Entertainment & Arts

Geraldine James: From 'Bitty' to Chekhov

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Media captionGeraldine James on her role in Chekhov's The Seagull.

Geraldine James on the funny side of Chekhov - and how her Little Britain cameo helped get her cast in the US movie version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

With her chiselled cheekbones and Titian locks, Geraldine James has been one of the most recognisable actresses across stage, screen and TV during the past three decades.

In her latest stage role, she plays a fading actress in a new production of Chekhov's Seagull at London's Arcola Theatre.

"I read the script and I thought, 'She's a complete cow! I don't want to play this part!'" says James ahead of the opening night.

She was, however, persuaded to take on the role of Arkadina by her husband, Joseph Blatchley, who also directs and co-translated the new version.

This is Chekhov with the original censor's cuts restored. References to dishonesty and thieving are back, adding - says James - texture to some of the characters in the play.

The story, set in 19th Century rural Russia, sees an an anxious young writer, Konstantin (Al Weaver), put on a performance of his new play, with disastrous consequences.

Image caption The cast includes Roger Lloyd Pack as doctor Dorn

"It's a funny play," James says. "Chekhov calls it a comedy, the original production was a complete catastrophe, and the audience laughed at it in completely the wrong way. Chekhov was very upset and said he'd never write another play."

The play's comic credentials are boosted by the presence of Roger Lloyd Pack, star of TV comedies such as Only Fools and Horses and The Vicar of Dibley.

"As with Shakespeare, we keep revisiting Chekhov," says James.

"For some reason in England, the word 'Chekhovian' is associated with drifting about with a parasol, a lot of weeping, and drinking tea from a samovar.

"But it's about real people - it's about family relationships and the way people want to be recognised for who they are."

James's last stage role was in 2009, when she starred as Gertrude opposite Jude Law in Hamlet on Broadway.

She had already worked with Law on Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movie, and will reprise her role as landlady Mrs Hudson in a sequel due out at the end of 2011.

"Something very dramatic happens to poor Mrs Hudson," James says.

Her other recent film appearances have included Made in Dagenham, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and the remake of Arthur with Russell Brand.

Swedish accent

But it is a role in David Fincher's Hollywood remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that excites her the most.

James plays Cecelia Vanger in a cast that includes Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander.

Shooting has taken place in Sweden - where most of the story as set - as well as Los Angeles, Oslo and London. "I had to work on my Swedish accent," James says.

She notes, with a hint of regret, that her character does not get to have a fling with Blomkvist, as in Stieg Larsson's novel.

"David Fincher is an actor's director. It's a bit frightening on the first day because you film a scene and he says, 'Do it again', and then you get to take 30 and you think you're no good, but you realise it's just how he works."

James suddenly grabs my microphone and speaks into it in deep, dramatic tones: "I would love to do more with David Fincher - broadcast that!"

The 60-year-old actress, who made her name in lavish ITV drama The Jewel in the Crown in 1984, gained a new generation of fans in the 21st Century through her cameos on BBC comedy sketch show Little Britain.

She played the upper-class mother who continues to breastfeed her grown-up son Harvey Pincher (David Walliams) whenever he cries "Bitty!"

"I think I may have got the part in Dragon Tattoo because of Little Britain," James says. "David Fincher came up to me and said, 'It is you, isn't it?' He absolutely adores it."

She admits it was a "wild card" job, but didn't think twice about doing it.

"I do get 12-year-olds on the tube coming up and saying, 'Bitty', which is a little disconcerting - and also men of a certain age.

"A lot of people are appalled. My acupuncturist's receptionist can barely look at me anymore because I did Little Britain. She just blushes and gets someone else to write my receipt.

"But it's great for the old CV - when I go into heaven I can say, 'Tick - I've done Shakespeare, done Chekhov, done a few movies and done Little Britain.'

"What more can an actress ask for?"

Seagull is at the Arcola Theatre, London E8, until Saturday 16 July.

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