A Family Affair

10 July 2018 17:48
Lucy Briers in Wolf Hall © Johan Persson/ArenaPAL
Lucy Briers in Wolf Hall

On Lucy Briers' first day at Lancaster, a fellow fresher came to her room introducing herself as Tina Redford and asked why she had a picture of actor Richard Briers on her wall.

Hearing that he was her father, her visitor responded that her own was called Robert Redford - but he was a baker not a film star. That instant friendship - and others she made there - helped Lucy through the turbulent three years she believes ‘made’ her. 

Lucy had arrived straight from the highly academic St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, never having seen the University, and was initially very homesick. The friendships she made in her first term, gave her the impetus to stick it out, as she adapted to living away from home, in a part of the country that initially felt quite alien. Many of these friendships continued as she developed her career in theatre, TV and film, and are still a major part of her life today.

Lucy - best-known for playing Mary Bennet in the BBC’s television adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice - is clear that her time at Lancaster was life changing. She says: “I arrived with a Sloane Ranger accent and long flowing hair and by the end of the first year I had shaved my head and had woken up to the world. I felt that I had emerged from some kind of chrysalis and had begun to understand something of what the world was about. Lancaster helped me to grow up.” 

She had been set on a career on the stage from the age of nine, but her father (a household name for his role as Tom Good in the BBC’s The Good Life) and mother Ann Davies (also an actress, a regular in the first season of Dr Who) were equally determined that she and her sister should get a university education first. Lancaster was not her first choice, but she feels that fate took her to a university which challenged her in every way and set her up for the rest of her life. 

Lucy’s response to intense homesickness was to immerse herself in her Theatre and Sculpture studies. Early on she realised that her drama course was in her words ‘groundbreaking’ and was opening doors into forms of experimental theatre she had never imagined previously, under the tutelage of Simon Jones, Keith Sturgess and Margaret Eddershaw. She says: “Lancaster’s drama department really did have a pioneering feel.” 

She had also found an instant group of friends and an immediate acceptance as part of a team that was always busy on creating theatre. 

Every production became a goal which allowed her to learn a new skill - whether it was a new dramatic concept, or the sound, lighting and stage management that were taught alongside. Highlights for her were playing in Pete Brooks' The Archaeology of Desire, which she describes as ‘crazy’, and ‘extremely difficult to perform and playing Sally Bowles in a production of Cabaret in her third year. 

“I tried not to let having a famous father define me,” says Lucy, “but I felt I had more to prove in order to gain the respect of my peers and tutors. I wanted anything I achieved to be based on merit rather than my surname and I approached becoming a professional actress in the same way.” 

Although she had initially hoped her sculpture studies might give her an alternative career option, she was brought up short by the realisation that her fellow art students were more talented. When she was asked to move out of the art department and to work in the engineering department, because there was not enough room for her huge sheet-metal pieces, including one depicting the Brixton riots, he realised her future was in acting alone. 

Outside the drama department she confesses she did ‘an awful lot of partying’ but also discovered politics. She has warm memories of marches in Manchester and taking part in political protests on the Lancaster campus. She also relished days out in the Trough of Bowland and the Lake District at the weekends. 

After graduation Lucy was all the more focused on a career as an actor. Lancaster had blown open her mind, but she needed the basic craft skills that a drama school would teach her and took up a place on a three-year course at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Since then she has notched up a wide range of credits on the stage including working at the National Theatre, The Royal Court and with the Royal Shakespeare Company and on TV, mostly recently in Count Arthur Strong and DCI Banks

Lucy feels an enormous debt of gratitude towards Lancaster University, without which she is convinced she would never have gained a place at drama school. “As an actor, you have to have an inner core of steel because there is so much rejection in that industry. I had a struggle during my time at Lancaster, but going through it taught me to be tough and to look at the flip side of things. There is an obvious way of doing something and then there is a more interesting way. That is an invaluable lesson, not only in how to approach a new role but also in how to approach life itself.” 

One way she is paying back that debt is by supporting a new playwriting prize for Lancaster Arts - an aspect of theatre which is close to her heart. 

“New writing provides essential life blood into the theatre,” she says, as she muses on her own experience of premiering new productions herself. “There’s something magical about being the first person to speak those lines. It’s a massive liberation.”



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