Miranda Richardson, of course. Andrew Billen meets the great British actress.
'I've gone through my life like a tit in a trance, quite honestly'. Miranda Richardson is the nation's second favourite queen. But unlike Her Majesty, her path has been completely unplanned, she tells Andrew Billen, a devoted servant.
A teacher at Miranda Richardson's old school in Southport in Merseysoide, an institution she holds in scant affection, muttered one day: "Miranda, you just go your own sweet way." This was no compliment, but it was perceptive. The indiosyncratic course charted by one of our great actresses in the subsequent decades is, besides the quality of her performances and the fierce intelligence she demonstrates in interviews, one of the reasons I admire her.
"I've never quite done the things I'm supposed to do," she says. Indeed. This is a woman who followed the acclaim of her first movie, Dance with a Stranger, in which she played Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, by becoming "Queenie" Elizabeth I in Blackadder. She then combined murder and comedy in one of the BBC's funniest single plays, Simon Gray's After Pilkington. Typecasting was not then and is not now a problem: Harry Potter (she was Rita Skeeter, star muckraker for The Daily Prophet) one year, Parade's End the next. Critics and directors use the words "surprising", "committed", "eccentric" and "chameleon" when they talk about her, but she is no chamleon. When we meet she is dressed floridly in a bright plaid suit. Blending into the background is not her forte.
Privately, too, she has taken her own path: no high-profile romances, no weddings (you'll read on the web that she was once married to Rowan Atkinson: not true) and no children. She lives in Notting Hill in London with two German pointers, two cats and fish in the garden. She also has time-share claims on a falcon in Gloucestershire. As this year's chairman of the Women's prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange, she has been reading madly. Recently she took up the cello.
She may qualify for the single-occupancy discount on her council tax, but she likes her home so much she was almost relieved when the excellent US espionage series Rubicon, in which she played a big supporting role, was cancelled. She certainly did not envy the long sojourn in Hungary other cast members endured filming her latest project, the TV adaptation of Ken Follett's World Without End. In this medieval potboiler, the sequel to Pillars of the Earth, from 2010, she plays Mother Cecilia, whose convent provides sanctuary for a knight and a damsel played by Tom Weston-Jones and Charlotte Riley.
As we struggle to name its genre, Richardson suggests it is a "shagging and fighting" show, and it would take a more sullen spirit than hers not occassionally to have succumbed to the giggles during its filming; careful editing excises them from a tense scaffold scene in which an alleged sorceress's third nipple is revealed. But Richardson was heartened by the variety of strong female characters. "Women today are either nun, wife or whore, and a nun is by far the freest," Cecilia avers at one point.
Freedom, I assume, is eqully paramount to Richardson. From Ruth Ellis on she has played punchy women, with imperious royals a speciality: Queenie, Queen Elspeth in Snow White, Queen Mary in The Lost Prince, Queen Rosalind in The Prince and Me and HM's mother in Young Victoria (her Barbara Castle in Made in Dagenham might almost make the list). On set, too, she commands. After a nerve-wracking first week in the Oxbridge boys' club that was Blackadder, the boys conceded they were not quite sure what that thing was she was doing, but it was working.
Even so, as we talk in a PR company office in Soho, it becomes clear that she does not see herself in command. If she finds herself, at 54, slightly less renowned, perhaps then she deserves to be - an American previewer of World Without End imagined her on location seething with envy at her rival, Queen Mirren - that may not have been the calculated risk she took when detirmining to go her own way.
"I think," she says, "I've gone through my life like a tit in a trance, quite honestly. People say, 'Oh you must have done this' or 'You must have thought this', or 'This must have happened because...' It wasn't like that. Maybe I've been in a state of mild panic throughout my life. You just go very quiet and see what happens. There hasn't been a deep plan, just to try and keep doing different things. Some of which have been extremely well-received, which is great."
Her father was an Oxford graduate whose work as a marketing executive had taken him and his wife, a baker's daughter, north. Miranda found Southport uptight, its monotony relieved by the stables at the end of the road and a local nature reserve. She was solitary. Her best friend moved away. Her sister, now a chiropodist, was eight years older. Miranda's imaginary friend was an imaginary dog. "I didn't really connect with very many people and it's always been like that, really".
What she could do, from when she was 5 and dressed up as an elf, was make people laugh. At 18 she ditched academia for drama school in Bristol, where she studied with "Dan" Day-Lewis and Greta Scacchi. On leaving she got work immediately in rep and her career ws launched.
"My so-called career," she corrects me. "Well, I don'tr think there's any such thing as a career now - and that's not my line, it's a line of a best friend of mine who used to be a casting agent. Everybody's doing everything now. In a way that's very liberating, but it's also even more confusing.
"I think that Bristol turns out much more workmanlike actors, people who just go: 'What do you want me to do? Yeah, I can do that.' Rather than: 'I'm an actor, and I want to be doing this or that.' I try to do stuff that interests me and also earns enought to pay the mortgage."
Two Golden Globe awards, two Oscar nominations and a Bafta strike me as not bad for someone without a career. Had marriage and children ever been a goal? "No. I've never felt very strongly about that. I meet people who say: 'Neither did I and then it just happened.' Well, not for me, no. I mean not yet. Obviously there's a cut-off point for kids unless you're taking on somebody's else family - which I love the idea of. Ditto marriage, you know. Whatever'.
So it might still happen? 'Never say never. But the business is full of failed relationships which are somewhat truncated. But he energy they take and the debilitating nature of a split-up are very detrimental to the other central part of your life, which is the work, the creativity."
How close had to she got to marriage? "Talked about it once and then that relationship fizzled. So it was just as well." Was he an actor? "No. Often you find that the male of the acting species is a great deal more tunnel-visioned than the female, so you end up being slightly more..."
In the back seat? "Well, it's a vast generalisation. There'll be letters. I don't care. Anyway, sometimes people are fulfilled by having children, so that's their creativity. Whereas I'm going, 'Acting! Cello! Come here, dogs! Falcons! House interior! House exterior!' and everything's a bit chaotic.
Does she ever feel lonely? "Yes, of course. But less than you would imagine. Most times when I feel lonely it's when I'm on a job. It's a sort of existential state, particularly if you're working away."
Whenever someone has had a crush on her she has been the last to know and, she says, she never thrusts herself forward. I wonder why. "I don't have a sense of myself, which is probably why I'm doing the job I'm doing." This I can hardly believe. "Well, I've got to qualify that, haven't I? You can qualify it for me, but I'm forever trying on different hats, aren't I? That's what my work is. But then other people do that and then do the societal thing as well. Well, not me, not yet."
The conversation has taken an unexpectedly poignant turn. The fact is, however, that Richardson has a select circle of friends who speak warmly of her generosity of spirit and gift for friendship. As a small example, Susanna White - who directed her in the TV series Parade's End - was touched to receive a cake on her birthday, delivered to her trailer. "An apple for the teacher," Richardson said."
"I do have a lot better life than some people have", she says. "I do feel privileged and it opens doors to things that other professions don't. And actually, you know, in life terms it feels better at the moment. If not in career terms, it feels better in life terms."
Happier? "Yes, and more outgoing and slightly more embraced. I feel slightly more sense of that word 'community', which is quite difficult to feel in London, but embraced within the acting fraternity".
I should think so too. Miranda Richardson's way may not quite be what we assumed, but sweet it decidedly deserves to be. Nothing, after all, would annoy her teacher more.
World Without End begins on Channel 4 on Saturday (9pm)