Arriving for lunch at the wisteria-covered country house owned by Joely Richardson, and sometimes shared with her mother, Dame Vanessa Redgrave, I am greeted by a theatrical scene: a swarm of bees have made themselves at home in a tree facing the front porch and a charming man from the local bee society has come to help remove them. Redgrave, sitting in a rattan chair by the front door, is giving the procedure her full attention. After a few minutes, I move towards her to say hello, but she raises her hand to stop me. “Quiet!” she commands sharply, her eyes flashing. “I’m learning about bees!”
The house, bought by Richardson 18 years ago, has a Howards End romance to it, not so much decorated as filled with things found and loved over the years. A large sunny kitchen is furnished with a long worn wooden table that came from Le Nid du Duc, the hamlet near St Tropez that belonged to Joely’s father, the director Tony Richardson, to whom Redgrave was married from 1962 to 1967. The swimming pool was immortalised in pictures by his friend David Hockney. Family photographs cover the surfaces, and there are a number of framed ink and watercolours exquisitely executed by Redgrave depicting summer holidays past. In her bedroom, with its Colefax and Fowler rose curtains, the walls around her four-poster bed are hung with more mementoes, including a portrait of her mother, the actress Rachel Kempson, by Cecil Beaton and a drawing of her father, the actor Sir Michael Redgrave, by Augustus John.
The Redgrave family is legendary, dynastic and extensive, but it has been fragmented by sadness in past decades. Redgrave’s daughter Natasha died after a skiing accident in 2009; her brother Corin and sister Lynn died in 2010. The last time they were all assembled was at this house, to celebrate Redgrave’s 70th birthday, in 2007. “It was an amazing party,” Redgrave remembers over a lunch of lamb whose key ingredient, she tells me, is balsamic vinegar. “We had such a pretty marquee – there was a huge bonfire and everyone did something performative. Of course!”
Performative is the very essence of Vanessa Redgrave’s being. But her performances extend far beyond the stage or screen. Now 86, and somewhat frail following a heart attack in 2015 (and a lifetime of cigarette smoking), she still remains a lively force. The words actress and activist are used often in today’s world (she is very sure she wants to be known as an actress not an actor), but Redgrave has always been an activist to her core. In 1961 she was part of a sit-in with the Committee of 100, a British anti-war group; in 1968 she took part in an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Grosvenor Square. In 2016 she was in Trafalgar Square in a Stop Trident demonstration.
It’s this ferocity and passion, as well as those intense blue eyes and high-boned beauty, that make her so attractive – both to film directors and to fashion. Designer Roksanda Ilinčić, with whom Redgrave shot a film for her AW21 collection, describes Redgrave as being “fearless” but with a “magical tenderness”. Burberry chief creative officer Daniel Lee – who featured Redgrave in his first campaign for the brand – describes her as a “national icon. Her unique spirit and ferocious talent embody what is best in British excellence.”
I have known Redgrave for many years because she is the former mother-in-law of my husband, the producer Robert Fox. He married Natasha, Redgrave’s eldest daughter, in the early ’90s, having met her on his production of The Seagull (which also starred Redgrave), but he has known Redgrave since he was a child. “My father [Robin Fox] was Redgrave’s agent from the early ’60s onwards,” he explains. “I clearly remember her walking into my parents’ flat when I was about 13 years old. Her look was Russian Revolutionary – round rimless glasses, hair scraped back, simple attire. She was beautiful, but her entire demeanour was so different from other glamorous stars of the ’60s like Marianne Faithfull or Simone Signoret. There was an intensity to her that I observed, even as a child.”
Robert has been her producer many times throughout the intervening decades. He describes her as “unlike any other actress I have ever worked with”, but says that her political convictions have sometimes come with a heavy price. In the ’70s, Redgrave, already a famous actress with roles in Blow-Up, A Man for All Seasons and The Devils behind her, was a driving force in the far-left Workers Revolutionary Party. She and Corin were known to arrive at theatre stage doors and canvas actors to come to join the cause. She was heckled while accepting a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Julia in 1978 – speaking in support of Palestinian independence, she referred to “Zionist hoodlums whose behaviour is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world”.
She has remained uncowed in her opinions, even though it has affected her employment prospects and, in some cases, inevitably cost her roles. She has zero regrets, of course. As her daughter Natasha once said of her mother’s behaviour: “It never bothered her that she wasn’t liked” because of the “enormous freedom” that it allowed.
One might imagine that our mutual family connections might offer a level of access or intimacy in an interview, but I am quickly disabused of that idea. Following a first encounter, at her flat in Chiswick, which she shares with a friendly little caramel Pomapoo called Zep (Zeplin), I have to have a lie-down afterwards because the conversation is so maddeningly opaque and labyrinthine.
This is all, reportedly, her process, which can be combative, confusing and sometimes downright strange. “I first met her on Wetherby,” says David Hare, of the 1985 film he wrote and directed. “She was incredibly headstrong. We were in armed combat about interpretation but there was never any meanness or malice or unkindness in it. And when I got to the cutting room I began to understand that she was ahead of me in some mysterious way.
“I can’t think of anyone I know who goes more directly to what the emotion is meant to be,” he continues. “Vanessa walks onto a set, and has instant access to what she feels. It’s almost eerie, the way she can do that. That’s why she’s so formidable and extraordinary.”
It’s a process also observed by her friend, the actress Eileen Atkins, who has known Redgrave since they were both 19. In 1994 they were preparing to co-star in Vita & Virginia, which Atkins had written. “At one point, Vanessa arrived at rehearsals and decided to cover the entire set in linen dust sheets, including me! That’s just her way.”
Hence, when a few days after our first meeting, I receive a text reading, “I would love to give you another go”, I am relieved. Ultimately, we meet on several occasions: I watch her come to life while performing for the camera in the HTSI shoot; and spend many hours with her in her flat. “I’m starting to write an autobiography and so I’m thinking very much about the past,” she tells me on one occasion, while making Yorkshire tea (I’ve learnt the hard way not to offer to help). Her conversation is often a stream of consciousness; she is deeply serious and doesn’t do light chat. When she is lost in memory, her voice is barely audible. She shares fragments of scenes from her wartime childhood. “Corin and I were sent away from London to escape the bombs,” she recounts at one point. “Lynn wasn’t born yet. We were refugees, known as Internally Displaced Persons. We went to live in Herefordshire with a cousin, Lucy Kempson, who became a great influence on my life because she was ‘educated’. She was among the first generation of women who went to university. She went to Oxford and was a mine of information.” (She still has a book Kempson gave her – The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror – which sits on the table beside her armchair.)
Another memory: “I remember learning to play cards, and being happy running up a small hillock to play I’m The King of the Castle with Corin, and an uncle who had come back from the war with shell shock. We would gather around a radio to listen to the weather forecast. That was vital to us because my father and uncles were all in the Navy, and even though we didn’t know where they were it was a way to stay connected to them.“
Redgrave was politically inculcated by her childhood experiences. “I think living through the war, needing to know what’s going on and why it was happening, instilled in me a strong sense of justice. It’s why I have such a strong affinity for displaced people, trying to get their scattered families or the remnants together. We were so lucky to have family to stay with.”
According to theatre legend, Vanessa Redgrave’s birth was announced by Laurence Olivier during a production of Hamlet, in which the actor was starring with her father at the time. A talented dancer, she had her dreams of becoming a ballet dancer dashed as she “grew and grew” into her 5ft 11in frame. Her own career took off in 1961 when, aged 24, she played Rosalind in As You Like It at the RSC, for which she won an Evening Standard Theatre Award. But, just as she is recounting her journey into the “family business”, she swerves into a diatribe about the Tory government’s stance on immigration and the case of Shamima Begum.
Redgrave is still working. She has just returned from Rome, where she was filming Cold Storage with Liam Neeson – or, as she likes to call it, “a film about green goo”. “I had a marvellous time. I play a character called Ma Rooney.” And many people will recognise her mellifluous voice as the narrator on Call the Midwife, the phenomenally successful BBC drama on which she has worked since 2012. Rome is home to her second husband, Franco Nero. They met on the film set of Camelot in the mid-’60s and while their relationship has ebbed and flowed (she was also in a long-term relationship with the actor Timothy Dalton), they had a son, Carlo Nero, now a screenwriter and film director, and married in 2006.
“She has never been a feminist when it comes to relationships,” says Atkins. “She likes old-fashioned blokes – you know, the ‘get back in the kitchen’ kind. I think you’ll find a lot of actresses do because we’re so fucking adored that you want someone to say, ‘Shut up and sit down.’”
But when I broach the subject of more delicate personal relationships with Redgrave, I am met by a cold white stare I call “the Look”. Asked about her parents’ “unconventional” marriage and how her father’s bisexuality might have affected it, she completely brushes me off. Michael Redgrave had male lovers throughout Redgrave’s childhood, one of whom, Bob Michell, was known as surrogate “uncle” to the younger Redgrave clan. “Well, it was perfectly normal!” she replies as though mystified by the question. Was it perfectly normal for her mother? She concedes: “Well, obviously not!”
“I’m not given to introspection,” she says impatiently, when asked about juggling marriage, politics, motherhood and fame. “But I have a close and wonderful relationship with my children and grandchildren, and I see as much as I can of all of them.”
Joely Richardson gives a good insight into her mother’s emotions. “After Tasha died, I went to have tea with Joan Didion [a close friend whom Redgrave played in 2007 in The Year of Magical Thinking, the one-woman show based on Didion’s memoir] in her apartment in New York. There she was, so tiny and eating her little bird sandwiches. ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’ Joan kept saying to me. ‘Because you’re the one I’m worried about.’ And I said, ‘I don’t understand.’ And then she said, ‘Vanessa has a chip. Like I have a chip, and I knew that she’ll be OK.’ I didn’t say, ‘What exactly do you mean by the chip?’ But whatever it is, Mum has that chip. How she or Joan process emotion is different. I don’t know if it’s a disconnect. But Mum definitely has it.”
Today, spending time with Redgrave, one gets a sense of deep love and compatibility, but having a mother with a character as strong as Redgrave’s was not always easy for her children. “It was complicated when we were young,” Richardson allows. “We were unaware of her as a movie star; there was certainly no glamour involved! We rarely saw Mum, and there was so much anger about her absence and then when we did see her one couldn’t really have a conversation about what she was working on. We children used to joke about how, as one of the world’s greatest actresses, her job is to communicate a story. But when we’d ask her about her politics she’d just start a sort of rhetorical diatribe that went right over our heads.
“My memories were of being taken along to her political meetings and sitting in the back of some church hall when all I wanted was to play with my friends. It didn’t feel like a warm, exciting place full of ideas or enthusiasm about how they could change the world. It felt bad and scary. But she really was the real deal. She would be up at whatever time of the morning to go and sell papers for her party and would come home maybe at eleven o’clock at night, exhausted, having spent all day on the picket lines.”
She was also remarkably generous. “She gave away all her money,” continues Richardson. “She’d sell her house, move to a smaller house, sell that, move to a smaller flat to donate and fund so many projects and causes.” One of her projects, the Vanessa Nursery School, was a state school she funded in Shepherd’s Bush in order to teach three- to five-year-olds to swim. She brought over a specialist children’s swimming instructor from America and bought her a house. Redgrave cites this school as her proudest achievement, and it exists to this day.
Time has mellowed Redgrave’s fiercest instincts; she is more physically and emotionally present for her family today. “She is an amazing grandmother,” says Richardson. “These days she can access a playfulness, and they all adore her.” Nevertheless, her priorities remain. “Recently, we were here in the country and it was the most beautiful sunny day,” recalls Richardson. “ I put rugs out in the garden and made Mum a cup of tea. As we lay quietly in the sunshine, listening to the birds, I asked, ‘What are you thinking about, Mum?’ Without missing a beat, she replied: ‘Russia 1952!’”
And she can still be scary. On the HTSI photoshoot, she is irritated by too much deference: “Just tell me what you want me to do!” she bellows at the team whenever they treat her with any degree of carefulness. She can still command a room. But she can also enjoy a dollop of playful teasing. On one car journey after a slightly bruising conversation, I suggest I get a T-shirt made printed with the words “Don’t mess with Vaness”. There is a pause. I start to panic. I dread the Look. Then she throws her head back and roars with laughter.
Hair, Ignacio Sulas. Make-up, Gemma Peace. Photographer’s assistants, Lucy Rooney and Arlo Brown. Stylist’s assistant, Aylin Bayhan. Special thanks to Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, and Gael and Francesco Boglione