12:01AM BST 19 Aug 2004
Jane Asher looks lovely and bakes gorgeous cakes. But why is she so sensitive about the image we have of her – and why is she drawn to playing women with something to hide, asks David Thomas
Jane Asher could not look more perfect. We are planning to discuss her appearance in the West End in Festen, the stage adaptation of a Danish avant-garde film; but we meet at Bray Studios, near Windsor, where she is filming a television version of Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage.
As shooting breaks for lunch, the sound-stage doors open and Asher emerges. She wears a wide-brimmed, brown lace hat over her flaming red hair, her eyes are the clearest blue, her lipstick a vivid scarlet. Her 1950s summer frock, in mustard-yellow silk, is nipped in at the waist, with a rustle of petticoats. At 58, she has not the faintest trace of a flabby arm, saggy jaw or baggy eye.
She looks, indeed, like a mature Stepford Wife, ready to bake a perfect cake, raise perfect children and have dutiful yet loving sex with a grateful husband: the sort of woman, in short, that many people believe Jane Asher really is. Asher knows this and is keen to point out the differences between the image and the reality.
When I bracket her in that 1960s generation of posh English beauties - Joanna Lumley, Julie Christie, Charlotte Rampling - she immediately insists, in a crisp, business-like voice, that she does not belong among their number.
"I can't say that I'm not beautiful, because you'll think it's false modesty, but I'm not. I know I can look good if I'm dolled up. I can look attractive. It's very nice of you to say so, but I'm certainly not a beauty."
Nor is she as super-efficient as is generally assumed. "I'm absolutely not incredibly tidy and organised," she says. "I'm rather the opposite. I'm untidy and late. I'm not particularly proud of it, but I take on much too much, then rush around, always late for everything with piles of stuff I should have done. But somehow, if there's a deadline, I'll meet it, just about on time."
She also anticipates how journalists react to such wellrehearsed confessions. "One of the lines now is, 'Little Miss Perfect confesses: 'I've got a messy kitchen.' " You can't win. The press like to build up an image of this perfect person and then they bring it crashing down. But you're always really saying, 'I'm just ordinary.' "
She pauses briefly for breath, then adds, "Of course, you're going to say . . ."
"Goodness," I interrupt, as lightly as possible, "you do like to second-guess a boy." She sighs and rubs her bare forearm distractedly. "You can't help it when you do so many interviews. This is a game."
Asher is an intelligent woman (a completed Times crossword is lying on a sidetable in her caravan-cumdressing- room), and also bright, charming and impeccably mannered. She is skilled at the art of deflecting inquiry.
At one point, discussing her fame, I happen to use the word "celebrity". "Dreadful word!" she says instantly, with tremendous animation. "I was at the Natural History Museum yesterday and someone came up and said, 'Are you a celebrity?' That's a wonderful question, isn't it?"
She gives a jolly, self-deprecating laugh. "Celebrity literally means celebrated and well-known, so the fact that someone has to ask you if you are one means that, by definition, you are not."
Her point is wittily made, but it bears no relation whatever to the truth of Jane Asher's life. She has been famous since she was a child actress (her father was a doctor and her mother a music professor at the Guildhall). She made her first film at the age of five. By her mid-teens she was on the panel of Juke Box Jury, and she has never since been out of the public eye.
She lives (in Chelsea) with the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, to whom she has been married for 23 years and with whom she has a daughter (aged 30) and two sons (22 and 20).
In the course of her very public life, she appears to have decided that it is often easier to play with ideas than confront them head on. Even by the standards of actors, who dissimulate for a living, she turns the interview process into a performance whose script she insists upon controlling.
Not unreasonably, she says this is simply a response to the potentially dangerous position in which interviewees find themselves. "I remember one woman journalist saying, 'You're very buttoned-up,' and I said, 'You're not my friend; I don't know you. Come and have a drink with me next week, when you're off duty, and I'll really talk.' "
I wonder if she would, though. What strikes me about her professional life, which must surely be some sort of reflection of her inner self, is the constant theme of the impeccably maintained façade concealing a darker, more chaotic self. It's true of her role as a glacial matriarch in Festen, the story of a disastrous family reunion, which was a critical and commercial triumph at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, North London, this spring.
It's also true of her image of effortless feminine perfection as the immaculate cakebaker, which inspired many women and irritated many more in the 1980s and early 1990s. Asher was the original domestic goddess, promoted by an endless stream of books, television appearances and newspaper articles, plus her own cake shop in Chelsea (it's still open) and even an entire magazine, Good Living With Jane Asher.
Yet she insists that the whole thing was pure accident, and that her image was constructed by the dreaded media. "When I had children, I started making cakes for them. I wrote a book because it seemed like something to do, and it was quite exciting. My children were all young and growing up, and I didn't want to be out working in the theatre, or away on film, so it was the perfect time to develop that. But then it took on a significance that was way beyond its original importance."
As for the image, Asher insists that she had little choice. She quotes an example. "I was asked to do a book called Easy Entertaining. We were doing the photography and they wanted a fruit bowl. I said, 'Why don't we have a real fruit bowl, with socks in it and a broken toy, like my fruit bowl?' They said, 'Oh no. It's got to be aspirational.' That's one example of the whole charabanc that comes along and creates an image. People don't want to know that you're actually pretty much like they are."
Well, that's one way of looking at it. Another is that her cake-baker role was one that Asher chose and then performed, with her usual competence, as and when required. She has been doing this a very long time, after all - ever since her parents took her and her two siblings (Peter and Clare) to a theatrical agent "almost as a bit of fun".
"I got offered my first film, Mandy, and then I became addicted. But it wasn't the fame. It was more being with grown-ups, being treated in an exciting way, being on the set, having food brought to you, not being at school. And pretending to be someone else. After that, I can't remember ever thinking that this wouldn't be what I'd do."
Now fast-forward half a century, and Jane Asher sees the film of Festen, the theme of which is the unacknowledged horror behind a family's façade of normality.
"I was completely, absolutely bowled over by it," she says, with evident sincerity. "I thought it was so extraordinary and startling that I went back and saw it a second time. So when I was first offered the play, my first thought was, 'I'll be in it! I'll do anything! I'll be the cleaner!' "
Asher's reaction was evidently instinctive. Nor was this the first time she had explored the idea of nasty secrets in the woodshed. In 1996, she published a novel, The Longing, a bleak, dark, powerfully written account of a supposedly perfect couple driven apart (and in the wife's case, driven mad) by their unfulfilled longing for a child.
"Life is bloody dark and awful," says Asher, finally dropping the game-playing. "It doesn't mean I go round being permanently depressed. But I would if I really started to think about things. I don't think there's any meaning to anything. I have slightly more of an acceptance that you're hurtling towards the abyss [than I had before]. At least you won't know anything once you're in it."
I'm struck by an image that has haunted me since I first encountered it while researching her career. Her father, whom she loved dearly, committed suicide, having become seriously ill, and his body lay undiscovered for a week in the basement of the Ashers' Wimpole Street home.
"Oh well, that's overplayed too," she says, dismissively, when I tentatively raise the subject. "He was ill and it was horrible and . . . that's enough. That's really sensitive stuff, not so much for me, but to my mother. And life's much more complicated than, 'Her father kills herself, so that's why she's got deep, dark wells and she finds parts like that . . .' That's simplistic psychology."
True, but it does suggest why Asher might feel that even the happiest family is just one step away from catastrophe. I wonder, too, whether a similar desire to avoid pain explains the other great denial in her life: her relationship with Paul McCartney.
Asher met him on April 18, 1963, two weeks after her 17th birthday, having been sent by the Radio Times to interview the Beatles. In The Beatles Anthology, McCartney recalls: "We all fancied her - I tried pulling her, succeeded, and we were boyfriend and girlfriend for quite a long time."
Asher's mother invited McCartney to live in the family home. There, he and Lennon wrote I Want to Hold Your Hand and several more of McCartney's greatest songs, including We Can Work It Out, said to be inspired by his relationship with Jane. His fellow Beatles assumed the couple would marry, but Paul ended up with the American photographer Linda Eastman.
Asher has never said a word about the relationship, or the Beatles, since. I have no expectation whatever that she will break her silence for me. But I am curious about why, after all these years, she will not share her experience of one of the great cultural phenomena of the past century.
"I realise I'm hypersensitive and probably slightly paranoid," she says, "but clearly the major connection with all that is personal. And because I've been happily married for 30-something years, it's insulting [to her husband and family]."
I push the point: "If I met the Dark Lady, I'd be bound to ask her about Shakespeare." Asher replies, "Yes, but the Dark Lady might say, 'I'm very sorry, but I'm now married to this playwright who hasn't had a single success, and his sonnets are crap, but I love him.' "
It's not easy to see what this response says about her feelings for her husband. But I press on, objecting that I couldn't care less what her teenage sex-life was like; I'm interested in the cultural history she's witnessed.
"I know what you're interested in," Asher accepts. "It may be musical, but my connection to that is personal, so it opens up a whole thing. You have to make a blanket rule and that's the decision I made, many years ago. And because I made that decision, it's just easier to stick to it."
I draw three possible hypotheses from all this. First, that Asher quite enjoys the game of witholding something she knows people want, then watching them try to crack her resolve. Second, that she's stuck in a position from which she can't now extract herself. And third, that she's telling the truth. She can't separate the historical from the personal. And the personal still hurts.
As our interview comes to an end, there is a loud rumbling just outside her door, followed by an appalling, excremental smell. The cesstanks of the portable lavatories are being emptied.
As we flee from the unbearable odour, I joke, "Ah, now the shit's finally coming out." Asher smiles. "Just like the interview?" she asks.
"Not really," I say.
And then she makes the last, winning move in the game. "Headline it," she says spreading her hands across an imaginary page, " 'Constipation.' "