Award-winning actress Gemma Jones talks presidential campaigns and political schemes to Jessica Hope ahead of treading the boards of the Theatre Royal Bath this month
Many will remember Gemma Jones for her portrayal of the ambitious, forthright chef Louisa, who defied the constraints of early 20th century society to become the owner of the fashionable Bentinck Hotel, in the 1970s Saturday night BBC1 drama The Duchess of Duke Street. Whereas to millennials she is synonymous with playing Bridget’s meddling mother in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, or Hogwarts’ hospital matron Poppy Pomfrey in the Harry Potter films.
Recognised for being able to take on any role that is thrown at her – be it a Jane Austen matriarch, the iconic Blanche DuBois or an MI-5 analyst in Spooks – Gemma is now turning her hand to politics, or the 1960 presidential nomination elections to be more specific. She is currently starring in the first major UK production of Gore Vidal’s award-winning play The Best Man, which comes to Theatre Royal Bath this month as part of its national tour.
The Best Man follows the political antics of two opposing presidential party candidates, both of whom are vying for the popular outgoing President’s endorsement to boost their campaign. One of the candidates, William Russell, played by Martin Shaw (Judge John Deed, Inspector George Gently), is the well-respected, likeable ex-secretary of state, whereas Joseph Cantwell, played by Jeff Fahey (Lost, Under the Dome, The Lawnmower Man), is the calculating populist opponent, determined to do anything to get into high office.
Gemma plays Mrs Gamadge, the chair of the party’s Women’s League who plays a crucial part in securing the female vote for the Democrats. “The play is all about skullduggery in the race to the White House. My character is very forthright and challenging to the nominee (Russell), so there is a battle of wits quite often between Martin (Shaw) and I,” says Gemma.
Gemma’s character plays a key part in providing Russell with an insight into what female voters like and dislike about the President and First Lady, and doesn’t shy away from voicing her opinions at a time when politics was dominated by men – Gemma suggests there’s even an element of Margaret Thatcher to her character.
What first interested Gemma to this part? “She is a very vibrant and strong. And I’ve always loved playing American characters and doing an American accent,” she says.
“I did become slightly frustrated recently after I was only being asked to play very elderly women with dementia . . .”
Vidal’s The Best Man premiered on Broadway in 1960 to great acclaim and was nominated for six Tony awards before being adapted into a film in 1964 starring Henry Fonda. It was widely recognised at the time that the play was heavily influenced by Vidal’s own involvement in politics – he was a Democratic candidate for New York for Congress in 1960, but lost to Republican J Ernest Wharton by a small margin. Vidal openly despised the Kennedys and used his opinions of JFK’s persona and family life to base some of the characters on.
With the controversy around the recent US presidential election, and the media attention that ensued across the world, Vidal’s drama on the ruthlessness of politics and the issues surrounding publicity couldn’t be more relevant. “Although American politics is very different to our politics, we (the British public) have got quite involved in American politics recently. So I think people will get a lot of the references (in the play), and they might just realise ‘God things really haven’t changed that much,’” says Gemma.
And while the 1960 presidential campaign didn’t have the sheer scale of media interest as present day elections, by the mid-twentieth century the media began to consider politicians as having celebrity status and so protecting your public image was necessary. “The play focuses on how there were issues at the time around what to conceal and what to reveal,” says Gemma.
Born in Marylebone, London in 1942, Gemma was surrounded by the theatrical world from a young age with both her father, Griffith, and brother, Nicholas, working as actors. Gemma went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where she was awarded with the Bancroft Gold Medal in her final year, a prize which recognises exceptional talent – other alumni who have received this award include Sir Kenneth Branagh, Juliet Stevenson and Sir Mark Rylance, just to name a few.
After graduating in 1962, Gemma made her London stage debut in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal opposite Peter O’Toole. “When the production began, Peter had just come back from filming Lawrence of Arabia so there was a lot of interest around him.
“I bumped into him a number of times over the years, as we used to live in the same area, and he was always very kind to me,” she says. “I had a smaller role in the play, but a very effective one. And I received some very nice reviews and it more or less kick started my career.”
And what a career she has had. After working in the acting world for more than five decades, Gemma has become one of the UK’s most prominent actresses, and won the BAFTA for best supporting actress in 2015 for her role in the BBC television film Marvellous, starring alongside Toby Jones.
Gemma Jones as Mrs. Gamadge, Honeysuckle Weeks as Mabel Cantwell, Jim Creighton as Don Blades and Glynis Barber (Alice Russell) in The Best Man. Photo credit: Geraint Lewis
Being a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, Gemma’s long list of stage credits includes A Winter’s Tale, which came to Bath in 1993, The Masterbuilder, The Turn of the Screw, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the world tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gemma also played a vengeful Queen Margaret opposite Kevin Spacey in Sam Mendes’ 2011 production of Richard III at the Old Vic in London.
With such an impressive CV of stage and screen roles over the years, has Gemma found it difficult to find a range of interesting roles as she has got older? “I’ve been incredibly lucky with the parts I have played. I have never shied away from playing my age. Although I do sometimes look in the mirror and wonder if its really me looking back (laughs).
“I did become slightly frustrated recently after I was only being asked to play very elderly women with dementia. So that’s why I was interested in being part of The Best Man – I’m always looking for challenging work.”
With such an extensive list to choose from, are there any parts she has played over the years that Gemma looks back on with fond memories? “When I look at my next job, I always think it’s good to choose to do something I haven’t done for a while. I loved playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret when I was younger, I really had to work hard on my dancing and singing for that role. I also really enjoyed doing Bridget Jones’s Diary. But a lot of the parts that I have really fond memories of haven’t always had the most publicity.”
Gemma is currently starring in Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, which is in cinemas at the time of writing. It follows the story of a young man who is forced to take over the running of his family’s farm. After a migrant worker arrives to help with the lambing season, the young men form a complex and confusing relationship, set against the bleak backdrop of the Yorkshire landscape. Gemma plays a “downtrodden grandmother”, as she describes her character.
“It was a really tough shoot. We filmed in the middle of winter on the Yorkshire Moors and one of the actors got incredibly ill.” The film has received good reviews and was well received at the Sundance Film Festival and the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June. “I’m glad that it has had such positive reviews and has received awards, I’m so pleased for the young actors,” she says.
Before heading back to rehearsals, Gemma enthuses about the tour of The Best Man coming to Bath. “I realised the other day how long it has been since I’ve been to the Roman Baths, so it will be good to go visit them and be a tourist for the day.”
“Usually I will commute back and forth between my home and where the play is on tour, but when we come to Bath I am treating myself to a little holiday and staying in the city for a few days.”
And Bath shall welcome such a distinguished actress into the city with open arms, that’s for sure.
The Best Man is at Theatre Royal Bath from Monday 9 – Saturday 14 October. The tour then moves onto Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge and Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield. Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk or tel: 01225 448844 for tickets.