The Mail on Sunday
27th March 2011
By Emily Hill
With its infamous fireplace scene of two men wrestling naked, it was, in its day, one of the most controversial films ever made in Britain, with audiences flocking to cinemas to be shocked and scandalised.
Ken Russell’s 1969 screen adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Women In Love was a vivid celebration of sensuality and sexuality. The story of the lives and loves of two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, it was provocative and erotic, and the abundant nudity – both female and male – provoked outrage.
Now, a new version of Lawrence’s story has been made by the BBC – the second episode is screened on Thursday on BBC4. Beautifully made and brilliantly acted, it has no less flesh on view than in Russell’s film and yet no one has batted an eyelid.
It is a sign of the times and an irony that has not been lost on Jennie Linden, radiant star of the original. Jennie played Ursula Brangwen, and her luminous beauty lit up the screen and set male pulses racing the world over.
Yet while the other three principal players – Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates – all went on to have glittering film careers, Jennie contented herself with carving out a more modest living in small-budget British television.
Although nominated for a Bafta for her performance in Russell’s film, she gave up the chance of Hollywood superstardom because she wanted to bring up her son Rupert in England.
In fact, as she reveals now for the first time, she hadn’t even wanted to do Women In Love, the film which was to overshadow the rest of her working life.
Now living in small village in Hertfordshire with her husband of more than 50 years, Chris Mann, a former theatrical agent, Jennie said: ‘I had just given birth to my only son and I was throwing myself into ¬motherhood. I told my agent I was not interested in working.’
Russell refused to take ‘no’ for an answer and eventually, Jennie, now 71, signed up for the three-month shoot. And there was one plus.
‘Glenda was pregnant and I had just had a baby so we were both very pleased with our bosoms because we felt we needed them for a movie like that,’ she says.
‘I had my first ever nude scene. It was nothing like today when everyone is taking their clothes off in the theatre. It was shot in Sherwood Forest. Ken said, “Don’t worry, we’ll have a closed set.” That was good because it’s pretty wretched if you’re not used to it.’
She adds: ‘But when we started filming, the trees were alive. They were moving with all the bodies of cameramen and crew who had climbed up to have a look. It’s terribly funny now – but of course it wasn’t at the time.’
And there were other tensions on the shoot.
‘In the film, I sing a song for one scene with Glenda – I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,’ says Jennie. ‘But they had actually given me four songs the night before and told me to learn them all by morning because they didn’t know which one they wanted to use.
‘I had very little sleep on this film. I had to go to bed in these extremely painful curlers and when you haven’t slept all night you’re nerved up. Ken’s stress level was very high too; he was under a lot of pressure.
‘In another scene, when I wasn’t doing what he wanted, he took me by the collar of the big grey coat I was wearing, lifted me up two inches above the ground and walked me away from the crew for a word in my ear about doing what he said.
‘And then in St Moritz, filming the tragic climax of the story, he wanted Alan and me to sledge down an incredibly steep slope, which was pure ice.
I remember seeing this shot set up. I didn’t sledge, I didn’t ski and everyone was saying, “That is very steep, Ken.” I could see he wasn’t listening – because he never did.
‘I asked Alan if he was happy about it, and Alan said, “No,” so I asked an Austrian guide what he thought about it. He said, “Do you want to die?” ’
Eventually it was shot with stunt doubles and Alan and Jennie were edited in at the end, falling in a romantic heap.
‘Ken could shout and rant but people who have artistic personalities are always going to be temperamental,’ Jennie says.
‘As a cast, we did all get on very well. Alan was very, very sweet. A wonderful actor. And Oliver was particularly fun. He never made an entrance without an entourage. He’d come through two double doors in a pub and stand there. Then his entourage would catch up with him and he’d stride forwards.
‘He out-drank the crew all the time but the next day, sheet-white, he always worked.’
Legend has it that Oliver Reed was the most enthusiastic about filming the notorious naked wrestling scene with Alan Bates and, afterwards, wrestled Ken Russell himself in order to make him include the scene in the final cut. But, Jennie says, if there was a further bout of off-screen grappling, she missed it.
‘Ollie and Ken were firm buddies. That scene was very private, shot extremely well and lit beautifully. When I was making it, I don’t think I knew it would be “the” scene. But now, whenever I meet anyone, they say, “Oh yes, you were in that film with the naked wrestling.”
‘Ken was like the conductor of an orchestra. It’s fascinating to see what he was doing.
How he was working on so many levels. There is a nude scene that I am in, in a cornfield – you can look at it like a painting. The gold and yellow were about ego and desire and want. He was showing Lawrence’s wordy novel through vision and sound. As an actor, he let you just go at it intuitively – and let rip.’
Her parents, however, were less pleased.
‘They refused to see Women In Love when it was first released.
I think it was horrendous for them, to have a daughter who was exposing herself like that in a movie. They finally saw it two years later. The cinema manager came up and brought them both a gin and tonic.’
Although Jennie had been bitten by the acting bug at the age of just four, after performing at a seaside Punch And Judy show, her parents, Marcus and Freida Fletcher, hoped in vain that it was just a passing phase.
‘I was born in Worthing in 1939. My father was an architect and my mother looked after the home,’ she says. ‘In the Fifties I broke a few rules by wanting to be an actress, not just a secretary.’
At 17, she began at the Central School of Speech and Drama on a scholarship.
‘Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Christie were all on the acting course, while I had to get a degree in teaching there because my parents insisted. My mother used to say, whenever I was introduced to anybody, “She says she wants to be an actress. And we hope that will die a natural death.” ’
Jennie’s early ambition drove her on in the face of her parents’ opposition. By the time of Women In Love, she had already made a Hammer Horror film and the first Doctor Who film with Peter Cushing, and she was keen to make more. Yet she gradually realised that in showbusiness, while talent is important, so much depends on chance.
Jennie simply didn’t get the breaks – before or after Women In Love.
‘I was given the opportunity to test with Peter O’Toole in The Lion In Winter,’ she says.
‘For Peter to actually do the test was a great honour and I did a pretty good job. In a wonderful moment afterwards, he said, “See you on the set, kid.” I thought, “This is the break,” because it was an amazing film.’
An all-star cast had already been lined up: O’Toole as Henry II, Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Anthony Hopkins as their son Richard.
‘But I didn’t hear anything back,’ says Jennie. ‘I found out that Katharine Hepburn, rest her soul, had decided that she would see the tests of all the other young people in the film. I wasn’t one of those actresses who could just cry to order but Peter had been so amazing to act with and it was quite apparent that, this time, I was producing tears at exactly the right moment.
‘But Katharine said,’ – Jennie produces a perfect Hepburn drawl – ‘ “There’s only one person who cries in this movie, and that’s me.” So I didn’t get it.’
Glenda Jackson won an Oscar for Women In Love and went on to become one of
Britain’s leading actresses, receiving a CBE in 1978 before moving into politics and becoming a Labour MP in 1992. In theory, Jennie could have had similar success. In practice, it didn’t work out like that.
Jennie was in line for another film destined to become a classic, The Go-Between. But again fate conspired against her. Her role went to another beautiful actress, Julie Christie. ‘Julie was under contract with the studio. That’s how it goes,’ she says philosophically.
‘But I did work. The next year I did Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head with Richard Attenborough and Ian Holm, and later toured for two years with Glenda in Hedda Gabler.’
But while Glenda won a second Oscar for her role in 1973’s A Touch Of Class, Jennie was doing Jackanory. And while Oliver Reed starred in Tommy alongside Jack Nicholson, Elton John and The Who, Jennie was appearing in the BBC’s Little Lord Fauntleroy.
After several more respectable but unspectacular years in TV, she began a second career as a reflexologist in 1987.
‘I had a prophetic dream,’ she says. ‘I was standing on a small island with a proscenium arch. The island was shrinking, the arch was getting deeper into the ocean – in fact the whole thing was going to go. I knew this meant the end of one cycle of my life.
‘If you’re an actor, you don’t know who you are. You believe that you’re “Jennie Linden”. But you’re not really. You’ve got a name which is not your own, you’ve got a personality which is not truly you. People approach you because they think that you’re “that” actress who played “that role”.
‘I used to see Eric Morecambe, who was a neighbour and a very dear friend, in the local bakery. He was always surrounded, loaf in hand, cracking jokes – performing, all the time. A performer has to be what the public expects them to be.’
She also abandoned her stage name. ‘I’m Jennie Mann, now. Jennie Linden is very rarely mentioned.’
Indeed, the black-and-white film stills documenting her career are now largely consigned to the downstairs toilet in her beautiful 17th Century manor house.
‘If I look at the photographs, it’s like looking at another person – another life,’ she says, without a trace of regret.