You wouldn’t know it by her accent, but Imogen Stubbs is a Northumberland girl. ‘My grandmother, and my mother’s family all lived up there,’ she explains when we catch up after a long day of filming. Her great uncle was a doctor in Rothbury; he delivered Imogen in the cottage hospital, and her grandmother lived ‘in a beautiful house designed by Capability Brown’ on Rothley Lakes.
Every half-term, Imogen and her parents would pile into a VW Camper Van that broke down all the time and make the journey up from London, where they lived on an old sailing barge, to Imogen’s grandmother’s house to reconnect with their extended family.
‘It was a massive family, a group of people we’d meet up with while we were there,’ she explains. A second cousin of Alexander Armstrong – another proud former resident of Northumberland who has gone on to enjoy success on stage and screen – the family get-togethers that Imogen enjoyed would be a riot. ‘There was a farm and a boat house and two milking cows,’ she recalls, memories unspooling at a rate of knots (‘I’m sorry for rambling,’ she apologises: ‘I’ve been up since dawn’). ‘We had chickens! It was so fabulous.’
It was also a world away from the cramped, bohemian lifestyle that she lived with her parents in London. There would be trips to Kielder to visit a cousin who was a shepherd; they’d walk around the open countryside, and sledge and skate on the ice in the winter. ‘I love Northumberland; love it,’ she says. ‘Love the people up there and the big skies. I grew up in London and went to school in London, but my heart definitely lies there in terms of it being the place that had the biggest impact on me.’
Back in London, Imogen was one of the few girls at an boy’s school, Westminster, and excelled at sport and gymnastics. Ironically, acting wasn’t something she was enormously eager to do. ‘You were roped into acting there, just because there were so few girls,’ she explains.
From there, she went to Oxford University, and took part in The Oxford Revue. There, she played in Chekhov’s Three Sisters – ‘the first of three times I’ve been in that play,’ she says – directed by a student from Huddersfield called Stephen Pickles, who now lives in the Yorkshire Dales.
‘It was just magical,’ she says. ‘At the end there was just silence and sobbing. At that point I thought: “Wow, this is an extraordinary privilege to have this connection with people.”’
The ability to bring people to tears or laughter is a responsibility Imogen bears heavily. ‘When theatre doesn’t work it’s a tedious night out that costs too much where you have to queue for the loos,’ she says. ‘But when it works, it’s life changing for people.’ Last year, she was in a production called The Things I Know To Be True, a play by Andrew Bovell, that toured around the country. ‘I thought it was a beautiful play but had no idea – and still don’t understand now – why it had such an impact on teenagers. If we were playing to 800 people, 400 or 500 of them would be teenagers, and several hundred of them would be weeping at the end of the play.
‘There would be people sitting on the edge of the pavement hugging each other afterwards,’ she says. ‘You have to take responsibility for that, because it meant something to them. It meant more to them than it meant to me.’
That emotional connection with people is something that actors have to create quickly, she explains. ‘You have to get to know each other – in a certain way – very quickly. You tend to get close and make connections,’ she says. ‘People say that actors tend to be able to become close to each other very quickly; this is why I think some people patronise actors and talk about luvvies. Actors drop their guards very quickly and give out a lot of themselves to other people, otherwise you can’t be very good as an actor.’
That’s one reason why she prefers the stage to film and television. ‘You rehearse for stage, so you really get to know people,’ she explains. ‘On film and TV you get to know people as fast as you can because you tend to be doing scenes with someone you’ve met an hour before.’ There are other reasons she prefers the stage, too. ‘Telly is time consuming as a job,’ she says. ‘You sit through hours of tedium. You’re always very tired because you get up so early, so by the time you’re filming you’ve lost the will to think, care or feel anything.’
TV’s also incredibly difficult for actors who are ageing gracefully, rather than with the help of the plastic surgeon. ‘People used to have little boxes in the corner of their room and people were beautifully lit,’ she says. ‘Women could be any age and look gorgeous if the camera man was good, but now everyone has 60-inch televisions and you can see everyone’s nostril hair. High definition is very harsh. It’s not a very kind medium, and a lot of people – through their own prerogative – have nips and tucks. As a result, the people who don’t get work done seem to look shockingly old because everyone around you, who should look like you, doesn’t.’
Her latest role is on the stage, at York Theatre Royal, in the world premiere of a new play written by her partner, Jonathan Guy Lewis, who will also be taking a leading role. The Be All and End All is the second of a trilogy called Education, Education, Education, which focuses (unsurprisingly) on the education sector – and the stresses children are put under. ‘We both feel very strongly about that,’ she explains. ‘About the potential damage done by homogenising education that at its worst becomes battery farming, rather than organic. I don’t remember exams dominating my life the way they dominate children’s lives now.’
It’s an issue that Imogen – who has two adult children with former husband Sir Trevor Nunn – feels particularly passionate about. ‘We’re concerned about how many people we come across with teenagers or kids in their 20s who seem to have come that far and to be very unprepared for life,’ she says. ‘They’ve got great exam results or had breakdowns before doing their exams. There’s an awful legacy; you can’t not feel you want to try and put your finger on what is causing such a lack of resilience within some people.’
Imogen believes that the modern-day education system spends too much time hothousing children to pass exams by the syllabus and not enough time teaching them how to live – including how to fail. ‘It’s fine to fail,’ she declaims. ‘People have to understand it’s alright – in fact, it’s necessary – to fail to get through this life.’
She has failed herself, ‘loads of times.’ She points to a play she wrote in 2004, We Happy Few, which was put on at London’s Gielgud Theatre to a muted response. ‘Most people rejected it out of hand. You just have to go: “I gave it a go, but people didn’t like it.” You have to learn to have confidence in your own taste or to accept, as I did, yes, that’s an hour too long and maybe it was a bit rambling. But at least you’re in the arena, having a go.’
Being in the arena and having a go is something that rules Imogen’s way of life. She was given a book by her daughter, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, which she’s taken to heart. ‘I think anyone who is brave enough to have a go at things has my total respect, and if they fail, at least they had a go,’ she says. ‘There’s probably something I’m quite good at: I’m quite good at holding my breath underwater.’ She then poses some rhetorical questions: ‘What’s success? What makes you happy? I love waking up in a sunny country and looking out at the mountains or sea. It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that.’
It can be the Northumberland countryside stretching out before her, too. ‘I always liked the North more than the South, even though I didn’t grow up there,’ she says. ‘I don’t think I’m very southern at heart – I like the North. But then I don’t like the weather; I don’t like rain.’
Imogen Stubbs stars in The Be All and End All at York Theatre Royal from 4–19 May.