Hattie Morahan is a stage and screen star. She was was awarded the Best Actress prize at the Critics’ Circle Awards 2013 and won the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards 2012 for her portrayal of Nora in Carrie Cracknell’s A DOLL’S HOUSE at The Young Vic, which transferred to the West End and New York. She has been seen recently in election comedy BALLOT MONKEYS, in THE OUTCAST, adapted from Sadie Jones’ novel, and alongside Ian McKellen in MR. HOLMES, and as Beatrice in THE CHANGELING at The Globe.
I recently got round to digitising an audio cassette from 1982. It’s one of those irreplaceable, almost totemic, family mementos: first recorded by my mother in fits and starts as a kind of oral letter, her only means of communicating with my father who was then filming in India for months at a time; later rediscovered by my sister and myself as teenagers in the 90s, enthralled by this record of a life we could barely remember, and wildly entertained by the snatched contributions from our five and three year old selves; only then – predictably – for it to vanish amid the clutter and be presumed lost for years.
And now here I find myself (the tape having resurfaced, innocently biding its time amongst the depths of boxed-up family detritus) driving through the rain on a long journey down to my – now elderly – parents, listening to my young mother talking about life, work, kids, theatre, as if directly to me, and as freshly as if it were recorded yesterday. Time doing backflips, and an intimate inter-generational conversation casually playing out (despite the 33 year leap) through the car stereo. I feel a bit like a lo-fi Marty McFly, eavesdropping on a world I had been too young to comprehend the first time round.
However, what grabs my attention now isn’t so much the “oh-my-God-you-sound-hilarious!” anarchic infant chatter, but the forgotten scattergun of demands on my mum’s daily life: the multiple balls she is keeping up in the air. Doctors’ appointments, swimming lessons, car breakdowns, estate agents, a full house of step-children and lodgers, dinner time, bath time, birthday parties and school assemblies. At times she sounds exhausted, barely speaking above a whisper when the whole house has gone to bed and she can just be alone with the tape recorder and chat to dad – reporting on letters he has received, messages she needs to pass on, her worries, her news, her world.
And threaded through the recording, I can hear something else too: the audible buzz she gets from going to a particularly sensational first night at the National, who she chatted to, which of her friends gave definitive performances – little glimpses of her and my dad’s shared professional and social life and the joy it gives her. There’s her involvement in the conversations about dad’s work: discussing a new translation of a play he might direct, being party to conversations about programming at the NT – again tapping with ease into a shared understanding and connecting with a joint professional community.
Above all, I’m struck by the energies and passion she’s pouring into the performance trio she has formed with two other actress friends – the Raving Beauties; they’re a kick-ass feminist cabaret team, who perform monologues, poetry and songs. There’s talk of a tour – a book – a tv show. She sounds invigorated, focussed, creative, proud.
My memory of this time is hazy. I don’t know when I fully understood what my parents’ jobs entailed (my father is a stage and screen director, my mother an actress) but I do remember them working all through my childhood. My mother consciously chose to go back to work early on (encouraged and supported by my dad) and fortunately – crucially – they could afford a full time nanny. They were both doing well in their careers, and the costs of both childcare and living in London were – it seems – less eye-wateringly ruinous than they are now.
My mum has talked about the guilt she felt at leaving us, and how she felt compelled to compensate with presents and showers of affection. But we were malleable and robust. The childcare routine felt normal. The rolecall of nannies and au pairs vied between character-building eccentrics later immortalised in family anecdotes (“Do you remember xxxx, who stole our bicycle and ran off with a Frenchman..?!”) and rock solid awesome human beings, who became an integral part of the family, and whom we still see now, decades later.
What I do remember is a sense of pride in what they did. Sure, there was the childish frisson associated with celebrity, when mum became recognisable for a tv series (major brownie points in the school playground). But what made more of an impression on me was the sense of them having a creative endeavour that was separate from us, and through which they found fulfilment and were respected by their peers. It felt exciting and important hearing them discussing theatre and film projects, witnessing them working incredibly hard, seeing them approaching their working lives with a seriousness that came from a love of craft, of story telling, of good writing, of the power of the performing arts and cinema to transport, to make a difference.
Sophie asked me if I have any advice for parents working in the industry, any wisdom on achieving a healthy work/life balance. The truth is, I’m not an authority. I have no authentically sourced advice. To be honest, I have no fucking idea. Although I am an actress, the child of an actress, and the partner of an actor/director, I am not a parent – yet. Which isn’t entirely accidental.
I’m not the only one of my contemporaries who have decided they want to raise children, but who haven’t yet taken the plunge. And who leave it later and later – dangerously so, if one is banking on conceiving naturally. Negotiating your future in an industry this fickle – where you are constantly in a state of hopeful expectation, nosing out the next project, keeping your morale and your creative powers and your bank balance afloat – it can be hard to see how on earth parenthood works.
It can loom as a frightening, destabilising prospect. You scour the landscape for others who have succeeded in juggling the two, who have had kids while young and maintained a successful career, and they all seem to be either men, whose partner has taken on childcare duties, or very successful film and tv actors who have the money and job security to just say: Fuck it, let’s do this. Now. I know from talking with friends in the industry who have had children, who are themselves in the throes of the daily negotiation between their work, their children, their partner, that of course it can be stressful and unstable. There is no straightforward way of making it work. But – if it’s want you want to do – it’s worth every contested second of every hour of every day.
Because I have no direct experience, I can’t say with accuracy if things have improved for parents in the industry, compared with my mother’s experience back in the early eighties. Or whether, despite our supposed progressive leaps forward, things are in fact worse: less of a stigma attached perhaps, but instead we are faced with prohibitive costs of living, and dwindling production budgets and salaries. I suspect that there are still major obstacles to successfully maintaining a career in film and tv (and theatre) while holding down parental responsibilities – largely to do with time and money. The hours can be anti-social, inflexible and punishing, and the income not enough to balance out with childcare and living costs. All I know is that if you can find a way of raising children and doing what you love, then you are very lucky indeed (and the industry in turn, is lucky to have you). And that there’s a strong chance your children will feel honoured by and grateful for your artistic perseverance. I know that I do.
Photograph © Jack Ladenburg