After talking with Rachael Stirling for about 15 minutes, I couldn’t help but notice how much she resembled a young Diana Rigg, who played Emma Peel at the height of her stardom in the mid-1960s. Considering that Rigg is Stirling’s mother, the resemblance is hardly shocking; nonetheless, the uncanny likeness is still unsettling.
When I make this observation, the actress responds, “It’s those brown eyes, sweetheart,” but in reality, the whole face does; all that’s missing is a bowler-hatted gentleman twirling an umbrella to complete the time travel.
I apologise to Stirling and to the publicist I lied to by making the article about her mom when I promised it wouldn’t be. A child essentially raised on reruns of The Avengers, I simply could not let this go unremarked.
However, we must now move on from the miraculous world of genetics to the topic of London real estate pricing.
John Lanchester’s 2012 state-of-the-nation novel Capital follows the residents of a single gentrified street in south London as they are gradually harassed by the anonymous delivery of postcards reading “We Want What You Have.” The novel has been adapted into a three-part series for BBC1, titled Capital.
Arabella Yount, portrayed by Stirling, is the shopaholic wife of Roger Yount (Toby Jones), an investment banker whose privileged life begins to disintegrate when Roger is denied the massive yearly bonus he had anticipated. Arabella has some of the best dialogue, but I can imagine that she was a difficult character for Stirling to warm up to.
It’s strange, adds Stirling, because everyone seems to blame her for Roger’s materialism. That the woman is portrayed negatively is intriguing, given that her obsession with home improvement stems from Roger’s coldness. The fact that she loves him is her saving grace. Also, I find great humour in her. A funny main character is always welcome in my fiction.
“I’m completely capable of viewing stuff that I’ve done and going, ‘That’s a bit mediocre,'” adds Stirling, who resides in a converted railway engineer’s cottage in west London. “The relentless drive of the property market makes us either victims of it or complicit in it, or both at the same time.”
While growing up in London, Stirling was only dimly aware of her famous mother and the curious looks the dads at her Earls Court elementary school gave “Ma.” After her parents split in 1990 due to her father’s affair with Joely Richardson, she continued to spend the holidays at the Scottish home of her father, rich businessman and theatrical producer Archie Stirling. At the time, Stirling was 12 years old and had recently started attending a prestigious all-female boarding school in Buckinghamshire.
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“I’m not feeling sorry for myself,” she insists. Only because it made headlines and the housemistress insisted on buying copies of the Daily Mail did it cause any real distress. When I returned from my dorm room, I always found the Daily Mail spread out next to the letters, and inevitably one of the articles would be about my parents’ divorce.
Her parents are still close, and this Christmas, Stirling and her mother and stepmother, Sharon, will be spending it at her father’s baronial pile in Ochtertyre. In fact, Stirling gets close to endorsing divorce as a kind of personal development. Since she now has two wonderful relationships, she says, “Some people ask, ‘Would you wish them to be together?’ and I wouldn’t.” I had two flawed parents, but I cherish my one-on-one time with them. “Parents can be a kind of impenetrable entity after so many years together, and that parent-child relationship has never evolved into anything else.”
After her time at the National Youth Theatre, where she played Desdemona to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Othello, Stirling went on to study Russian at Edinburgh University (“So that I could read Chekhov in the original — which I did, with the help of a hefty dictionary, I might add”). She missed her commencement because she was busy filming her debut feature, the Bill Nighy and Billy Connolly comedy Still Crazy from 1998, about a reunited 1970s rock band.
Due to her famous mother’s reputation, people automatically assumed she was comfortable in front of the camera. She explains her confusion: “They instructed me to hit my mark and I had no idea what they were talking about.” A door scene required 12 takes, and by the time they got it, Billy Connolly was clapping quite sarcastically. My ignorance was such that I didn’t even know my arse from my elbow.
In 2002, Stirling played Nan Astley in an explicit BBC version of Sarah Waters’ historical lesbian novel Tipping the Velvet, which was described by the adaptation’s writer, Andrew Davies, as “Pride and Prejudice with the nasty portions.” The public immediately learned Stirling’s arse from her elbow. The drama, which she now dubs “Dip My Velvet”, made Stirling’s name, but also, she says, made it hard for casting directors to take her seriously.
“It was quite a frivolous interpretation of the novel,” she reflects. An interesting twist: “They just put on a play of it at the Lyric [Hammersmith], and I think they tried to make it into Mike Leigh, which is also wrong. After that, I was hit on by every lesbian in the world and given every chance to strip. My mother is an actress, so I really should have known better, but I was quite ignorant.
Since then, Stirling’s acting career has flourished. She has appeared on television as Ursula Brangwen in a 2011 adaptation of Women in Love and as Millie in ITV’s wartime costume drama The Bletchley Circle, and she has given some outstanding performances on stage (“I love the danger of live theatre”), earning her two consecutive nominations for the Laurence Olivier Award (for The Priory at the Royal Court and An Ideal Husband at the Vaudeville).
When his five-year engagement to actor Oliver Chris ended, he decided to take a job at a pub on London’s Edgware Road to celebrate his nominations. She explains, “I’d done a runner from a boy I was supposed to get married to, and he was an actor; I was being offered really mediocre scripts, and I was a bit of a mess.” When patrons of the pub asked if they had seen me on TV, I would respond, “No, you’re probably thinking of Martine McCutcheon.”
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