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Eileen Atkins: 'My advice for avoiding money troubles? Don't get married'

Eileen Atkins - Andrew Crowley for the Telegraph
Eileen Atkins - Andrew Crowley for the Telegraph

Eileen Atkins, 87, is the actress who found fame in 1966 on Broadway in The Killing of Sister George. She co-created TV series Upstairs, Downstairs and The House of Eliott and wrote the screenplay for Mrs Dalloway.

She has won a Bafta, an Emmy and three Oliviers and her film and TV roles include The Dresser, Cranford, The Crown and Doc Martin. She lives in west London.

How did your childhood influence your attitude to money?

We lived in a council estate in Tottenham, north London. My father was an electricity meter reader, my mother a seamstress who worked at home. I’d take bundles of smocked pieces for pretty dresses up to the factory when I was seven.

My father never bought anything on the “never-never”: you either had the money or saved up. I saved all my pocket money for books as we didn’t have any in the house. My first was Josie, Click and Bun Again by Enid Blyton.

I cannot bear borrowing money and have never had anybody “do” anything with my money. Everybody tells me I’m foolish. But if I hadn’t got married, I’d never have got into trouble with money. I always have what I call enough and think I’m the sensible one.

I’d rather have it all under the bed and pull it out when needed. But I save at the bank and that’s it.

What was your first job?

I was “Baby Eileen”, dragged to dancing classes aged six, earning 15 shillings a turn at a working men’s club. Eric Morecambe asked me what I was paid; he said: “That’s what we got.” My parents kept some so when I wanted a bicycle it was saved up for. They were always on the edge: you couldn’t ask for cake on Thursday. When my father’s pay packet came on Friday we celebrated with fish and chips.

Eileen Atkins in 1966 - HULTON ARCHIVE/Getty Images
Eileen Atkins in 1966 - HULTON ARCHIVE/Getty Images

Then you got into acting?

No, and that’s the story of my book: how do you get from being a child performer in working men’s clubs to a leading classical actress and in a hit that ran for two years? What I wanted to do from age 12 caused a lot of trouble at home.

Are you a saver or a spender?

Both. One year I got into trouble with tax, like most actors, because it’s so hard to pay a year later. I didn’t work out how much I’d earned and would have to pay.

“The broker’s men” came to my Knightsbridge flat. That taught me a horrible lesson. I wrote a cheque then and there and it was alright.

Ever since I repeat to myself: “At least a third of your money is not yours.”

I’ve never done a dodge. My accountant begged me once to become a company and I wouldn’t because that wasn’t truthful.

Friends of mine who’ve done it have got into trouble. They may have saved a bob or two. Anyway, I think we should pay our tax.

Does money make you happy?

What I call enough does. I don’t understand people who don’t think there’s such a thing as “enough”. I asked Frederic Raphael at a Garrick Club lunch: “Why do people always want so much?” He said I was a silly girl. When I got to 70 I thought I must start saving for a little pot for when I can’t work, and I did.

The Height of the Storm performed at Wyndham's Theatre with Eileen Atkins as Madeleine and Jonathan Pryce as Andre - Alastair Muir
The Height of the Storm performed at Wyndham's Theatre with Eileen Atkins as Madeleine and Jonathan Pryce as Andre - Alastair Muir

What have been your best and worst financial decisions?

Worst: to marry my second husband. He’d already been bankrupt and promised me he never would be again.

He took us to near-bankruptcy twice. He had three Aston Martins and selling them nearly sorted out the first one.

But I helped him get out of bankruptcy twice, with common sense.

Best: to buy a house the minute my first marriage broke up. I was 32 and in the play I knew was probably going to enable me to earn money as an actress. Within a year I bought a flat in Notting Hill for £4,500 without a mortgage.

I’ve never had a mortgage. For my house here I managed to pay my husband’s half off. I bought it in 1980 for about £13,000 and now it’s probably worth about £2.5m.

Have you done lucrative TV commercials?

No. Once I went up for the voice of a piece of soap, but they didn’t choose me. They said I sounded neither old nor young nor sexy nor maternal.

Eileen Atkins in her home - Andrew Crowley for the Telegraph
Eileen Atkins in her home - Andrew Crowley for the Telegraph

Can you remember a funny incident about money?

Years ago a gypsy at the end of a pier told me that if I ever thought I was in trouble I was always going to have a windfall. I think that’s pretty well happened. Perhaps it’s stayed in my mind and I haven’t panicked.

What were you paid for co-creating Upstairs, Downstairs?

The money was split four ways because the two producers took some as well. Because we knew “F all” about anything we didn’t think to say “That’s not fair”. We were so thrilled someone was doing it. The money per episode was £200, so they had £100 between them and Jean Marsh and I shared £100. She was in it and I wasn’t, so I said “You take 60pc”. So I got £40 an episode.

Have you been attracted to Hollywood for the money?

I’ve never been tempted by the money for anything, apart from the movie I Don’t Want to Be Born [1975 British horror film]. It was with Joan Collins and I was paid £2,000 [£17,000 today].

I was a bit short at the time and mad about a man who said: “If you can get yourself out to Mexico, we can be together for a month.”

What's the best thing you've bought?

In lockdown I became aware that I had a good chef living nearby, who was on furlough; he cooked for me four times a week. It was so wonderful that, since he went back to work, I’ve taken on a cook four times a week who, like him, brings the food.

Eileen Atkins’s book ‘Will She Do? Act One of a Life on Stage’ is out now