HARRIET THORPE is one of the UK’s best-loved actresses (Absolutely Fabulous, The Brittas Empire etc). This Christmas she takes centre stage as the Wicked Queen in the classic fairy-story SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS at Bath’s Theatre Royal.
As well as her many television roles, multi-talented actress Harriet Thorpe brings a wealth of stage experience to the role of Wicked Queen having starred in the West End in Wicked, Les Miserablés and Sweeney Todd. Recently, Harriet starred in the world premiere of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s new musical The Girls, and played Her Ladyship in the West End production of The Dresser alongside Ken Stott. Her film work includes Calendar Girls, Life is Sweet, Maurice and Absolutely Fabulous The Movie. As part of a diverse career, Christmas 2017 sees Harriet make her pantomime debut in Bath.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs marks your first foray into pantomime. What are you most looking forward to about it?
Getting to play the Wicked Queen. Who doesn’t want to be that? She’s funny and she’s horrid so she gets the chance to do lots of different things and she also has a romance in her own mind, which is great fun.
How would you describe this take on the classic tale?
It’s very much the classic tale but with that wonderful panto finesse of jokes for the adults and jokes for the kids so whether you’re nine or you’re ninety you’re going to be totally fulfilled.
It’s often said that baddies are more fun to play. Having been Madame Morrible in Wicked, Madame Thénardier in Les Miserablés and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, to name but three, do you agree?
Of course they are, 100%. [Laughs] I only ever play psychotic women. I don’t know what that says about me. I should probably be in a home! I never play anyone who’s remotely normal. They’ve always got issues, whether they’re keeping their children in the draw at work on The Brittas Empire or whether they’re faffing about doing nothing as Patsy’s friend on Absolutely Fabulous, or whoever it is, Madame Morrible, Madame Thénardier, and Mrs Lovett – she was happy to mince up people and put them in pies.
Are you braced for all the boos and hisses you’ll be getting as the Wicked Queen?
I’m obviously doing a lot of voice work so that I can shout over the boos and hisses. That is part of my preparation, to make my voice strong. But that’s part of the joy of it, to have the boos and hisses. Otherwise I’d be devastated.
Do you get to sing any songs in the show?
I do but I won’t tell you what they are because I don’t want to do spoilers. All I can say is that they relate to her wickedness. I’ve done a lot of musicals, of course, but I’m an actress who sings. I’m not a singer so it’s about characterising a role as opposed to having the most amazing West End voice. That’s not who I am. I’m an actress who can sing in tune and characterise those songs.
Did pantos feature in your childhood? If so, are there any you particularly remember?
I was brought up on panto. I’d go to Windsor with my grandparents every Christmas. Every Boxing Day we’d go to the Windsor pantomime and they were all wonderful. I also remember being taken to see Danny La Rue in panto at the London Palladium and thinking she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. With her height, her stature, her hair, her heels and her sparkles she outshone everybody. The joy of this genre is that it brings so much fun and laughter to people. We’re the only people in the world who understand the genre. Everybody else is baffled by it, I think, but it’s second nature to us and we totally accept it and go with it. The only reason it’s taken me so long to appear in one is because I’ve always been working. I was doing The Dresser last year, I was doing something else the year before, I was in Wicked for two years, I was in Mamma Mia! for a year… I’ve always been busy.
This is your first time performing at the Theatre Royal. Have you seen any shows there in the past? If so, what do you feel makes it such a special venue?
I’ve seen many shows there before. It’s the most amazing venue and Bath is so beautiful and divine. I can’t wait to perform there. It has that strong sense of the tradition of the theatre. When I was at the Haymarket Theatre in London I looked at the stairs ahead of me and saw the indentation of where footfall had happened over many years, thinking about other actors who’d run up and down those stairs ahead of me in history. It’s the same for the Theatre Royal in Bath – the people who’ve played there, the joy of that and knowing this is part of a journey that we all go on, the tribe of actors doing this job and the tradition of that.
When you’re in Bath what are your must-dos?
I know Bath quite well. Obviously there’s all sorts of things like the Christmas Market and the Roman Baths – all those things that are tourist attractions and for a very good reason because they are amazing, fantastic, historical venues.
You’ve had such a varied career across film, television and the stage. Do you enjoy being able to switch between them all?
Yes, of course, and I’m very lucky I’ve been able to do so. I grew up partly in Hollywood because my mother [Gillian Freeman] is a writer so we were in London and LA from the age of eight. She wrote a very important book in the 60s called The Leather Boys, which was the Brokeback Mountain of its time, and it was made into a film so that was the start of her Hollywood career. My sister and I were playing on the backlot of the studios while my mother worked on the screenplay. That was an extraordinary experience, running down the main street from Hello, Dolly! at 20th Century Fox because it was so expensive to build that they didn’t tear it down. Going to brunch with Jack Lemmon was rather extraordinary too and Robert Altman and his wife, whom my mum worked for, were great family friends for years. It was the most amazing beginning, then I was at the Royal Ballet School – which was also fantastic and again gave me the facility to do different things – and I trained at drama school after that. I’ve been very lucky to do many different things. Growing up in America, one’s very aware of the divide between the East Coast and the West Coast. Theatre is Broadway on the East Coast and film and television are on the West Coast. That’s very generalised, of course, but then there’s also who goes into daytime TV and who goes into night-time TV and how separate that is. But here I can be doing an episode of The Musketeers, I can go and do the Ab Fab movie, I can go and be in a musical, I can do a sitcom and I can go and do The Dresser in the West End. I can do all of that in a year if I want to. What our theatrical profession avails us of is fluidity and multi-tasking within our craft, which doesn’t exist in most other places.
Given that varied career, which roles are you most recognised for?
Carole from The Brittas Empire and Fleur from Absolutely Fabulous. People ask me ‘Are the children still in the draw?’ or to please say ‘Yes, Mr Brittas’. With Fleur people come up to me and say things like ‘Moist is my word du jour’ and ‘Thin is in’. [Laughs] Both of those things are true, obviously.
The Brittas Empire ran for seven series across six years and is so fondly remembered. Have you kept in touch with any of your co-stars?
We recently had a huge reunion, 20 years after the show ended, and it was fantastic. We’ve all kept in touch but it was divine for us all to be together again at the same time because that’s hard when we’re all working in separate places. It was such fun, such a laugh, and I think we now need #bringBrittasback.
You’ve worked on many occasions with Jennifer Saunders, including Absolutely Fabulous, and also with Dawn French on French & Saunders, Murder Most Horrid and Girls On Top. What have been your fondest memories of working with them and are there any plans to work together again in the future?
I just cherish their endless wit and creativity. I’ve known them since we were in our early 20s and we’ve been great friends ever since. As for working together again, who knows? But I’d love to. I say yes to everything. [Laughs] Whoever will pay me I’ll be there. That’s my motto.
Earlier this year you took part in Let’s Dance For Comic Relief alongside your Ab Fab co-star Helen Lederer. Was the experience as much fun as it looked?
That was such fun, such a hoot. It was just a blast. [Laughs] I did the splits on the table – let’s not forget that! I did the splits on the judges’ table and that takes some doing. And Helen is just great. I know her and love her and we’ve been working together for the same amount of time as with Dawn and Jennifer.
Is there anything you especially love about doing theatre?
The thing about theatre is you’re in charge. You can’t end up on the cutting room floor. You’re in control and it’s the most natural medium for us as performers. You can’t compare theatre, film and TV because they’re different things and there are different bits of fun in all of them, but theatre is the most natural place to be because it’s where we were first – whether it was a Nativity play or a student show – although now with social media people are putting themselves in film all the time, with YouTube and stuff.
What are your pre-show rituals?
I love putting on my make-up while listening to the audience coming into the theatre. I don’t have any superstitions. I don’t need to cloud my thinking with fear so the joy is setting up the dressing room as your second home because the company you’re working with become your night-time family. I love creating that new home.
What’s the one thing you have to have in your dressing room?
My phone so I can speak to the outside world.
You’ll be working over the Christmas period but how will you be spending your days off?
I only get Christmas Day off and I’ll be spending it with my family and friends. That’s the best Christmas gift you can have. It’s not about presents, it’s about being together.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is at the Theatre Royal Bath from 7th December to 7th January.