Jenny Seagrove opens up about ageism, romance and escape from kidnap

Why I’m playing the mum of an 82-year-old, aged 63! As the curtain come up on her controversial new role in Hamlet, Jenny Seagrove opens up about ageism, romance — and her narrow escape from kidnap

  • Jenny Seagrove, 63, is playing the mother of Hamlet in ‘age blind’ production
  • Hamlet is played by Sir Ian McKellen, aged 82, in The Theatre Royal, in Windsor
  • The actress says it is still much easier for older men than women to get roles

Ethereal beauty Jenny Seagrove is getting to grips with the notion that, aged 63, in her next stage production, she’s playing the mother of an 82-year-old actor.

Imagine it! Has she been practising the hobbling gait of a centenarian? Will she be succumbing to hours in make-up so she’s transformed from English rose to cankerous old crone?

Actually no. This daring new production of Hamlet — which opens tonight — is ‘age blind’. 

The audience is asked to suspend its disbelief and forget that Sir Ian McKellen, who plays the main protagonist in Shakespeare’s great tragedy, is 82 — when the text tells us he’s actually no more than 30.

Jenny Seagrove, 63, (pictured) is playing the mother of Hamlet in a daring new ‘age blind’ production in The Theatre Royal, in Windsor — which opens tonight

Although Hollywood has accustomed us to a fantasy world in which screen mothers are unfeasibly glamorous and invariably far too young to have had the children they’re supposed to be parenting, we haven’t yet seen an octogenarian playing the son of a woman almost 20 years his junior.

Angelina Jolie was only a year older than Colin Farrell when she played his mother in Alexander, and Sally Field was cast as Tom Hanks’s mother in Forrest Gump, though she would have needed to have had him when she was nine.

Jenny says she ‘completely forgets’ the age difference. ‘It’s a very avant-garde production. It’ll be Marmite. People will either love or hate it. But we want them to look beyond the exteriors and see the stories of the characters,’ she explains.

‘We have Ian playing Hamlet, women playing men. None of it matters! Ian is incredibly curious and interested in everything — it’s part of his youthfulness — and he asked a school pupil what she thought of an older Hamlet. She said, “Well it’s a story, isn’t it?” That’s my attitude. It’s a play. I just see Hamlet as my son.’

I wonder if the production will be the start of a brave new era? One in which older actresses will take the parts of ingenues rather than finding themselves sliding down a slippery slope into professional oblivion once they reach mid-life, only to re-emerge in old age as grandes dames and dowagers?

The actress said that the business is still ‘very ageist and somewhat sexist’ as it still ‘much easier’ for older men than women to get acting roles

Jenny is unconvinced: ‘The optimist in me says, “Oh yes, it will be brilliant”, but realistically I don’t think it will make the slightest difference because the business is still very ageist and somewhat sexist. It’s still much easier for older men than women to get roles.’

So we won’t be seeing a 40-year-old woman taking the 16-year-old female lead in Romeo And Juliet any time soon?

‘I’d be very surprised — but I might yet be confounded. After all, we’re told 60 is the new 40.’

There are hopeful indications of a subtle shift away from idealisation towards more realistic characterisations.

Kate Winslet, 45, was recently garlanded with praise for refusing to allow her ‘wobbly bits’ — displayed in a love scene in her latest detective drama — to be retouched in the editing suite.

She played a gritty middle-aged detective with two kids in Sky Atlantic’s Mare Of Easttown and reasoned that, as such, she wouldn’t have the washboard stomach of a 20-year-old.

Jenny applauds such creative honesty and points out that it is not unique. She did her best to look ‘frumpy and dowdy’ when she took on the real life role of Louisa Gould — a brave but physically unprepossessing heroine who hides an escaped Russian prisoner from the Germans — in the 2017 film Another Mother’s Son.

‘She was a huge character, an amazing woman, and I wanted to play her with mousy hair, worn clothes and no make-up. I tried to get as near to her as possible,’ says Jenny.

She and theatre and film producer Bill Kenwright, 75, (pictured together) have been partners for 27 years saying it’s ‘love and deep respect’ that keeps them together 

‘I wanted to look dowdy. I tried to put on weight — but I couldn’t seem to do it. I think I’ve got hollow legs.’

Jenny is lithe as a teenager in jeans, trainers and T-shirt, but when she mentions her body’s resistance to weight-gain, I’m reminded she suffered from anorexia as a drama student at Bristol Old Vic.

‘I had an eating disorder — not any more,’ she says briskly. (She does not like to dwell on negative events in her past.) ‘It’s like an addiction. You’re always with it, but I eat well now. If I don’t my blood sugar drops very quickly.’

She’s vegan and I ask if she’s converted her long-term partner Bill Kenwright, 75, to a meat-and-dairy-free diet. ‘No,’ she says, ‘but he eats organic chicken and sustainably-sourced fish.’ Is she happy to cook it for him? ‘We have someone who cooks for us,’ she says.

She and theatre and film producer Bill, who is also chairman of Everton Football Club, have been partners for 27 years: ‘It’s love, of course, that keeps us together and deep respect. We’re a partnership. We have a lot of shared interests including Everton and dogs.’

When I express surprise that she’s keen on football, she retorts: ‘Of course it’s a passion! If you live with someone who plays golf, you don’t want to be a golf widow. So you learn to play, don’t you? I thought: “Right, I’m really going to understand and learn about the game.”

‘I went on the Richard Littlejohn show and he said, “Do you want to name a few players?” I rattled off some of the team. That shut him up!’

She revealed that around 18 years ago – while shooting Judge John Deed – she was threatened with kidnap. Pictured, right, as Jo Mills in Judge John Deed with co-star Martin Shaw

Jenny’s lovely: easy company, chatty, upbeat. We sit in the tenebrous pre-show hush of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket before the evening’s performance of Love Letters, a tender, nostalgic play about the correspondence of two lifelong friends, in which Jenny performs opposite Martin Shaw, also her co-star for the six-year run of BBC TV drama Judge John Deed.

Last December, Love Letters was the first show to open when Covid restrictions were temporarily lifted. ‘That performance was incredibly emotional,’ she says.

‘We were in a socially-distanced house and the audience was practically in tears because they were in the theatre again. I had a tear, oh yes. A bit at the curtain call and also in the dress rehearsal. Just to be allowed to work again!’

Bill, who produced the show, was similarly moved. ‘He went out at the front and made a speech. He was very emotional.’

Whenever Jenny features in Bill’s productions, she endures her fair share of jibes about nepotism, but she shrugs them off.

Failing to mention her five-star reviews for Love Letters she says: ‘I’m terribly aware that I’m jokingly referred to as the “producer’s moll”, but I don’t abuse any closeness. Work stays in its professional box. At home we don’t talk about it.’

She is happily childless (although Bill has a daughter, Lucy, from an earlier relationship with actress Virginia Stride, and two grandchildren).

‘I never wanted children. I’ve no regrets,’ she says. ‘My dogs Georgie and Alfie are like children who never grow up. They’re part of the family.’

She has been married once — briefly and unhappily — to actor Madhav Sharma, in 1984. They divorced in 1988 and she has said he was controlling. Then she had a relationship with famously outspoken film director Michael Winner, who was more than 20 years her senior.

The confluence of two such diverse people always seemed bewildering, but Jenny does not elaborate when I ask about their relationship, which ended in 1993. ‘It’s past. There would be too much to say if I started. But he was great fun. He made me laugh,’ is all she offers. She confirms that she went to his funeral in 2013.

The beauty has been married once — briefly and unhappily — to actor Madhav Sharma, in 1984. They divorced in 1988 and she has said he was controlling (pictured together in 1984)

Her default setting is cheerful — she does not dwell on past unhappiness — and says three months of therapy after her marriage ended taught her to ‘love myself’.

‘I’m obsessed with the way you can change the neural pathways in your brain from negative to positive. You have to work really hard at it; to learn to say “when” and not “if”. It’s like going to a mental gymnasium.’

Our conversation meanders from mindfulness to ageing and star signs — we were born a week apart in 1957 — when I ask innocuously where she and Bill live. Suddenly she is wary. Then she makes the startling admission that she cannot tell me because around 18 years ago she was threatened with kidnap.

‘I was shooting Judge John Deed at the time and the police rang and said, “When you finish, there’ll be a police car waiting to take you to a safe location”. They took Bill and me to a hotel in Kensington and we were told there would be a couple of undercover detectives watching us for the foreseeable future.

‘They’d discovered, through intelligence work, that I was either going to be kidnapped or there would be forced entry with violence into our home.’

Jenny, it emerges, had earlier been taken in by the lies of a conman who’d called at their home selling household items door-to-door. ‘He gave me this huge sob story about his daughter being caught up with an East End gang and I bought it. I gave him money.’ How much? ‘Umm quite a lot.’

When I suggest she’s kind-hearted, she responds, ‘Well, naïve I think. And word got round that we had money and I was stupid’.

Jenny then she had a relationship with famously outspoken film director Michael Winner, who was more than 20 years her senior (pictured together)

The detectives, it emerges, were so discreet Jenny was never aware she was being watched. But she was, she laughs, even when she routinely cycled the wrong way down a one-way street. ‘Interesting route home you took Miss Seagrove,’ the detective would say when he called her.

‘I’m inherently trusting but now less so. I’ve learnt a few lessons,’ she says.

She remains, however, humane, generous and tender-hearted. When a friend who rescued horses rang her in 2011 to say that she had run out of money to feed them, Jenny, without a moment’s hesitation, pledged to step in and save them. 

‘The horses hadn’t eaten for four days. They were kicking their stable doors. I remember saying: “We’ll start a charity.” I had absolutely no idea what I was doing but I knew it had to happen.

‘There were 41 horses to feed and the alternative would have meant a lot of them would have died, and they’d already been through dreadful hardship.’

She duly formed Mane Chance charity and the scope of its remit has since expanded to help disadvantaged young people and those with additional needs who form special bonds with the rehabilitated animals.

Along the way, Jenny sold a property to help fund the purchase of the 67 acres in Guildford, Surrey, where the charity is based. ‘It costs a terrifying amount — around £400,000 a year — to run because we work with the community as well as caring for the animals.’

Covid hit their fund-raising. ‘We had reserves for a rainy day but this year we’ll post a loss of £150,000. I’ve had a few sleepless nights. I’ve got nothing to re-mortgage and I’m too old to sell my body,’ she laughs. ‘I’ll have to rely on the kindness of strangers.’

She seems bereft of vanity — she wears only a smudge of mascara and her hair is in a gamine crop for her Gertrude role — and she says, ‘I’m trying to age gracefully.

‘I have frown marks because I’m short-sighted and blue-eyed, and I sleep on the same side so it squishes my face.’ 

Jenny once suffered from anorexia as a drama student at Bristol Old Vic but ‘not any more,’ saying that she eats well now and has adopted a vegan diet (pictured in 1983)

She hasn’t had Botox, although she says she might. Meanwhile she’s experimented with ‘frownies’ (facial patches that smooth wrinkles). ‘They do work, but they also seem to push the wrinkles to another bit of your face,’ she laughs.

After Gertrude, there is another experimental role in store: she’ll play a male character, Gaev, in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. ‘When the director Sean Mathias asked me I said, “Yes, absolutely!”

‘I started thinking about how I would play him and I’ve a feeling he’s gay but not camp. Look at who’s played him in the past — Gielgud, Jacobi. I always create back stories for my characters. I imagine what star sign they’d be.’

It is cheering that while other actresses in their 60s may be contemplating an unwelcome descent into obscurity, Jenny is blazing a trail. Age blind. Gender blind.

Perhaps the most uplifting aspect of these forays into the innovative and bold are that they are happening as she approaches her 65th year, when many are entrenched in old ways.

‘They might push me off the stage, but I won’t retire,’ she says. ‘As long as I can move around a set and remember my lines, I’ll keep going.’

HAMLET opens tonight and The Cherry Orchard opens on September 10. For tickets go to theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

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