Albert Square seems an improbable address for Susan George, but for three “exhilarating” months the English rose actress made it home. You’d normally link Susan not with cockney parlours but with the finer things of country life – with rose-painted china, red setters and the Arab horses she now breeds on a Northamptonshire farm.
Susan made her young name huge in Hollywood, starred in Straw Dogs at 21 and was romanced by the Prince of Wales. At that stage, plum parts in Dynasty and The Colbys were hers for the signing, but Susan always said “no” to soap. But now, six years after she last appeared in front of the camera, the blonde once named among the world’s 100 all-time sexiest actresses has embraced her EastEnders role as if to Bow bells born.
“When my agent rang to say I’d been offered the guest-starring role of Margaret,” says Susan, “she did first ask if I was sitting down. But I was already a fan and I’ve absolutely loved it. I’ve just finished my studio run and I miss everyone already. I enjoy the buzz, the energy, that whole other life. Joining EastEnders is like joining a family.”
It’s Friday evening in a Covent Garden bar. Susan, blonde-bobbed and yoga-fit in jeans, trainers and lilac jacket, drinks a glass of champagne before she and Simon MacCorkindale, her husband and film production partner, head out of town and back to their family of horses. There’s a life-affirming optimism to her bright, breezy exchanges, and not a shred of vanity: “I have a tremendous love of life,” she says, more than once. “I live for the day, moment to moment.”
The photos she pulls out of her bag are not of herself, but of Djewel and Chagal, her latest home-bred foals. Susan is however, a magnet for happy hour punters whose heads swivel and nod in her direction: “Playing Margaret has introduced me to a whole new generation,” she says, “who didn’t know how to spell my name, never mind what I look like. Most of my friends were thrilled when they heard I was doing EastEnders because it’s such a cool show.”
Susan owns that the challenge of her latest role – as lodger, love interest and potential con-woman to smalltime entrepreneur Terry – was as risky as anything she’s done: “It was a bit of a tightrope without a safety net – scary. But I like scary. I wouldn’t entertain soaps in the past because I never like to be shut in and I’m not keen on the inevitable. I love changeability and constant surprises. So for many years the thought of a series, like going into the theatre, seemed a lock and key.
“But my life and feelings have evolved, and the prospect of this finite spell in EastEnders seemed very appealing. Producing is an unbelievably gruelling game. It wipes the smiles off your face at times – and I say that as a happy-go-lucky, energised person. So it was time to break away from the mould for a bit. When offered EastEnders I suddenly remembered how happy acting makes me and how much it gets my juices going.”
As a long-term viewer, Susan sees EastEnders as “a very powerful dramatic machine. It’s like a brilliant comedian whose jokes mostly revolve around the everyday stuff of life – the humour and the tragedy that lies behind it, the laughter, the pain, the tears… It’s quite an argumentative view of life, so at times Albert Square can be sad to the point of depressing. But even then I’ve found it quite amusing because you end up thinking, ‘Gosh I’m having such a great time myself. We don’t have any of those problems at home!'”
Correcting the impression that-before EastEnders – she had always played to well-bred type, Susan reminds that she played “cor blimey hookers” to both Jack the Ripper and Dr Jekyll’s alter ego, Mr Hyde. Margaret, by contrast, sounds almost sophisticated -“although I intentionally let her accent slip from time to time. She breezed into Terry’s life as a client in search of a flat, but we don’t know a lot about her.
“I choose to think that her origins are probably rougher than we imagine. What I love about her is that wicked sense of humour that enables her so often to play Janine at her own game. For Margaret it’s not all about who can get the better of the deal, but about trying to sort this child out for her sake, for Terry – a very nice man who can be such an idiot at times – but above all for Janine herself.”
So will Margaret bow out with a blarney, a scam or a whimper? Susan says cryptically: “Don’t believe all you’ve been led to expect.” Might her character one day return? “Who knows?” shrugs Susan, “but the door is left wide open. And I have certainly rediscovered a taste for being on screen.”
If she and Gavin Richards, who plays the gullible Terry, are permanently parted, well that, as they say, is showbusiness. Susan is used to saying hail and farewell to leading men, among them James Mason, Michael Caine and Charles Bronson. “I’ve had some crackers,” she confides. “Denholm Elliott was a joy. I did a black-and-white television Dracula with him when I was 15 and years later I hired him for our own movie, a medieval love story called Stealing Heaven””
Playing against Rod Steiger and Tom Conti in That Summer Of White Roses, Susan was spoiled for choice: ‘Tom is so bright intellectually and streetwise, so very charismatic. I’m surprised he never quite became the Robert Redford of our day. Rod is still amazing… a major star. If I didn’t tell you that, he would! He demanded the red carpet wherever he went, much to my annoyance when we were trying to finish our movie on a very low budget! Having said that, I adored him. He is very enigmatic and has a fantastic presence so I guess he deserves superstardom. It conies across on the screen and you pay for what you get.” As for Dustin Hoffman, her co-star in Sam Peckinpah’s controversial and violent StrawDogs, Susan recalls that “with the rocketing fame then surrounding him, Dustin was a very complex human being. He could be quite edgy and difficult, but he was also generous, genteel and at times quite hysterically funny. I met up with him again two years ago (when he received his lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute) and found he’d really rounded out into a gentle father and was a warm, centred and very real human being.”
Susan’s own late, beloved father, Norman, lives on in her latest project. Straight from EastEnders, she began recording an album for autumn release. Do we detect echoes of Tiffany (alias Martine McCutcheon), who also made her post-EastEnders pop debut? “These are late-night listening songs, to be enjoyed with a nice glass of Margaux and a few candles,” says Susan. “There are tracks that make you happy, tracks that make you want to dance, to fell in love, to believe.” Some songs Susan (whose theme for That Summer Of White Roses won a British Film Institute award for best new composer) has written herself. And her dad remains the inspiration.
“He was a semi-pro tenor saxophonist who played with Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes, so my whole life as a child was music. Long before my parents bought their Maidenhead hotel, we lived in a little house on the river called Jazzmins. Musicians arrived for jazz sessions and gigs every other night. I sang with Daddy all through the years. I’d turn up at various clubs and join in at the end of an evening.”
Susan was first asked to make an album back in California, but at 21 the timing was wrong. “In those days it was just not done to be multi-faceted. If I’d attempted to do anything else but act, I’d have been labelled a Jack of all Trades and not taken seriously. I was frightened of losing respect in the career I loved. Timing, however, is everything in life and this album feels right, right now.
“Inevitably my voice has a jazz influence. I’ve grown into the songs that were really too old for me, when I sang them without having had a life. I do Misty on the album – a song I sang with my Dad for years. But it’s a very different Misty now. This album is dedicated to my Dad, because he was the music in my life. Mummy wanted acting for me, but he gave me music. He’s been with me throughout this project and I know he’s smiling.”
It’s almost ten years since Susan lost her father after a fall with bronchial complications. She learned of his accident in Malta and has barely had a sunshine holiday since: “Simon and I desperately need time together and for the first time in my incredibly active and workaholic life, I long just to lie on a beach and look at the stars.” Whereafter, she’ll be happily back to the grindstone, intent on her next production – a Dick Francis thriller Banker.
Susan – who’s also Honorary President of the Horse of the Year Show – won’t contemplate slowing down, never mind retiring: “Why, ever, would I want to do that? My life at present marks a turning of the tide, but I feel I’m only halfway through. I’m just such a believer in life and change. There’s no road I wouldn’t take if it suddenly presented a challenge.”
Eventually, she says, she may feel significantly older than her “twenty-something self, but as yet she feels physically and energetically no different. Like the royal family to whom she is patriotically devoted, Susan attributes her bloom – and hoped-for longevity- to homeopathic medicine: “I saw the Queen at Ascot races the other day and she looked amazing in all the latest colours — fuchsia pink and that electric green that stops traffic. As for our gorgeous Queen Mother, how wonderful to come out of hospital for your 101st birthday, saying, ‘Well, never mind: even if I miss this one, I’ll be fine for the next.’ I hope she is, because the Queen Mother is a huge fan of Dick Francis. She’d be first on the invitation list for our premiere.”