• Lindsey Bowden

Conversations...with actor, Harriet Thorpe.

Updated: May 17


Harriet Thorpe

As a youth growing up, I was always drawn to funny women. I howled at French and Saunders, I idolised Hattie Jacques, and I still, to this day, cry with laughter at the genius of Victoria Wood. But there was one actress who I always felt a kinship with, her humour, her warmth and her likeability. So, imagine my surprise when years later I found myself, at drama school, being taught by the incomparable Harriet Thorpe.

Harriet is a very familiar face on screen thanks to shows such as French and Saunders and Absolutely Fabulous, films such as Calendar Girls and her infamous role as skittish receptionist Carole in The Brittas Empire. She’s a wonderful friend and I was thrilled she agreed to sit down for a chat.

Lindsey Bowden (LB)

Hi Harriet, it’s lovely to have this time with you. How is life treating you?

Harriet Thorpe (HT)

It’s a pleasure to chat with you! I’m good! The way to survive life at the moment, I think, is not to look too far ahead. Just try to enjoy the day you’re in and deal with all the problems, boredom, fears, laughs as they come up! 

LB

That’s a superb way to look at life at the moment, we may as well ride it out and be grateful for what we have! Now, you’re a very familiar face on our screens but can you talk about how you knew you wanted to be an actress and your first experience of acting?

HT

I had an instinct to perform and my earliest memory was trying to make my sister Matilda laugh, and that feeling was so good it just kept me wanting to do it more. As a little girl, I remember being in a Persil advert, again with my sister. Our father, Edward Thorpe, at that time was involved with advertising and was a critic for the Evening Standard, and as you know my mother, Gillian Freeman, was a novelist and film writer.

LB

You just mentioned your sister there who is the actress Matilda Thorpe, best known for her role as Mandy in the sitcom Desmonds. Growing up, were you a support to each other in your ambitions?

HT

Oh yes, I’ve been so lucky. Both my sister and I have always supported each other in our endeavours.

LB

That’s wonderful, I always believe a strong support system is key to confidence! So, when you started out, what other jobs did you do inbetween acting jobs?

HT

The other jobs I did when I was training as an actor, and when I first became an actress, was to work in the restaurant Joe Allen in the West End, which was the first and only unique theatrical restaurant, where every actor or performer who is in town went. I served Tennessee Williams, Lauren Bacall, Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor  (who amazingly I later worked with in a Zeffirelli film Toscanini), to name but a few! Subsequently, I have taught in various drama schools, and my sister and I run a company, Dr Theatre, which does coaching to businesses such as Shell Oil, Deutschebank, Channel 4, Pipeline, The medical profession… and many more!

Harriet Thorpe as Madame Morrible in Wicked

LB

You’ve had some fantastic roles on stage including Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables and Madame Morrible in Wicked, also Mamma Mia and Sweeney Todd, people may not know that you have worked so much in musical theatre. Was this part of your training at the Central School of Speech and Drama?

HT

When I was at Central, musical theatre, singing and dancing, was also part of our acting course, inspired by the wonderful George Hall (Director of the Acting Course). We always did a musical at the end of our third year along with two cabaret shows. I was thrilled this last year to do a wonderful, comedy, mockumentary called Front Of House with George and darling pal Tom Read Wilson, who was also taught by George at the Royal Academy of Music. George and I also did a wonderful show written by Jennifer Saunders, with most of the cast of Ab Fab called Mirror Ball.

LB

You’ve had a long running relationship with Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French including French and Saunders and playing the brilliant Fleur in Absolutely Fabulous, can you talk a bit about how this friendship began?

HT

Dawn, Jen, and I have been friends ever since our Central days and I’ve been honoured to work with them for the last 40 years. Jen and I speak often and she is the only person, other than my family, I can honestly say, has come to see everything I’ve ever done!! It’s started from friendship and it’s never changed.

LB

I can tell from the many hilarious Facebook pictures! In fact, you’ve worked with some of the funniest and most inspiring women in this business. Is it important to you that women champion each other in this industry?


Harriet Thorpe & the cast of Mirror Ball & Ab Fab

HT

That’s a very interesting question, and yes I think it is fantastically important that women champion each other in this industry, and they absolutely do! It’s often reported to be different, but my experience is that we’re there for each other! 

LB

I agree. I’ve had some wonderful experiences with strong women supporting each other in this industry. It’s just such a shame that sometimes we are pitted against each other, and it’s just not the way it is, in my experience anyway! So, I have to say, one of my favourite shows from back in the day was Murder Most Horrid, and you appeared in an episode with Tony Slattery, who is actually the person that inspired me to get into the business. The show has become a bit of cult classic featuring many respected British actors, was it as much fun to work on as it was to watch?

HT

The 80s and 90’s was such a wonderful era for comedy, so creative and fun with no stress about having to be perfect in the first episode, things were allowed to evolve and grow, and find their own voice and audience, without the viewing figures pressure of today. Murder Most Horrid was an absolute joy to be a part of. Tony Slattery and the whole cast were brilliant, and yes it absolutely was as fun to film as it was to watch!

LB

Harriet, it’s impossible not to mention The Brittas Empire whilst chatting to you, and of course you are infamous for being Carole, the receptionist that kept her baby in a drawer. Do people still ask you to repeat your “Yes Mr. Brittas” catchphrase?

Harriet Thorpe & Chris Barrie in The Brittas Empire

HT

I cannot thank The Brittas Empire enough and the glory of playing Carole....keeping her babies in the drawer at the leisure centre while she worked, was such a wonderful idea for a comedy character. To answer your question yes people ask me to say "Yes, Mr Brittas" my characters catchphrase, all the time! 

LB

It was a brilliant, brilliant show. Did I ever tell you I had a huge crush on Chris Barrie?

HT

No darling you never told me you had a crush on Chris Barrie!!!

LB

Well, you know, you can feel free to tell him! So, all of these glorious characters you’ve played, do you have a favourite? What kind of characters are you drawn to?

HT

I adored playing Vera in Mame, her wit, her bitching, her friendship and love. #WhoCouldAskForAnythingMore  To be honest, I love all the characters I play as they are all multi-layered nutters and I wouldn’t want to do anything else!

LB

Well you’re such a natural ha! Do you have a process on how you create a character and their backstory?

HT

I absolutely believe there is no one way to do anything, it’s always a mixture. Sometimes there is information in the text for the character, and I always get inspired by the costume designs, wigs and make-up!  The director obviously, and the other actors we work with, evolve different dynamics within the scenes too, to build and nuance and create different layers


Harriet Thorpe in Mame. Photo: Pamela Raith

LB

Are there any productions you have worked on that stand out as being special to you for a particular reason?

HT

Again I know it sounds really naff, but I learn different things about our craft, all the time in every show that I do. Everything always changes, the size of the theatre, the size of the part,  the different casts, they all hold precious special memories. To keep learning and moving on and keep making mistakes, its the only way forward.

LB

Definitely. I always tell people to not be afraid of failing as it’s the only way to grow and succeed! What would you say are the most important qualities an actor can have?

HT

To have the humility to know, that we don’t know everything, to be open to new ideas, be brave, let go of fear and always be willing to try new things, even if in the end you go to something you know works for you. If we shut down we might miss an important creative gem! We never know where it may come from however mature and knowing we think we are!

LB

I actually taught at your drama school, the Central School of Speech and Drama, and we, of course, met because you taught me at Mountview. How did you find the process of going from actor to teacher?

HT

I realised teaching was an absolute joy and it was so lovely to share things I knew to help get out of my own way. I think I talked so much bollocks in my early life, because I was scared I wasn’t going to be good enough, I recognise that frailty pretty quickly, and I’m so grateful to let people know they have a choice. We are good enough, and the only way I get things right is to get things wrong and that’s part of learning how to perform and create characters, and as I said there is no one way to do anything, there is no equation, no template for success, otherwise we would be doing it all the time...obvs!

LB

See, this is why I wish you were still teaching me! So let’s move on to your charity work. Every year, you and Jennifer Saunders take part in the Moonwalk in London, and you are an ambassador for the breast cancer charity Walk the Walk, who organise the Moonwalk. How did you get involved in the charity and how can people take part?


Harriet Thorpe & Jennifer Saunders for Walk the Walk

HT

I first started doing the charity walk for breast cancer The moonwalk, Walk The Walk, with my darling, much-missed friend Victoria Wood. We did the Marathon together about three times, the second year making a documentary for Sky TV, then I just kept on doing it and asked all my friends to join me over the years. I was honoured to be asked to become ambassador about 10 years ago and Jen started a team called the big tits! My mother was a breast cancer survivor and several of my friends and colleagues have had it, so I was inspired to do it for all of them. The beautiful thing about this particular marathon, or half marathon, is that it’s just walking around London, not running a race, and the simplicity of 15,000 people walking together through the night is so moving, beautiful, and most importantly manageable!! Sadly, it’s been cancelled this year obviously, but we will be there next year to do it again. Anyone can go online to the moonwalk Walk The Walk and sign up!

LB

I’ll pop a link at the end of this interview. So, is there something about you that people don’t know that they may find quite surprising?

HT

A simple thing that people may not know about me and indeed may find quite surprising, is it I can still do the splits!

LB

Ha! So can I!

Follow Harriet Thorpe on Instagram @hatdorable

Follow Lindsey Bowden on Instagram @lindseybowden76

Find out about Walk the Walk here.

© 2020 Lindsey Bowden.