My thoughts on Helen Mirren’s casting

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

On Monday, I had a whinge-walk with Lizzie, my friend of 47 years. We met at breathing classes for our first babies and we gave birth on the same day in the now defunct Avenue Clinic in St John’s Wood. Our children grew up joined at the hip. Today my daughter Amy is a playwright in NW3 and Lizzie’s is a Buddhist monk in Nepal. Amy is with me at least twice a week, though her mother’s ability to make off-the-cuff remarks which generate front-page headlines makes her wish she was the one in a Nepalese monastery. I faced my daughter’s embarrassment and near cultural cancellation last week after I commented on the casting of Helen Mirren as Golda Meir. The papers rather gleefully framed it along the lines of ‘Lipman objects to Dame Helen playing Golda!’. My comments — I am a publicist’s dream — were part of a hasty response to a telephoned questionnaire about ‘life-experience casting’. Should an actor be required to have scoliosis and a history of infanticide to play Richard III? — that sort of thing. I said that I thought actors should be free to play across the varied range of humanity but if the character’s sex, gender, race or creed drove the plot then, yes, I do believe minorities should be prioritised. I said that Helen is a marvellous actress and very sexy (which, surprisingly, Golda was), but I may have mused aloud whether Bette Midler, Tracey Ullman, Jennifer Connelly, etc, had ever been considered. My musings proved unamusing.

Dame Esther Rantzen wrote a less than comradely letter to the Times about my remarks, pointing out that Joyce Grenfell, whom I had played, was a Christian Scientist and I am not. So there! David Baddiel, on the other hand, made the point to the World at One that although there have been loud outcries about Javier Bardem being a Spaniard, not a Cuban, in Being the Ricardos, or over Eddie Redmayne not being disabled enough to play Stephen Hawking, or over the frequency in which heterosexual actors are cast in gay roles, there had not been a similar outcry about the casting of the prime minister of the first Jewish State. Neither, of course, did anyone in the past care much about non-Jews playing Tevya or Shylock or the Marvelous Mrs Maisel.

I should know better by now than to voice my opinion about casting, but here it goes: the young actors for Spielberg’s new West Side Story are perfectly cast — a considerable improvement on the earlier film. In a toasty cinema in Chiswick I cried — no, sobbed — into my N95 mask all the way through.

I recently had lunch with the journalists Trevor and Valerie Grove at their adorably eclectic Highgate house to celebrate Trevor’s birthday. Ox cheeks and spinach crumble. I was tickled by the guest Hunter Davies, the Beatles’ biographer, recounting in detail to two widowed women of a certain age (one of whom was me) the demise of a recent love affair. Because of the foul weather, I offered him a lift back home to his Beatles collections. Once there, he asked me if I’d like to view his ‘bits and bobs’. ‘I’d love to see your bobs, Hunter,’ I told him, ‘but your bits you can keep to yourself.’

My friend Oliver Cotton came over to mine to rehearse some sketches for my upcoming radio show, Maureen and Friends. In one sketch we play two scavenging birds who are foodies: ‘’ere check out this bin, mate, it’s cauliflower with just a hint of turmeric.’ At several points we throw back our beaks and do primal squawks. It was great fun to rehearse, although perhaps not for my upstairs neighbour who, I later found out, assumed we were having rough sex.

My nine-year-old granddaughter has just had a tonsillectomy. She is quite a character. After the operation she rang me to say that the food in the hospital was fabulous and she’d had the pizza and the ravioli. I tried unsuccessfully to copy her brave approach towards operations as I drove weary miles to Totteridge to my dentist for two injections and a long drill on a temporary crown. Afterwards, my face looked a bit like an ox who had lost a cheek, so I was extremely grateful for my mask when I went into the chemist for some echinacea spray. When I asked for it, though, my lip wouldn’t work and, speaking through my mask, even I thought I’d asked the way to Ipanema.

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