Chatting with Gemma Jones
PUBLISHED: 09:00 10 February 2016
Film, TV and stage actress Gemma Jones is also one of the founding patrons of Suffolk-based storytelling company Wonderful Beast. She talked to Andrew Clarke about why we need to keeping storytelling alive as she prepared for a fundraising concert in Aldeburgh this month
Gemma Jones is one of the nation’s most recognisable actresses. Depending on your age and taste she is immediately identifiable as TV’s The Duchess of Duke Street or Bridget Jones’ wayward mother in the big screen adaptations of the best-selling books or Madame Pomfrey in the Harry Potter films.
For those who love literary classics she dominated the screen as Mrs Dashwood alongside Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in Thompson’s Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility. On stage in 2011 she played Queen Margaret, opposite Kevin Spacey as Richard III, in Sam Mendes’ Old Vic production of the Shakespeare classic.
Recently she returned to television and played MI5 analyst Connie James in two series of Spooks, in 2014 she won the Best Supporting actress BAFTA award for the role of Mary Baldwin opposite Toby Jones in the footballing drama Marvellous, before ending 2015 playing Petunia Howe in the three-part BBCs series Capital.
To add to her workload, Gemma is performing a fundraising concert in Aldeburgh in February to raise funds to enable Suffolk based storytelling company Wonderful Beast to stage their festival, Storm of Stories.
When I caught up with Gemma, Christmas is looming and she is behind with her preparations and, although happy to talk, she admits that the proximity of the holiday season has meant that the details of what she will be performing still haven’t been finalised. But the theme of the evening is going to be based loosely on Shakespeare’s classic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream to mark the 400th anniversary of The Bard’s death.
The fundraising event, entitled Bottom’s Dream, will be held at The Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh on February 7 and will feature, alongside Gemma, Kenneth Cranham, Hugh Fraser, Clive Merrison, Michael Pennington, Diana Quick, Miranda Raison, Lizzie Roper, Hannah Stokely, Royal Ballet star Thomas Whitehead, plus cabaret royalty Iestyn Edwards and satirist Craig Brown. The evening will be inspired by Shakespeare’s love of fairytales.
“I have been involved with Wonderful Beast since its inception because, after all, storytelling is the basis of all drama, and this evening will be terrific because Shakespeare is the greatest storyteller of them all.”
Wonderful Beast founder Alys Kihl is a neighbour of Gemma’s and approached her to get involved when the company was first set up in 1997.
“I wanted to get involved because I think it’s such a wonderful endeavour. Storytelling is in danger of becoming a lost art and yet when Alys puts on an event with these wonderful performers it reminds us all of how powerful a good storyteller can be.
“It alarms me that so many good stories are in danger of disappearing. One of the things that Alys is very good at is energising the performances, connecting them with actors, musicians, dancers, puppeteers, circus performers, performers from different cultures and traditions, and really making the stories come alive.
“Over the years she has done some really imaginative productions, all on a shoestring, and I am so full of admiration for what she has been able to achieve that I am only too happy to be able to help raise funds and awareness for the company and for the festival.”
Gemma hopes the performances staged by Wonderful Beast will attract young audiences into the theatre as well as filling them with a love of the written word.
“It’s a perfect marriage of the written and spoken word. It conjures up memories of folk tales and stories being told by families and communities round a fireplace. Stories bring people together, acknowledge common bonds and cement relationships. There’s nothing better than an inventive story imaginatively told.”
She also hopes the evening at the Jubilee Hall will be a “delightful hotch-potch of songs, stories, anecdotes, reminiscences bringing together the best traditions of storytelling and providing audiences with an entertaining evening – after all that’s what it’s all about.” Gemma is planning to read a Grimm’s Fairytale as part of the performance.
“What I love is the universal quality of these stories. Although the basic story remains the same if you look at different countries across Europe and the world you find that Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty all re-appear time and again in different forms.”
This dates back to a time, explains Gemma, when all stories were passed on as part of a verbal tradition, and rather like Chinese Whispers were embellished and augmented with each re-telling as different storytellers put their own stamp on the stories and took them to new towns and new places.
As an actress, she would love to see younger audiences being attracted into theatres.
“I am alarmed at the prices of theatre tickets, particularly in London, and it does concern me that young people are being priced out of theatres, but then you find smaller venues like The Unicorn and many other theatres round the country doing their best to attract young people.
“I am hoping that events like Storm of Stories and companies like Wonderful Beast will capture the imagination of young audiences and encourage them to go and seek out more imaginative stories told in theatres across the country.”
The Storm of Stories festival is at Leiston Abbey and the Pumphouse, Aldeburgh from April 29-May 2 and will feature the debut of a new community opera Nightingale, based on the magical Hans Christian Andersen tale, and composed by John Barber.
Bottom’s Dream, the star filled fundraising concert for the festival will be held at Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall on February 7. Tickets are available online: www.wonderfulbeast.co.uk