From council estate in Tottenham to West End stage, the veteran actor and screenwriter tells her life story in a funny and honest new memoir. She was, she says, always determined to shine…

Think back, just for a moment, to the first series of The Crown. It is 1952. The king, George VI, is dead and the new queen, Elizabeth, has flown home to Britain from Africa. At Sandringham, where her father’s body rests, everything is the same and yet irredeemably changed: a paradoxical state signified most powerfully by the arrival of the king’s mother, Queen Mary. In a corridor lined with servants, the old queen, in black crepe and a mourning veil, advances slowly towards the new queen. Will these grieving women embrace? No. As Queen Mary has already informed her granddaughter by letter, if the crown is to survive, duty must come before personal indulgence, a credo she will now express in the form of a curtsey so preposterously low, it’s a wonder she doesn’t topple over.

At the memory of this scene, Dame Eileen Atkins leaps from her sofa and bobs her jeans-clad knees, wobbling only very slightly. Six years on, she doesn’t remember much about playing Queen Mary: mostly it was just “lying about in bed and smoking”. But she’ll never forget that curtsey: “It was Stephen Daldry [the director] who made me do it. That long bloody walk. I love Stephen. He’s a magician. I’d do anything for him. But I was very proud that at whatever age I was then, I could walk with a straight back and do such a deep curtsey.” Her friend, the actor Siân Phillips, believes that the trick with old age is simply not to think about it: “She doesn’t tell anyone how old she is.” Atkins, however, takes a different approach. “‘You’re 87,’ I say to myself. ‘You’ve been working for six hours. Well done!’”

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