The big screen is no friend to wrinkles, Diana Quick, 77, laughs. “I may be fighting a rearguard action but I’m trying to go on looking like I look.” As a young actor, Quick was photographed by Cecil Beaton. In 1984 – having starred in Nicholas and Alexandra, The Duellists and, most memorably, as raven-haired Lady Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited – one Sunday magazine cover asked: “Is this the most beautiful woman in the world?”
Now Quick is starring in a new film, Forever Young, playing 70-year-old Robyn, who is given the chance to reverse the ageing process with a secret drug trial. When her husband refuses to join her, she must decide if she’ll take this journey alone. The film asks a pertinent question: is ageing a disease? Or is there a beauty in growing old alongside your peers? “I don’t know any woman my age who isn’t engaged by the subject,” says Quick. “I immediately thought: ‘Would I do it?’”
She wouldn’t take the youth pill, just as she’s avoided cosmetic surgery. “Many friends have had work done and I don’t think it improves them. Betty [Lauren] Bacall, one of the great beauties, resisted for the longest time and then did it and we were very dismayed because, although it made her look bright, it didn’t make her look like herself any longer.”
Dressed in a pink jumper and glittery necklace, Quick is speaking from her book-lined Kentish Town home. These days her hair is white. It looks stunning but she jokes young men stand up for her on the bus.
Her hair was hellishly difficult to get right on Brideshead, she recalls. The producers thought Quick, then 33 (the age her hair turned white), looked too knowing with her Marcel wave and bright-red lipstick. They were about to sack her, but an ITV technician strike intervened, and without consulting anyone, she had it cut into that youthful short bob. It clinched the role, which brought her Emmy and Bafta nominations.
She consciously avoided playing aristocrats after Brideshead. “Their stories are as valid as anybody else’s, but I felt strongly I didn’t want to be typecast.” Instead, she has played everyone from princesses to outsiders. As she documents in her 2009 memoir, there is Indian blood in her ancestry on her father’s side – a taboo his parents were desperate to hide. For Quick it is a source of pride. “They say mongrels get the best luck; mixing up the genes is a good thing.”
But she did play the ultimate English role in Channel 4’s The Queen (where five actresses played Elizabeth II), whom she met aged 22, when her late Majesty came to open a building at Oxford, where Quick read English.
“She went along this line asking: ‘What have you been studying? What will you do when you graduate?’ She knew she was meeting me because I was the first female head of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, and was very complimentary about it. And then she said: ‘What have you been acting in lately?’ and I’d just come back from playing Ophelia in Hamlet in Paris where les événements [the 1968 student demonstrations] had been going on. And she said, ‘Why are they making such a fuss?’
“And I said: ‘Don’t you know?’” Quick mimics her young strident tone giving a brief explanation “about these French students who had to indemnify themselves to the government for 10 years to pay off their university fees”. But a minute later, Queen Elizabeth II’s equerry tapped her on the shoulder and told her off for “leading” the Queen in conversation. “I was completely silenced by it. I felt quite sorry for her. I thought, she’s never going to have a proper exchange with people. And actually, the next time I met her at a royal film screening, she immediately came over and remembered who I was.”
Quick is currently living with her director daughter Mary Nighy, 39 (Quick’s child with former partner Bill Nighy), plus her son-in-law and granddaughters while work is done on their house. Quick is an active granny. “I go for long walks, enjoy my life to the full. But my older granddaughter is constantly putting her hand on my face and saying: ‘Nonna, why are you so old? Why are you going to die soon?’ So it makes one aware this is all a great gift,” she chuckles.
She’s torn whether to make a living will, as the debate around assisted dying gets louder. “I’m at an age where friends are getting very frail, or suddenly dying,” says Quick. “It’s absurd people aren’t allowed to make that choice, to come to the end of their life with dignity.”
In Forever Young, her character regrets putting work before having a child. But having children is also a selfish act, she muses. “I think it’s a perfectly valid choice not to have children, to live a full life without those endless demands… My house is full of young children – a lovely demand – but it splits your focus. So I quite envy those people who’ve never had to do it.”
Quick, now single, has been married once (to actor Kenneth Cranham, when she was 22) and in two long relationships, with Albert Finney and Nighy. A few years ago she declared: “For the first time in my life I can have non-sexual relationships with men.” Would she date another actor? “I would be very aware of what it’s like to be with somebody who has to be so preoccupied with their own career.”
Mortgage paid off, Quick can now “wait until the good things come along”. She mentions actors “who only feel alive when they’re working whereas I just find life so endlessly fascinating. There are huge advantages to being older, being clear about what one cares about and doesn’t. So there’s a great pleasure in being at this stage of life.”
Next up, Quick is adapting a Wilkie Collins story (with a plum role for an older woman) and there is an idea to write a new book (“a private journal about my secret love life”) to help young women. “One of the things that is very under-articulated is the gap between one’s romantic fantasies and the actual reality of conducting a relationship.”
Of her own beauty – “an accident of genes” – she remains ambivalent. Her mother always told her you have to “earn” your face. “I did a film called Vroom [about an older woman who takes to the road with two young men] with Beeban Kidron. I remember Beeban being a bit sad about how she looked, and our wonderful cameraman said: ‘You’re a fantastic person and looks go. That young comeliness doesn’t last.’ I was 43, and it stayed with me. Whether it’s your physical attributes, your family, or a functioning brain, that’s the luck of the draw. The rest of your story is about what you make of those things.”
Forever Young is in cinemas from Friday