Interview with Sharon Maughan
PUBLISHED: 14:59 05 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:15 20 February 2013
Sussex actress Sharon Maughan speaks to Angela Wintle about her ambitions...
Sharon Maughan was the posh neighbour who borrowed some instant from Anthony Head in the Gold Blend ads. But while he went on to star in a hit TV series - and her husband Trevor Eve became a household name - she paled into relative obscurity. Now that her children have flown the nest, the Sussex actress tells Angela Wintle why it's time to realise some ambitions of her own...
SHARON MAUGHAN takes a seat in the cafeteria at Chichester Festival Theatre and orders a pot of tea. Yes, you heard me. Tea. Although she'll be forever known as the cool, sophisticated blonde who flirted with Anthony Head over numerous cups of coffee in the classic Gold Blend TV commercials, she admits, with a laugh, that she's never much cared for the stuff.
"I can come out of the closet now and say that I don't like coffee," she says. "I wasn't allowed to say it at the time. If I can kill the flavour with loads of milk and sugar, I can just about bear it, but I'd prefer a cup of decaf tea any day."
The differences with her screen alter ego don't end there. While her TV character was poised and restrained, Sharon is the exact opposite - bubbly and effusive, with a girlish enthusiasm for life and living.
Arriving late for our interview - "I got stuck behind a tractor" - she greets her publicist like a long-lost daughter, pauses a moment to catch her breath, and then throws herself into the photoshoot with admirable gusto. I get the distinct impression that she's an all or nothing kind of girl, whose emotions are never far from the surface.
But actually there is one similarity with her coffee alter ego. Physically, she's barely changed at all, even though some 20 years have passed since she last popped next door for a fresh supply of coffee granules.
She says she isn't obsessive about her health, but takes good care of herself. She eats sensibly, drinks plenty of water, treats herself to a monthly facial and has regular yoga classes.
She's also admitted to trying Botox, but unlike many actors has no qualms about revealing her age. When I apologise for mentioning it, she says bouncily: "I don't know how you're going to avoid it. I'm 58."
Publicly at least, Sharon is also defined by her marriage to Trevor Eve, who first found fame as TV detective Eddie Shoestring and has gone on to become one of our best-known actors in one-off dramas such as Hughie Green, Most Sincerely and the popular BBC 1 crime series, Waking the Dead.
They have both performed at Chichester Festival Theatre, so it seems a fitting place to meet, especially as earlier this summer their daughter Alice kept up the family tradition by playing Roxanne opposite Joseph Fiennes at the venue in Anthony Burgess's adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.
"I came down to see her a lot and realised how desperate I was to work here again," says Sharon longingly. "Everyone was so lovely and they all remembered me."
The couple have had a bolthole in Sussex since Sharon last performed at Chichester 15 years ago in Ibsen's A Doll's House. Originally, they bought a farm in Milland, Hampshire, but they now spend their weekends in a cottage outside Midhurst, conveniently situated just 20 minutes from son George's boarding school, Bedales in Petersfield.
"It's completely rural and yet we're just 44 miles south of London," says Sharon. "We live right next to the South Downs, where we regularly walk the dog, and we've got to know a whole cross section of people... the rock stars who live round here, Lord and Lady Cowdray, who are lovely people, and Gordon Roddick, who is an old friend of my husband's."
Devoted though she is to her friends, her family is never far from her thoughts and her children crop up incessantly during our hour-long chat. Alice, 27, is steadily carving a name in both film and TV, Jack, 24, has just completed his first year at RADA and George, 15, shows every sign of becoming a budding rock star.
But while her offspring have been busily pursuing their own destinies, Sharon has been struggling to adapt to the empty nest. For 27 years, all her career decisions were based around her children and she carved a niche for herself against all odds. "Now I don't have that excuse," she says.
Fortunately, work has helped plug the gap and Sharon will be making a guest appearance this September in a new five-part series of Waking the Dead.
Keen to dispel charges of favouritism (her husband, after all, is the star vehicle), she says she underwent rigorous auditions for her role, which she's unable to talk about for fear of giving away the plot.
"Trevor and I have very separate careers and, besides, nepotism doesn't work in this country," she says emphatically. "I was prepared to be put through my paces."
In the event, she filmed just one scene with Trevor, which she was thankful for. "I didn't want people thinking 'Oh, they're husband and wife in real life and isn't it funny that they're playing these two different parts?'"
But she laughs away suggestions that she might have found it difficult willingly suspending disbelief playing opposite a man she regularly sees over the breakfast table. "To be absolutely honest, I've always seen him as an actor first and my husband second," she smiles.
They fell in love in 1979 when they were both cast in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Filumena.
"The play was due to go into the West End, but the theatre wasn't ready so we had to go on a month's tour. We all agreed to drive up to our first venue in Norwich together and I sat in the front and chatted with Trevor, while fellow actors Lesley Dunlop and Christopher Guard sat in the back.
"Lesley told me afterwards that they watched us falling in love. We started out as friends and finished as unspoken lovers. He was very charming, caring and solicitous, which every woman responds to. And within days we had made a commitment."
They've been married for 29 years and although she admits they've had their ups and downs like most couples, their marriage has been sustained by the fact that they are friends first and lovers second, she says.
"I'd call on Trevor for support and advice, even if we weren't married. And he knows me so well, he reads me before I read myself. Our shared belief in doing the best for each other and the family has also been a really unifying factor."
She was the better known of the two when they met, having starred in the successful TV drama series Shabby Tiger, but when Trevor won the lead role in Shoestring he became an overnight star.
"We couldn't walk down the street without him being mobbed and I remember being mugged in Marks & Spencer by women who wanted to get at him," she says.
She once said his success made her moody and difficult, but she downplays it now, stressing that it was a very long time ago. "Trevor and I have a very mature and civilised understanding. Greg Dyke once said that we had dovetailed in and out of each other's success, which we have over the years, although I definitely think it's Trevor's time now."
Any success she has enjoyed has been hard won. She grew up on a large council estate in Kirkby, an overspill town of Liverpool, nicknamed 'vandal town' because of its largely discontented population. Money was tight and her family was so poor that Sharon's mother had to put cash aside each week in different handbags - one for the gas, another for the electricity, and so on. Sharon grew up surrounded by men (she has four brothers) and all her siblings went on to excel in their chosen careers. Three are now academics and the other is an actor in New York. When I ask how, given their impoverished background, she smiles and says: "My mother."
"She was like a tyrant," she says with an indulgent smile, adding that she's still alive, aged 85. "The one thing that she knew was free on our incredibly impoverished estate was education. Even though my parents were uneducated themselves, they told us to make the most of our schooling. My mother thought it was the only thing that would make a difference to us. She believed there was nothing we couldn't do."
Living her mother's dream, Sharon left Liverpool in the late Sixties to attend drama school in London. She saw it as a way of escaping her background, but often wept with misery and loneliness.
She also found it difficult coping with directors' criticism. One rejected her as too tall and another wanted her to take her clothes off, which ran kilter to her Catholic beliefs.
But her early shyness didn't hold her back for long and she went on to play the lead in several TV series, including The Enigma Files and The Flame Trees of Thika.
It was the Gold Blend adverts that made her a household name, however. The 30 million advertising mini-soap ran for a decade and is said to have boosted coffee sales by 40 per cent. It also made stars of the two leads on both sides of the Atlantic.
"They were great fun to make and I still keep in touch with Tony," she says of her coffee co-star, who later enjoyed international fame in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Little Britain and, most recently, Merlin.
Sharon is reputed to have made 150,000 a year from the Nescafe ads and in 1991 the family moved to Los Angeles to capitalise on her high profile. She loved the relaxed lifestyle and continuous sunshine, but worried about the earthquakes and her children turning into 'little Americans'.
Sadly, work didn't flood in when she returned to Britain. The Nescafe ads gave her such a high profile that producers had forgotten she was an accomplished actress. But she is philosophical about the fact that she's still best known for a coffee commercial.
"I have no regrets. It gave me financial freedom and security. I was coming up to my forties and suddenly I was given a glamorous role which brought me more than I could ever have wished for. What right have I got to grumble?"
Nevertheless, she has gone to considerable lengths to break free from her sophisticated image - even playing Myra Hindley in a controversial touring play called And All the Children Cried. But her breakthrough role was Trish, the brassy Liverpudlian mother of ward sister Chrissie (played by Tina Hobley) in the BBC 1 drama Holby City.
"I adored playing her. I had spent so many years playing these classy, repressed, manipulative women that I just loved the freedom of playing someone so unpredictable. You could say I went back to my roots. I certainly had no trouble with the accent as Scouse is my first language."
In spite of this, she decided to throw in the towel after three and a half years and was killed off in a crash as she and new screen husband Robert Powell were off on honeymoon.
"I'd always told myself I would leave when my contract was up. Although I could see the seduction of regular work for an actor, it wasn't the way I'd been trained. I'd been brought up to believe that you're only as good as your creative juices and I was concerned I wasn't being challenged in the right way."
She was also worried that she was missing out on George's adolescence and wanted to spend more time with him before he left for boarding school. "I gave him a year and we had a great time together.
"But if I'd known that he was going to become independent quite so quickly, I think I would have made a different choice about leaving Holby."
Sharon may have her regrets, but she's still working and next year you'll see her alongside daughter Alice in a new film called Hard 10.
After devoting half a lifetime to her children, you sense this is Sharon's time.
"I'm relishing the opportunity to do new things. I want to continue my varied and, hopefully, challenging career as an actor. I want to direct again. I want to do more charity work. And I've promised myself that before I die I'm going to visit every country in the world. This is an exciting time and I feel freer than ever before."