THERE have been many interesting men in the life of Hildegard Neil, not least of which is her husband, Brian Blessed.
The actress, who stars in Enchanted April, the latest play at the Mill at Sonning, has been married to the man famed for his booming, sonorous voice for more than 35 years — but she says life at their home near Bagshot in Surrey is actually very peaceful.
“We are quiet at home,” she says. “Brian has spurts of talking the hind legs off a donkey. But he works a lot and he also likes home to be quite a nice, tranquil place.
“He’s got a chalet he retires to in the garden where he does a bit of work and study, and watches movies. And we watch a lot of football together.”
In fact, when the pair appeared on TV game show All Star Mr and Mrs in 2009, it came out that he supports Newcastle and she supports Liverpool. One can imagine ripples in the peace and tranquillity of home life when either team is playing on the TV.
The other great man to touch her life in a profound — though in this case, professional — way was the late Charlton Heston. It was he who “discovered” Hildegard when, as a young actress in her early thirties, she was treading the boards of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
At the time he was casting around for a beautiful woman to play Cleopatra opposite his Antony in the film he was both starring in and directing. He saw her in a couple of small parts and, recognising her latent talent, invited her along for an informal audition at a London hotel.
She said: “He had seen me doing Helen of Troy and Troilus and Cressida at the RSC and he expressed an interest in meeting me about Cleopatra, so I met him in a hotel in Park Lane for the audition.
“I was very relaxed about it. I thought to myself, ‘Charlton Heston is going to use some big name’ — it would be a young actress’s dream come true. I was very relaxed because I never believed for one minute I would really get it and I was able to yack about it and read it in a relaxed way.
“I never for a minute believed that he would give it to me. When he did I didn’t hear anything for about an hour. He told me that he wanted me to do it and I did some film tests and played some scenes with him.
“We filmed in Spain — in Almeria and in the studios in Madrid. He was an absolute gentleman and a very kind and considerate person. It was wonderful.”
Antony and Cleopatra was released in 1972, and a string of other features films followed for the actress.
She starred alongside George Segal in the 1973 Oscar-winning romantic comedy, A Touch of Class, and in the same year she played opposite Michael York in a film adaptation of a Graham Greene novel, England Made Me.
She said: “Touch of Class was a huge success, but the film that I loved the best was England Made Me. That’s my favourite of that period.”
She has played in other movies since then, and has appeared in numerous TV series including The Professionals, Ace of Wands, and more recently as the Marchioness of Telford in BBC’s Hotel Babylon. But she has always enjoyed stage acting, and still enjoys it well into her seventies. Last year she was in a touring production of Cranford and recently she played in a “wonderful” revival of a little-known play by American playwright Tennessee Williams, Vieux Carrť.
She said: “It’s a bit of a masterpiece and nobody’s heard of it. That transferred to the Charing Cross Theatre. It needs to be brought back into the light of day.”
She worked once at the Mill at Sonning many years ago, and she has often been a member of the audience at the theatre, too, as she enjoys the whole dining and theatre experience. So she was delighted to be cast as Mrs Graves in Enchanted April, which opened this week and runs until mid-May.
“It’s about four women whose lives have gone a bit haywire,” she said.
“It’s set in the Twenties just after the First World War. It’s an American piece but it’s about four English women whose lives have got a bit pear-shaped. One of them, the main character, reads an advertisement about a castle available in Italy and takes a friend, and advertises for two other women to join them. One of them is an aristocrat, the other is Mrs Graves, an elderly widow. That’s me.
“The four of them go to this castle, San Salvatore, and get reborn, and sort their lives out.
“Two of them need to sort out their marriages, Caroline needs to sort out her hectic social life, and Mrs Graves is a terribly lonely old lady of somewhat grim appearance. They bring her back to life in her old age — with the wisteria and the sunshine and the charm of their host. There are a lot of negative things going on in their lives and they are translated into a much more positive life.
“It’s not a comedy, it’s a very human story. It’s quite feminist really considering it was written in the Twenties, and I love it for its love of the female sex and what females can contribute to life as opposed to male domination. There’s a bit of a revolution by these four ladies against what’s expected of them. But it does have a sense of humour and it’s very life-enhancing. It will hopefully make the audiences feel quite positive about life.”
Meanwhile, although she still very much enjoys working, Hildegard says concessions have to be made for old age — and her menagerie of animals.
She said: “I don’t work constantly. I try not to because when you are getting older it all takes its place in your life — dog walking and gardening become more important. I have got three dogs at the moment. In the past I’ve had seven.
“At one point I had 77 ducks and eight ponies, but now it’s much reduced. I have two dachshunds and a little group of hens. Sadly I don’t have a cat at the moment. I would need to find one who’s at least 14 years old because I like to see all my animals safely into their graves.”
• Enchanted April plays at the Mill at Sonning until May 17. Box office: 0118 969 8000 or visit www.millatsonning.com — see next week’s Henley Standard for our review.