You know straight away that you are going to get on with Dame Eileen Atkins. “Oh God,” she says, in a stage whisper, when we sit down, “we’ve got the loudest man in the world next to us.” She winces as our neighbour booms out a wine order. “He wants us to know he’s been to the right school and he’s always commanded servants. I really try not to automatically take against those voices,” she says, louder. “But it’s so very hard, isn’t it?”
Atkins, a fit 87 – at one point she gets down on her knees without fuss to fish her bag out from under the seat – hardly eats out in London these days, but she comes here because she follows Jesus. That is Jesus Adorno, director of Le Caprice in Mayfair for 39 years, who now oversees this restaurant: Charlie’s at Brown’s hotel. On cue, Jesus works in mysterious ways and moves us to a quieter spot. “I encouraged one friend to come here,” Atkins says, as we decamp, “and she said the food was lovely, ‘But Eileen, how you can sit and eat with that wallpaper I will never know.’”
We study the birds of paradise decor, and then the menu. “My GP tells me I must have liver every so often, so I’ll have that,” she decides.
She’s glad to be out because it’s been a sad week for her. The previous day the Old Vic theatre finally cancelled 4000 Miles, the play Atkins was to star in opposite Timothée Chalamet. They’d been due to open a fortnight after the first lockdown; since then, Chalamet’s star has risen and he can’t find time to do it.
“I can’t believe another play will come along with a part like that for a 91-year-old woman,” says Atkins. “They couldn’t find a replacement for Timmy. So that’s that.”
She brightens with the arrival of asparagus – “Ooh, how lovely!” – and then returns to her theme. The pain of it was that she had finally learned her lines, harder for her these days. For the first six months of the pandemic she had an actor read the part opposite her every week, to keep it up, but with more delays she gave in.
The slight melancholy was that I missed out on family. But I am so sure that I chose correctly
The only saving grace, she says, was that it gave her a chance to write the memoir she’d long thought about. The book takes in her formative years, growing up in a council house in Tottenham, and how from the age of six her mother put her on the stage as “Baby Eileen” as a tap dancer in working men’s clubs. It ends with the collapse of her first marriage (to Julian Glover) and the transfer of her first big hit, The Killing of Sister George, to Broadway; starrier years followed. (“If I publish volume two I’ll have to either be dead or prepared to leave the country,” she says.)
She opens her book with a scene that defines her life. She pictures herself, aged 19, looking through a window at a young wife settling her kids down at the table, and realising her own home would always be among her fellow actors.
“It still sends tingles down my fingers that I made that choice,” she says now. “Of course, the slight melancholy was and is that I missed out on family, and that is very evident now because everyone has grandchildren. But I am so sure that I chose correctly.”
There is a memorable scene in the book in which she and Glover decide to adopt a child. A woman with a baby happens to knock on the door, and Atkins has two thoughts: the first, that the baby has been brought for her; the second that on no account could she accept it. “If ever I thought the world was telling me something, that was it.”
Was part of that feeling a reaction against her own family? “Yes. It wasn’t a happy family so why would I have wanted to recreate it? I talk to my brother more now than ever. He’ll say, ‘Well, you complain about tap dancing, but you always looked quite cheerful.’ The fact was I had no choice.”
Is she scarred by that? “That’s too strong a word. But it makes me vigilant for child performers. I get very hot under the collar when they come on Britain’s Got Talent.”
She doesn’t strike me as someone who has had much need of therapy. “My friends might disagree,” she says. “I went for one therapy session when my second husband died in 2016. I was very unhappy, and I talked this man through it all. And at the end, he said, ‘Well, yes, life is shit, isn’t it?’ I thought, ‘Well, I’m not paying you to tell me that.’”
She has been able to work through issues on the stage. “There is usually something buried in there,” she says. “And once you have pulled it out of yourself and played it, you are free of it.”
I’m not sure how much catharsis there is in Doc Martin, the long-running ITV series in which Atkins plays Martin Clunes’s blunt aunt. She is due down in Cornwall the day after we meet for four months filming a new series. Part of her is dreading it; the part that would rather be at home by the river in west London with her two cats.
“When I think of work, it’s theatre that really makes me happy,” she says. “The thing that endears me to Doc Martin is that it is like being part of a repertory company, all away together. They give me this bungalow from where you can see the whole of Port Isaac … Half the town hates us, of course.”
If Atkins imagined old age, it was as a long gossipy phone call. She is dismayed by how many of her friends just text. She doesn’t do the internet. “One or two people tell me I mustn’t go on it, because I am angry enough already,” she says. “A younger woman I know a bit calls me up from time to time; apparently on the internet she calls me the Dame and repeats what I say, word for word.”
I wonder if in all the years she has ever tired of her surrogate theatrical families. “Never,” she says. “The best time of us getting together was Cranford. We could hardly do the first read through because we were all laughing so much. Judi [Dench] used to bring cakes round every morning. I’d refuse, saying, ‘I don’t have a sweet tooth.’ And one day I heard her say, ‘Don’t offer one to Eileen, she doesn’t have a sweet tooth.’ She sounded a bit cross and Judi is never cross. I said to myself, ‘Eileen, would it do you any harm just one day to accept one of Judi’s cakes?’ So the next time they came around I took a piece. And it was wonderful! Now every year on my birthday I have that same cake. Judi has a gift for bringing people together.”
Though they were all exactly the same age, Maggie Smith, Dench and Atkins, she says they have never been jealous of each other. “Anyway, to start with I was scrabbling around for tiny parts, and Judi was Juliet at Stratford. It was a little more competitive with Maggie because we had both turned up to be assistant stage managers at the Oxford Playhouse at the same time. But then, out of the blue, she was cast as Desdemona opposite Laurence Olivier’s Othello. I thought: ‘Maggie?’ But then I went along to see her and was blown away.”
She’s finished her lunch by now, rounding off with “that old lady habit” of a cup of hot water.
I read something that the Guardian critic Michael Billington once wrote about her. “Vanessa Redgrave seems to have access to some other world. Judi Dench can produce laughter and tears in a single moment. But the greatness of Eileen Atkins lies in her uncanny emotional directness and her ability to make her eyes the windows to her soul.”
“I’m going to cry now,” she says, unexpectedly, and she does, a bit. “That makes me feel that I have pulled off what I intended to do when I was 12 and decided I would like to be an actress.”
I apologise for setting her off, as she dries her eyes. “I’m a bit emotional because of yesterday and the play,” she says. “I’ve a feeling I might have finished now. This might be it.”
Oh, something else will turn up, I suggest. “Maybe,” she says, brighter. “I mean Ian [McKellen] is playing Hamlet at 83. You won’t catch me doing that. But I suppose it means there is hope for us all.”
Will She Do? Act One of a Life on Stage by Eileen Atkins is out in paperback (Virago, £9.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply