'There is no PhD in widowhood'

Maureen Lipman is back on stage. In this deeply personal interview, she tells Tim Wapshott about losing her husband, finding new love - and how humour gets her through
Finding just the right roles throughout her career has been something of a challenge for actress Maureen Lipman. By turns funny yet moving, she nevertheless knows her limits when it comes to versatility, freely admitting: ‘You wouldn’t cast me as a cop, would you?’

Perhaps not, but in her latest role she manages to be both funny and moving in the critically acclaimed play Daytona. Playing opposite Harry Shearer as her husband, and Oliver Cotton as her brother-in-law, Lipman puts in a stellar performance.

Not that it was easy. ‘We are all very different actors,’ Maureen says. ‘Harry [Shearer] is a very political animal and much wiser than me. He’s quite cynical and I suppose I am in a way. But I’m a soft-armchair socialist, masquerading under a welter of conservatism – I don’t know what I am. I’m just not as reasoned or as erudite as he is.’

Away from stage and screen, however, Maureen’s best roles are as a friend, mother, wife and, in later life, a companion. Her 30-year marriage to playwright Jack Rosenthal ended when he died a decade ago from multiple myeloma.

‘It’s a blood cancer, but it affects the bones as it is travelling around and manifests itself in very different ways, which makes it extremely hard to diagnose,’ she explains. ‘It’s a debilitating and very difficult disease. It’s treated with certain drugs and you can have a stem-cell transplant, which Jack did. That was a failure and only lasted three months – and it bloody well wasn’t worth it for what he went through.

‘He had the disease for two years and had a lot of terrible back pain. I stopped working when he was poorly and when he went into remission I was asked to be in Thoroughly Modern Millie. We talked it over and I did it, but within the run of that play he came out of remission and got sick.

‘We sometimes used to have to take him to the Royal Marsden Hospital, 25 miles away from Muswell Hill, in the middle of the night – there’s nothing more bizarre than being dressed up as an oriental woman with chopsticks in your hair and your eyes pulled up at the sides when your husband’s in a hospital wired to a drip. You can’t live your life like that, you’ve got to say no, enough is enough. When push comes to shove, you don’t mess about, you don’t care.
‘In fact, looking after Jack was a huge privilege for all of the family, because he was very patient, dry and funny and always himself whatever he was going through.’

A typically amusing moment happened near the end of Jack’s life. Their friend Colin Shindler, another writer who had penned the screenplay for the movie Buster, told Maureen that he planned to tell Jack that he loved him.

‘I thought, “I wonder how Jack’s going to take that?” When I saw him later, I asked if Colin had been in.’‘Yes, he has,’ Jack replied. ‘He told me that he loved me.’ ‘I asked how he had responded to that and he said, “I didn’t say anything, we had sex and he went home!”’

Within 24 hours, Jack had died, but humour continued to be the best way for Maureen and their children Amy and Adam to deal with their grief. ‘We just huddled together and watched an awful lot of Curb Your Enthusiasm – two episodes a day – and laughed.’

But Maureen faced an uphill struggle after losing Jack as the days turned to weeks, and the weeks to months.

‘You have to handle it in your own way, there’s no PhD in widowhood. When it’s very new, you are very often surrounded by good friends, but there’s a point when people think you should pull yourself together and get over it. That is true, but that point comes for some after two months, for some after 12 years and for some people, never. You can’t look it up on the internet, it’s your experience and you have to do it your way.

‘I’m very loath to go on about the brilliance of my marriage because I’m still full of remorse in all sorts of ways. Grief and remorse are intertwined.

‘You can never have done as much as you should to make a marriage work, you can never take back those cruel comments and those uncaring jibes or when you sent them up just a bit too much or a bit too often. That reticence does not go away – it comes back at you every so often, like a kipper.’

She also speaks to Jack as if he is still around. ‘The kids and I talk about him a lot and I do occasionally shout at him, saying fix this, or make this happen. Just before I opened in Daytona at the Theatre Royal Haymarket the other week, I said to Jack, “Help me through this, darling”’

MaureenLipman-Jul18-02-590-NEWMaureen in Daytona, her latest stage role

Maureen counts her blessings that Jack ‘never lost himself’. ‘That’s what is unbearable about diseases like dementia,’ she says. ‘You lose that person completely and it is very hard to love and tend for somebody who you don’t really know. You’re taking care of a stranger.’

Today she goes out of her way to ensure that she keeps in regular contact with friends who are nursing partners through difficult illnesses. ‘There’s always three seconds in the day to phone a friend who’s dealing with someone who’s saying the same thing 13 times in a row. I don’t say that from any smug perspective, because I’m not always good at it, but I do make an effort to ring friends who are housebound once or twice a week and just be there as necessary.’

Now 68, Maureen has finally fallen in love again, although she has no plans to remarry. Her new partner is Guido Castro, a retired computer expert who is older than her. ‘I have had a very loving companion for six years now,’ she says. ‘He is Egyptian and came over here to go to Oxford, then stayed when all the Jews were kicked out of Egypt in 1956. He had done maths, engineering and logic and at the beginning of the computer era he just fell into it naturally. He was one of the first people to program computers and actually program-designed the first Ford car.

‘He’s a wonderful, adorable, sweet, lovely man and it’s love. I’m bloody lucky to have had two men in my life who really loved me. Would I remarry? I can’t really see the point. I could if we were going to be left without a penny or were going to have children, but I can’t see the point of people of my age getting married – that’s about ritual or if you’re really religious. I’m not really religious. I’m profoundly Jewish but I’m not really profoundly observant – it worries me, marriage, as a concept.’

Maureen has no plans to retire, but it seems that more than ever it is those domestic roles – as mother, grandmother, friend and companion – that are ensuring her life is once again complete. ■

Daytona runs until 23 August at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1: 020-7930 8800, www.trh.co.uk

The play then tours from 1 to 27 September: for details visit www.parktheatre.co.uk/park-on-tour