Elaine Paige thanks the Lord ‘the Queen’s not here to witness this’

Elaine Paige discusses watching herself in ‘Cats’ in 2020

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When the Queen’s death was confirmed, Elaine Paige felt crushed with grief, almost as if she was mourning a relative rather than the Monarch. “I know this may sound strange but I honestly felt as though I’d lost a member of my own family. I’m such a staunch royalist,” she tells me.

“Every time I’d met her, she was so real, so honest, someone who always looked you straight in the eye. I tend to be rather an over-emotional person. I was heartbroken by her passing, and, for at least two weeks afterwards, I stayed at home, not going anywhere. I wanted to be alone to grieve.”

Having been asked rather hastily to turn her popular Radio Two Sunday show into an extended tribute to Her Majesty, she shared anecdotes, of which more shortly, from some of the many times the pair had met over the years.

It was clearly a challenging experience.

“I don’t mind admitting I struggled to hold it all together towards the end of the radio tribute,” she continues. “But I was determined to thank her for her 70 years of service and more without cracking up.”

Little wonder the outspoken septuagenarian star of stage and screen needs no prompting to share her frank disbelief at what has happened since.

“What does Prince Harry hope to achieve,” she asks, “by his endless swipes at the Royal Family? I still can’t quite get my head around how much he’s changed. Go back 10 years and he was always that mischievous chap, full of fun.

“He was the relaxed royal, the easy-going live wire. And didn’t we admire his Army service and his inspirational involvement with the Invictus Games?

“He was the one telling those young men and women injured in conflict: ‘Come on! You can do it! You can be anything you want!’

“But look at him now. He’s lost all that joie de vivre. He seems to have become completely self-absorbed, casting himself as some sort of victim. And I simply don’t understand it.

“Every family has spats. It’s the name of the game. But most differences of opinion can be ironed out if you just sit down and talk it through. I agree with [historian] David Starkey who said the other day that Harry seems to be in dispute about a load of nothing.

“Like millions of others, I watched the wedding of Harry and Meghan and it was like a fairy tale. As a nation, we collectively fell in love with her. I don’t remember any negative reaction from the media. We embraced this lovely young couple.”

That said, Elaine respects the decision by Harry and his wife Meghan to seek a more private life – with certain reservations.

“It’s nonsense to complain about the invasion of their privacy,” she says.

“The one person who has invaded Harry’s privacy more than any other is Harry himself. The documentaries, the books, the TV interviews…it’s hypocrisy.”

So, what’s the solution?

“Well, to be brutal, I think it’s time he shut up. The Princess of Wales said the other day that therapy doesn’t work for everybody and she may have hit the nail on the head.

“Now, Harry needs to go and do something useful for charity. He needs to stop lashing out at his father and his brother, at the institution of the Royal Family. He’s become delusional. He needs to find some peace and dignity.”

She continues: “But I thank the Lord that the dear late Queen is not here to witness this sorry chapter. It would break her heart.”

Elaine – self-evidently – is a woman of strong opinions.

The other big issue of the day is the apparently intractable tangle between the nurses and ambulance drivers on the one hand and the Government on the other.

“When you think of the selfless way the nurses and ambulance crews worked tirelessly through the pandemic, putting themselves at personal risk, it saddens me that the Government can’t sit down and negotiate their way to a sensible settlement.

“One commentator wrote recently that the NHS is failing and should be replaced by a universal healthcare operation, a mixed public/private system. In France, you can get to see a GP quickly for 25 Euros. Some people could afford 20 quid to do the same in this country. If they couldn’t, they should get it for free but think how much extra revenue could be generated.

“Rishi Sunak was asked about this in Parliament the other day and he dodged the question. Everyone knows the nurses aren’t going to get a 19 percent pay rise: the public purse doesn’t have that sort of money.

“I’m not a particular fan of Nicola Sturgeon. But she sanctioned a 7.5 percent pay rise in Scotland and a strike was averted. Why can’t Rishi do the same?” [Some nurses later rejected the deal and decided to strike, though action is on hold as talks continue.]

“The way I see it, to dig your heels in and not start a meaningful conversation with the nurses and ambulance men and women is a little short of negligent. It makes my blood boil.” This is rather more than mere sabre-rattling.

Elaine supports various charities including The Dan Maskell Tennis Trust (she plays at least three times a week), The Children’s Trust for youngsters with brain injuries, EveryChild, the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), Breast Cancer Now, Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice and Support Dogs.

“I particularly cherish the memory of
getting involved with something called The Great Trolley Push for the RVS in which I accompanied the Queen Consort around the wards of Leicester General Hospital. Camilla was wonderful.

“I’ll never forget the reaction of bed-bound patients at the sight of her.” Current affairs aside, the world at large can next see Elaine in an episode of Father Brown to be broadcast on BBC One on Friday at 1.45pm. She plays celebrity florist Octavia Eden, a contemporary of Constance Spry, and newly returned from a successful spell in London to her Cotswolds roots.

“I liked the script as soon as I read it and I enjoyed the journey back into 50s England, a gentler time, even if bodies do start piling up. I found it rather charming, cosy family entertainment and great fun to do, not least because my character is a force of nature.

“Mark you, I look about 104 what with the costumes and the wigs, none of which are particularly flattering. But it was a lovely experience surrounded by a terrific cast. Mark Williams is perfect as Father Brown but there’s also Claudie Blakley as Mrs Devine and Tom Chambers, who I know from musical theatre, as the police inspector.”

Elaine will be 75 in March.

She’ll have been in the business for 60 years in 2024, the acknowledged Queen of the West End musical ever since she created the iconic role of Evita in 1978.

The next birthday honours will be announced in June. About time, wouldn’t she agree, for an overdue Damehood? “Oh, that’s not for me to say. Anyway, I got the OBE from the Queen in 1995, one of the proudest days of my life.”

Even so, Dame Elaine? She pauses, then gurgles that familiar throaty giggle. “But yes, that would be the cherry on the cake.”

All of which brings us back to Her Majesty, and Elaine needs little prompting to share some wonderfully warm anecdotes, one in particular showing the human side to the late monarch.

It was 2002. Elaine and Barbara Dickson had been asked to perform a private concert at Windsor Castle by the Princess Royal at the time of the Golden Jubilee.

“As it happens,” recalls Elaine, “the concert was delayed because of the death of the Queen Mother at the end of March. But it was eventually rescheduled for June.”

Barbara and Elaine sang duets including their number-one hit, I Know Him So Well, as well as solo songs from their individual careers.

“So, there I was, giving it my all on Memory, when one of my diamond earrings shot out of my ear and landed on the floor.”

At the end of the performance, the two were ushered into an ante-room. The double doors opened and the Queen walked through, arms outstretched and headed straight for Elaine with a huge smile.

“She embraced me with an all-enveloping hug and said, ‘Elaine, at last!’ This was the Queen behaving almost like my mum. Unbelievable! Then she said, with a twinkle in her eye, ‘I noticed your earring fell off; such a nuisance when that happens.’”

She went on to say the same thing had happened to her when she met the Prime Minister of Bulawayo and an earring disappeared down the front of her dress.

“I said, ‘Whatever did you do?’ And she replied, ‘Well, he asked if he could help retrieve it.’ Then she pulled her dress away from her body to indicate her décolletage where the earring had landed. ‘In the circumstances,’ she said, ‘I fished it out rather quickly.’

“We stood there laughing. I couldn’t believe how candid she’d been but also how normal, in a way. It felt as if I’d known her for years. We were just two girls sharing a funny experience.”

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