Amanda Mealing Interview

To support Breast Cancer Awareness Month, my Woman of Substance for October is the fabulous British film and TV actress, Amanda Mealing, who is a breast cancer survivor and ambassador for Breast Cancer Care. Probably best known for playing glamorous cardiothoracic consultant, Connie Beauchamp, in the BBC’s Holby City and now Casualty, Amanda is the only adopted member of her family. She was the youngest of four children, growing up in Dulwich, South London, with her adoption never being a secret. When she was 15 years old, her brother died - it affected her deeply. Her career has included TV and film roles including The Darling Buds of May, GBH, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Jake’s Progress and The Lakes. She has directed two films and has plans to direct Casualty shortly.
Amanda lives on a farm in Lincolnshire with her screenwriter husband Richard Sainsbury and their two sons, Otis and Milo.
We met in The Ham Yard Hotel in London’s Soho for a drink and a chat.

Amanda, congratulations on your career so far. Do tell us about your Casualty role, Connie, and what it’s like playing a lead part in such an iconic British TV series.

Ah! Thank you. Yes, Casualty has been running for 30 years. It has made history for that and recently airing an episode filmed entirely in one shot. That means no editing, no second camera, one hour long continuous shot. Quite an achievement. My character Connie has been in this show for 4 years now but was previously in its sister show Holby City. At the time there were very few leading female characters and those that were there were secondary to the male lead; the wife, mistress, lover, daughter etc. So to play a woman who was not only fiercely independent but highly skilled and able to play the boys at their own game was a dream of a part. Moreover, she’s not afraid of her sexuality. 13 years ago, when I first played Connie, parts like that were written as if a woman had to deny her gender. Thankfully things have changed in the world of drama now.

When was the defining moment of your career and why did it impact you so greatly?

It’s hard to pinpoint. I’ve been acting for over 40 years. I was 6 when I started, so there have been many phases. My first job was with Julie Andrews, directed by Blake Edwards of Pink Panther fame, shot at Elstree Studios, which I went back to years later to film Holby City.
I think GBH was a pivotal point. It was my first meeting with Alan Bleasdale, whom I believe one of our greatest writers, and led to years of working with him. He’s very loyal to cast and crew, a rare thing in this industry. Only recently did he reveal that after my audition for GBH he walked out and told the casting director to cancel everyone else; he’d found what he was looking for. That led to him writing Jake’s Progress for me and Julie Walters. I’ve been very fortunate to have a career that has lasted so long.

The day after giving birth to your second son you were diagnosed with breast cancer. How did you cope with that shocking news at such a happy and emotional time?

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I had a very large, stage three tumour. The initial prognosis was not good. To go from the wonderment of giving life to having one’s own in the balance is hard to conceive, harder still to make sense of. Even now, 15 years on, I am trying to make sense of it. I’m a fighter but having a newborn gave me the drive to fight harder. I refused to give in to the disease. I turned my anger on it, not anyone or anything else. I trusted in the amazing medics and was absolutely determined to live my life as normally as the situation would allow, for my son’s sake. At the time I was focused on what I call my hand-to-hand combat, my personal civil war, so didn’t really take on the enormity of what I was going through. And that is a similar story for many of the women I speak to. The physical battle is fought by you and the professionals but the emotional and psychological fallout can last for years. Before diagnosis I could, like so many of us, deny my mortality. Now, I am all too aware of it. It is only now that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in cancer patients is being recognised. I have been an ambassador for Breast Cancer Care since then and they have recently developed an app to help with this. It is called Becca. It is a personalised, daily check-in that gives support, information and inspiration. See www.breastcancercare.org.uk/becca

You mentioned that you will direct two episodes of Casualty. Do tell us more.

Yes. It’s very exciting. Over the years I have directed a few short films, including an episode of Casualty last year, and have a production company, Black Chair Films, which is currently in the process of funding my first feature film. I have always been interested in the other side of the camera. I am never short of suggestions on set, so it is a natural progression for me. It is like being a conductor at the centre of this wonderful creative collaboration. Every aspect of filmmaking is about storytelling, from the costumes to the shots and everything in between. It’s exciting at the age of 50 to be starting a new career.

You traced your birth parents to New York after the birth of your first son. Please tell us about that experience.

I was urged to find them after having my eldest boy because I wanted to be able to tell him about his roots. Strangely, the evidence was in front of me all the time, on the birth certificate. My grandmother still lived at the address. I hadn’t reckoned on anyone still being there. It took me a long time to make contact. I had to process each piece of information slowly and making that final call was enormous. I felt sick. What do I say? How do I introduce myself? Do I say “Hi. This is your daughter?”. Do I introduce myself as by adopted name? My birth name? How would she respond to me? She could reject me, again. Until I made that call I could still believe in a fairytale ending, but once I did… Luckily for me it was a fairytale ending. I, my mother and my sister now have the most amazing relationships. I sadly lost my adoptive mother six years ago. She was a strong woman, as her mother was and as every woman in my life has been.

How wonderful that your birth mother was a Biba model in the ‘60s. Do you feel you have inherited her fashion genes? What is your personal style when off-screen?

She is very stylish. She still has it. Kindly my mother says, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. We jokingly say we are ‘professional shoppers’. We love shopping. Style is definitely about knowing yourself and your body. Nothing contrived or forced or high fashion. That’s for the younger ones. Fashion is transient, whereas style has longevity. When I buy pieces I want them to l last. I have a dressing room, yes, I have a lot of clothes, but in my defence, there are pieces that I have had for years and years. My approach is good quality and clean lines. You can’t go wrong with that. I tend to have a summer and winter look. Summer is more fluid lines and maybe a pattern. Winter is solid colour and classic cuts. I love the styles of the ‘40s and ‘50s. I think it was such a beautiful time for women. Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn are my favourites. Audrey Hepburn is still heralded as the most stylish woman because she wore simple lines.

I know you are a real fan of Winser London and I believe Connie has recently discovered us too…! Which pieces caught your eye this season and how would you - and Connie - wear them?

It was my agents Sarah and Grace who introduced me to Winser London. They have the Audrey jumpers. Well, that was it for me. I was in love. I have quite a few key pieces that I can wear all year round. The reversible poncho is a Godsend. Summer time it can be thrown over a vest for those chilly evenings and winter time over my Audrey jumper. The Miracle range is my ultimate go-to collection. The Lauren and Grace dresses fit beautifully and, strange as it may sound, are designed for a woman’s body. I have a bust, waist and hips. I like them and like a dress that celebrates that too. Now my love has spread to Connie. After my break to direct Casualty we’ll re-launch her and will do so in Winser London. It’s perfect for the character. Strong, independent and stylish. Win. Win.