Jane Asher: Queen of arts

Jane Asher. PIC: Simon Hulme
Jane Asher. PIC: Simon Hulme
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She was a child star who became the Queen of Cakes. Now starring in Great Expectations, Jane Asher talks to Sarah Freeman

Jane Asher isn’t what you’d call a method actor, but having been cast as Miss Havisham in a new production of Great Expectations she has added a few details to the Dickens’ tragic character.

Jilted at the altar, the heiress of a wealthy brewing family lives out the rest of her life in the sprawling Satis House, never removing the dress she should have been married in and leaving the wedding breakfast uneaten on the table. Asher could stomach the idea of the crumbling mansion. She could put up with rotting food, Miss Havisham’s wardrobe troubled her.

“I really don’t like to think of her sat there in the same wedding dress for years,” she says in between rehearsals at West Yorkshire Playhouse. “I mean it’s just not hygienic, is it? I like to imagine that she might occasionally do laundry.”

Cleanliness issues sorted, Asher says she is relishing getting her teeth into Dickens which has been given a timely reboot thanks to the BBC’ Dickensian series. Created by Tony Jordan, who for years was the lead writer on EastEnders, it took the author’s most famous characters from Scrooge to Fagin and cast them into a new murder mystery.

“I know sometimes when you mention Dickens’s name it’s a bit of a turn-off for some people who were forced to read it at school, but a show like that really showed how good he was.

“You can only imagine when they were published in weekly or monthly instalments how much people looked forward to them. Keeping an audience wanting more is such a clever thing.”

Asher made her acting debut as a six-year-old and was just 11 when she appeared in The Quatermass Experiment.

“I was spotted in the street and, so the story goes, it was my bright red hair which did it. I never went to stage school though for which I am eternally grateful. These days children can only work so many hours and there are a billion regulations about what they can’t do.”

Next month Asher will celebrate her 70th birthday and while many actresses complain parts dry up as they get older, it’s latterly she has arguably landed the most interesting roles.

In 2009 she played Delia in Peter Hall’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Bedroom Farce, she’s taken on the iconic Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and, at 64, appeared in her very first pantomime playing the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. When it comes to powerful female roles, Miss Havisham, she says is right up there.

“I hadn’t actually read Great Expectations, but Miss Havisham is such an iconic character that it was too good a part to turn down. She is a deeply tragic figure. There is no other way to see her but I do think towards the end she has a moment of realisation.

“Her heartbreak turns to bitterness and it completely infects her adopted daughter Estella who ends up so emotionally cold. She does, I think, ultimately see just how far her influence has stretched, but it’s too late. By then there is no way to right the wrong.”

While Asher doesn’t want to give away too much, what she will say is that unlike most productions this latest version isn’t told from the point of view of Pip who falls in love with Estrella only to find the relationship doomed.

“The book opens in a graveyard and the action moves from a great big pile like Satis House to factories and the docks, like all of Dickens it is incredibly detailed. When you are trying to recreate that on stage, the only way to do it is to pare it back.

“I still get a thrill about live theatre and am lucky interesting parts landed at my door. I don’t think you can ever plan these things.”

For a while in the early 1960s Asher was best-known for being Paul McCartney’s girlfriend. She has been married to the illustrator Gerald Scarfe since 1981. While the couple’s three children were young, Asher says she was reluctant to take jobs which involved long periods away from home. Instead she wrote cookery books and was crowned the Queen of Cakes and cast as a domestic goddess long before anyone had even heard of Nigella.

“It suited people to portray me like that and I didn’t mind, even if it was some way from the truth.”

Back then the idea that Asher would have teamed up with a company like Poundland would have seemed unthinkable. However, three years ago the discount store introduced a bargain baking range with Asher’s name emblazoned all over it. Launched just ahead of the hugely successful Great British Bake Off it became the company’s fastest selling range.

“I did have reservations if it was the right thing to do, but like everyone I began making basic recipes like gingerbread and I thought it would be a nice idea to make baking as accessible as possible. I fully expected that they would want to just put my name on existing products, but everything is designed from scratch.”

You wonder where she finds time but Asher is working with designers on a new hand mix which will complete the Poundland range. She says she answers all emails from customers – good and bad. She’s aware of how word and mouth can impact on sales, although when it comes to her own acting roles she says she learnt early on not to read reviews.

“Of course you can always tell whether things are going well, because there is a different buzz but I think it’s unwise to know what critics say. Even great reviews can put you off your stride. You get to the particular bit where they have said you have been so moving and you’re suddenly paralysed – you wonder how you did it.

“The one thing I really am grateful for is that Twitter wasn’t around when I was younger. Of course people have always said nasty things but at least in the past it was always behind your back. I think I prefer it that way.”

* Charles Dickens famously visited Leeds in 1866... on the way there by coach he noted he had “hot enthusiasm” about visiting Yorkshire, where he noted locals ordered pints of “yell” (ale, presumably), before trotting off “whoam”. He wrote of our “paucity of public houses”, until he learned they were mostly located off the main streets, in yards. He also revelled in hearing someone say “dom’d” (damned).

Great Expectations opens at the Playhouse on March 15, until April 2. Tickets range from £13-£29. Contact: 0113 213 7700, wyp.org.uk