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Give the Ugly Girls a Chance

Vanessa Collier TV Times, 1973-06-16

Give the Ugly Girls a Chance image #0

Zoe Wanamaker's views on leading ladies

In the airy, bright, higgledy-piggledy bohemia of a little flat five flights of stairs above North London's Primrose Hill, Zoe Wanamaker says there should be more people like her on television. 'Ugly people,' she says.

'Television is always being so pretty.  Leading ladies are too easy on the eye.  I can't associate with them half the time.'  Of her first television lead part as Lorna, the prim 29-year-old nurse in the play Lorna and Ted, on Sunday, she says: 'It's right that I should be cast as a boring girl.  Well, not right, but who'd believe, say, Raquel Welch in a part like that?'

She is wearing faded Levi jeans and a denim smock, and her brown suede wedges clunk on the bare kitchen floor-boards as she prepares a lunch of leek soup and spring onions.  The meal is for a bunch of friends from the musical Kingdom Coming, at the nearby Roundhouse.  As she cooks, Zoë complains, too modest by far, of her broad shoulders and her broader beam; of being 5ft 4in, and weighing 9 st.  Her 'plainness' is a personal hang-up sparked off by her real professional commitment.

'As an actress you're selling yourself as a product.  If they say they don't want you, it's the product they don't want, not you.  But it's hard to remember, hard not to feel personally rejected each time.'

The 'plastic packaging' (her words) required especially of actresses in America, is one of the reasons for her not going back to the country where she was born.  Besides that, it's not home to her.  England, and London, is.  Zoë was brought up in Hampstead and all she remembers of the Wanamaker's country house in Connecticut is that it 'was pretty wild and wolves howled in the distance.'

These are the blurred images of a three year-old child, but wolves of a different sort were howling in the distance.  McCarthy wolves.  After Senator McCarthy's allegations in the Senate and the televised Congress Un-American Activities Committee's hearings and investigations, a paranoia swept through America in the early Fifties.  Zoë's father, Sam Wanamaker, actor, producer and director, and self-made son of Russian émigrés, found himself blacklisted and therefore out of work.

In 1952, the Wanamaker family moved to London.  'Daddy,' says Zoë, 'has always had to be where the work was.'  Now her father and mother, ex-actress Charlotte Holland, live in Southwark, South London, just to be near their brainchild, the Bankside Cultural Centre.

'The great thing about my parents is they never stop.  They're a joy to be with.  They live their lives in absolute chaos, but then it's never been any other way in our family.  It is very productive, especially at my parents' age.'

Apart from a 12-week Shakespeare season, due to start this month in a marquee near the site of Shakespeare's original Globe Theatre, there's promise of a children's exhibition and sculpture exhibition.  There's a cinema and museum attached to the Centre's complex.  The Bear Garden's Museum is housed in an 18th century warehouse.  'My mother's having a great time there, taking people round and talking to them.'

Generally Zoë keeps quiet about her parents.  'People either love my father, or hate him.  If they hate him, they have a habit of coming up to me in pubs and grabbing me by the throat.'

There are six years between the Wanamaker daughters.  Zoe, at 24, is the 'piggy in the middle'.  Abby, her eldest sister, is a speech therapist in America; Jessica, the younger one, is 'helping out at some English prison or other before going on to university to study Russian, Law and Politics.'

Ask Zoë, who speaks so urgently about social injustice, why she, unlike the others, chose acting as a career and she'll tell you she 'freaked out as a temp', found painting (she did a pre-Diploma course at London's Hornsey College of Art) 'too much like hard work.  Acting was there at the time, but now I can't avoid it.  If I ever change, it will be to get Venice back on its feet, or something concrete like that.'  And as far as politics are concerned, she suspects the motives of middle-class people who act out of conscience.  'We've all been brought up to care.  I talk as if I know so much about it all but I don't.  I just tend to sound my mouth off.'

At drama school Zoë got herself the reputation of being the girl who hid, cringing, at the back of the class.  Sam Wanamaker pulled his budding wallflower up sharply one day: 'Do you think somebody's going to say, \\\\\\\"Ah!  That little girl behind the radiator.  She's fantastic.  We'll have her\\\\\\\"?  If you want to be in this business you've got to do something about it.'

She did.  In the three years since she was at drama school, she has hardly stopped working, playing parts ranging from Shakespeare to Dick Whittington's Cat to the whore in Guys and Dolls.  Has it helped, being the daughter of a famous father?  'Of course, the name's helped.  None of the Redgraves changed their names, it rings bells.  But that's where it stops.'

With thanks to Kerrie for this interview.

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