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Best Of British Biographies – Emma Thompson

Read Time:15 Minute, 15 Second

Who knows who she could have been. God, an FBI trainee, a bunny boiler, and, arguably, the world’s most famous flasher. Instead she’s been the Prime Minister, the First Lady, a professor, and a number of queens. “What is the daft old fool rabbiting on about now?” you’re probably wondering. Quite simply, those are some of the parts that Emma Thompson turned down and some she’s accepted. But, before I look at what didn’t happen, let’s take a look at what did happen during the illustrious life of  Dame Emma Thompson DBE.

It’s debatable whether or not acting talent is held in the genes but there are instances when you have to wonder. Very often you’ll hear of British acting dynasties like the Fox, Redgrave, Cusack, and McGann families. Timothy Spall, Benedict Cumberbatch,  and Ewan McGregor are all at one end or the other of an acting family tree. And we also have the Thompson clan.


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Showbiz Family

Emma’s parents are Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law. Eric was one of those people who was better known than you might think.  He did appear a few times on screen but is best known for his work on children’s television. He had appearances in British TV staples like Maigret, The Avengers, Compact, and Z Cars but, to my generation, he is the voice of the The Magic Roundabout.

1989 – Henry V with Kenneth Branagh

The Magic Roundabout started out as Le Manège Enchanté on French TV. It was brought over and they needed an English language narrator. Eric Thompson was the voice they chose. He was originally meant to just read the translations but, instead, he chose to make up stories based on what was happening on screen. There was a minor kerfuffle because he called one of the main characters Dougal and the French thought that he was making fun of General de Gaulle.

Sisters

In 1957 he married Scottish actor Phyllida Law. Phyllida has had similar if not greater acting success as Eric, partly because overwork and a heavy smoking habit had led him to a heart attack which encouraged him to turn to work behind the camera. Despite this, Eric succumbed to another, fatal, heart attack at the very young age of fifty three. As well as Phyllida, Eric left behind two daughters: Emma and Sophie. Both of their daughters have achieved some success as actors.

1989 – The Tall Guy with Jeff Goldblum

By success I mean appearing in Harry Potter films, Austen adaptations, Richard Curtis films,  and all round general award winning stuff. But that’s Sophie, Emma’s younger sister. If you’re  wondering if you’ve seen her in anything then the answer is yes, probably. Seen Four Weddings And A Funeral? Sophie was Lydia, the bride in the second wedding. Seen Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1? Sophie was Mafalda Hopkirk, the woman Hermione impersonates using Polyjuice Potion. She even won the 2014 series of Celebrity MasterChef. A very talented family, indeed.

Early Days

But let us get back to Dame Emma! Born and raised in London Emma developed a love of language and literature. No doubt this was helped along by her father who had a similar love of words. She took and passed ‘A’ Levels in English, French, and Latin. She then managed to win a scholarship and went to read English at Newnham College, Cambridge. Obviously, it wasn’t long before she found herself being invited to join Cambridge Footlights alongside Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Stephen Fry nicknamed her Emma Talented.

1992 – Cheers with Kelsey Grammar and Bebe Neuwirth

I’ll be honest and say that I was a bit indifferent to the thought of seeing Emma Thompson act in a film when the opportunity first arose. When The Tall Guy came out in 1989 I was more interested in seeing what Rowan Atkinson was up to after Blackadder and how Mel Smith would perform in his directorial debut. I wasn’t even aware of it being Richard Curtis’ feature film screenwriting debut.

An Actor? Really?

But Emma Thompson? I didn’t know of her thespian pedigree. I thought she was just another stand up trying to make it as an actor. After all, the only thing I remembered her from was an episode of The Young Ones and various sketch shows with Ben Elton, Fry & Laurie, and Robbie Coltrane. I didn’t know that she’d spent fifteen months in the West End revival of Me And My Girl with Robert Lindsay. It was a draining experience (she later said “I thought if I did the fucking Lambeth Walk one more time I was going to fucking throw up.”) but it got her noticed.

1992 – Howard’s End with Anthony Hopkins

Noticed enough to get her the opportunity to write and star in her own TV special on Channel 4: Emma Thompson: Up For Grabs.  To be honest it totally passed me by but, let’s face it, it doesn’t get a mention on her IMDb page! Well, not as a performer, anyway. She has a writing credit but doesn’t rank herself above the supporting cast. One of supporting cast was her mum, Phyllida Law, so maybe that was something to do with it. The other stuff she was appearing in back then was programmes like Carrott’s Lib, The Comic Strip Presents…, Assaulted Nuts, Alfresco, and Saturday Live which, doubtless, contributed to my thinking of her as a stand up trying to elbow her way into serious drama.

Getting On Screen

As it turns out she could elbow her way into serious thespianism. Just prior to The Tall Guy came Henry V written by that Shakespeare chap. You can’t get much more serious than that! She played Catherine de Valois opposite her then husband, Kenneth Branagh. As we know, Kenneth Branagh is right up there with the best of British acting talent especially when it comes to the Bard. As Kenneth starred, directed, and adapted it for the screen then I imagine he gave her some pretty good notes. They must have been very good notes as Henry V was the start of a run of films which is still ongoing. She has averaged two films a year along with a plethora of TV and stage appearances.

1998 – Primary Colors with John Travolta

In 1991 she appeared With Kenneth in Dead Again. This was a noir thriller based around an amnesiac hiring a detective to find out about her previous life in Los Angeles. During the course of the investigations it seems that there may be more than one past life to be uncovered.  This marked Emma’s move to Hollywood and the big time. “Big time?” I hear you say. Well, also starring in Dead Again were Robin Williams, Derek Jacobi (who may be getting his own chapter soon!), Andy Garcia, and Wayne Knight. While she was stateside, Emma also popped in an episode of Cheers.

Crossing The Atlantic

During the course of her marriage to Ken she appeared alongside him in four films: Henry V, Dead Again, Peter’s Friends, and Much Ado About Nothing. One film that seems surprisingly meta is Peter’s Friends. This is the story of a group of university friends who have a reunion after being apart for about ten years. It is New Year and the titular Peter has just inherited a huge country house following the death of his father. He decides to have a party with his old friends before he sells up. There is a lot more to it than that but, spoilers! I know it’s thirty years old but I only saw it for the first time this evening!

2003 – Love Actually with Alan Rickman

The friends arrive with their respective partners and the history that ties the friends together works to unsettle and separate them from their partners. The main cast were, initially, reluctant to take part in this project and had to be persuaded by the director. Why? Because it seemed to be a bit on the nose to make a comedy about a group of Cambridge graduates and cast it with a group of former Cambridge graduates. Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery, and Emma Thompson were all Cambridge contemporaries and members of Footlights. Footlights President at the time was Martin Bergman who co wrote the script.

Haven’t We Met Before?

So there was a bit of apprehension on the side of the cast about the meta nature of the film about friends and by friends. As well as their college associations, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were an established double act following their appearances in A Bit Of Fry And Laurie and Jeeves And Wooster.  Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were married; she had also dated Hugh Laurie in college. Phyllida Law was Emma’s mother and Ken’s mother in law. As Eric Idle said, when asked about his name dropping, “When you’re in the circus you meet the other clowns” so they needn’t have worried as their closeness only added to the film.

2004 – Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban

Her final collaboration with Kenneth Branagh was another Shakespeare outing. This time, though, it was a lighter affair, a rom-com…Much Ado About Nothing. As well as meeting up again with Phyllida Law, Imelda Staunton, Richard Briers, and Alex Lowe there was some stellar talent joining in. I say stellar and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. Denzel Washington, Robert Sean Leonard, Brian Blessed, Kate Beckinsale, and Keanu Reeves were all involved. Emma Thompson is obviously not phased by working with the big names.

Esteemed Company

Throughout her career she has worked with Tom Hanks (Saving Mr Banks), Robert Redford (A Walk In The Woods), John Travolta (Primary Colors), Stanley Tucci (The Children Act), Daniel Day-Lewis (In The Name Of The Father), Gérard Depardieu (My Father The Hero), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Junior), Jonathan Pryce (Carrington), Will Smith (I Am Legend), Robert Carlyle (The Legend Of Barney Thomson), Robert Downey Jr (Dolittle), to name just a few who haven’t already been mentioned.

2009 – The Boat That Rocked with Bill Nighy

But her marriage to Ken Branagh didn’t mean that she only worked with him. In between Peter’s Friends and Dead Again she starred in a little Merchant Ivory production called Howards End. And again Emma was rubbing shoulders with the top ranks; Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, and Prunella Scales. Given such illustrious company and eminent source material there’s no surprise that there were Oscars in the air. 

And The Oscar Goes To…

There were nine nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. It didn’t win any of those though. It had been up against Unforgiven and that did rather well. One category that Unforgiven didn’t have any nominees in was Best Actress In A Leading Role. And guess who won it? Obviously it is Emma otherwise the last couple of paragraphs would have been a bit of a waste of time. 

2010 – Nanny McPhee

I may have made that sound like Emma won her Oscar because there was no real competition.  That, quite simply, isn’t the case. She was up against Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mary McDonnell; between them they had had twelve nominations and one win.  So it wasn’t a case of Emma being a diamond shining in the rough. Despite my earlier reservations, she was proving herself to be an actor of great talent and versatility. Mind you, she is nothing if not multi-talented. Her second Oscar was for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense And Sensibility.

Another Oscar?

By versatility I mean that she can play a whole panoply of roles. She can carry a film as the lead or she can add spice and interest as a supporting actor. She can do comedy, drama, thrillers, film noir, period pieces, biographies, Shakespeare, sci-fi, shorts, fantasy, and voice work. To be honest though, she wasn’t always the first choice. Professor Sybil Trelawney in the Harry Potter series? Originally offered to Tilda Swinton. Miss Kenton in The Remains Of The Day? Could have been Meryl Streep. And her Oscar winning turn in Howards Way? That was so nearly Miranda Richardson!

2013 – Saving Mr Banks with Tom Hanks

On the other hand there are the roles that Ms Thompson has turned down. As if to thank Meryl Streep passing on The Remains Of The Day, Emma passed on the role of Francesca Johnson in The Bridges Of Madison County; Meryl did get a Best Actor Oscar nomination.  She was Robert Redford’s first choice for Annie McLean in The Horse Whisperer. Production delays led to shooting conflicts and Mr Redford went for another English Rose, Kirstin Scott Thomas. The title role in Anna And The King (Anna, not the king!) was hers until she turned it down and Jodie Foster stepped in.

What Might Have Been

But I should go back to my opening paragraph. She could have been God in Kevin Smith’s wonderful Dogma but wanted to stay in the UK and start a family. Alanis Morissette stepped in. Another role she passed on that went to Jodie Foster was Clarice Starling in The Silence Of The Lambs which quite boggles my mind! I do wonder how it would have turned out with her working alongside Anthony Hopkins once again…

2015 – A Walk In The Woods with Robert Redford

Another big role that she turned down was that of Alex Forrest. Remember her? She was the female lead in Fatal Attraction. Obviously it is hard to say whether or not Fatal Attraction would have been as big with a different cast but I think that any film that can introduce a phrase into the language would be big enough to make it, almost, regardless who was playing the leads. OK, the phrase was “bunny boiler” but there’s no denying you know what it means.

I’m Not Ready For My Close Up

I don’t know why she turned down the chance to play Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. Perhaps she didn’t want to work with Paul Verhoeven. Maybe she really didn’t want to work with Michael Douglas! She may have decided that the infamous leg crossing, fanny flashing scene was going to prove to be as uncomfortable to live with as Sharon Stone found it to be. Unfortunately for Ms Stone, she twigged to the nature of the beast after the rest of the world had seen the scene.

2017 – The Children Act with Stanley Tucci

To be honest though, I don’t think that Dame Emma would have been too bothered by flashing her bits. I don’t normally make too much of nudity but her career has, thus far, been nicely bookended by nude scenes. In The Tall Guy there is, possibly, the funniest sex scene I’ve ever seen…well, intentionally funny anyway. Emma and Jeff Goldblum demolish a room and all its contents while having wildly gymnastic intercourse.

Recent Releases

Then, in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, we have Emma as a recently retired and widowed teacher. Her sex life to date has been comfortable, safe, and boring. She decides that she wants to explore her sexuality and see if she can actually have the orgasm that her married life never provided. She turns to a sex worker, Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) to see what she’s been missing. At the end she stands in front of a full length mirror, opens her dressing gown, and assesses how she looks. She is, quite rightly, happy with what she sees. She appreciates that she is a sixty plus year old woman and that is not what society says is a standard of beauty. That, however, doesn’t stop her from actually being beautiful inside and out.

2022 – Good Luck To You, Leo Grande with Daryl McCormack

To be brutally honest though, I have so much of Emma Thompson’s huge career that I have to miss out otherwise this would be a book all by itself! There are so many films of hers that I have hardly mentioned, if at all. She’s been in three Harry Potters, a RunPee’s favourite Christmas Film – Love Actually, and one of my “comfort films” – The Boat That Rocked. She’s had parts in a number of franchises other than the Harry Potter one…Men In Black, Johnny English, Bridget Jones, and Nanny McPhee. She was in Late Night, Last Christmas, Cruella, Missing Link, Dolittle, Men In Black: International, Johnny English Strikes Again…and that’s just the last five years that we have reviewed!

Up To Date

Her latest outing is in the musical remake of Matilda. She is barely recognisable under mountains of prosthetics. But as soon as she speaks you know it is her. It’s not just a case of an accent, she can do accents: American, Scottish, Croatian, she can do all sorts. But her voice has a certain character to it, an unmistakable timbre which lets you know you are watching a performance by one of our most versatile living actors. Whether she is Goneril to Anthony Hopkins‘ Lear in King Lear or Queen Elizabeth to David Mitchell’s Shakespeare in Upstart Crow, you know you’re going to get value for money.

2022 – Matilda The Musical
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