Words: Alison James Pic: Rex Shutterstock
Maureen Lipman is the kind of woman you’d want on your side in a crisis. Practical, witty and plain-speaking, it’s no wonder that the late, much-missed Lynda Bellingham regarded her as a friend in whom she could confide about her abusive first marriage.
Maureen recently starred in the UK tour and subsequent West End run of Harvey, the 1944 Pulitzer prize-winning play and 1950 film of the same name. It’s about a mild-mannered man called Elwood P Dowd who claims his best friend is an invisible six-foot white rabbit. Maureen, who played Elwood’s bossy big sister Veta, feels Harvey is the perfect antidote to today’s troubled world.
“It’s a beautifully written play and I think very relevant to these frightening times when beheadings, fundamentalism and anti-Semitism have become so prevalent,” she says. “It was written during the Second World War and then, as now, there was a sense of people wanting to forget about reality when they went out for the evening. It’s the same today.
“Laughter is so important to our well-being. For a few hours, audiences can laugh at the gentle humour and charm of plays like Harvey, let go of their worries and hopefully walk out of the theatre feeling better than they did when they went in.”
After leaving the theatre each night, Maureen's own, very real rabbit was waiting for her at her spacious London flat. “Warren is my apricot-velvet house rabbit,” she reveals. “He’s ten years old and gets very impatient with my dog at times. I recently took a video of him and Diva, my Basenji, sitting in an armchair together. Diva was trying to coax Warren into playing with her but he just pretended he was dead! He also kicks her when she gets too fresh, but he’s a lovely boy. “I have been known to put a lead on Warren and take him for a walk in the park but it gets a bit scary with all the dogs. People look at me strangely, but then they look at me strangely anyway!”
Maureen also featured in a funny Vicar of Dibley sketch for March's Comic Relief evening on BBC1 - and we can’t help wondering why she’s not on TV as much these days. It turns out she’s wondering much the same thing. “I don’t know – it’s a bit of a mystery to me, too,” she says. “I’ve never done a TV drama series and Ladies of Letters, in which I appeared with Anne Reid, ended a few years ago. Maybe it’s because I’m at an in-between age, maybe it’s because there is this perception of me being too sharp and too clever. It may change but casting directors don’t seem to know what to do with me. I was probably spoilt when I was younger because my late husband Jack (screenwriter Jack Rosenthal) wrote roles with me in mind.”
Jack passed away in 2004 and Maureen (68) still misses him deeply, but since 2008 she’s been in a relationship with Italian businessman Guido Castro. “We’re very happily unmarried,” she smiles. “We’re not ruling marriage out entirely but right now there’s simply no need. We won’t be having any children together to whom we have to give a name and we’ve both been married before so we’re happy as we are.
“A party is always nice, wearing a lovely new dress is nice, but I don’t have to get married to do that. It’s not like I need anyone to provide a roof over my head either. I am very lucky to have had two very good men in my life. I feel blessed to have been loved by two good people.”
Maureen has two grown-up children, Adam and Amy. She is also a grandmother as Adam and his wife have a newborn baby son as well as a three-year-old daughter, Ava. “I try to be around for them all as much as I can,” Maureen says. “Ava is already a very powerful personality, bless her, and she’s going to rule the world. I love being a grandmother except for the fact that I keep putting my back out when I pick Ava up or push her on the swings. Some days I feel like the walking wounded but I strap up my back and it passes.”
Maureen has always been outspoken on the subject of politics and she made headlines recently when she announced she no longer felt able to vote for the Labour party, despite having done so for many years. “The election is imminent and I don’t know who to vote for,” she says. “I think a lot of people feel the same. We need to find something to believe in and if we don’t, we’re going to end up like that superficial young man Russell Brand and not want to vote at all! Yet we must vote when people died so that we have that privilege.
“I can’t bear it when our leading politicians behave stupidly and call each other names. We need them to come together and try to sort things out. They manage to do so whenever there’s a tragedy, why not the rest of the time? Why can’t they just play nicely for the common good?” As they say in Westminster; ‘Hear, hear!’
Psst… Maureen shares a secret
She loves doing theatre tours. “Before we went into the West End with Harvey, we took the play on tour for six weeks and I really enjoyed it. I like going to different places and behaving like a tourist. I go to art galleries and museums. I always find something to do.”
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