17 October 2003: Evening Standard

In Bed With Rachael

Rachael Stirling, a tall, svelte figure in a mustard-coloured coat, catches sight of me and breaks into a run, waving frantically. 'Darling!' she cries, in her deep, rather actressy voice, kissing me enthusiastically.

'The last time we met, I was vile, wasn't I? I didn't say anything! I promise you I'm a motormouth now.' That last time, I left her company practically in tears of frustration. She was meant to be publicising her first film, Still Crazy, but it was her first interview and she was clearly terrified. The topic that was really off-limits was her relationship with her mother, Dame Diana Rigg, embodiment of the karate-kicking Emma Peel and one of the greatest actresses of her generation.

'Oh, I was deeply defensive,' Rachael, now 26, agrees. 'It was difficult because everyone was always comparing us. How do you compare a green 18-year-old with her hugely experienced, very wise, fiercely intelligent mother? I got defensive because I knew I couldn't stand up to that comparison.

'Now I've done enough, and I'm old enough and wise enough to shout it from the rooftops.

I'm absolutely thrilled about where I come from and who my ma is and what she's achieved. I feel naught but pride about it.' Rachael is sitting in the bar of the Berkeley Hotel, cigarette in one slim hand, spritzer in the other she can't overindulge because, in half an hour, she's due on stage at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where she's appearing in Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance. 'When I finish the run in January, I'm going to let rip!' she says naughtily.

Physically, she looks completely different from the girl of six years ago.

Then, she was somewhat podgy and clad entirely in black; today, she's svelte and glowing, in a silver jumper and skintight jeans. She has her mother's coathanger cheekbones and retrouss nose, but with her strong colouring and deep-set eyes looks more like Martine McCutcheon; passers-by used to shout 'Tiff!' at her all the time.

Despite her glamour, she's suddenly single after a two-year relationship with the tousled John Lycett Green, a reggae DJ, came to an end.

The son of the writer Candida Lycett Green, and grandson of the late Sir John Betjeman, he was a family friend, and there was talk of two great dynasties uniting. 'I thought so, too, but it's not to be,' she said recently.

The relationship appears to have run into trouble after John, who famously mooned at the press after Laura Parker Bowles's 21st birthday party, found it hard to cope with her explicit role as lesbian showgirl Nan Astley in the BBC's Sapphic drama, Tipping the Velvet. 'Boys other than actors just can't cope,' she declares. 'It doesn't matter if you're snogging a girl or a donkey or a man, they just can't cope.' Now it's been suggested that she is being romanced by her Woman of No Importance co-star Julian Ovenden, 27, exboyfriend of Cutting It star Sarah Parish and another tousled Old Etonian who, as the son of the Queen's Chaplain at Windsor, the Rev John Ovenden, is just as well connected as Lycett Green. Alas for the peddlers of such juicy speculation, Rachael denies this fiercely.

'I'm not going to have another boyfriend for a very, very long time,' she says. 'The next few years are about getting as much experience as I can and working as hard as I can. I like being on my own; I think it's the best way to be when you're curious and young. Anyway, there's no room in my schedule.'

That is certainly true. She's a month into the gruelling run, giving eight performances a week during which she's on stage from beginning to end.

Afterwards, she says, she's completely exhausted. 'I'm rarely in bed before 2am, and I'm a ten-hours-a-night kind of girl, so I don't get up until lunchtime, which sounds so lazy.' At 6.30pm, she is back in the theatre for her warm-up.

Naturally, her mother has been to see her perform. 'Mama usually gives me notes on my performance and those that I agree with I take, and those that I don't, I don't,' says Rachael. 'But she said she had no notes for me this time, she said I was perfect. It threw me into a state of complete confusion.' Indeed, despite appearing with such seasoned performers as Prunella Scales and Samantha Bond, Rachael has garnered much critical praise for her performance as American heiress Hester Worsley, earning herself the accolade 'delightful'.

On top of that, this summer she's made Freeze Frame, a low- budget, sexually controversial film about paranoia with comedian Lee Evans, and Five Little Pigs, a Hercule Poirot mystery for television. 'I haven't stopped since the middle of June,' she says. 'But I had a slow eight months until then. After Tipping the Velvet, I got sent loads of scripts that necessitated flashing my bosoms everywhere. I just couldn't understand why this extraordinary character and this extraordinary story had led to nothing but prurient scripts.' In fact, all of the controversy surrounding Tipping The Velvet seems to have taken her a little by surprise.

'I knew there was going to be a fuss, of course I did. I wasn't thick I mean, I was covered in gold paint, naked and wearing a dildo. But I didn't expect quite so much press coverage,' she says wryly. 'The outrage overshadowed something that was completely original, brave and witty. I was really proud of it. In America, they saw it as an arthouse piece, and that's what it should have been seen as, not Page 3 of the Sunday Sport.

'Do you know,' she goes on, 'for an entire week, I think it was The Sun, or was it The Star, dressed up all their Page 3 girls to look like me and Keeley [Hawes, her co-star] and recreated poses from Tipping the Velvet. It was vile. But we got amazing viewing figures.' She's been receiving strange fan-mail from both men and women ever since. 'One man traced his penis on the back of a letter with an arrow and the words "actual life size". Another wrote me an adorable letter saying, "I'm only five foot two, I only work in Tesco, I only live in Wolverhampton, but I do have very firm buttocks,'' ' she says, breaking into peals of helpless giggles. She was asked to open the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival last year. 'That was an eye-opener. I had to make a speech in front of 500 fairly frightening-looking lesbians.' What sounds more daunting still was having to watch the series with her parents.

'My father's nanny had a phrase that she used to use when there was something inappropriate on telly "eyes on sandals" and that's what I kept saying to Papa whenever I got my whops out or started kissing Keeley's nipples.' Her relationship with her family seems enviably warm and close, despite the trauma of her parents' divorce. She was brought up in the family home in Earls Court 'a really safe, quiet, wonderful joyous place'. Her father is the dashing Scottish landowner and former Scots Guard officer Archie Stirling, 61, whose uncle, Sir David Stirling, founded the SAS. His previous marriage to Princess Alice, the Duchess of Gloucester's niece Charmian Scott produced two sons, Willie, now 38, a writer, and Ludovic, 36, a designer, but ended in divorce in 1977, the year that Rachael was born.

Stirling and Rigg married five years later.

As a child, Rachael distracted herself by writing and casting herself in her own plays, in which she often enlisted her entire class at Thomas's, the London prep school. 'A clich, I know,' she says. 'But my parents were tough; they'd ask for their money back if they didn't find it funny.' Two months of every year were spent on her father's estate, where she ran wild.

'I used to spend days clamped to my horse, galloping around the country like a mad thing.' But the idyll came to an end in the late Eighties when her father embarked on a yearlong and much-publicised affair with the actress Joely Richardson. Her parents attempted a reconciliation but finally divorced in 1993. In 2000, Stirling married Sharon Silver, James Gilbey's ex and a Nigella Lawson- lookalike much younger than him, who, says Rachael, 'is heaven'; Sharon and Rachael have been spotted hanging out together in Woodys.

Diana Rigg, who has never remarried, has just sold the family home and moved house (though not to France, as erroneously reported).

The situation seems very civilised; there are no Stella McCartneyish mutterings from Rachael, though she is not comfortable discussing her parents' divorce, nor how she felt working with Joely Richardson on the film Maybe Baby. 'It was fine. You just get on with it,' she says briskly, her expression nevertheless forbidding.

At the time of her parents' split, Rachael was sent to board at Wycombe Abbey in Buckinghamshire. The first two years were 'mucky', she says. 'I was very spoilt. I wasn't used to people borrowing things or invading my space. I just wasn't prepared, mostly because my home life was falling apart a bit and my parents were getting divorced, and I was desperately homesick.

But I would rather have been there than at home while all that was going on.' Instead, she threw herself into drama. 'There was a wonderful theatre on a lake, set back from the rest of the school. It felt like you were going to a separate safe haven of a place, so I spent as much time there as I possibly could.' Halfway through a degree in history of art at Edinburgh University, she won herself a role in Still Crazy, a comedy film about middle-aged rockers, and has never looked back.

It was, ironically, a future her mother had hoped she would avoid, says Rachael. ' Whenever she was asked if I'd go into acting, she'd say, very firmly, "No! No!" But she came back from a trip to Delhi, and there I was in London, loads of slap on my face, having just come back from Pinewood. I'd done it on my own and she was absolutely resigned,' says Rachael gleefully.

'It was inevitable, really.'

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