Will She Do? Act One of a Life on Stage by Eileen Atkins – the life and works of an influential actor in the second half of the twentieth century
Will She Do? Act One of a Life on Stage by Eileen Atkins
Eileen Atkins is a familiar face on television, turning up in period dramas and other programmes. Her generation of actors, which includes Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, are also famous for their stage work and establishing theatre companies; Eileen’s contribution is a memorable one in its own right. This book concentrates on her earlier life, the way a girl born in Tottenham, London, in 1934 and who grew up in a complicated family where money was always a real issue became a well-known actor and co-creator of the famous original “Upstairs Downstairs”. It is a story of wartime experience, damaging dance lessons and the opportunities presented by visionary teachers. It charts her progress from child performer in working- men’s clubs to Shakespeare on stage and early television performances. It is written in a lively style which follows threads of experiences to their logical conclusion and presents her memories of being a teenage girl who experienced the usual crushes, self-doubts and torments. It brilliantly recalls tales of London life in all its opportunities and challenges, as well as the reality of being a jobbing actor desperately needing paid work. With real story telling skill it recalls how she came to experience Shakespeare’s texts and yet struggle with her exams, cope with a loving and ambitious mother who failed to understand her daughter’s real motivation and recall the fashions and food of a changing society. It is immensely readable and flows in a very engaging way and is a realistic and fascinating autobiography of life and acting.
Eileen’s family background was a little complex, yet she was very much loved by her mother who supplemented the family income by sewing. Always a performer, she was spotted early as a potential money earner by a dubious teacher who contributed to her schooling, while encouraging her to dance in a way which wrecked her feet. Her early career as “Baby Eileen” probably sounds worse than it was and satisfied her mother’s yearning for her to perform. Her progress through school shows that she was lucky to find sponsors who greatly enhanced her education, but that there were times when her teenage angst was temporarily dominant. After school her drama training was not straightforward, but at least meant that she was able to get some work in the holidays and after finishing at college. Her relationships and eventual marriage were obviously genuinely felt at the time, but ran alongside the need to work herself, not just to be “A Stratford Wife” waiting for her actor husband, Julian Glover, to come home. There are some fascinating photographs to show her family and friends, as well as some of her most significant performances on television and stage. A comprehensive index is also supplied of people and productions.
This is an honest account of a life in all its aspects. The embarrassing events are there alongside the modestly described great performances. The tenuous connections which paved the way to a long-lasting career are described, as well as the dull grind of Reparatory rehearsals and performances while living in rough accommodation. This is not a celebrity driven account; the well-known actors, directors and producers are honestly described and where Eileen’s relationships with them tricky. This is an excellent account of how an actor’s life was a challenging one in the past, with the stage changing and television in its infancy, and I recommend it as a fascinating read for Eileen Atkins fans and others interested in the experiences of one of the best-known actors of her generation.