Thursday, 27 September 2012

'I always think beauty secrets should remain secret'

She was the child star who grew into one of our finest actors. But fame came at a price. Jane Asher tells Sarah Chalmers about loniliness, cruel chaperones and her new devotion to swimming

Whatever the part, be it a theatrical incarnation or a real-life role, the overriding impression actress Jane Asher exudes is one of perfection.

In interviews she appears impeccably groomed, enviably slim and age-defyingly youthful. Not only has she enjoyed a six-decade career on stage, film and television while raising three children, but she has also managed to turn a passion for baking into a successful business, pen three novels and represent a host of charities. And let us not forget she was also the girl who first stole Paul McCartney’s heart when she met him as a 17-year-old and then became his fiancée.

So it is something of a surprise – and no little relief – to discover she is as plagued by self-doubt as the next woman, questioning everything from the frivolity of her main career to her early life away from home and lack of a university education.

With slightly tousled hair, spectacles and a simple top and trousers, the Jane Asher who takes a break from rehearsing her latest play is not the flawless, grown-up Barbie doll I was expecting, but all the more interesting for it. A slight figure, at 66 she does indeed boast a silhouette women half her age would be proud of, but she has always insisted she is not a beauty – she has merely taken care of herself.

‘I always think that beauty secrets should remain secret,’ she says. And while her skin is peachily smooth, her lopsided grin and angular, mobile face do not look like those of a woman who has gone under the knife.

‘Once you’ve put on a bit of mascara you’ve established the principle that you are not entirely natural, but I was fortunate to have red hair. I could never go in the sun because I would burn horribly and that has kept my skin better than it would have been.’

She doesn’t diet, but eats healthily – ‘I’ll have a chocolate croissant if I want one but we do eat less red meat now than we used to, and more fish’ – and is a recent convert to swimming.

‘Over the years I’ve tried yoga and Pilates but never kept them up, but I’ve been swimming for a couple of years now and I try to go every day, near my London home. It’s good for keeping creaky old joints moving and it’s part of my job to keep the equipment in good nick.’

With many years of showbusiness experience, Asher has perfected the art of being delightfully polite and chatty, while being careful not to give away anything too personal. The subject of Paul McCartney – whom she first met when she interviewed him for the Radio Times, and who later moved into her family home with her – is one that remains off-limits.

‘I can’t imagine wanting to write about personal stuff. I’ve never wanted to do an autobiography and I’m not being coy, but I don’t know how people can remember stuff from years ago unless they’ve kept incredibly detailed diaries, which I haven’t,’ she says.

She refuses to be defined by her part in the Swinging Sixties so has had a long and varied career. She will soon be seen on the London stage in Charley’s Aunt, opposite Mat Horne who played Gavin in Gavin & Stacey. Her introduction to the profession she is ‘smitten by’ came at the age of just five when a producer spotted her in the street and offered her a part in the film Mandy (1952). By the age of 15 she had notched up 100 stage, film, theatre, TV and radio appearances.

Her elder brother and younger sister also acted as children, but both moved into different careers as adults. ‘I was hooked from the first lick of mascara, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think I should have done something more useful with my life. When you’re a child, getting work pretty much all the time is seductive and addictive.

‘When I was working I was taken out of school and had a private tutor – where you learn 10 times more than you would otherwise – and I was treated like an adult, and put in a car and taken places and it was thrilling.’ Jane says she was having ‘so much fun working’ she didn’t pursue her A levels, and so ‘never went to university either, which I think I’d have enjoyed’.

Last year she did an Open University module on autism (she is president of the National Autistic Society) and says: ‘I suppose I came to do the serious stuff in a roundabout sort of way because I’m fascinated by autism. Most of the charities I support are medical (Arthritis Care and Parkinson’s UK), which is something, like my father, I’m really interested in.

As a child, Jane was close to both her father Richard, a writer and an eminent physician who discovered Munchausen’s Syndrome, and to her mother Margaret, who taught oboe at the Guildhall. She was hugely supportive, ‘always telling me everything I did was wonderful’. Since her death last year, Asher always keeps a doll her mother made her in her dressing room as a reminder.

But with hindsight she wonders if her parents made the right decision to let her pursue a career as a child actor. ‘I used to be loath to talk about this when my mum was alive because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings but if I’m absolutely honest I do think it made me a bit insecure, being away from home at such a young age.’

Jane was often away for several weeks at a time, separated from her family, while still a young child. ‘I do have memories of being with a chaperone who wasn’t particularly nice or kind, in digs somewhere strange.’
Jane-Asher-02-590Rehearsing Charley's Aunt with Leah Whitaker (left) and Steven Pacey

She specifically recalls being with a chaperone at the Oxford Playhouse, playing Alice In Wonderland when she was aged about 12: ‘So quite old, but I can still remember that fear of being away from Mum and Dad and home. There were quite a few moments of unhappiness or homesickness.’

Jane doesn’t blame her parents, who she said always made her feel incredibly loved, adding: ‘If they’d believed I was unhappy they’d never have let me go on doing it for a minute, but I’m sure I was saying everything was wonderful, as children do.

Nevertheless, she made sure that none of her own three children by cartoonist husband Gerald Scarfe – Kate, 38, Alex, 30 and Rory, 28 – became a child actor. ‘It’s just not healthy for young children either to be told they are brilliant, or that their nose is too big for a certain part. It gives them such a skewed image of themselves. ‘I had lots of lovely offers for them to be in things with me and of course it’s tempting, but really, it wouldn’t have meant anything to them, it would have been my thing.’

When the children were young, she turned a youthful pastime into a business. Jane started writing books on cake decorating and subsequently opened a shop in Chelsea, which now has seven employees. Once grown up, Kate followed her mother into acting. Mother and daughter have never appeared together but both would love to – that’s if Jane’s hectic schedule ever allows it.

Charley’s Aunt opens on 1 October and follows on the heels of a host of acting jobs this year, including a pilot for BBC Three, a comedy on Channel Four and a film. In fact it’s been such a busy year that Jane asked the play’s director if she could start rehearsals a little later (her character only appears in the second half) as she and husband Gerald had not had time for a holiday.

Whenever there are any pauses in those rehearsals she whips out her knitting needles and whirrs away at another couple of rows of the green alpaca 1950s-style sweater she is knitting for herself.

Baking, Jane insists, is now something she only indulges in at the weekend. ‘I put The Archers on, do a bit of baking and enjoy it enormously. It takes my mind off all the more serious things in life.’

She has an idea for a new novel (though insists that this is ‘not the same as actually doing it’), and recently added chair covering to her ever-lengthening list of accomplishments. ‘I don’t think I’m one of those people who always has to have something on the go, but it’s very hard to be objective about yourself. I’m just happy to be working.

‘I actually think there are lots of parts for women my age because the character I am playing in Charley’s Aunt – and others like her – is probably only meant to be in her 40s but I can still play her 20 years on.’

And if she stays out of the sun and keeps swimming, she’ll probably still be treading the boards in another 20 years from now.

Jane Asher appears in Charley’s Aunt at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1, until 10 November: 020-7378 1713,

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