Star of shows such as Waiting For God, Tenko, and most recently Coronation Street, one of our best loved actresses, Stephanie Cole has often played characters older than herself.
She started out at 17 playing a 90-year-old woman. Now, aged 72, she is playing another 90-year-old in the play This May Hurt a Bit, a satirical comedy about the NHS, at the St.James Theatre, London.
When you reach 90 do you expect the NHS to be there in its present form?
I certainly hope the NHS will still exist but that it will be in better shape than it is now. It's in desperate need of more staff nurses and more medical practitioners running hospitals, rather than bureaucrats with no medical experience.
Do you remember the early days of the NHS?
Indeed I do. I was only 7 when it got going in 1948, but we were a one-parent family and I was very conscious, even at that age, that the NHS made life a lot easier for my mother. We’ve forgotten what it’s like not to be able to afford private healthcare.
What’s been your experience of the NHS as an older person?
I live just outside Bath and I’m very lucky to have a local walk-in surgery that works brilliantly. But I have friends who live elsewhere who wait weeks just to get a doctor’s appointment, and the NHS has let me down badly in recent years, not because of individual doctors or nurses, but largely due to administrative cock-ups.
Should healthcare be a key election issue?
Of course. We should all be writing to or emailing our MPs asking them if they intend to safeguard the NHS as a properly-funded public service, and threatening not to vote for them if they do not. I feel very passionate about it because the NHS has always been a source of great pride in this country.
We remember you, of course, from the comedy series Waiting for God, set in a care home. What’s been your own experience of care homes?
Both my mother and my first husband were in the same, wonderful private care home near Bath. I haven’t had any direct experience of NHS care homes but I do appreciate that careworkers have an incredibly difficult job, and the low pay doesn’t help.
They should certainly be paid more, and there should be a more rigorous checking system. I’m sick and tired of reading ‘We’ve learnt our lesson from this’ when some care home is exposed, then it happens all over again, somewhere else.
If you couldn’t cope on your own, would you consider going into a home?
Like everyone else, I’d rather die in my own bed but other than that I can imagine myself finishing up at Denville Hall, the care home for actors.
I’ve made a Living Will and I’d rather have the choice of when I die and how I die. I don’t belong to anybody and I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business to decide when you die.
You love to work, but as an actor there are inevitably times when you’re not working. How do you cope with that?
If I’m not working I get restless, so I have to keep myself occupied. I’ve done a variety of classes over the years, including painting, life drawing, learning the guitar and learning the Welsh language. I also read and learn a lot of poetry. It’s like having a library in your head.
When I was in Coronation Street they asked me to play the ukulele banjo as my character, even though I hadn’t played it for 30 years. So I practiced like mad for two weeks, and it didn’t sound too bad.
Do you agree with Joan Bakewell that it’s a good idea to give up ambition when you’re getting on?
Yes, absolutely. It’s not always a comfortable thing to live with. I was very ambitious as a young actress, but now my only professional ambition is to do the best job I possibly can.
You suffered badly with anxiety in your 30s. Does that still bother you?
Not any more, at least only very rarely. I have meditation techniques I can use to counteract it. One of the joys of getting older is that you don’t care so much about what people think of you. I really don’t give a tuppenny stuff whether someone likes me or not.
Has ageism been a problem for you as an actress?
Only in reverse. I was in my early fifties when I did Waiting for God and I once asked the producer why he’d cast me instead of an older actress. He said he didn’t think an actress in her seventies could have coped with it. I pointed out that it is actually men who go downhill quicker than women in older age.
What do you do to keep yourself fit and active?
I swim every day when I’m at home, and I walk when I’m in London and any other city. I dread being forced to retire through ill health because I love what I do so much. As an actor you’re constantly with people of all ages. You must keep interested in life and other people, that’s the secret.
You’re very distinctive looking. Do you mind being recognised on the street?
Not really because most people are lovely and polite. On the way to meet you a young man stopped me as I was getting on the bus and asked me if I’d pose for a selfie on his mobile phone. I agreed because he asked so nicely but it wasn’t the most convenient time.
Interview: Nick Smurthwaite