Britain's most famous mother-in-law is still working hard at her role

as daughter. She tells Jackie McGlone of her ongoing campaigns

COME away in, urges Phyllida Law, warmly welcoming you to her West

Hampstead home, a small but beautifully formed flat, where she lives in

blissful, solitary splendour -- a Law unto herself. ''Dump your things

in my bedroom and while you are at it, have a wee look at 'the racy

nun's room','' she says, darting off to prepare coffee and croissants,

and singing merrily at the top of her voice. She is most hospitable --

in true Scots' fashion -- is Mrs Thompson, still slightly bemused and

amused that anyone should wish to talk to her about herself, rather than

her more famous relatives.

For her most immediate relations -- her elder daughter Emma Thompson

and son-in-law Kenneth Branagh -- are rather well-known nowadays.

Indeed, she howls with laughter when you ask whether there is any truth

in the rumour that she is about to change her name to Phyllida


We had been introduced in Stratford-upon-Avon earlier this year, where

she was visiting her second daughter, the Royal Shakespeare Company

actress, Sophie Thompson. Law told me that her late father, William, had

been a leader-writer on the Glasgow Herald before the war. I determined

then to interview her. She was anyway an actress whose fine work I had

always admired, whether onstage or in film and television. So here we

are sitting in the lovely, sequestered garden she has made, discussing

her wonderfully honest contribution to a new book, A Certain Age*, in

which 17 women reflect on the menopause and in which Law reviews ''from

the vast plateau of middle age'', a decade of chaste independence and

her muddled history of womanhood, childhood, puberty, childbearing and


''A joyful time in a woman's life,'' according to Law, who believes a

subterranean energy and power is released as a woman's body ages, but

she adds quickly, ''I was one of the lucky ones. Many women do suffer

terribly.'' (She is trilingual, speaking Scots, English and Italics.)

Born in Glasgow 61 years ago, Law was married to the actor Eric Thompson

(who wrote and narrated BBC TV's The Magic Roundabout, in which

Ermintrude the Cow was based on his wife) for 26 years. They had two

daughters together, Emma and Sophie. He died suddenly in 1982. Law was

50. ''I last had sex 10 years ago,'' she writes in A Certain Age.

''Three days before I was widowed . . . I was 50. I never had the curse

again. My womb simply retired, without further symptoms or

side-effects.'' Losing your sex life is another sort of bereavement, she


In her essay, Much Thanks, she writes most movingly of widowhood. New

widows are very vulnerable, she says, recalling standing in the queue at

the post office and having to prevent herself from leaning against the

male shoulders in front of her, ''if only to breathe male warmth through

wet tweed''. She suspects anyway that both she and Thompson (''Eric's

such a dreadful name, I always called him Tom or Tommo . . . '') were

terminally monogamous. ''How could I be unfaithful to someone who seemed

only to have gone on an extended tour overseas? Besides, no-one


Honest, cross her heart and hope to die, says Law. Not once has she

been propositioned in 10 years. I tell her I don't believe it. She is

immensely attractive, with strong, wise features, clear green eyes, and

a tumble of smokey grey hair pinned on top of her head. What is even

more engaging about her is a giddy sense of humour. The pair of us sat

in her garden for two hours and laughed immoderately at everything under

the sun, from old wives' tales about catching things from lavatory

seats, to the impossible narrowness of the gussets in today's knickers,

and the fact that her daughters have urged her to take a lover. ''From

where? Who?'' she asks plaintively.

A friend came to her bachelor flat the other day, looked at her

bedroom and said: ''This is the bedroom of a racy nun''. Too true, she

thought. But, she insists she has not had an offer: ''I promise you. Not

once in 10 years has a man made a pass at me. In fact, I have told all

my friends I'll put an advert in The Stage the moment I get asked.''

Perhaps she is not giving off the right signals? ''Yes, that is what

the kids say, the radar's got in a tangle. I haven't had the remotest

flicker of interest, not even a leer. I only get whoopsy from little old

men with wooden legs and woolly hats in the street. Hoboes and drunks!

What is it about me? Generally, I look like a bag-lady, mind you. I wear

big, old, men's raincoats and things. I think the trouble is I look like

a nice little woman who would make a good steak pie.''

Or the sort of woman who might know how to toss a pancake and run up a

pair of camiknickers? Further fits of laughter ensue, because earlier in

our conversation she had spoken of her education in Scotland and

Bristol, in the course of which she got involved in a housewifery course

at the Dough School in Glasgow. ''I laughed myself sick!'' she exclaims.

''There was me and 20 others doing this course, making camiknickers on

graph paper and so on, and none of us could believe it! We were very

badly behaved. We were sent to clean the lavatories and wash the

paintwork down with vinegar and water. Seven times! I ask you! It was

all terribly old-fashioned. We used to sit on the loos, howling with

laughter and smoking furiously.''

Law escaped from the horrors of domestic science and entered Bristol

Old Vic theatre school -- despite her maternal grandmother's conviction

that the theatre was the work of the Devil -- where she trained as an

assistant scene painter and wardrobe assistant, and played as cast. She

also designed sets for Western Theatre Ballet (now Scottish Ballet). As

an actress she has played London Old Vic, Glasgow Citz, the National

Theatre, and the West End -- everything from the back-end of a cow to La

Cage aux Folles.

For her son-in-law, she played the gimlet-eyed housekeeper in Peter's

Friends, for which she won ''a two-minute Oscar'' in the Washington

Post. ''The Americans all thought I came with the house, which I thought

a huge compliment. I was thrilled. Perhaps you better not put that in

though, I don't want to sound as if I'm blowing my own trumpet.''

NOWADAYS, her time is divided between London and Scotland, and she

fits in work where she can because her mother, who is in her nineties,

lives in a cottage in Ardentinny and needs her daughter's support

system, which has involved Law in totally reversing her life, so most of

her weeks are spent in Scotland. Recently, though, she commuted between

Tuscany and Argyll, while appearing as Ursula in Branagh's film of

Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing*. To fund this expensive shuttling

twixt England and Scotland, she works when she can and is currently

filming with Hugh Lawrie, playing a blind woman for the first time in

her career in Carlton TV's All or Nothing at All.

Phyllida Law got ''diverted'' into acting. Originally, she planned to

be a doctor because she was convinced from an early age that she was

going to die young and she thought she ought to give the few years at

her disposal to suffering humanity. Was she an excessively morbid child

then? No, melancholic, perhaps; introspective certainly. The chilly word

''menstruation'' had been discovered in a luridly illustrated

encyclopaedia which, combined with wartime posters in public lavatories,

persuaded her that she had VD. Her various symptoms, she decided, were

evidence of having something ''Rude'' and a disease that drove you to

madness and early death.

''Aunt May, whose general merriment made her easier to question than

most, said that the large posters in the street meant Digging for

Victory, but I had collected enough information to know that I had

something shameful,'' says Law, still slightly taken aback at her own

ignorance and innocence. Isabel Hebblethwaite, her friend, confirmed her

diagnosis and said that she had caught it from a loo seat.

Eventually, when she was 17 she confided in her mother that she had

VD. By this time she was at Glasgow University, studying medicine. ''I

was wretched. Misery can be creative, and it became clear to me that I

was in the wrong place.'' When she asked her mother -- by this time her

parents had been divorced for four years -- whether she could give up

medicine, she broke down and told her parent that in any case she would

not live long. It was explained to her that she most certainly did not

have VD. The family doctor diagnosed anaemia and prescribed a course of

iron pills.

Today, Phyllida Law looks at her own two darling daughters who have

turned out to be ''rather nice people'' -- founder members of the West

Hampstead Women's Support Group -- and is amazed and thrilled that that

they have so much more confidence than she had. ''Mine was stunted by

being an evacuee. At seven years old I was sent to Lenzie to live with a

family that wasn't mine and found myself unwanted. I was a nuisance who

caught fleas, didn't know who Adam and Eve were, and who had her hat

elastic snapped to make her eyes water. I know I am a damaged

creature.'' Damaged, she says, in precisely the way that many men are

who were sent away at a tender age and brought up entirely among their

own sex.

But how badly damaged? Well, she replies: ''You see, I was tortured as

a child because I was an evacuee, which caused terrible damage. As a

result I think I probably became sly and anxious to please, which is not

a terribly attractive trait, is it? Then I was packed off to an English

boarding school in Bristol when I was 13, still 'suffering from VD'. Ha!

Ha! Ha! But I do think I'm not a very courageous woman because of being

damaged when young. I'm not anarchic enough. I am still desperately

seeking self-confidence because I think I had that fairly well hammered

out of me by being Scottish, not having a father, and having an older

brother who teased me absolutely to death, but whom I worshipped. I am

not sure brothers are good for you, you know. I often think he didn't

help me at all, because I have been trying to have self-confidence ever


The other day, Phyllida Law heard a woman on the radio saying, ''We

need more grannies on the streets''. We also need them onstage,

maintains Law. ''We must exit disgracefully . . . I refuse to be

marginalised and remaindered because I neither menstruate nor f***.''

* A Certain Age (Virago, #7.99). Much Ado About Nothing goes on

general release next month.