to study acting in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and how I hated it, but how winning the Bancroft Gold Medal meant I was offered lots of work.  But it was only when I saw Paul Scofield playing King Lear that I truly understood what acting could be: how it could move and change people. After that I cared much, much more about working to be as good an actress as I could.    Later I worked with Paul Scofield in the film of Michael Morpurgo’s Why the Whales Came.  We walked along the beach on the Scilly Isles where we were filming and I was able to tell him how he had inadvertently changed my life.  But it took me a much longer time to understand, though I am sure all young actors do today, how much one must be pro-active in getting work, create your own work.  Sitting round and waiting for your agent to phone went out the window many years ago. 

'Dracula Has Risen From The Grave'Although I have done very much stage work, (Chehov and Ibsen and Tennessee Williams were my favourite playwrights when I was young), and have been in a lot of television (in particular for Granada Television), I have this nightmare of being remembered most for my performance as Zena the barmaid in one of the films I have been in,  Dracula Has Risen From the Grave about which people still write letters to me today, forty years later.  I was somewhat snooty about it at the time, and I remember distinctly that the big Hammer Horror bosses were snooty also: I was rather thin and wispy, not big and brassy which is what they wanted. But the director Freddie Francis, and the producer Aida Young just laughed: they taught me how to stuff a bra with cotton wool and found a big red wig and Zena the barmaid appeared – I do not know to this day  whether the bosses thought I had been replaced, or realised it was still me.

The cast from 'Sam'Then Granada Television ‘discovered’ me. I was in the H.E. Bates Country Matters series; that play The Little Farm was nominated for an Emmy award in America. I then went into Sam, a serial about a northern mining village; then into Hard Times by Charles Dickens.  Six weeks in the Lake District working with Ken Russell on his two television films about Coleridge and Wordsworth taught me to enjoy walking immensely: I was made-up every day but not used often, and if I was dismissedWith Timothy West in 'Brass' I would stride all around the lake in the sunshine with funny hair.   All the gritty Northern dramas led to John Stevenson and Julian Roach writing a send-up of such programmes: this was Brass.  I didn’t realise how that old stuffed bra trick would come in so handy: once I’d mooted the idea the writers couldn’t wait to write weekly jokes about ‘the bosom of the family.’  Recently Brass was celebrated on ITV in Comedy Classics, and so we decided to have a Brass reunion: in an Italian restaurant all the actors confessed that it had been their favourite job of all time. 



As Viola in 'Twelfth Night' at the Belgrade Theatre, CoventryBut I kept going back to the stage. I have played Jean Brodie, and Viola in  Twelfth Night, and Lady Macbeth,  and Solveig in Peer Gynt, and Blanche duBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Mother Courage (twice.) I have attended acting classes and yoga classes and speech classes off and on all my life. I’ve worked with wonderful actors and terrible actors and boring actors and drunk actors.  I have been in plays by, among many others, Alan Ayckbourn and John Osborne and Jean Anouilh and Noel Coward and David Williamson and Dostoyevsky and Sam Shephard and Richard Brinsley Sheridan and George Bernard Shaw.  


As Alexandra KollontaiI wrote a one-woman play Alexandra Kollontai about the extraordinary first woman in Lenin’s cabinet, and toured it to Edinburgh Festival, and the Sydney Festival, and the Soviet Union just before the fall of Gorbachev.  In Kiev, where I acted alongside an amplified, simultaneous, male translator, a woman stood up and shouted at me in heavily accented English: “Why didn’t you do a play about Queen Victoria?  We are not interested in the WHORE of the Revolution!”



And just occasionally I have felt it: that magical energy between actors, or between actors and audience, a kind of electricity that sets the stage on fire.  It is thrilling when it happens, and worth everything. But as most actresses of my age have found: older male actors go on, are in their prime, but older actresses are simply old, and fall by the wayside.  I still act, and hope to keep on acting, but I know how lucky I am to have two professions, and as I do many readings from my novels I suppose you could say they sometimes merge into each other. 

However: it’s taking a long time to get my own novels turned into television or film. By the time it happens I will probably have to play the very old ladies. 

Luckily, in my last three novels, there are several magnificent old ladies…. 













Being an Actress


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