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Zoe's Sitting Comfortably

Graham Young Birmingham Evening News, 2001-01-01

There are stints as a barmy aunt, a smelly princess and a dog called Sylvia.  There are smash-hit television dramas, standing ovations on Broadway, and an enviable collection of Olivier and Tony awards.  But Zoë Wanamaker has never dipped her toes into a sitcom - until now.

'I always thought 'sitcom' meant sitting down comedy,' she says.  'I really did!  I mean, whenever I watched them, people were always sitting down, and that's what I thought they were - until somebody took me aside and said, 'No dear...  it's sit-u-a-tion comedy'.

In My Family, Zoe plays Susan, whose dentist husband Ben (Robert Lindsay) believes his entire life to be something akin to pulling teeth.  Susan and Ben have three children - Nick, 19 and enjoying a gap year spent mostly on the sofa; Janey, a 15-going-on-25-year-old who likes fashion and boys - but not brothers; and Michael, a bright and somewhat nerdy 12-year-old.

'I read the first two drafts of the script when I was on the way to the airport to fly to New York, and from reading it very briefly, I just thought it was a wonderful ensemble story,' says Zoe.

Although the actress initially thought that Susan was 'quite ditzy' - a trait with which she admits a degree of familiarity - now more than half-way through the filming, she is finding herself having to reassess Susan's character.

'The whole thing is a completely new experience for me and I'm learning as I go along really,' she frowns, running her fingers through her elfin-cut hair.

'With anything new, you're constantly trying to make it better and trying to make a path through it.

'Susan takes a positive view of life and she's trying to keep this eccentric family together.  She lives with a man who is always negative and that's why their relationship is so good - they're complete opposites.

'But I also think that Susan has her own secret life, and that's the thing I hold on to because you never really get to know Susan, which is, in itself, a clue.'

Zoe clearly relished the opportunity to work with Citizen Smith star Robert Lindsay, who plays the downbeat Ben - 'he's great, very inventive, and we've been friends for years, though we've never been married before' - and the young actors who play her on-screen brood, Kris Marshall, Daniela Denby-Ashe and Gabriel Thomson:

'What brings you together is this one piece of work...  and after a while you start to relax together, knit together and at some point start to know each other as a family.'

Although Zoë claims - with some relief - not to have experienced with her own family any of the difficulties that Susan faces with her children in My Family, there are scenes in the sitcom that ignite an immediate spark of recognition in the actor.

'We filmed a scene the other day in which Susan was getting things together to give away to the Oxfam shop.  And you do occasionally think, 'I'm gonna have a blitz,' and pile up all your clothes...  and then you start taking them away again because you think, 'Well, maybe I might wear that again!'

'What I didn't recognise - but what every male in the room did - was that at the end of her blitz, Susan had a huge pile of Ben's clothes and only one thing of her own!  So it's that sort of thing that has a flavour of family life...  it's the day-to-day stuff that is funny and charming.'

Family commitments aside, the last 18 months have been incredibly busy for Zoe.  In addition to My Family, she starred in the BBC's Gormenghast and David Copperfield; played Princess Caroline of Brunswick in Battle Royal at the National to great acclaim; and took Sophocles's Electra to New York.

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