I wish I’d known how gorgeous I was! As she brings her one-woman show to the West End, Maureen Lipman on chatting to the late Queen about Corrie, losing the two loves of her life – and her big regret…
- Maureen opens up about losing her partner Guido Castro for the first time
- READ MORE: Maureen Lipman is set to take a short break from Coronation Street
Maureen Lipman loves the King. ‘He’s arrived at a place where he can do the job he was born to do,’ says the Coronation Street star, who’s met Charles many times over her long career. ‘Everybody should say to him, “You were right, Charlie. You were right about organic farms, trees and climate change, long before anyone else knew.” He’ll be a wise old king.’
They’ve met at garden parties, receptions and through their mutual friend Gyles Brandreth, but their most formal encounter was when the then Prince of Wales stood in for his ailing mother and made Maureen a dame at Windsor Castle in 2021. ‘He’s had the worst s*** thrown at him throughout his life. And this boy of his, Harry, isn’t the full shilling, is he? Let’s go back to bottling things up. Stiff upper lip? Let’s have a bit more of that.’
The eyebrows go up as she talks about Prince Harry’s compulsion to share his hurt with the world and Maureen suddenly sounds like Evelyn Plummer, the feisty grandmother she’s played in Coronation Street for more than four years, the latest in a long line of glorious battleaxes to stomp the cobbles, going all the way back to Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples. ‘As I said as Evelyn the other week when they were telling me to get my feelings out, “As far as I’m concerned, a good bit of bottling up never did anybody any harm.”’
That said, Maureen is going to show her own feelings today as she talks for the first time about losing her partner Guido Castro during Covid and the bittersweet Rose, an emotional rollercoaster of a one-woman show that she’s about to perform in the West End. She plays an elderly Holocaust survivor who looks back at her life with both humour and tears.
Maureen Lipman opened up for the first time about losing her partner Guido Castro during Covid and the bittersweet Rose, an emotional rollercoaster of a one-woman show that she’s about to perform in the West End
For the moment though, this arch-royalist is on a roll, batting away the concerns that some people have about her friend Camilla becoming Queen. ‘Oh she’s a marvellous girl! She’s great, a proper human being. She looks after Charles. She’s funny, she’s human, she likes a glass of wine. She’s a geezer. She’s what every king needs,’ says Maureen, who knows a bit about this, having played a courtesan to great acclaim in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. ‘At the end of the day, when a king comes home, he doesn’t want a fabulous gym bunny. He wants a big, sloping bosom he can put his head on!’
Maureen cackles happily. She’s earthy and witty, this elegantly hawkish woman who was born in Hull in 1946, the daughter of a tailor. She learned her craft with Sir Laurence Olivier’s company at the National Theatre, became a television star with the sitcom Agony and then a household name as Beattie the fretful Jewish grandmother in a series of commercials for British Telecom. Her CV since then is astonishing, with award-winning roles on stage and television, and film appearances including in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.
Maureen also played comedienne Joyce Grenfell for many years in another one-woman stage show, Re: Joyce. Her chatty books about her life are also very popular and in person, sipping a glass of white wine and leaning back in her chair, she sounds just like they read.
Maureen joined Coronation Street in 2018, following other distinguished actors such as Sir Ian McKellen onto the cobbles. ‘I started at the National Theatre and I’m now in what I call the National Theatre of Television,’ she says, commuting from her home in Paddington to Manchester every week. But now Maureen is taking a month off from the Street to perform Rose at the Ambassadors Theatre.
The play was originally written for her by the celebrated American Jewish playwright Martin Sherman, although Maureen was in her fifties at the time and felt she wasn’t old enough to play an 80-year-old survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. ‘That was also the time of Beattie-mania, when I couldn’t go down the street or to the shops without someone making a telephone noise or complaining about their bills.’
The Hollywood legend Olympia Dukakis took the show to Broadway in 2020 instead. ‘I’m the right age for Rose now,’ says Maureen, 76, who filmed a live version of the piece in an empty theatre during lockdown, then played to audiences in Manchester and at the Park Theatre in London. The critics loved Rose, calling it ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘a tour de force’ by the actor, who spends two hours alone on stage, sitting on a bench. It’s very funny at times, with more than a few belly laughs. ‘You’re part of the show as the audience, like with a stand-up routine. This is sit-down. I’m telling you a fantastic story.’
Some of the laughs are dark, as when Rose talks about the Nazis invading her home country in the 30s and says, ‘Ukraine? Who would want that?’ Maureen smiles now and calls President Zelensky ‘the bravest man who ever lived’.
It’s also deeply moving. The play opens with Rose sitting shiva – a Jewish mourning ritual – for a little girl who has been killed, feeling adrift in old age as her adoptive home of Florida changes around her. She’s worried about her offspring, who are settlers in Israel.
Maureen, who was born in Hull in 1946, learned her craft with Sir Laurence Olivier’s company at the National Theatre, became a television star with the sitcom Agony and then a household name as Beattie the fretful Jewish grandmother in a series of commercials for British Telecom
Maureen is very aware of performing Rose at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise. ‘As soon as the economy drops, you need a scapegoat. It’s so absurd, we are so few. We punch above our weight, but at the same time we get punched for punching above our weight. What are they afraid of? Which country in the world other than Israel and Ukraine with President Zelensky has got a Jewish leader? None. As the comedian Jackie Mason famously said, “Who ever crossed the road to avoid a bunch of accountants?”’
Her strong personal support for Israel has sometimes been controversial, but there’s a twist in Act 2 of Rose that reveals how we all bleed the same. ‘This play is more about being immigrants than it is about being Jewish.’
Maureen discovered her own ancestry last year while making the television documentary DNA Journey with her friend Rula Lenska. It turned out her great-grandfather was a shoemaker from Poland who fled forced conscription into the Russian Army.
‘He got off a ship in Hull and thought, “Where am I?” Then he set up his cobbler’s business, married a wife and three generations later they give me a damehood. So the immigrant story can be a good story.’
Rose in the play is grieving for three husbands, a daughter and many others lost in her long, eventful life. Maureen has a deep well of personal experience to draw from. ‘I was with both the men in my life on the day they died.’
She met the playwright Jack Rosenthal in a pub in Manchester while he was writing early episodes of Coronation Street and they got married in 1973, later having a daughter, Amy, and a son called Adam, who are middle-aged now. ‘Jack would love Evelyn, he’d be thrilled by her and he’d love that I’m on the Street.’
She told the Queen this during a royal visit to the set in July 2021. ‘My husband wrote episode 30 of this, Ma’am, and after you’ve gone we’re going to film episode 10,448.’ Jack died of cancer in 2004 and Maureen was devastated but later said, ‘I found it almost impossible to grieve because my nature is to make people laugh. And then I’d feel terrible about the fact I didn’t look like I was grieving enough.’
She met Guido Castro, a Jewish-Egyptian computer expert, in 2008, and called him ‘level-headed and loving’
She met Guido Castro, a Jewish-Egyptian computer expert, in 2008. ‘He had no idea about the showbiz life or who anybody was. I’d introduce him to Christopher Biggins and he’d say, “Hello, and what do you do?” He was good for me. There was no sense of rivalry.’ Her eyes glisten. ‘Both the men in my life have been a bit older than me. I sometimes think to myself, “What is it about you that makes you want that sort of father figure? Is it because you don’t really have confidence in yourself as a woman, so you need someone who is absolutely intrigued by your vivacity, which is something they don’t have?”’
Jack and Guido were level-headed and loving. ‘Both the men in my life have adored me. You can’t want much more than that. I’m not a confident person. My mother was a very beautiful woman and always looked at me with some measure of disappointment.’
That’s hard to believe when you see her looking magnificent in a flaming red gown for our photographer, but Maureen was talking about this to the presenter Emma Willis after a recent television appearance. ‘You don’t know what you are until later, looking back. I said to the sweet girl on The One Show the other night, off air, “I have just got one piece of advice: just know that you’re very pretty, because you might not think that now but one day you’re going to look back at photographs of yourself and think, ‘But I was gorgeous! Why didn’t I know?’ That happened to me.”’ Still, she has no doubt what Jack and Guido thought of her: ‘I had two men who absolutely thought I was gorgeous.’
Maureen praised King Charles, having met at garden parties, receptions and when the then Prince of Wales made her a dame at Windsor Castle in 2021
Maureen made headlines during the Queen’s funeral when she talked about having had a premonition of Her Majesty’s death before it happened, but she plays that down now. ‘It was stupid stuff. I didn’t have a premonition, the Queen was 96, she was obviously going to die some time. It’s just that sometimes you look at someone and see through them, you see they’re on their way. I’ve got that bit of intuition in me.’
She’s talking about this now because Maureen wishes she’d listened to her intuition more when it came to Guido, who fell ill before his death in January 2021 at the age of 84. ‘I should have been wiser about Guido and not let that happen in the way it did,’ she says, quietly. ‘Oh my God. To my dying day I’ll be saying that I shouldn’t have carried on working when Guido was ill.’
She looks close to tears, thinking about his decline. ‘Was I a good wife? No, because I was always putting my work first. I was going off to Manchester to do Corrie when Guido was getting old and on his own and he’d had a fall. What was I doing, going backwards and forwards on a train?’
Guido had a form of Parkinson’s disease. He was taken into a care home during the pandemic and contracted Covid, which she said ‘weakened him terribly’. ‘Then we had to go and see him, covered in plastic.’
The actress said she would feel ‘nervous and sleepless’ but ‘a bit excited’ before the opening of her show in London
Maureen had to wear PPE and couldn’t hold his hand. ‘It was insane. I came home to my flat and I painted Guido with his three daughters and me sitting on the floor around his bed with the lights low. It was like an amateur Caravaggio, with us wearing masks and gloves and pinnies and covers for our feet. We had all got so much from this lovely man.’ Her voice is soft. ‘I just didn’t have anywhere to put those feelings as I went back to my flat alone. My children are incredibly empathetic, but they weren’t there. So I started painting the scene and that helped, you know?’ That wasn’t quite their last goodbye. ‘I was alone with him the next day, so I had that.’
Given the sense of loss in Rose, it’s no surprise that performing the play takes it out of her. ‘I got shingles when I did it before, because I get too close to the material. I have to live it or I don’t deliver it well.’
Will she be nervous when the show opens? ‘I’ll be nervy, I’ll be sleepless, I’ll be a bit scared but also a bit excited. You take a deep breath and you swallow, then you go on,’ says Maureen, who has 48 pages of dialogue and nowhere to hide. ‘I’m frightened, but I’m practised. I’ve trained for this. It’s the Olympics of parts. I’ll never have a role as good as this again. All I can do is my best, so that’s what I’ll do.’
Having seen the play online, without the extra charge she’ll get from an audience, I can only say that Maureen Lipman’s Rose is likely to be as good as it gets.
Rose is on at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, from 23 May. For tickets, visit roseonstage.co.uk
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