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Francesca Annis - London Times (Sept. 30, 1998)

(Warning--contains spoilers about "Reckless: The Sequel")

London Times - Sept. 30, 1998

Francesca Annis on love, therapy and
being a sex symbol.
Interview by Richard Barber

She was recently chosen by Radio Times readers
as the sexiest woman ever on television. It
suits the media, she says, to have a middle-aged
femme fatale.
Photograph by: GILL ALLEN

'I can see that I'm playing with fire'

There are three of us in the discreet drawing room of the hotel in South Kensington, and Francesca Annis is the most nervous. By a considerable margin. "I've been downstairs in the loo," she volunteers, "and I felt a bit agoraphobic. I had this image of trench warfare; I was about to go over the top and I knew I couldn't win. Down there, nobody could get me. Silly, isn't it?"

She flashes a hopeless smile, then embarks on what turns out to be the protracted business of getting herself comfortable for her imagined ordeal. First she asks the television company's minder to sit in one chair, then another, then she decides she doesn't like her in silhouette against the window.

"No, look, I'm awfully sorry," she announces, her mind made up. "But would you mind frightfully leaving the room altogether? I just feel I'd be playing to an audience with you here." The minder, politeness itself, melts away as Annis turns her attention to whether she should sit back in her chair or on its very edge.

On the edge seems to come more naturally. Throughout much of our conversation, statements are made, then questioned and retracted. I lose count of the number of times she says something, stops short and asks herself, "Now, why do I say that?" At one point, turning herself in two to say something, anything, that she is happy to stand by, she looks at my tape-recorder. "Don't you want to check that's working?" she asks, in some desperation.

The reason Annis is so nervous is not difficult to understand. ITV is now rerunning Reckless, in which late-40s Anna (Annis, 53 in real life) is in the grip of a torrid affair with Owen (Robson Green), an early-30s surgeon. On Sunday, October 11, some 15 million viewers - the series was a thumping hit on its first outing - are expected to tune in to two-and-a-half hours of Reckless: The Movie, a glorious slab of high-class tosh in which all will be resolved.

This in itself would be insufficient reason to explain the leading lady's current state of high twitch. But as all the world must know, a little less than three years ago, Annis fell tumultuously in love with Ralph Fiennes: piquantly, she played Gertrude, mother to his Hamlet in an acclaimed production at London's Hackney Empire.

Fiennes, now 35, left his wife, the actress Alex Kingston, also 35, while Annis finally walked out on photographer Patrick Wiseman, 60, father of her children, girls of 20 and 17, and a l3-year-old son.

It was a watershed in her life which she has so far refused to discuss, but even she cannot resist acknowledging the unanswered question. "I suppose people must wonder why I'd choose a part where art could seem to be imitating life," Annis says. "But I was contracted to make Reckless before all the mayhem of the past two or three years." In the circumstances, she concedes that her continuing affair with Fiennes (she has just returned from visiting him in Budapest on the set of his latest film) coinciding with her on-screen romps with Robson Green "must have been a publicist's dream".

She already knew how bad it could be. When she was 16, and cast as Elizabeth Taylor's handmaiden in Cleopatra, she witnessed how the encircling media could devour someone's private life - in this case, Taylor's consuming affair with Richard Burton. It taught her to be wary. "I don't want three million people digesting my private life over their cornflakes. Yes, I can see that I'm playing with fire. But I maintain the rather old-fashioned view that this is my work and it's in the public arena, but that doesn't entitle everyone to know what happened at home before coming here . . ."

It's no mystery why Annis should exert such a strong hold over what used to be Fleet Street. With her olive complexion (a half-French, half-Brazilian mother), her slanting brown eyes, her creamy voice, her willowy figure, she has lost little of her allure over more than three decades as a highly respected actress.

She was recently chosen by Radio Times readers as the sexiest woman ever on television. It suits the media, she says, to have a middle-aged femme fatale. So she doesn't recognise this image of herself?

"I don't really have an image of myself." Pause. "Now, is that true? Well, maybe I do and it's different, which is why I get shocked when I see how other people experience me. I see myself primarily in a domestic setting." Perhaps, but she is being a touch disingenuous. In the final decade of her years with Patrick Wiseman, she had two high-profile affairs and there were strong rumours of a third.

First, there was Ian Ogilvy when the two appeared together in a West End production of Chekhov's The Three Sisters. And then came Fiennes, a betrayal too far for the long-suffering Wiseman. "The fault, of course, was mine," he said bitterly. "She was not guilty of anything. Her children were informed that she had not left them, only me. She did, however, apologise to me for her behaviour over the past ten years."

Annis wrings her hands. "It's like a nightmare, like being in an anxiety dream. You want to speak and you can't, and everything is going on around you. You feel the need for clarity and yet at the same time why should you justify your personal actions to people who don't even know you? In time, of course, you do wake up.

"I used to start each day thinking, 'Oh God, what's today's anxiety going to be?' But I'm not as anxious as I was. I've learnt to drop my shoulders." (Well, if she says so . . .) "Most things these days, I'm really not going to get my knickers in a twist about."

Three years ago, she paid her first visit to a therapist. "I was very, very low. I needed to say things to somebody that I didn't want to say to anybody else. I needed to let it all out. I found it tremendously cathartic." But the end, when it came, was wretched, she says, and no less so for the fact that she and Wiseman had never married.

"The sadness and the hurt and the fury and the confusion must be the same whether you are married or not . . . It hasn't changed my mind about being married. Patrick and I were together for 21 years. No one can trivialise that."

It is reckoned to be difficult for famous beauties to cope with the march of time. Annis professes to be unconcerned. "It's like a fire. It goes through a journey, and each stage is interesting. I don't regret the passing of time. I try to live in the present, which should mean my life's full. In my 40s, I didn't look back at missed opportunities in my 30s."

And in her 50s? "I'll let you know when I'm 60. But I do find it interesting not being looked at all the time as a sexual object."

Is that really true? "Look, I've walked out of enough supermarkets in my time to notice how often people open the door for me. I'm conscious of a new canvas opening up. Actually, I've just discovered gardening."

So this is a good time? "Oh, I hate that. It's funny, this thing about happiness. It's a commodity that was imported from America in the Fifties. I see myself simply as living my life, just getting on with it. I'm not unhappy . . . But I feel it's pushing your luck to define how happy you are."

At the conclusion of Reckless: The Movie (if you don't want to know the result look away now), Owen and Anna do indeed get married. Does she believe that would have happened? Much shuffling and rearranging of outer garments. Tinkly laugh. "Mmm. Well, yes. Didn't you? I did, because Anna was a very straight woman who believed in one-to-one relationships and in marriage."

And how does she view the looming interest in her private life? "I shall continue to buy the papers I always buy and then I won't have to read all the bogus speculation. I'm not," she says with some finality, "a masochist, you know."

Reckless: The Movie will be screened on ITV on October 11, 1998 at 9pm.




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