Helen Mirren is a very likely young lady indeed, a rising star, already twinkling. At 23 she is among the highest paid members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Once "The Silver Tassie" gets under way next Monday, London will be seeing her in three of the RSC's four current productions: as Cressida, a lady who loves ardently, passionately and disastrously, in John Barton's production of 'Troilus and Cressida'; as the pert, teenaged Hero in Trevor Nunn's "Much Ado About Nothing"; and as Susie Monican in 'Tassie'. And in November she is to the public in her first commercial film role, as the oft-naked beachgirl Cora in 'The Age of Consent', in which she stars opposite James Mason.
Maybe a star is born, after all. As a little girl Miss Mirren vowed that when she made it, she would not just be brilliant; she would be the greatest thing ever. Her eyes, saucers of blue, light up. "I've always carried around this vision of myself as 'the star' in the Elizabeth Taylor, Sarah Bernhardt tradition, standing there in the middle of the stage in false eyelashes."
Certainly she has not known life as an extra. From school days, when she played a bosomy Ophelia ("without the dirty songs; pigs"), to the National Youth Theatre and a sexy Cleopatra, to the RSC and sexy Susie, she has experienced only the surging feeling of bigtime. At 19, when she made her debut with the NYT at the Old Vic, her Cleopatra was dubbed variously "sensual," "graceful," "buxom," and "especially telling in projecting the woman's sluttish eroticism".
Miss Mirren is still widely regarded as a sexy actress. But her sensuousness - or at least the descriptions of her sensuality - has always embarrassed her. And although in bed at night shae has often thought of herself as sensual, arrogant, desirable, passive, submissive, violent, the lot, the fact that other people should see her this way worries her. "I've been blonde and sexy-looking since I was 14", she says, tucking silky long hair behind round ears, "and it's just horrid because people have a fixed attitude towards you because of what you look like, and you can't break through it".
She blinks and pouts, and I know what she means. "For a while I deliberately played down my sexy qualities. This was my big mistake when I first played Cressida at Stratford last year: I fought against the sensualist, well, against the obvious sensualist, the open, free, sexy, ordinary, slightly silly girl. I wanted to make her intelligent and sharp and sexy, but neurotically sexy; something, in fact, she absolutely isn't. Now I don't bother. I feel I no longer have to prove anything particularly about myself."
Miss Mirren, holder of seven "O" levels and two "A" levels, and daughter of a Southend chief traffic examiner, went to a convent school from the age of 10 until she was 17, an environment has more than once brought out the worst (or the best, depending on your point of view) in a girl.
It was forbidden for the girls to lie in the grass, or to undo their shirts in the summer, and just before the holidays the headmistress would gather them together and implore them to avoid "certain chocolate" which might be given to them at parties and which would make them do "terrible things".
"It was as though these chocolates were going to make us strip all our clothes off and run about in free abandon and jump on people and have sex orgies", says Miss Mirren.
The school's lack of men also had a great psychological effect on her. It later made her want to "make up" for what she had "lost" at school. Sex was not mentioned in any one of the seven years she was at the convent, though when she was in the fifth form she was shown, in company with several other bus-loads of kids from the area, a film about the birth of a baby (intended for midwives), which she says was silly because it did not show intercourse and the actual creation. It was a traumatic experience. "When the lights came up I felt so embarrassed about my body that I didn't dare lift my eyes from the floor, imagining that all the boys were looking at me and thinking, 'We know what you've got under that gym-slip; it's no use hiding it.' I couldn't look at a fella for a long time afterwards. I was just fantastically repulsed by it all, and I decided I would never have sex myself."
But now she says she is very experienced , and finds life very romantic and thrilling. She is a devotee of dirty books, and read three volumes ("or was it four?") of 'A Thousand And One Nights' when she was 13, having found te books at the bottom of her parents' wardrobe when they were out shopping. "It's a great dirty book to start off on," she enthuses matter-of-factly, "and reading it now, one sees what a very beautiful book it is."
There are limits, and she wouldn't enjoy a pornographic film (though she did not mind 'Belle de Jour'), and she finds it embarrassing watching people kissing on television. It makes her heated under the collar and she doesn't know where to put her eyes. Even so, she is very conscious that unlike most of her colleagues in the theatre nowadays, she has not yet appeared in a dirty play; and she would like more than anything to work with Peter Brook.
She leans forward to clarify what she has just said. "It's not that what Peter Brook does is dirtier than anyone else's work, because actually it isn't. But he knocks away many more inhibitions from an actor, he strips him far more naked than by just using four-letter words on stage or looking as though you're copulating. In fact, that alone wouldn't knock away any inhibitions. It seems that what he does is to get to the core of an actor's insecurity and just lay it open and make him face it and, I suppose, overcome it.
It was people like Peter Brook and Peter Hall that made her want to join the RSC in the first place, because of an atmosphere of experiment and youth and positiveness. But now that she is in the company, she finds it complicated and far too big in its set-up, and she says that it tries to pretend it is an ensemble company when it is not.
Perhaps she has something there. In one of the dressing rooms at the Aldwych there is a notice on a table mirror which reads: "All men are ensemble - but some are more ensemble than others." To be an ensemble, she says, the RSC needs to be a lot smaller, when every actor does every conceivable kind of role. But she would be a fool if she was not really happy with her lot, though the responsibility that has been thrust on her so young does sometimes scare her.
Miss Helen Mirren, though, has always set herself targets, and her target today is that in 10 years time she will be accepted as a significant classical actress of our time. If, in 1979, the RSC is the sort of ensemble company she would like it to be, then she has no doubts that she will still be a member of it, God willing. Otherwise it will be a life of guest appearances with Paul Scofield, Eric Porter, Judi Dench et al. "And that," says the very sexy, very ambitious, and occasionally self-deriding Miss Mirren, "would be quaite naice."
Guardian, Thursday September 4th 1969.
Playing Shakespeare/Troilus and Cressida