Monday, June 23, 2014
Equally at home on television, stage, in film or on the radio, the actress Matilda Ziegler had a clear career – until she discovered a new love of teaching. She talks to Tara Greaves about her latest role at Norwich School.
What started as simply lending a helping hand has led Matilda Ziegler down a path she never imagined she would follow.
Perhaps best known for her roles in the long-running soap EastEnders, the costume drama Lark Rise to Candleford and the comedy Mr Bean, her latest work is yet another shift in an already diverse career – and one that does not require her to act a part but teach it.
As director in residence at the Norwich School she is currently overseeing their A Big Night Out gala, which takes place at Norwich Theatre Royal on July 2 and is part of the Young Norfolk Arts Festival.
At present she is working part time but from September she will become the school’s full time director of drama, complementing the department’s team of established staff.
“All three of my children are at the school and I fell into teaching by helping out on a production when the director took ill. I then did a bit more and a bit more over the years,” explained Matilda.
“Teaching wasn’t really something I had considered, it was all fairly unknown - although I had done individual workshops with children and, as an actor at the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre, you are often invited to work with groups of young people so I had some experience. I knew I liked it but it’s the continuum of working with children over time I really enjoy.”
The beauty of her position is that she can still plan in acting jobs that come her way – including recently filming an episode in the ITV detective drama Foyle’s War and joining the final recording of Radio 4’s hit comedy Cabin Pressure.
“Now that I’m working in this other field, there isn’t the same pressure and if jobs come in I take them if I like them. I really want to keep that side of things going, it’s part of who I am,” she said.
But she also likes being able to spend more time at home in Norfolk with her children, Evie, 17, Faye, 13, and Herbie, 9, with husband, actor Louis Hilyer, who is currently filming for the new series of Downton Abbey.
While her family no doubt enjoy having her at home more, she is unsure whether her children are as keen to have her as their teacher.
“My children are very nice about it but goodness knows what they really think – it’s an experience for them as well,” she said.
Matilda was in her early 20s when she got her first role in EastEnders, as Donna Ludlow, the daughter Kathy Beale gave up for adoption, where her gritty storylines included prostitution, attempted gang rape and drug addiction, before her character eventually died of a heroin overdose.
“It was my first job and when I left EastEnders in 1989 I found it hard to get work in television, they just didn’t want me, and so I went into theatre for the next five years, which is where I did my proper training. It gave me a wonderful diversity,” she said.
As well as the previously mentioned programmes, she has also appeared in The Bill, Casualty, Sex Traffic and Outnumbered among many others together with stage productions including Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls and last summer Arthur Miller’s The Last Yankee.
“I have been really lucky in the way that it has all worked out and I have been able to hop about,” she said.
“I’m happy to work in radio, theatre or television if it’s interesting and not too long away from home.”
Her more recent portfolio of work has also proved a hit with the children she now teaches.
“The children are easily pleased by what I do. Even if I do an episode of Cabin Pressure, they love the fact that I have been working with Benedict Cumberbatch.”
Although she says the students are very aware of the realities of working in the industry.
“They are not hoodwinked by stardom but at the same time they have dreams and aspirations and they are children so they enter into things,” she said.
“A young person is probably the best person to teach as they have no preconceptions, they are open and have the ability to lose inhibitions and jump in and do stuff that some grown up actors can’t always do.”
Part of her new role will be to make connections within the industry so that the children can have more contact with professionals.
While Sherlock star Cumberbatch is now in what she describes as the “stellar zone” and making it big in America, she says she had no desire to head to Hollywood.
“My father lived in America and sorted out all sorts of paperwork for me to go but I didn’t really fancy it. I’m a bit of a homebird but also it’s a bit of a rat race and you have to be made of very stern stuff,” she said.
“Some people have this real determination but I have always felt that it was a bit out of my control and that I didn’t want to be knocking on people’s doors, especially as I had got myself to a comfortable level here. I thought why go back and start again?”
While seeking fame and fortune in the US might not be for her, her work has won her many fans and she occasionally gets recognised in the street.
“I’m obviously not famous enough for most people to know who I am straight away – although that does happen very occasionally – but when they do recognise me I think they think I was someone they went to school with or something like that,” she says modestly.
For anyone hoping for a reprisal of her role as Pearl Pratt in the hugely popular adaptation of Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson, which ran from 2008-11, there is disappointment.
“Because of the journalistic style of Flora Thomspon’s writing they could have gone on but I think, very sensibly, they quit while they were ahead – viewing figures were still up around seven million.”
Her character, one of the gossiping spinster sisters who owned and ran the dress shop, developed as the series went on.
“Pearl was a gift. You get fond of people even though they are a bit of a pain. I was quite interested in her because she was a middle-aged woman, independent financially, which was quite unusual in those days, she was emancipated in the real sense of the word and worked hard,” she said.
“Bill Gallagher who wrote it, and is a Norfolk boy, was extremely good at writing for women.”
Although she would not say no to another long-running series, she is happy with the way things have panned out and her immediate focus is on the school’s gala performance.
She said: “It’s the best of Norwich School talent in music, in acting and in dance. There will be snippets from musicals, a full orchestral number, classical music and jazz, lots of singing and big dance numbers and then excerpts from Shakespeare from Macbeth and Hamlet and also from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”
Although she says she learns much from the children, you get the impression that any future stars to come out of Norwich School will be all the better for her grounded teachings.
Norwich School: A Big Night Out starts at 7.30pm on July 2. Tickets range from £5.50 to £15 and can be booked via the Norwich Theatre Royal box office online or by calling 01603 630000.