Steve Morris

‘I’ve started talking to myself’: Tamsin Greig interviewed

Tamsin Greig, who will play Rosemary Horrocks in the BBC’s remake Alan Bennett's Talking Heads later this year. Image: Magnus Sundholm / Shutterstock

C4’s Friday Night Dinner was the nation’s stop off point for feeling a bit better about ourselves. It featured the Goodman family. Every week the Goodman’s two sons returned to their parents’ home for Shabbat dinner. Every week, things didn’t go to plan.

Of course, the chaotic Goodmans stand in for all our chaotic families in these times. It is good to know that it isn’t only our own family that is a shambles. The guiding force, the everyday matriarch of that family, is Jackie Goodman – long-suffering mum, played by Tamsin Greig.

‘It is charming because it is all about coming home. I think that’s why people love it. The two boys come home every week to somewhere they know they are loved. It might be a nightmare, things might always go wrong, but they come home. A lot of teenagers tell me that they find it very comforting.’

If her career looks like one easy hop from great role to role that isn’t quite true. After university (she didn’t get into drama school) she had a stretch temping and even attended secretarial college. Did she ever think it would never happen, that she might have to get a proper job?

‘I think my mum thought the acting was a bit of fun that I might grow out of. I always thought I’d go on with it till it stopped and I had to do something else.’

But it hasn’t stopped, and she hasn’t had to do anything else. Being Fran Katzenjammer in Channel 4’s Black Books established Tamsin and her co-stars. From there, she went on to be the perpetually embarrassed Dr Caroline Todd in Green Wing and Beverley Lincoln alongside Matt le Blanc in Episodes. But it is as the feisty, funny, long-suffering Jewish mum Jackie Goodman that she has really connected with people.

Playing comedy has its own terrors, perhaps especially if you are actor who does comedy, rather than a comedian who acts. Tamsin’s terror is corpsing. ‘I have always wrestled with it. It is terrible. I think when I have a fit of the giggles, I am laughing at myself really. It is a safety valve.’

Tamsin confesses to being responsible for a lot of wasted film during her career. And its difficult when a co-star like Mark Heap, who plays the odd neighbour Jim, never does the same thing twice. ‘Every tic and flinch is only done the same, once.’ A stray laugh can see an epic performance lost for ever.

Jim, though, is more than a vehicle for laughter. Every Friday night, at some point in the show, the doorbell to the Goodman’s house will ring. Every Friday it is Jim. In a world that is frequently cruel, odd neighbours are a source of ridicule – unwelcome and often lonely. But not in the world of the Goodmans. ‘Jackie might find him irritating, but she never rejects him. It is a wonderful message that we can celebrate oddballs. The show champions the deep connection between people and their neighbours, however weird they are. I love that about it.’

We are, of course, living in very strange and disturbing times. Recent articles claim that people have started talking to themselves to relieve the loneliness and boredom. ‘I’ve started talking to myself as well,’ Tamsin tells me. ‘But only when I take my dog for a walk. Well, I say I am talking to her, but is that any better?’

Lockdown isn’t plain sailing, though. I’ve found it hard going and so has Tamsin. ‘It’s six weeks and it feels like a long time. We’ve all spent Forty Days in the wilderness.’ Perhaps there is no wilderness more profound than the creative industries right now. ‘Artists don’t tend to get furloughed. Many of them have been in rehearsal for months and just as the production was about to go live, it all ended.’ The impact on theatre will go on for many months.

But there are some causes for optimism. In these socially-distanced times, the ideal format is, perhaps, the monologue. Tamsin is playing the lonely Rosemary Horrocks in the BBC’s remake of ‘Nights in the Gardens of Spain’. Indeed, the BBC are remaking all of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. ‘It really is beautiful because Alan leaves so much room for you to act. He never fills all the blanks – he lets you work it out.’ In one scene we learn that Rosemary’s husband is angry with her, almost by accident. ‘Rosemary says that he holds her hand from the single bed and we realise they are not sleeping together.’

Talking Heads is bound to find a whole new audience and we will see new things that we missed first time around. It is a very different world. ‘They are about being on your own, being at home. They are people talking to themselves. But who are they really talking to – dead parents, partners, lost friends? When we are alone, we ask that question – who are we?’

Many of us are also asking why do we do what we do? What motivates us to keep going?

‘There’s part of me that can’t do anything else. This is what I can do and I have spent my whole life training to do. There is another reason too. Acting connects people together. We are hard-wired to be storytellers and stories can be dangerous because they force us to wake up. Some say they are just about celebrity or entertainment. But they aren’t. We need them.’

Perhaps we are starting to realise what we are missing when the theatres and cinemas fell silent. We have lost something precious.

There’s one more thing. I have rather lost my heart to Milson the dog in FND. How has Tamsin found him? ‘He’s docile and very sweet. He is like a little melancholy bloke in a suit. He doesn’t behave like a dog at all. He’s like a lumbering sideboard – a serious fellow.’

Well that’s comforting as well.