The character Geraldine James plays in the gripping new BritBox revenge drama The Beast Must Die is called Joy, but radiates quite the opposite.
She’s a horror – rich, haughty and sneering. She’s also rather brilliantly described in the script as a woman who ‘has procedures’.
This freaked Geraldine out somewhat. ‘I had a word with the director because I thought, “How can I play a woman who has procedures when I patently haven’t?”’
She screws up her face to prove her lack of facelift history, then laughs.
‘What they did, in the script, was have the character who talks about her procedures make a gesture towards the tummy, so you get the idea these vague procedures were liposuction.’ Genius.
Geraldine James, 70, (pictured) is playing the character Joy, the sister of the drama’s villain George Rattery, in The Beast Must Die, the first original scripted drama made by BritBox
She confesses, a little surprisingly, that she has dabbled in ‘procedures’ herself. Or a procedure – singular. It was a nightmare never to be repeated.
‘It was years ago. Everyone was doing it, and someone extremely close to me said, “Just have a little bit of help,” so I had a filler here. She touches the side of the mouth, and shudders.
‘I can’t tell you the pain. I’ve never felt pain like it. I’m actually quite glad I had it now and experienced it because never again. They just push the stuff in, and I thought, “What am I doing? This is idiotic.”
‘Now I look at all these young women who feel they have to do it and just say, “Please don’t.” Look at the people where it’s gone a bit wrong – especially actresses, because when it goes wrong they can’t work!’
How heartening to discover that an actress of Geraldine’s calibre (director Peter Hall ranked her among the greatest classical actresses produced by this country) hasn’t had to resort to a regime of nips and tucks to win roles.
Although she’s a striking and commanding presence on screen and stage, Geraldine, 70, reckons she’s lucky ‘never to have been cast because of my looks. I’m cast for my acting, which is fortunate because when you’re one of the pretty young things it can be difficult.’
While she gained much of her reputation in theatre, her stand-out TV roles have included The Jewel In The Crown and Band Of Gold. On the big screen she played Queen Mary in the Downton Abbey movie and she’s acted opposite everyone from Dustin Hoffman to Daniel Craig.
She’s tremendous in The Beast Must Die, which feels like a very modern thriller but is actually based on a 1938 novel by Cecil Day-Lewis about a man (changed in the show to a woman) who sets out to track down the hit-and-run driver who killed his son and exact revenge.
It’s the first original scripted drama made by BritBox, the streaming service that offers the best British programming from the BBC and ITV, which we’ll be exploring throughout this issue.
The actress recalls lecherous directors and auditions in bikinis that were commonplace in the 1960s and 70s, long before the #MeToo movement
Geraldine’s character Joy is the sister of the drama’s villain George Rattery, played by Jared Harris, and knowing he was on board made it a must-have role. ‘I’d watched him in Chernobyl so he was definitely someone I wanted to work with.’
It was filmed during lockdown on the Isle of Wight, which proved to be an extraordinary experience. Make-up artists worked in plastic tented-off areas, the cast were put up in different hotels and there was no wrap party.
I became invisible when I was about 45.
‘Everything had to be so strictly contained, but it was just such a blessing to be working, and I really did have fun doing it,’ she says. ‘We filmed on the beach one day and there was absolutely no one around.’
There were slight reservations. At first she wondered if her character was just too awful. It’s a thing for actresses of a certain age, she says, getting offered parts that scream evil old bag.
‘I’ve played a few of them recently, and I’m interested in why in so many stories the mother is the evil character. I’ve done a few jobs where there’s a daughter, there’s often a father who’s positive and then there’s a quite negative mother. I’m very interested in why so many of those come up. I don’t believe anybody is just an evil cow.
‘It’s also interesting to me that we sort of lose interest in women. As a woman growing older I’ve gone through that process of suddenly realising I’m invisible in the world, having not been invisible when I was young. You walk down the street and think, “Oh, hello.”’ What age was she when that started to happen? ‘About 45. Not old, but old in this business. Or it was.’
She said that growing older in the acting business she realised she ‘became invisible when she was about 45’ however, her career has never been healthier. Pictured: Geraldine as Joy (third from right) and Jared Harris as George (centre) in a scene from The Beast Must Die
Yet her career has never been healthier, which she cites as evidence things really have changed for women in the industry.
She has enjoyed huge success recently playing the glorious Marilla Cuthbert in the Netflix adaptation of Anne Of Green Gables, Anne With An E, all scraped back grey hair and no make-up. ‘Lip salve was the only thing that was allowed,’ she recalls.
Talk about exposed. Was she worried about the implications for her career of playing ‘old’?
‘Yes! It was a huge risk. I thought people would say, “Who is this hideous old bag – get her off our screens!” But the character was so amazing. Vanity has no place in this business. Well, it has, but if I limited myself to roles where I looked good I’d be out.’
She talks of having to accept which stage you’re at as an actress, whether you’re playing the ‘girlfriend, the wife, the mother or, increasingly, the grandmother’. She has two grandchildren, so is obviously qualified here, but still, not all actresses want to look like a grandmother.
‘We all have to shuffle up the rungs of the ladder but I’ve noticed a huge change in me. I was looking at myself in The Beast Must Die and I thought, “God, I look old.” And then I thought, “No, I am old”, but I am who I am and I’m proud of that.’
She has enjoyed huge success recently playing Marilla Cuthbert in the Netflix adaptation of Anne Of Green Gables, Anne With An E, all scraped back grey hair and no make-up (pictured)
She’s encouraged by the visibility of women like Judi Dench and Meryl Streep (‘who got all the parts I went up for,’ she jokes).
Now she’s cheered to be coming across so many more women in positions of influence, which makes a huge difference. She cites another of her recent jobs, Daisy Haggard’s Back To Life, as evidence of real change.
‘There was a woman director, a camera woman and sound engineer. It was a joy to see. I’ve been working with a lot of young women recently, and they’re so impressive. They’re confident and powerful, and prepared to speak up for themselves. I have very little to do with social media, but I see them use it, and it’s a strong platform and hugely influential. We were all sort of on our own in the 60s and 70s. We didn’t have any of that.’
We get onto the subject of the #MeToo movement. She’s watched developments with huge interest, being part of the generation that had to grin and bear so much.
‘When I was starting out you’d get scripts and flick through the pages to see if you had to be in the bath again, because you always had to be in the bath in the 70s.’
You did? ‘Yes. I had a conversation for my first-ever movie with the director, who said, “It’s just your head, as you get up, the camera will just follow your head.” Of course it didn’t. And I just remember seeing it and screaming.’
Did the word ‘exploitation’ get mentioned, or even thought?
‘No. It was sort of automatic. It’s what you had to do. You’d meet a director who’d say, “I’ve got your headshots. They’re very nice, but I need to see your body more. Could you take what you’re wearing off?” You could say no, but with enormous difficulty. I remember going for a commercial – I think it was washing-up liquid – and being asked to wear a bikini. This was about 1979. I think it was just for them to have a good look at you, but I mean, how idiotic.’
Geraldine cites her recent success as evidence that things really have changed for older women in the industry. (Pictured playing Queen Mary in the Downton Abbey movie)
In person, Geraldine is much less formidable than you’d expect, given her impressive CV and privileged background. She lives in Clapham, south London, with her husband, the director Joseph Blatchley, but she grew up in Berkshire.
Her dad was a brilliant heart surgeon but a demanding father, and obsessed with academic success.
‘I was looking at a photograph of the house I grew up in the other day and it was very Swallows And Amazons. We had absolutely everything, butlers, pantries, stables and the swimming pool, but it had a hollow, cold, unloving heart. There was love between my brother and sister and me though. We stuck together.’
While her father was the domineering character, her mother was an alcoholic, which has left scars. Today she’s a patron of a charity that supports the children of alcoholics. It sounds like hers was a damaged childhood, where keeping up appearances was everything.
‘We couldn’t have friends back for tea because our friends’ parents didn’t know if my mother would be hiding behind the door with an axe. She wouldn’t be, of course. She would just be drunk, but the thing is it was a secret to carry. It was never spoken about. You just put your mask on and accept it. I’m sure that’s why I’m an actor, because I got rather good at pretending to be living something I wasn’t.’
The Beast Must Die is available now on BritBox.
It’s the best thriller I’ve ever read!
Nathaniel Parker, best known as TV’s Inspector Lynley
Nathaniel Parker, best known as TV’s Inspector Lynley, first read Cecil Day Lewis’s revenge thriller The Beast Must Die 23 years ago on holiday.
‘It’s the best thriller I’ve ever read and I tried to get the rights to it from his widow Jill Balcon,’ he recalls. ‘I got together with a friend and wrote a script but she thought it wasn’t close enough to the original. We tried again but Jill still wasn’t happy.’
But his persistence paid off. When Jill died, the executors of her estate contacted him and six years ago he finally secured the rights to the book, which tells the story of a grieving father who infiltrates the life of the man he believes killed his young son in a hit-and-run.
Nathaniel had himself in mind to play the lead role of Frank Cairns. ‘But they said the main character should swap gender and now be a woman. I chuckled and thought, “Just my luck!” but actually it’s so much better played as a woman.’
Cush Jumbo – best known for The Good Wife – was cast in the part. ‘And wow, it all fell into place,’ he says. ‘On every single take she put herself into the character and it was beautiful to watch. The child meant everything to her. She’s suffered grievously. Her son was her life.’
Nathaniel plays a therapist and we see him counselling the troubled DI Nigel Strangeways (Billy Howle), who investigates the child’s death. He’s also an executive producer, and he says the thrill of that was being able to see the first drafts of the scripts by Gaby Chiappe, a scriptwriter for crime drama Shetland. ‘When I watched Shetland I thought, “I’d love to work with her.” And now I have!’