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INTERVIEW: Emma Thompson, Patron of Clifford Chambers charity Hosking Houses Trust, beamed in to give a an exclusive Q and A

One of the arts highlights of 2023 was Dame Emma Thompson joining the Hosking Houses Trust as patron. The actor and screenwriter hosted (remotely from her Scottish holiday home) a showing of her 1993 film Remains of the Day – which co-starred Anthony Hopkins – at Clifford Chambers village hall. After watching the film, audience members asked Emma questions to which she gave eloquent and thoughtful responses, which Herald Arts has included highlights of here.

How satisfactory do you find the ending of Remains of the Day and how would you change it if you could?

I think it’s sort of perfect. The book, which I adore, was so beautifully rendered by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in the screenplay. The ending it sort of perfect to me because it expresses everything the book is about which is the impossibility for Stevens, certainly, and for many ways also for Miss Kenton, of breaking out of the prisons that they inhabit.And it would be completely awful and wrong if they ended up happily ever after. I wouldn’t be able to bear it. I’ve always loved bitter-sweet endings anyway. I love Jane Austen, and there are lots of happy endings but there are also a lot of cynical, ‘well that’s what happens’ endings as well. So I just think that Remains of the Day is one of those most perfectly realised stories and I am fascinated that it was Kazuo Ishiguro who was able to bring that through. That extraordinary sense of class and not being allowed to do things, not being allowed to say things and not being allowed to feel things.

Emma Thompson. Photo: Nick Haddow
Emma Thompson. Photo: Nick Haddow

What made you accept the role of housekeeper Miss Kenton and how much research did you do to get into character?

First of all, I accepted the role as it’s a wonderful role and I had just worked with Anthony Hopkins on Howards End [1992] and we had formed an incredibly powerful bond which then continued into The Remains of the Day and then found it hereafter in King Lear when I played I played his daughter Goneril. Tony and I are bound by hoops of steel.One of the reasons that I was deeply interested in it, and had a whole hoard of research at my disposal, was that my maternal grandmother was a servant from the age of 13. She had no schooling. Granny Annie was born into a clerical family and went as a servant at about 13 and by 14 she was good at it. She’d moved up in the ranks. There was a housekeeper in one of the places that she worked who would do things to test her like leaving money out on the staircase to see if she would be a tea leaf [thief] or not.She went to work during the First World War for a childless couple who lived in Brighton. When the Zeppelins came over the wife would say that she was scared and she would go stay with her mother. Then the man would go up and ‘have his way’ with my grandmother, who didn’t really understand what was happening. She got pregnant because of that… as it were… well rape.The result was my Uncle Fred who went into the Air Force. What was interesting about her experience was that not only was it very common but also that this childless couple had done it several times before and Granny Annie worked out that because they couldn’t have children, they would inseminate these tweenies and then offer to take the child, which is exactly what happened.So, to me, Miss Kenton was everything my grandmother represented. Someone who knew about the life of a house. She came to live with us for 17 years when I was young.I learnt about that you polish the floors on Friday, you did the brass polishing on a Saturday. She would lay out the newspaper on the kitchen table... and every time I smell polish I think of my grandmother, and I think of her blacking those stoves and I think of her being used in this way and I think of her bravery, extraordinary courage, and toughness.She brought up four children as a single mother, taking in washing, doing whatever. When she lived with us she went very deaf so I was unable to communicate with her as much as I would have liked. But I feel that Miss Kenton is my homage to Granny Annie.

There are some wonderful moments in the film between yourself and Anthony Hopkins so I wonder if you could share some memories of working with him both in this film and Howards End.

When I first met him, I had just been cast in Howards End and he has just finished The Silence of the Lambs, a film that changed his life. I just remember my mum, who had met him before as she was in ‘the biz’, probably when he was still an alcoholic – a very interesting change in Tony – I met him when he was at least seven years sober. She gave him a little note that just said, ‘Dear Tony, here is my daughter, please don’t eat her.’ So that broke the ice.I met him in a lift, and we just started giggling from the first moment. I remember when we were making Howards End that he had no notion of the meaning of the word coprophilia [intense interest in poo].For years later I would take one of those pretend dog poos and smuggle it into his hotel room and put it on a pillow instead of one of those little mints and sign it with a letter from the secretary of the coprophiliac society. So that’s the kind of terribly low-brow humour we were prone to. Remains of the Day was no different, although I think with Remains, Tony understood that character, he was much closer to that character than Mr Wilcox in Howards End, which he is not like at all.I mean he’s a working-class Welsh boy from the hills and mountains. He was one of those wild boys, the Richard Harrises, all that crowd were similar, and we all think of them as very romantic, but they were actually alcoholics, and that was really tough on them and the people around them. Tony recovered from that and continues to be one of the most beautiful people I know because of his essential gratitude about everything.He is still the kind of person who just says, ‘aren’t we lucky to be able to do this, aren’t we lucky to be allowed’ and also, we have been doing it so long that we are no longer afraid and can do whatever is asked of us without feeling self-conscious. He is one of my most valuable collaborators and one of my most valued friends in the business. I cannot think or speak of him too highly.

You’re obviously offered lots of parts in various projects, film and stage. What tends to influence you as to which one to go for? The people in it, the subject matter or whatever?

In a way the answer is contained within your question because it is always ‘what’s the subject, who are the people and how does it speak to me’ – not in my head, but inside my body. I don’t even mean to my heart, that’s not the main place. I feel these things in my entire body, and I always know if it’s the right thing for me to do or not.I was asked the other day what my comfort zone was in terms of accepting roles, and I suddenly realised for the first time as I had never been asked that before that I don’t have a comfort zone. So, I don’t think ‘oh yes I can do that’. I don’t ever think that, in fact I think ‘oh I’ve done that, I’d better do something else. That’s not because I want to reinvent myself, it’s just that I know that is what will inspire me to do my best work.For instance, the next two films I am making, the first I am playing the Dean of Westminster. There has never been a female Dean of Westminster or anyone representing that, so I am talking to women who are clerics and that is a very interesting conversation as you might imagine because it is a difficult journey.The other thing after that is a thriller set in Minnesota where I am playing an old fisherwoman. There are only four people in the movie, and we will be shooting in Bavaria for two months in the freezing cold. It’s going to be hell, and it’s not something I have done before. It’s a survival movie and that’s fascinating to me. So, I think, probably I have been quite helped by the fact that I just don’t want to repeat myself. Not for you… but for me.

Emma Thompson with Anthony Hopkins in Howards End
Emma Thompson with Anthony Hopkins in Howards End

Is there a role you turned down that you wish you hadn’t and is there a role you really like to do that hasn’t cropped up yet?

I’m afraid my answer to both of those questions is terribly dull as they are both ‘no’. I’ve never turned down anything that I thought ‘I wish I’d done that’. I’ve been turned down for things that I didn’t get that I would have liked to have got. I think a common fallacy about our profession is that once you get to a particular stage or a particular echelon that you are suddenly getting endless wonderful roles.But there aren’t endless wonderful roles, that’s the fact of it, and the most wonderful things that have come my way have been written for me by women.My friend and comedienne Katy Brand, who lives in Germany, is a wonderful writer. She wrote a film called Good Luck to You, Leo Grande which is about a 62-year-old retired religious education teacher who hires a 28-year-old sex worker because she’s never had an orgasm. Now that’s a fascinating and brilliant study of middle-English femininity, a person who has grown up in the shires, not in London. These things have been placed before me by other young writers, so I am so lucky in that sense that those things have come my way and I never ever think ‘Oh, I wish I could do this or that.’ And I think that’s probably quite helpful.Whenever I speak to young actors, I always say don’t wish for anything and certainly don’t wish for fame. That won’t do you any favours whatsoever. Always think ‘what’s going to really grab you internally’, because that is the thing you are going to be able to do really well. It doesn’t matter if it succeeds or not. It might grow you slightly, and if it does, the next time you will probably do a better job.

As a deeply respected actor and incredibly intelligent lady, how do you feel about the polarisation in the UK, especially post-Brexit?

I think that in this country at the moment there’s a feeling of deep disquiet and there is a great deal of on-the-ground, grassroots-level distress because of the levels of shortage and privation.One of the things that I have been working on recently is the level of food security – it is so bad in this country. One in five people are not food secure, and I have spent a lot of time working with the Food Foundation, who work with ambassadors who are young people who have literally gone hungry.When I was 16-years-old I was terrified, we were all going to be blown up. I was a member of CND, and the organisations that were fighting nuclear proliferation and I have been in conversation recently with Daniel Ellsberg who released The Pentagon Papers, and who was instrumental in allowing the world to understand the nuclear weapons proliferation was a real thing, and he is speaking out now because the war in Ukraine is making that situation a great deal more precarious.So that fear has come back, and that need to get rid of these things, because they have no place in our world. Nuclear bombs are not ‘responsible things’ basically. They are deeply irresponsible, as Oppenheimer said later on. I was very upset about Brexit because my Scottish grandfather fought in both world wars and thought ‘what on earth are we doing?’ dividing ourselves from countries that we were at war with not a very long time ago. This argument was never really brought up, and I think it as one of the most vital ones.There is war in Europe now. That was one of the things about Brexit that I thought was never argued. It was all about money, it was all about markets but, Brexit seemed to me to destroy the League of Nations, everything that my grandfather and people like him fought for in both of those wars.Everything is connected, if you then connect that to the question of climate change, so we are going to have deals with countries all across the world, which means that we are going to be exporting and importing goods from halfway across the world, how much is that going to cost in terms of carbon? That’s mad, it’s completely mad, so I welcome a lot so Labour’s policies.I am not a pundit; I am not terribly good at being a separate political force, even though I have got a political brain. I much prefer to find the genuine activist and try to amplify their voices because their voices are essentially much more authentic than anyone.

About Hosking Houses Trust

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Sarah Hosking, 83, bought a cottage in Clifford Chambers 26 years ago to establish the Hosking Houses Trust. The charity offers a retreat and sometimes financial support to women so that they can complete artistic or academic work. To find out more about the trust visit hoskinghouses.org.uk

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