February 1975. The Labour Party in government under Harold Wilson. It was the week of the Conservative leadership election that brought Margaret Thatcher to the top of her party. In The Observer, Clive James, whose weekly TV column was always the first thing one turned to on a Sunday morning, was engaged in his favourite sport, baiting Michael Parkinson:
This week’s number 2 lady superstar was Helen Mirren, who squared off against Parkinson (BBC1) in yet another doomed attempt to scale down her vitality within the limits of the medium’s butter-brained expectations. Parky kept referring to ‘your physical attributes’, apparently oblivious to the fact that his gesturing hands were busy grasping a pair of imaginary breasts. La Mirren bashfully dodged such frivolous questioning but seemed all unaware that no other form of questioning was available – as a serious actress she seemed to think that the true topic for the evening, serious acting, was somehow being purposely held back. The truth was, of course, that it had never been conceived of: whatever Parky might be, he isn’t devious. When she told him that Playboy was a disgusting magazine, there was no reply, the opinion doubtless having been dismissed as an aberration. She sneezed. Her shoulder-strap fell down. O! that I were a glove upon that hand! That I might touch those physical attributes!(Clive James, Observer, 16 February 1975, Review section, p28)
Thirty years later, and the man himself is in apologetic mood:
… you can really admire someone, and long to meet them, only to be disappointed when you do. My first meeting with Helen Mirren was like that. I enjoyed her as an actress and thought she was a beguiling woman, an intriguing blend of intelligence and sex appeal. When she first came on the show she wore a revealing dress and carried an ostrich feather. This might have accounted for a clumsy line of questioning about whether or not her physical attributes stood in the way of being recognised as a serious actor. Ms Mirren bridled and wondered if I was asking if breasts prevented her from being taken seriously. I was wrong-footed and blundered on to a point where I could feel her hostility. We didn’t meet again until many years later, and we recalled that first meeting. Helen said she thought I behaved like a complete ass and I couldn’t disagree.(Michael Parkinson, Parky: My Autobiography, pbk edn, 2009, p206)
I remember watching this interview when it was originally broadcast. I squirmed. The nation squirmed. Perhaps I squirmed more than most – an adolescent punch-drunk on literary studies, imagining myself some obscure vassal and Mirren my liege-lady:
She look’d as grand as doomsday and as grave;And he, he reverenced his liege-lady there…(Tennyson, ‘The Princess’)
It was hard to visualise Parky crammed into the stalls at The Other Place, Stratford, or peering down from the gods at the Aldwych. Cricket was his thing, surely, not Shakespeare? Since then, the whole interview has been issued on DVD (in a box set of her work for the BBC) and, inevitably, uploaded to YouTube.
It makes curious viewing now. These days Dame Helen is a frequent guest on chat shows. She comes across as amiable and relaxed. She’s happy to answer questions on any subject under the sun and can be relied on to deliver herself of headline-grabbing – and occasionally bonkers – opinions. She seems unfazed by, even prepared to laugh about, some of her past indiscretions, positively basking in the admiration that is now accorded her (and not averse to milking the applause, I notice, as she makes her entrance). In 1975 her younger self was much more suspicious of the publicity machine. And with good reason: in portraying her as “Stratford’s very own sex queen” (a notorious headline of the day), the British media were a threat. They could undermine the seriousness of purpose which radiates from all the work she did at the time (which was primarily in theatre – she had little profile as a film actress when this was recorded). Sure, the Parky interview is “sexist”, though not particularly so by the standards of the time, or the standards of his other interviews. What seemed to bug her was not so much the line of questioning as the fact that he refused to “spit it out” (as she put it). Euphemism was the enemy here. Once he’d embarked on a risky interview strategy, old-school gallantry held back the Greatest Living Yorkshireman from naming of parts.