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James, Geraldine (1950-)


Main image of James, Geraldine (1950-)

Once likened by journalist Maureen Paton to "a ship's figurehead with her commanding patrician profile and Pre-Raphaelite hair", Geraldine James has been a statuesque presence on stage and screen for over 30 years. She made her TV debut in 1976 as Dennis Waterman's tarty croupier girlfriend in an episode of The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78), and followed this up a year later with a BAFTA-nominated portrayal of real-life Sandra X, a profoundly deaf Bradford girl who becomes a prostitute and ends up in prison for manslaughter, in the drama- documentary Dummy (ITV, tx. 9/11/1977).

This was an astonishing beginning by any standards for the middle-class girl from Maidenhead, Berkshire, whose family were appalled that she was going into acting. She was born Geraldine Thomas on 6 July, 1950. Her cardiologist father divorced her alcoholic mother and remarried when she was 14 and at boarding school, and her adolescence was troubled and disrupted.

Before enrolling at the Drama Centre in London, she worked as a dresser at the Royal Shakespeare Company and began learning the craft of acting by watching Peggy Ashcroft in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance every night from the wings. For James, seeing this total transformation into character was the 'truth' of acting, and something to aspire to.

The sheer range of her roles shows that she learned the lesson well. Twenty years later the two women worked together, not only in The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984) but also in Stephen Poliakoff's She's Been Away (BBC, 1989), both winning awards at the Venice Film Festival.

She has always considered herself a character rather than a leading actor, and many of her roles have been larger than life: vulgar, voluptuous, passionate Emma Hamilton in I Remember Nelson (ITV, 1982); formidable Lady Maud in Blott on the Landscape (BBC, 1985), pursuing a naked Simon Cadell through the draughty corridors of Handyman Hall like a sex-crazed Valkyrie; the tart-with-a-heart Rose in Band of Gold (ITV, 1995-96) and Gold (ITV, 1997). Is this really the same actress who stormed to stardom as uptight, principled Sarah Layton in The Jewel in the Crown, slowly rebelling against the beliefs and prejudices of her class, while belatedly awakening to the sexual possibilities around her? Who was so moving as Barbara Kirk, the lonely, long-suffering wife of The History Man (BBC, 1981), pursuing a lacklustre affair in London as part of their 'open' 1970s marriage?

She was reunited with Jewel co-star Charles Dance for Rebecca (ITV, 1997), as Max de Winter's tweedy, no-nonsense sister Beatrice, and she also starred in the underrated Welsh western Drovers' Gold (BBC, 1997), a rare excursion into action drama, set in 1843. A plum role opposite Pete Postlethwaite and Frank Finlay in Sins (BBC, 2000), saw her as Gloria, the grasping wife of a reformed criminal. Alongside her screen credits, she has always maintained a stage career, but she is probably best known to younger audiences for her occasional role in Little Britain (BBC, 2003-), as David Walliams' posh, grossly overindulgent mother.

Janet Moat

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Gandhi (1982)Gandhi (1982)

Large-scale Oscar-winning biopic of the great Indian spiritual leader

Thumbnail image of Bloody Kids (1980)Bloody Kids (1980)

Stunning Stephen Frears/Poliakoff drama about a prank gone wrong

Thumbnail image of History Man, The (1981)History Man, The (1981)

Antony Sher excels as a radical but egotistical Sociology lecturer

Thumbnail image of Jewel in the Crown, The (1984)Jewel in the Crown, The (1984)

Acclaimed drama series set in the 1940s Indian Raj

Thumbnail image of State of Play (2003)State of Play (2003)

Acclaimed political thriller for the New Labour era

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