Emma Thompson’s Third Act

John Lahr on the actress and screenwriter—who has appeared in such movies as “Love Actually,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and “Nanny McPhee”—taking on a musical adaptation of the latter.

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“But I did lose my virginity at fifteen and didn’t tell you,” Thompson replied.

“You wouldn’t tell your mother that,” Law said, sipping a glass of the wine that Thompson had brought.

“I told Eleanor”—a cousin of Law’s—“who was more available for comment than my, as I thought, deeply upright mother,” Thompson said. “And then you took me to the most extraordinary gynecologist, who was in her nineties, and who sat in front of me in this office and said, ‘What do you think the birth-control pill was invented for?’ And I said, ‘To stop people from having babies.’ ‘No, that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Try again.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Does it do something else?’ And she said, ‘Yes, it allows people to have sex for joy and pleasure.’ That is a ninety-year-old woman speaking to a fifteen-year-old girl. That’s incredible.”

On the way out, Thompson guided me through her mother’s bathroom, which was festooned with photographs. She pointed to one of herself at Cambridge in a black academic gown. “This is me at graduation,” she said. “You were supposed to have black shoes, and I didn’t have any. My shoes were tap shoes. The hall floor was made of marble, so I made quite a lot of noise.”

“We were always looking for occasions to laugh,” Thompson said of herself and her younger sister, Sophie. But amid the comedy there were also tragedies, the gravest and most character-shaping of which involved her father’s health. When Thompson was eight, Eric, then thirty-eight, had a serious heart attack. Ten years later, he suffered a severe stroke that left him half-paralyzed. “I felt a tremendous amount of anxiety,” Thompson recalled. She and her sister were “not allowed to have rows or misbehave. We were not allowed to be angry,” she said. Sophie retreated into acting and art-making, Emma into books. “I read literally all the time. I was all words. All words,” Thompson said.

Eric himself “wasn’t morose, but he was silent,” she said. “When he was in the house, he’d either have his back to us or be watching football. When he engaged with us, it was heavenly.” She went on, “He was very gifted, so desired. Our need for him was intense, and we didn’t get much of him, really.” (When asked what Eric liked doing with his daughters, Law said, “Not enough.”) And, as loving and attentive a mother as Law was, according to Thompson, she “could never say the P-word.” Pride, for her, was hubris. As a result, for the best part of her coming of age Thompson felt, she said, only “partially seen.” To get her father’s attention, she tried “to be witty, to return his wit. The love of words was a real connection.” Another strategy was to excel at school. When she received excellent O-level results, she called her father in Los Angeles, where he was directing a play. In response, he wrote her a letter:

After his stroke, Eric lost language.When he came home from the hospital, the only words he could say were “fuck” and “shit.” Using flash cards, Thompson worked with her father all day, every day, for an entire summer. “I was fierce with him,” she said. “Once, I must have pushed him a bit too hard. He was weeping slightly. He said—this struck me to the core—‘I can’t do it, Emma.’ I said, ‘You can, you can, you can.’ That’s when I thought, Everything is upside down.” Eric’s death, in 1982, when Thompson was twenty-three, was a “cataclysmic loss,” she said, adding, “He left no money. We all had to earn our livings from then on.”

Thompson doesn’t remember having wanted to be in show business as a girl. At fifteen, she contemplated signing up with the International Voluntary Service. When she was seventeen, her parents sent her to the Vocational Guidance Association for aptitude tests. The V.G.A.’s suggested careers, in order of preference, were: social services (“e.g., Probation Service”), teaching (“After some experience you could well aim for an appointment as Housemistress or Headmistress, etc.”), and dramatic art (“This could lead to your exploring opportunities on the Production side of such an association as the BBC”). The report went on, “You should certainly cultivate your writing in your spare time, for this could become a profitable hobby.”

During the sisters’ years at the prestigious Camden School for Girls, Sophie was the actress—she dropped out at fifteen to begin her professional career, starring in the TV miniseries “A Traveller in Time”—and Emma was the academic highflier, who appeared in only one school production. Her final exam results made her “one of the top students in the country” in English literature, according to the school’s current administrator. By then, Thompson had already tried her hand at sketch-writing, producing material for a charity show with the boys at the nearby University College School. Her writing partner was Martin Bergman, who, when Thompson went to Cambridge, in 1978, was the president of Footlights, the university’s renowned theatre club. “He just got me straight in and said, ‘This girl’s funny. She can do funny,’ ” she recalled.

Thompson’s parents attended the Footlights Christmas pantomime, “Aladdin,” and were stunned. “You just looked at her and thought, My God, where did she hide that?” Law said. At one point, Eric Thompson left his seat and walked to the stage. “He wanted to confirm that it was her,” Law said. “He had no idea she could do anything of that sort.” Even to her contemporaries, Thompson seemed to emerge fully formed as a performer. “She stood out like a good deed in a naughty world,” the comedian and actor Stephen Fry wrote in his memoir. (Thompson coaxed Fry to join the Footlights; she also introduced him to his future comedy partner Hugh Laurie, with whom she was stepping out.) “There was no doubt that Emma was going to go the distance,” Fry told me. “In fact, we used to write sketches for her to be in, and we always had a private joke because the surname of whoever she was playing would be Talented.” By the end of her second year at Cambridge, Thompson had acquired a London agent.

In 1981, the year she graduated, a Cambridge Footlights Revue production called “The Cellar Tapes” won the first Perrier Comedy Award, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “Wears baggy trousers . . . refuses to be stereotyped,” Thompson’s program note read. Onstage, she capered as a Sondheim chanteuse, lampooning “Send in the Clowns” (“Just as you think / I’m stuck in G / I suddenly speed up the lyric / and end up in C”), and spouted clipped vowels from a chaise longue, as the invalid Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett beside her suitor, Robert Browning (Fry), in a spoof of “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” “Emma was the secret sauce. She brought it together,” Fry said. The revue subsequently toured England and Australia. “We weren’t alternative,” Thompson said. “We were posh cunts, basically, who didn’t know anything. I use the word because we took the Footlights up to Bradford and played the university. We came on, and they just shouted, ‘Cunt! Cunt!,’ all the way through the performance.” She added, “They threw cans of beer. We were shell-shocked.”

Nonetheless, Thompson and her cohorts were picked up almost immediately for “Alfresco,” a short-lived TV comedy series, which brought Thompson into contact with a more eclectic crew of talented funnymen, including Robbie Coltrane and Ben Elton. At the time, her ambition was to become a sort of British Lily Tomlin, writing and performing her own characters, but the siren song of alternative comedy, which was just emerging in Britain, lured her briefly into standup. “Middle-class people didn’t do standup,” Elton said. “It was very much seen as a working-class art form. It took place, traditionally, in workingmen’s clubs. It was almost exclusively male-dominated.” He added, “We found ourselves together in Croydon, appearing on the same bill. I think it was her début. She did a routine about thrush, talking about the various flavors you might choose to apply to your vaginal areas. She was big and bold.” Thompson recalled of the performance, “It was my twenty-fifth birthday. I did the first forty-five minutes. Then Ben, a far more seasoned comedian, did the second half. We took our bows together at the end, and I felt accepted. Someone from the audience came up afterward and said it wasn’t often he heard a woman being funny. Then, on the train home, we divided the cash. I got sixty pounds in a brown envelope, and I cannot stress how much it meant. I was economically independent. I could live on words.”

Thompson’s standup routine was one of the first to bring women’s issues into Britain’s comic arena. “Women haven’t been allowed to make jokes about themselves,” she told the press. “It’s been the men who have made the jokes about us, jokes we haven’t liked. And I’m fed up with it.” She had her own theories about gender-based storytelling. “The joke is a patriarchal form of humor, which basically requires you to pay attention, prepare to laugh, then laugh, whether you are amused or not,” she said, during a talk at Cambridge. “It’s quite a tough form. There is no spontaneity.” Whereas the joke was like the male orgasm, she argued, female humor was a simulacrum of the female orgasm, “with no need to go to all this ejaculation. . . . You simply don’t know when it is going to happen and it can go on and on and on or be over terribly quickly.”

Standup, however, required a kind of self-exposure that played against Thompson’s strengths: her humor was observational, not confrontational or confessional. “If she’s going to try and get laughs, she’s an actress. It will be in character,” said Humphrey Barclay, who directed Thompson’s first solo show, “Short Vehicle,” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in 1983. In 1984, at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally that she was helping to coördinate, Thompson stood at the base of Nelson’s Column, in Trafalgar Square, in front of more than a hundred and fifty thousand protesters, and did a five-minute comedy monologue. “Absolutely the worst moment I ever had,” she said, recalling a woman who came up afterward and hissed, “If you can’t say something sensible, shut up!” “I just died. I would have been quite happy for a bomb to drop on me immediately.”

The failure taught her that she was “just not cut out for standup.” But, as it happened, she didn’t have to fight for another space at the entertainment table. When Barclay produced a half-hour sketch-comedy TV special based on her Edinburgh show, it caught the attention of the controller of BBC 1, Michael Grade. “He rang and said, ‘I assume you’ve got a series,’ ” Barclay recalled. “I said, ‘No, nobody’s interested.’ And he said, ‘I’ll have it for the BBC.’ ” By the time Thompson took up that project, in 1987, she had sung and danced in the West End, in the musical “Me and My Girl,” and starred in the BBC miniseries “Tutti Frutti” and “Fortunes of War,” two performances for which she later won a bafta award. She was Britain’s golden girl, short-listed among the “Women of the Year,” and one of the first sightings in British entertainment of a new kind of woman: thinking, sparky, unapologetic, secure in herself and her desires. “I deeply admired her combination of intelligence and silliness,” Lucy Prebble, a playwright and currently an executive producer and a co-writer of HBO’s “Succession,” said. “She’s a literary polymath, but without taking herself too seriously. That’s a cultural role we rarely allow women.” No matter how parlous or hilarious the circumstances of her characters, Thompson radiated a subliminal solidity, “a sort of ‘fuck it’ that is the opposite of neurosis,” as Prebble put it.

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