Michele and the Ladykillers
As Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em actress Michele Dotrice stars in The Ladykillers at Norwich Theatre Royal, she tells Rachel Banham why she looks back on the 1970s TV series so fondly, and how she nearly moved to Norfolk.
It’s more than 30 years since Michele Dotrice played Betty, the long-suffering wife of hapless Frank Spencer in BBC TV’s Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, yet it remains arguably the role for which she is best known.
Michele remains friends with Michael Crawford, who played Frank Spencer, and she says he is excited that she is playing Mrs Wilberforce in the nationwide tour of The Ladykillers.
“Michael has sort of come back into my life recently and has been very courteous and kind,” she says. “He phones me most weeks to find out how this show’s going, how I’m doing and everything.
“He lives in New Zealand and he was very excited I was going to be doing it, and so he’ll be coming back from New Zealand in order to come and see it before I finish, which will be lovely. He was very sweet because he said ‘Now, how are you going to play her?’ So he did her for me. It was hysterical.
“He is the most perfect Mrs Wilberforce, I tell you. He’s just so funny. I was on the floor crying with laughter.”
The Ladykillers is at Norwich Theatre Royal from March 4 to 9. It tells the story of the eccentric little old lady Mrs Wilberforce, who lives alone with her parrot in a strange lopsided house in King’s Cross.
Her life is turned upside down by the arrival of Professor Marcus and his four friends, who between them make up the most unlikely group of criminals. Planning the heist of a security van, they decide to use Mrs Wilberforce as cover and involve her unwittingly in the plot. Things do not go well and the Professor’s plan starts to unravel in spectacular and hilarious fashion.
This production of The Ladykillers has been written by Graham Linehan, who wrote the Channel 4 comedy Father Ted. Michele says: “It’s a long tour – it’s 26 weeks – but I’m absolutely loving it. It’s a great show and it’s a joy to play.
“It’s very true to the Ealing Comedy classic film, that wonderful film. It’s very true to that in as much as it’s the period and those characters, but Graham has given it a wonderful modern day twist…
“He has lifted the characters into a different area and it’s very funny. It’s very much an ensemble piece. Nobody doing the big star thing, we’re very much an ensemble. It’s a cracking good yarn and great fun to do.”
Michele believes that the new production will appeal to those people who remember the film – and to a modern day audience too. “You get a great cross-section in the audience which is wonderful – of young people and older people,” she says.
“When the curtain comes down at the end of the night we all go ‘yes!’ It’s just lovely to have heard that laughter – particularly in this day and age when we need that.
“There’s not a great deal of joy going on in the world and I think people want to go out and have a fun night. This is well written, well-constructed, a fantastic set… we have incredible special effects. We also had a magician who came into rehearsals and did all the effects with the actors, and then we had the best fight director in the country to do the fights.
“There’s a great deal in it. It’s a good piece of entertainment – well written and, I hope, well performed.” She says that she has always loved The Ladykillers film, and so when she was offered the role of Mrs Wilberforce she thought it would be fun to play.
“It’s a character, an area, that I’ve never played before – that age,” she says. “It’s been great fun with the padding, having the dowager hump, the low-slung bosom. I’m loving all that, and ageing up and everything.
“Mind you, by the end of this 26 weeks I probably won’t have to – my hair will be grey and I won’t be putting in the lines any more on the face! She’s a fun character to play because she is an innocent in amongst all this mayhem that’s going on in her lopsided house.”
Michele recalls how she, and her late husband, the actor Edward Woodward, nearly made their home in Norfolk. “My late husband and I, Edward, came on holiday there with our daughter to the Broads and we nearly bought a house there,” she says.
“When he finished doing The Equaliser in New York we were wondering where to live and we came and had a look at various places in Norfolk, but we actually ended up in Cornwall.
“He wanted to be by the sea and so our home is down in Cornwall. I’m right on the sea and it’s magical.”
The Ladykillers is at Norwich Theatre Royal from March 4 to 9. For tickets, call the box office on 01603 630000 or visit the website at: www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk
Michele and Some Mothers. . .
Ask Michele about Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and her affection for the series is clear. “It was an absolute joy. I look back on it with enormous pride and very fondly,” she says.
“It happened when I was in my early 20s so I was very young. It was a huge success. It was getting viewing figures of, like, 26 million. That was astounding. It’s a part of my life that is very important and what is wonderful is that it still goes out and it’s still appealing to a new generation of viewers. It’s lovely.”
She adds: “I was very, very lucky that it happened to me when it did, because up to that point I’d been doing plays for the RSC, drama series and drama plays on the BBC particularly, but suddenly one half-hour comedy which took off changed my life and made me a household name back then which was wonderful.
“Then, of course, my life changed. I married. Edward and I went to live in America. I became a mum, and my career sort of back-stepped, but certainly it’s something that will never leave me.
“Every night when I come out of theatres there’s always somebody there with pictures of Frank and Betty for me to sign, or DVD covers or whatever to sign, so it’s charming really. It’s very sweet.”