Actress Jemma Redgrave truly suffers for her art. Playing a Victorian-era London doctor on Bramwell, a British series that began its fifth season Jan. 9 on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, Redgrave has been up to her elbows in smelly pig livers, which simulate the innards of the human patients on whom her feisty character operates. But the truest test of Redgrave’s pluck came in a yet unaired scene that called for Dr. Eleanor Bramwell to examine a line of army recruits enlisting in the Boer War. “The guys involved were buck naked,” Redgrave told Britain’s Daily Mail, “and I couldn’t stop giggling at the prospect of my character’s having to very seriously inspect their private parts.”
The 34-year-old Redgrave not only giggles on the set, she laughs heartily—it sounds, says coproducer Tim Whitby, “like a U-boat diving.” Can this really be one of those Red-graves, Britain’s most distinguished acting clan? Indeed. Redgrave, now pregnant with her second child by husband Tim Owen, 37, a London barrister (their son, Gabriel, is 5), is a granddaughter of the late Sir Michael Redgrave, a niece of sisters Vanessa and Lynn and a cousin to Vanessa’s daughters Joely and Natasha Richardson.
Like them, she has earned credits on stage and screen (Howards End). Still, carving out her own identity has been difficult. As she told Britain’s Guardian last year, “It’s ‘So whose daughter are you?’ constantly.” For the record, her parents are actor Corin Redgrave, 60 (Four Weddings and a Funeral), and Deirdre Hamilton-Hill, a ’60s model who died in 1997 at age 58.
Raised in London with her brother Luke, now 32 and an assistant cameraman, Redgrave endured a topsy-turvy youth. Corin’s embrace of left-wing politics (like sister Vanessa, he joined the Workers Revolutionary Party) estranged his wife, the daughter of a British naval commander, and the couple split when Jemma was 9. “It was the major trauma of my childhood,” she told Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 1998. “I missed [my father] terribly.”
Her free-spirited mother took Redgrave, then 13, to Sex Pistols concerts and brought home numerous boyfriends. “I loved having such a hip mother, but I was also incredibly embarrassed by her,” she told the Daily Mail in 1997. “Mum and I had an incredibly combustible relationship. She always said I was a wild, stubborn little thing.” Rebelling, Jemma became straight-laced. At 17, she moved in with her father and his second wife, actress Kika Markham, 54, whom she has described as “a second mother.”
By then she had already decided to join the family business. At 18, she won admission to the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. But it wasn’t until five years later, in an acclaimed 1988 stage production of Strindberg’s Easter, that Redgrave’s self-confidence blossomed. “I remember thinking as I read [the reviews], ‘Oh, I’m my own person! I’m an actress!’ ” she recalled in the Daily Mail.
More stage and TV roles followed. Then in 1990, Redgrave’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was always the adult in our relationship,” Redgrave told The Mirror. But now, “she had to support me emotionally.” That same year she met Tim Owen, a friend of her stepgrandmother. “It really was love at first sight,” she said. They wed in July 1992, and Gabriel was born two years later.
But the strain of a two-career marriage took its toll, and in 1997 the couple separated. It turned out to be a dreadful year for Redgrave. A few months later her mother died. Though Deirdre’s cancer had been in remission, she succumbed to a sudden bout of pneumonia. “I was fantastically angry about it,” Redgrave told The Times in 1998. “I felt she could have gone on and on.”
Jemma and Tim remained close, and in October 1998 they reconciled. Now serene and happy, Redgrave will star this spring in a new BBC series, Fish, playing a London lawyer. For actorly advice, she occasionally turns to her father. “She just wails, ‘I’m having terrible trouble with this [role]. Help!’ ” says Corin, a dedicated Marxist. And even her late mother, says Jemma, will weigh in. “Sometimes I sit in my dressing room and talk to her,” she told the Daily Mail in 1998. “Often I can hear her voice. If I’m feeling a bit low she says, ‘Put on a lovely dress and some makeup and go out and enjoy yourself, girl.’ ”
Michael A. Lipton
Liz Corcoran in London