An Interview with Paula Wilcox
A familiar face on TV and stage for over 40 years, Paula Wilcox is playing the title role in the touring stage version of Driving Miss Daisy at York Theatre Royal. Here, she talks about the character, her career and those infamous ‘cutting edge’ 70s sitcoms…
What did you know about Driving Miss Daisy before being offered the role?
Not very much. I knew there was a movie and I knew there was a play but I hadn’t seen the play and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the movie – although we feel we have because it’s so famous. Then I had a look at the play and it was so much better than I thought it was going to be. I thought it might be a little schmaltzy and very light. In fact, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Is this the first time you’ve worked with director Suzann McLean?
When I met Suzann I thought she was really somebody I wanted to work with because she seems to have quite a few ideas about the play and it’s nice to work with younger people who want to look at plays in a fresh way. Not that she’s reinventing Miss Daisy but has a fresh slant on it – and so have I never having seen it before.
What can you say about Daisy?
I identify with her a lot. She’s starting to feel her age and is a little bit out of touch with things. She feels quite angry about not being able to do things and also other people making decisions on her behalf. That’s very frustrating for women generally and for old people generally. When you are an older woman it can be deeply frustrating, when you are as intelligent and quick-witted as Daisy is, to have other people, particularly your son and your driver, thinking they know better than you.
“It was extraordinary”
Do you like Daisy?
I do like her very, very much. I like her spirit. I like her humour. And I like her vulnerability. As for her predicament, anybody who is older – she’s 72 – will know it’s very frustrating to be told you can’t drive any more.
How are you finding the American accent?
It’s a joy. I had actually spent some time in Savannah, Georgia, which isn’t very far away from Atlanta where the play is set, and listened a lot to the accent there. I got to know some people down there so I feel relatively confident. I like working in an accent and finding out why accents develop.
Do 1970s TV comedies The Lovers, Man About the House and Miss Jones and Son in which you starred still haunt you?
They were out of the norm. It’s hard to believe now but they were all a little bit daring at the time. The Lovers with Richard Beckinsale was quite cutting edge as well because it was about the permissive society and the boy wanting to be very permissive – sex before marriage and all that stuff – and his girlfriend being very old school.
The Lovers was your big break – how did that happen?
I was aged 17 and in the National Youth Theatre. The series writer Jack Rosenthal and producer June Howson saw me there. I wanted to be an actor but didn’t think I would. I was still at school and the National Youth Theatre was just something to do in the school holidays which seemed a perfect match for me. Then I was in a play for them called The Apprentices by Peter Terson. I went from that to The Lovers. It was extraordinary really. Then after The Lovers I did Man About the House and then everything led on from there.
How did theatre fit in among all the TV?
Because I had never studied acting I felt I needed to do an apprenticeship and turned down quite a lot of television to do work in the theatre, playing lots of nice roles.
Do you feel you’re getting the roles you want now?
I think I am really fortunate. As I get older I seem to be falling into parts that are quite demanding. For instance, I did a lovely play a few years ago called What Shadows by Chris Hannan which was about Enoch Powell. That was very controversial. It was a really good look at so many of the problems around immigration.
How relevant today are the themes of Driving Miss Daisy which is set over 25 years at key moments during the American Civil Rights movement?
Very relevant. There’s a part in the play where Hoke, the African American driver, talks about crossing the border into Alabama and how uncomfortable it feels. That can still be quite tricky in… I was going to say the Southern States but anywhere in the world now. It’s just so problematic, immigration and all that. It’s a play that’s really well worth revisiting. It’s timely in a way even though it’s 30 years old.
What do you remember about your last visit to York Theatre Royal in Shirley Valentine in 1989?
The thing I remember above all is the Minster. It made a huge impression on me and I’ve always wanted to come back. I also wanted to say that I think York is the most fantastic theatre. It has really great facilities for actors and for everyone who works there. The facility to make costumes on site is thrilling. You are not just going round town to second hand shops trying to find things. It’s really quite lovely what Emma (Emma Wee, set and costume designer) has designed for Driving Miss Daisy. It’s quite nostalgic too. It was a time when women dressed very daintily and prettily.
I can’t say. There is a no disclosure clause in the contract. But we’ve just finished the third series of Upstart Crow (the Ben Elton comedy in which she plays Shakespeare’s mother) and have our fingers crossed for a third.