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Selina Cadell

Art is something of a family affair for Selina Cadell. As the veteran actress familiar to many for her regular TV turn playing opposite Martin Clunes in Doc Marten gears herself up to appear with the Royal National Theatre at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal in Alan Bennett’s latest hit, it seems both Cadell’s personal and professional life can’t help falling in with an arty crowd. She may play the stage manager Kay in Bennett’s imagined meeting between composer Benjamin Britten and poet W.H. Auden, but as the great nice of Scottish colourist painter Francis Cadell, grand-daughter of character actress Jean Cadell, sister of actor Simon Cadell and wife of fellow thespian Michael Thomas, Cadell is more equipped than most to see how artistic temperaments work.

“I think it’s an extraordinary play,” Cadell says of Bennett’s work. “Essentially it’s a play about many things, and it’s a play within a play set at a time when Benjamin Britten was writing his opera, Death In Venice, so this helps Alan Bennett explore the nature of biography. You have actors stepping out of the play they’re rehearsing and talking about it. The director has been called away, so the character I play steps in, and you have this imagined look at the relationship between truth and legend. But the play is also about the people who get forgotten and the people who help oil the wheels of creativity. Kay becomes an arbiter of truth in the same way both Auden and Britten were arbiters.”

Such a line of inquiry is typical of Bennett, a deeply private man who during rehearsals for the first London run of The Habit of Art would play a full part in the rehearsal process, even as he sat with a willful anonymity, chuckling away at how his words were being made flesh.

“It’s interesting,” says Cadell, “because people have this idea of Alan Bennett sometimes of someone whose work has something that’s very cosy about it. That ;probably comes from some of the little things in the monologues that make up Talking Heads, but there are parts in The Habit of Art that are really quite graphic and dirty in places that some people may be surprised by, but it’s so beautifully constructed that you could never really take offence.”

The Habit of Art isn’t the first time Cadell has worked with Bennett. In 1994 she appeared in The Madness of King George, Royal National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner’s cinematic take on Bennett’s play The Madness of George 111. Cadell also appeared in Prick Up your Ears, Stephen Frears 1987 big-screen adaptation of John Lahr’s biography of iconic playwright Joe Orton. While both works deal in different ways with how public figures deal with their fame, as with The Habit of Art, the latter was a kind of play within a play, as it dove-tailed Orton’s rise and subsequent fall at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell with Lahr’s own piecing together of the story.

Another play within a play that Cadell has appeared in is Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s ingenious comic look at back-stage business in a low-rent farce peopled by Z-list TV relics of the purely imaginary but all too familiar variety. For Cadell, however, this is all grist to the mill in a career choice she reckons was unavoidable.

“It’s not really a question of how I ended up becoming an actor,” she says, “but more how could I end up not becoming one. With everyone around me who I grew up with I tried to pretend I didn’t want to be one, but in the end I had to admit to myself that acting was what I wanted to do. During the period when I was trying to pretend, I tried all these different things, and was offered this most wonderful job on a vineyard learning about wine. If I’d taken it, things might have worked out very differently, but that was really when I had to decide. I still love good wine, mind, so that’s clearly had some effect as well.”

In terms of influence, then, Cadell’s pathway to acting excellence over the last thirty years in such diverse settings as Sam Mendes’ Broadway production of The Cherry Orchard, in Mendes’ similarly New York-bound take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or in cult TV comedy Lab Rats, has almost certainly benefited from coming from four generations of theatre people. As for her esteemed great uncle, he may have passed away in 1937, some sixteen years before she was born, yet the Edinburgh born painter, whose life ended in poverty, remains an influence.

“I was incredibly aware of Bunty,” says the actress, referring to Cadell by his nickname. “My father was very close to him, and all the stories we were told about him were very much a part of our growing up, so it almost seemed like I knew him, and I wished so much that I could’ve met him. We’re very lucky to have such creativity in the family, and there’s obviously something in the DNA, but it makes you wonder why Bunty looked at things in the way that he did. He had to paint and that was that. There was nothing he could do about that, and I think that’s probably the case for all real artists. You have to do it no matter what.”

While Cadell’s career as a character actor of note may have been the wine trade’s loss, but she manages to combine a CV of consistently classy roles with regular stints teaching opera students at the Royal College of Music.

“I’m very lucky in my line,” she says, “because if I’d had long legs and a pretty neck it might have been easy to be a star who burst onto the scene very briefly, but after that initial attention you might never work again. But as a character actress, there’s always something interesting to do.”

As with Cadell’s character in The Habit of Art, it is those unsung behind the scenes who sometimes count more. Cadell even includes Alan Bennett’s own modest demeanour in this category.

“I think it’s true of every person in life,” Cadell says, “that there’s always someone in the background who’s been a very important cog, but who rarely if ever get noticed. I think that’s certainly true of our world, where there are these great teachers who set you off on your way. It’s the very ordinariness of them that make them so extraordinary. Alan Bennett has this mix of greatness and humility rolled into one. In rehearsals he huddles himself into his Mac and doesn’t want you to notice him or think of him in any way special. But then you start speaking these lines that he’s written, and something astonishing comes out that may sound just as ordinary, but is utterly truthful.”

The Habit of Art, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, November 23-27
www.ambassadortickets.com/Theatre-Royal-Glasgow

The Herald, November 23rd

ends

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