Millicent Martin - 'I shan't ever retire'

After over 70 years in show business, Millie Martin chats to Yours about her glittering career and an exciting new role in a film musical 

A galaxy of stars have been shining brightly in a small corner of Devon recently as they gather to shoot a brand new film, called Melody the Musical. Michael Ball, Helen Baxendale, John Barrowman and Dame Joan Collins are among the stars – along with the one and only Millicent Martin. 

Perhaps best known as the resident singer in the weekly satire show That Was The Week That Was – and more recently shrewd Gertrude Moon (Daphne’s mum) in the hit American sitcom Frasier – Millicent tells me more about the film. 

“It’s about two women who were music hall ladies; they sang and danced as a couple. During the Second World War they separated and my character had to go home because my husband had been injured.” As she talks to her granddaughter about her early life, the tale is brought right up to the present day using a mix of modern and old time musical styles.

Still going strong at 83, Millie has no plans to call it a day and put her feet up. “Oh, I shan’t ever retire,” she says. “I’m at that lovely point where I can cherry pick the parts that appeal to me.”

She’s certainly earned her spurs, on the eve now of celebrating an astonishing seven decades in the industry. “I got my first professional job at 14 in a musical, Lute Song, with Yul Brynner. He was so lovely to us three handmaidens. On the first night, he gave each of us a lacquer box full of make-up brushes – a great thrill for a teenage girl.”

Millie in the Sixties TV series Espionage

Millie in the Sixties TV series Espionage

Almost 70 years later, Millie’s still instantly recognisable with her infectious laughter and the same red hair although a softer shade now and artfully mixed with a little silver. She strikes an eternally youthful figure, her reactions razor sharp, dates and names instantly at her fingertips.

She appeared opposite Mary Martin – Larry Hagman’s mother – in a West End production of South Pacific in the Fifties and then in Guys and Dolls. She crossed ‘the pond’ to play alongside Julie Andrews on Broadway in The Boyfriend and shared a New York apartment with her. “We’ve been chums from that day to this,” she says. 

But it was via the weekly satirical TV show, That Was The Week That Was, that she became a household name. “I’d done well in musical theatre, but I always say that [producer and director] Ned Sherrin gave me my career. He put me into every sitting room.” 

Mark you, she wouldn’t now want to see any old clips from the show. “Oh, I’d hate it. It would seem so old fashioned. For example, I remember telling Roy Kinnear his flies were undone and the BBC switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree. Most callers said we’d all go to hell in
a handcart.” 

Then there were many shows with Morecambe and Wise. “The thing I liked about Eric, and this isn’t mentioned much, was his genuine admiration for Ernie. We’d rehearse a sketch and, at the end, Eric would say: ‘Did you see what Ernie just did? Did you see how he gave me the opportunity for that line? He’s the best straight man in the business’.” What about Ernie? Was the feeling reciprocated? ‘Oh, he just loved Eric,” says Millie. “He told me he was working with a genius.”

Millie in a 1962 Morecambe and Wise TV show

Millie in a 1962 Morecambe and Wise TV show

She might have remained in this country if she hadn’t married American drama coach, Marc Alexander, who approached her at the first night party in New York following the opening of the musical, Side By Side By Sondheim, and praised her performance. “And then he asked me out for dinner.” They married three months later.

Both her first two marriages had ended in divorce. The first to the late Belfast-born crooner, Ronnie Carroll, lasted six years, the second to actor Norman Eshley
only five. “And with each of them, we got to the point where we realised the relationship simply wasn’t working any more. But I’m proud of the fact we didn’t degenerate into tearing strips off each other. We parted sadly, but with dignity.” She and Marc, on the other hand, will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary next year. “He’s been a wonderful husband. He’s never complained if my work has taken me away from home. I used to think that perhaps I wasn’t good at marriage until I met Marc.”

She’s happily childless with three nieces she adores, all of whom now have children of their own. “There’s no denying I wanted to get somewhere in the business. I put blinkers on and went for it. That wouldn’t have been compatible with having a child of my own and travelling all over the place.”

Ask her to cite her life’s greatest influence and she doesn’t hesitate: Ruby Hilary at the Italia Conti Stage School to where Millie won a scholarship aged 12. “She taught classical ballet. She dressed all in black, including black high-heeled pumps. I made a promise to myself that I’d dance in pumps like hers one day. And I did. “She knew me like the back of her hand. If I was at the back of her class, I’d fight to get better and better so that she’d move me forward. “The minute I reached the front row, she’d say: ‘Millicent, wonderful. Now you’re going up into the next class’ – and I’d be in the back row again. It was very good experience.”

Hers has been a glittering career, but she’s more choosy these days. “I spent 40 years and more going out the front door to work at six o’clock in the evening when everyone else was coming home. Now I like to have my evenings with Marc.”

Millie also likes inviting half a dozen people over for a meal. “My pièce de résistance? Probably my beef stroganoff.” With a glass of wine? “Oh yes. I like the sort of red wine you can stand a spoon in,” says vivacious Millie, again with that infectious laugh.

  • Words by Richard Barber