Gilt-edged Bond: Our interview with Samantha Bond

Gilt-edged Bond: Our interview with Samantha Bond

See Bond star alongside Zoë Wanamaker in Passion Play, Richmond Theatre, April 12-20

From Moneypenny to Lady Macbeth, Samantha Bond has covered the spectrum of parts. She also has a romance with Richmond dating back to her childhood years. Lucy Johnston finds her hard at work on her eagerly awaited new role

I’m perched on a chair in the corner of a cavernous, creaking room in Hampstead’s Old Town Hall, waiting twitchily for Samantha Bond.

Twitchily because, 12 years ago, when I was a little green fledgling columnist, Samantha took exception to something I wrote about her in The Richmond Magazine – and said so in a subsequent interview with a broadsheet. I’ve not interviewed her since, and this silly small thing has always niggled. Now I feel as if I’m back at school, waiting to see not the headmistress, but the intimidatingly glamorous head girl.

She is here to rehearse a new staging of Peter Nichols’s Passion Play. With a stellar cast headed by Zoë Wanamaker, it opens this month at Richmond Theatre before, unusually, heading to the West End with only one stop en route.

Samantha – herself a Richmond girl to the core – glides gracefully into the room with a mug of tea, her arrival announced rather formally by the production manager. Shades of Downton Abbey, or any one of the period plays in which Samantha has starred. Like those period ladies, she is immaculately turned out, with that impeccable, smoky voice as the finishing touch. But her pretty, twinkling eyes betray a restless, witty spirit that is far more down-to-earth and impatient of formality than I had expected.

As for our misunderstanding, I needn’t have worried. She cannot now remember being irritated and thinks that what I wrote was actually a “terribly nice thing” to say. The twitching hour is past.

So we chat happily about her ‘career’ – a word she hates, but for which she can’t find a suitable replacement. She may not have fulfilled her original dream of becoming a ballerina, but a stage and screen ‘career’ that has ranged from Shakespeare’s leading ladies to Pierce Brosnan’s Moneypenny is not exactly bad for Plan B. And not forgetting her recent appearances “flitting in and out of Downton”, as she herself put it when news broke that she was leaving the series to work on meatier roles.

“I do generally like to get my teeth into good roles, rather than a little bit here and there,” she explains. “I’ve been very, very lucky all the way along in that respect.

“And, when I look at it now,” she mulls, “I was also very lucky that a role like Moneypenny didn’t end my career, as it did for my predecessors! She didn’t change my career either, in terms of my acting, but she did enable me to use the profile to support charity.”

Samantha is a patron of children’s charity Shooting Star CHASE, which has a hospice in Hampton, for which she helps to raise the vast sums necessary for a charity with no fixed state funding.

“I find that’s the most rewarding way to use your profile as a known face – I never wanted the celebrity myself, but it seems that most people will turn out for a Bond girl!” she exclaims, with mock dramatic effect. “So if I can use that part of my life to make a difference, I will.”

It is productions such as Passion Play, however, that provide the complex, substantial roles that suit Samantha so well. The plot charts the gradual deterioration of a solid, 25-year marriage, after husband James can’t resist launching into a passionate affair with the couple’s younger friend, Kate.

It’s a raw, uncomfortable, very real-world subject – not removed from reality by the bubble of a period drama – and Samantha likes it all the more for that.

“I think the best drama, the best experiences in theatre, come from cutting right to the core of real life. It can be painful to face, of course, for the audience and for the actors, but it’s life and we shouldn’t hide. And actually, in places, this play is also very funny; very darkly funny. Again like life.”

She pauses.

“I remember when I was doing Memory of Water, and my mother was very sick at that time. It made it tough to take on a play about the death of a mother, but it was also beautiful and vital and did a lot of good.”

In Passion Play Samantha plays Nell, who represents the inner voice of the cheated wife Eleanor, played by Zoë Wanamaker. Through clever settings, both personalities are on stage at the same time, though each is unaware of the other.

“I’m finding it really challenging, I have to say. It’s so unusual to be on stage with other characters but removed from their scene. My lines don’t directly engage with what anyone else is saying – I’m like the alternative consciousness. It makes it tricky to remember my lines in the right order, as I can’t rely on the usual cues!”

It also makes for some pretty intricate conversations during rehearsal between Samantha and Zoë.

“It’s a most peculiar thing. Because we are playing two sides of the same person, every decision about hair or mannerisms or emotional interpretation turns into a joint discussion. We end up turning to each other mid-scene and saying things like: ‘So, how do we feel about this point? How do we think we should react?’ It’s like a strange form of couples’ therapy!”

Home for Samantha is St Margaret’s, where she lives with her husband of near-on 24 years, fellow actor Alex Hanson. She first went there to live when she was nine, with her father – the actor Philip Bond – her late mother, the TV producer Pat Sandys, and her two siblings.

“I’ve been there all my life, on and off, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else now. It was funny, when I married Alex, he wanted to move right out to the country. So I whipped out the A–Z, pressed my finger to the map squares around Richmond and said: ‘But look! Look at all that green!’ And we’ve been there ever since. I owe a lot to the A–Z!” she exclaims, with evident satisfaction.

She loves the river, the parks – if you ever want advice on walking your dog without hassle from the deer, Samantha is your lady – and the community spirit.

“Sadly, I will have to miss the May Ball this year, because of this play, but you can tell everyone that I will be in the raffle… Well, not me exactly, obviously, but two tickets to the show and a bottle of something in the bar with me afterwards!”

She wafts a hand around casually, like a fairy godmother casting a good wish and making things so.

“It’s wonderful that we are opening at Richmond. Aside from the fact that I’ll be able to walk to work, which is a dream, I just adore that theatre. It always feels like performing to a nice, cosy armchair – and I mean that in the nicest possible way!”

Is it true, as I’ve heard, that she suffers from terrible stage fright?

“Yes!” she squeals, cringing and curling up on her seat, fists to her mouth. Then she stretches back out, laughing at my transparent attempts to reconcile this affliction with her decades of success on stage.

“It’s a really strange thing, I know. It’s not a case of my mind going blank, or suddenly finding that I’m wondering whether I turned the iron off, in the middle of a scene. It’s just this feeling of fear. It’s getting worse as I get older, too. I think the more you do, the more you learn, the more you become aware of your failings and all the things that could happen. My imagination can really run away with that!”

Intriguingly, her most acute experience of this fear was when she and her husband played opposite each other in An Ideal Husband.

“He knows me better than anyone, so he’d look into my eyes on stage and I’d think: ‘Oh, God, he can see it! He knows!’ Which made it much worse.”

Suffice to say, they have not performed together since – and, says Samantha, are in absolutely no rush to do so.

“It got quite silly. We’d get home in the evening after the performance and go: ‘So, how was your day, darling?’ Which is what we’d usually do. Our conversations sort of dried up for a while there!”

Sharing an industry does have its benefits though – as, for example, in helping each other learn lines. Samantha will pace up and down the kitchen, while Alex sits at the table with her script. They have even been known to remove all the furniture from their lounge, so as to make space to mark out the choreography of a particular scene.

“I do have a bit of trouble learning lines, until I’m actually able to visualise how they work with their surroundings. Then I have something to hook them onto. They tend to come together for me after that…”

Suddenly she’s on her feet in a mild panic, arms outstretched, long cardigan flowing behind her as she scampers to the far wall to touch an old wooden noticeboard and unjinx herself from her last, fate-tempting comment. She’s very superstitious, it turns out – so much so that, if anyone dares to mention the protagonist of the Scottish Play in her presence, they have to leave the room, turn around three times, spit, curse and then knock before they are allowed back inside.

“Speaking of memory,” she continues, “one of the things I’m quite hopeless at remembering is people’s names – and recalling where, and if, I’ve actually met them! I think it’s the same for most actors – that’s probably why we all call each other ‘darling’ much of the time!”

She pronounces ‘darling’ with a mock flounce and grins, before continuing with refreshing self-awareness.

“It’s disconcerting to be greeted by name, yet not be sure if you should be able to reciprocate. So, if someone says hello to me in the street in Richmond, I get terribly muddled and do quite often end up calling them ‘darling’ – which can be rather startling for them, I suppose!” she giggles apologetically.

And with that, she downs the remains of her tea, checks the time and makes her excuses – with the comical, charade-like act of someone measuring her head for a hat – then winks, stands and glides back to the door in one seamless movement.

“Do call me if you need to check anything, darling,” breezes the voice as she sweeps out.

Passion Play is at Richmond Theatre, Apr 12-20 (0844 871 7651) and the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, May 7 – Aug 3 (0844 871 7627) 

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