An interview with James Bolam and Anne Reid about Fracked! Or Please Don’t Use The F-Word playing at the Theatre Royal in Brighton between Monday 1 May – Saturday 7 May.
The play is a new comedy written by Alistair Beaton which premiered at the Chichester Festival Theatre last year. It takes us to an idyllic English village threatened by an energy company intent on drilling for shale gas. Anne Reid plays Elizabeth, a retired academic who finds herself transformed from obedient citizen to angry protestor. While her increasingly grumpy husband (James Bolam) longs for the quiet life.
Read on to find out more:
Interview with James Bolam and Anne Reid
Vanishingly few new plays are written for actors over the age of 65. When one comes along, therefore, it will attract the very finest actors. So it is with Fracked!, a potent satire by Alistair Beaton about the hunt for shale gas in the English countryside and the lengths to which one retired woman will go to prevent drilling in her back yard.
It stars Anne Reid as a retired lecturer on the anti-fracking warpath and James Bolam as her somewhat long-suffering husband. Together they put on an irresistible masterclass in stage comedy, but one in which traditional roles are reversed.
“I enjoy that I’m playing somebody with a brain for a change,” says Reid. “Jim’s got my part. He makes all the sandwiches, which is usually me.” “I’m exhausted!” sighs Bolam. “I never sit down.”
The play portrays age and wisdom taking the fight to capitalism and its provisional wing in the shape of a smooth and unscrupulous PR. It was unveiled last summer at Chichester Festival Theatre, where it preached to a converted audience anxious that fracking is coming to West Sussex.
One of those concerned local residents is Bolam himself, who first encountered Beaton when they both attended a protest meeting. “It was the politics that appealed to me. I’m very fussy and choosy now. So often you pick up a script you think, I’ll just go and put the kettle on.” Reid meanwhile admits to ignorance of the fracking debate. “I just thought it was a terrific part. I’m an actress: I don’t have to believe in murder to play Lady M.”
They’re a good match. Both born in 1935, they have their roots in the north-east – Bolam in Sunderland, Reid in Newcastle. They first met in the Sixties when Bolam was dating Reid’s Coronation Street co-star Susan Jameson (they’re still married). “I had a Triumph Herald. She said, ‘Can we give this guy a lift that I’m going out with?’ I remember he slightly looked down his nose at me.” “Can’t remember it at all,” shrugs Bolam.
Fracked! is by no means the first time they’ve acted together. Their most prominent collaboration was in Enjoy, Alan Bennett’s comic portrait of his parent’s marriage. But they’ve also been in a Victoria Wood sketch together, the rambunctious 18th-comedy Wild Oats at the National, and Reid guested on New Tricks in which Bolam played a retired detective. Over the years a comfort has grown up between them.
“We can rely on each other,” says Reid. “Audiences love Jimmy. You can feel it the minute he comes on the stage. He is a very generous actor. He’s not starry, he doesn’t care who’s getting the laughs as long as the audience get what they paid for. There are a lot of actors how would get very spiky.”
“I’m much less spiky than I used to be,” grunts Bolam.
“I really like to be a star,” says Reid with a wink. “I like to be centre stage. But I haven’t had his career you see so I’m still fighting my way up the ladder.”
The thing they have most deeply in common is the long shadow cast by popular television. In the early 1960s Bolam played Laurence Olivier’s son in a play called Semi-Detached. It was Olivier’s attempt to join the modern bandwagon of naturalistic acting. “He couldn’t do it,” says Bolam. “Consequently it wasn’t very successful. He was just about to open the National Theatre and nobody who was in that cast went with him. He didn’t want to be reminded.”
“I saw it,” remembers Reid. “You and John Thaw acted him off the stage.”
Salvation came with an offer to star in The Likely Lads, a new Geordie sitcom written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. “I knew there was a danger of doing them,” recalls Bolam. “Television was very young and people in the theatre and movies were very snooty about it. But I couldn’t not do them because they were so good. It did put me out of work and the only reason I did Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads six years later was because nothing had happened to me.”
The show has followed him around like a ball and chain ever since. “He was absolutely brilliant in it,” says Reid, “but you don’t want to be stuck with it.” Salvation came in other high-profile television roles: he was the star of the post-Great War drama When the Boat Comes In, the hospital sitcom Only When I Laugh and Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Trilogy.
Reid had a much more tortuous path to stardom. She started out as a stage manager, and for most of the 1960s she played the first wife of Ken Barlow – their wedding in 1962 was watched by 16 million viewers. “I just get pissed off with the idea that I’m a Coronation Street actress who got lucky. I went to RADA and it was a job and it was very nice and I stayed too long. I didn’t get a laugh in nine years.”
She took 12 years away from the business to bring up her son. Then she was widowed and went back to the theatre. “I realised I could make audiences laugh and I crawled my way back to the top.” Victoria Wood, who cast her as a hot-to-trot cook in Dinnerladies, “had a big effect on my life, because everybody watched Vic.” But her biggest break had no laughs in it at all. In The Mother, a film scripted by Hanif Kureishi, she played an older woman who has an affair with a drifter played by Daniel Craig “The director Roger Michell said he wanted to cast someone who you wouldn’t notice if you passed them in Sainsbury’s. I said, ‘Thank you, Roger.’ But it changed my life. Once you get rolling it’s great.”
Eventually there was the biggest gift of all: the lead opposite Derek Jacobi in Last Tango in Halifax, Sally Wainwright’s hugely popular drama about autumnal love. “A lot of older people have said, ‘Thank God for Last Tango. At last we have people who are actually spending their time like we are.’ If my agent sends me a script that says, ‘This old lady comes in with her knitting and her dog,’ I throw it across the room.”
Fracked! will be performed at the Theatre Royal Brighton between 1st and 7th May