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Interview: Elisabeth Dermot Walsh - My mum died when I was 17 but she is still with me every day. I try to live up to her; THE CHRISTINE SMITH INTERVIEW: LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE'S LIZ ON HER DRIVING FORCE.

Byline: CHRISTINE SMITH

I AM rather nervous when I turn up at a hotel bar to meet the BBC's new period-drama queen, Elisabeth Dermot Walsh.

She is 24 and incredibly attractive - white porcelain features, big, crystal-blue eyes (accentuated by her black mascara), and a slender, size-10 physique shown off today by her black sleeveless T-shirt, black French Connection trousers and trendy trainers.

But the main reason why I'm not quite sure if we are going to bond is that Elisabeth is frightfully posh.

Indeed, her accent is so la-di-da she wouldn't seem out of a place in Buckingham Palace. The pair of us are like chalk and cheese and, quite bluntly, I've never met such a well-to-do lady.

So I settle down nervously to talk about her leading role in BBC1's adaptation of Nancy Mitford's Love In A Cold Climate.

Maybe it's her joke that I am "playing mum" as I pour out our coffees, or perhaps it's her purple, sparkling Whistles bag that I am desperate to have - but Elisabeth and I hit it off instantly .

"I had to have dialect lessons," she confesses as we chat about her part as Linda, the hopeless romantic desperate to find true love, in the lavish Beeb two-parter. "Linda's accent is so extreme, I really wanted to sound like she did."

But you already have a Queen's English accent, I say to myself. Not so.

"Even the Queen doesn't speak like she used to," she continues (now sounding like the Queen).

"It was very difficult but I hope we managed it. A lot of the jokes sound a lot better anyway if you do that really posh voice."

Elisabeth, who has curled her legs up on the chair, fiddles with her long, brown hair as she goes on to talk excitedly about Love In A Cold Climate.

"Linda's whole raison d'etre is the pursuit of love," she gushes, almost 19 to the dozen. "She is such a heroine but also flawed, real, selfish. Do we share any similarities? Actually I think she rubbed off on me! I became a bit more daffy.

"I am funny sometimes but I became more scatty, witty and passionate. She stayed with me for a long time afterwards.

THAT said, I am more realistic than her when it comes to love. I do, however, think you have a right to happiness."

It's all very "thrilling", "exciting" and "lovely". But Elisabeth isn't a luvvie. She has too many doubts about her talent to be that, even though she shouldn't.I'd say she is more of a perfectionist - passionate about her work. Obsessed, even.

Born in Kent, Elisabeth - eldest daughter of Fifties film star Dermot Walsh and the late stage actress Elisabeth Scott - wanted to be an actress from the age of three and recalls how she would re-enact "terribly long drama routines" with sister Olivia, now a ceramic artist, in the family's 15th-Century country home.

"We were all terribly close. But my parents did their best to dissuade me from acting."

"How do you mean?" I ask, a little confused as Elisabeth's father starred in more than 100 films with legends such as Lawrence Olivier, playing TV's Richard The Lionheart along the way.

"They said: 'Please don't do it because we are. It is not easy.' They were worried if it all went wrong. When I was young, they would take me with them to work.

"But I think they realised I thought it was brilliant, saw the danger and so decided that I should stay at home from then on! But I am very strong-willed. Very." She squeals with laughter. It transpires that Elisabeth begged her parents to enrol her at the exclusive West Heath School (other famous pupils include Princess Diana) just so she could take an active role in the college dramas.

"I realised I was missing out on all the fun. They put on lots of plays after school. My father doesn't really approve of boarding schools but in the face of me saying 'I really want to', what could he do?"

I'm not really into the St Trinian's stuff but I'd say Elisabeth's boarding- school life sounds extraordinarily like the stories you read in novels. She nods.

"We used to knot sheets and climb down from the windows and eat sweets on the lawn! Not drugs - just chocolate and pot noodles.

"We thought we were incredibly naughty," she adds, giggling.

"We were very closeted and I am not surprised the school has been closed down now. We were sheltered from the real world."

But at 17, Elisabeth's world came crashing down when her beloved mother died of cancer. I probe gently. The glow in her blue eyes has disappeared. She's close to tears. "You must have been devastated," I say. "She was hard to live up to," she says quietly. "Mum was impeccable, beautiful. She died when I was in my last term. Terrible."

Silence.

"It was the most awful thing in my life and I still find it too awful to talk about it."

I don't say anything.

SHE eventually continues: "You don't get over it. But I definitely believe you go on somewhere. She would be so thrilled with what is happening now. I'm a bit more groomed than when she knew me.

"I try to live up to her. Wherever she is, she is with me every day. Not in a spooky sense. She just is. She gives me tremendous strength even though she is not here."

Her voice trails off and I ask softly if she is close to her dad. "Oh, tremendously. He is 77 but so young at heart. I can talk to him about everything. He is so calming.

"I know he has starred in lots of films but it was before my time, and so he is just this silver-haired man to me. I am shy but I do like talking to people. With dad, we cut the rubbish. I'd never have a conversation about the weather. We talk about real stuff, politics, religion."

I'm quite surprised to discover, however, that despite this close relationship, Elisabeth didn't tell her dad she had won a place at London's prestigious RADA until afterwards.

"I didn't want the humiliation if I didn't get in. So I secretly auditioned for it. He didn't mind that I hadn't told him. He was so excited."

Shortly before taking up the place, Elisabeth saved up some money by working for a spell as a receptionist at film director Michael Winner's company. "What was Michael like?" I ask, telling her that he thinks she is "quite the most beautiful thing". She laughs.

"Michael is the only showbizzy person dad has kept in touch with. He lives in the country and never goes to any showbiz parties. Michael is a very demanding boss, famous for being so strict. Shouts a lot. If I did something stupid, he would shout!"

RADA, she adds, was "hard work". "I kept thinking I was a mistake and there was a mix-up. But eventually I realised that I had earned a place. It was beyond my wildest dreams."

The waiter brings more mineral water and coffee. I've got so used to Elisabeth's accent that I am now even finding myself replacing some of my familiar Northern dulcet tones with soft Southern pronunciations.

Elisabeth, whose legs are still curled up on her seat, is outlining her career to date. After she left RADA (fellow pupils include Ioan Gruffudd) she won a part in the BBC sitcom Unfinished Business playing Rachel, who stole her mother's boyfriend.

This was followed by a role as a middle-class mum in BBC1's Falling For A Dancer, some theatre work and now Love In A Cold Climate.

She doesn't think she's changed but concedes she enjoys the salary that comes with the job. Does she like clothes shopping?

"Yeah, but I prefer food shopping. I can spend two hours wandering down the aisles. I am totally hypnotised by it. My cupboards at home are filled up." Mine are the exact opposite, I say, very bemused. "Oh dear," she exclaims. "I have ridiculous things - green peppers in jars. I suppose I like nesting things, building a home. I think this stems from my boarding school days."

What is her speciality, then? She loves improvising with any ingredients in her "magic cupboard". We move back to the subject of acting as Elisabeth reveals her second love is going to the theatre, often by herself.

"You don't talk, anyway," she says. "Cinema I'm not so sure about, because it looks as though you have been stood up!"

ELISABETH, who rents a flat in Wandsworth, South London, doesn't want to tell me if she has a boyfriend. I respect her privacy and decide to find out what the future has in store.

She hasn't got anything in the pipeline yet but says she would love to star in lots of different dramas.

I wonder if she has a role model.

"My mum probably. She wasn't someone really famous but she was brilliant." She bursts out laughing.

"But everyone thinks their parents are brilliant, don't they?" I tell her I have to agree. "My dad, gosh he is so wonderful," she says. "He is ever so proud but such a gloom-monger. He always thinks everything is going to come to an end.

"So I want to prove to him that it's not. There is no pressure from him, oh no. I'd love to work with him."

Her wonderful parents, Elisabeth adds, make her doubt whether she could ever be as good.

"They sacrificed a lot for me. I can't see myself getting married or having a child at the moment. But I reserve the right to do so.

"I am far too selfish. I am completely focused on my work and to bring a child into the equation, give it my undivided attention... I just could not do that at the moment."

My time is up. Posh she may sound but Elisabeth is a real gem.

It's why I decide to join her later in the bar. I won't spill the beans but suffice to say we get through our fair share of Champagne...

Love In A Cold Climate is screened tomorrow night on BBC1 at 8.45pm

CAPTION(S):

DAD: Dermot Walsh; POSH LOT: With Cold Climate's Rosamund Pike, right and Megan Dodds, centre Picture: Radio Times; Picture: SVEN ARNSTEIN/STAYSTILL
COPYRIGHT 2001 MGN LTD
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 3, 2001
Words:1741
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