Though always a consummate professional—she played one of Elizabeth Taylor’s handmaidens in Cleopatra at 16 and did the memorable nude sleepwalking scene as Roman Polanski’s Lady Macbeth—British actress Francesca Annis adds an extra weighty realism to PBS’ current import, Lillie. It is the riveting story of Lillie Langtry, the 19th-century courtesan who scandalized, then conquered London society (including the man who became King Edward VII) and bore a love child by Prince Philip’s grandfather along the way. In the 11-month shooting of the 13 episodes, Francesca marvelously fattened, filled 230 costumes on the lush period sets and aged in character from 15 to 76. The director, John Gorrie, called her development “perfect,” but there was more to it than Method. Francesca, 34 and unmarried, was in fact pregnant on the set and bore her first child, Charlotte Emily, less than three months after wrapping Lillie.
A fiercely free spirit, Annis had lived with the baby’s father, Patrick Wiseman, 40, a free-lance photographer, for four years. “I am more aware of time now,” she says, “than when I was 20, and the baby seemed like a good idea.” So good, in fact, that she would like perhaps four children eventually and isn’t sweating marriage. “It is so irrelevant. I think of myself as Francesca Annis, not Mrs. Wiseman or anybody else. I can’t see what difference it would make except to add a whole load of bureaucracy. So I just don’t think about it.”
The British tabloids were predictably leering about the child they called “Little Lillie” and gave her almost as much ink as test-tube “Baby Louise.” Francesca didn’t flinch, and three days before giving birth she publicly accepted the award as British commercial TV’s “Personality of the Year.” Annis’ liberated ways came from her parents, whom she glowingly describes as “very bohemian.” Her father, a onetime actor, and her Brazilian actress mother, married 43 years, started Francesca in ballet at 11, but directors visiting the Corona Stage School on the prowl for talent coaxed her into acting. The first of many TV roles came at 14, followed by Cleopatra, provincial rep, a London theater debut at 21 and a starring 1969 Broadway bow as Ophelia to Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet. PBS audiences first caught her in 1977 as Madame Bovary.
“She’s absolutely limitless. She can do anything,” says Trevor Nunn, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Lillie director Gorrie, who cast Francesca over 30 contenders, exults: “Having a girl so brave and strong in a body so delicate and beautiful is a rare combination.” After showing off that body for the Polanski movie in 1972, her Macbeth, Jon Finch, became her off-screen leading man as well. Their “four tempestuous years,” as Finch calls them, ended when “she kicked me out” because of his “wild” ways with racing cars and women.
Wiseman has been more successfully domesticated since then at Annis’ disheveled Victorian row house in a scruffy section of southwest London. Patrick cooks and bakes bread while Francesca specializes in soups (borscht is a favorite) and dishwashing (“with my own fair hands”). They frequent movies and Indian restaurants, listen to Bach and Dylan, swim and play squash. Boasting no great faith in monogamy, Francesca cracks, “There’s hardly any time for polygamy. I guess that leaves me thrashing about in the middle.”
If such sentiments make her sound like Lillie the voluptuary, Annis bridles. “All of her relationships were colored by money and success. I value companionship and closeness and am not prepared to have commercial triumph at all costs, as she was,” declares Francesca. “I just take things as they come. I may not be a great big superstar, but I’m a success because I lead the life I want.”