Telegraph interview with Anton and Julia for YCCYF
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 02/06/2007
Julia McKenzie and Anton Rodgers, the stars of Fresh Fields, play another comic couple in You Can Choose Your Friends. Michael Deacon meets them
Julia McKenzie and Anton rogers
Family affair: Julia McKenzie, Anton Rodgers and their clan
One morning in 1991, two of the best-loved British comedy actors of their generation were filming in a field near Calais. It was the third series Julia McKenzie and Anton Rodgers had made of their sitcom, French Fields, following four of its predecessor, Fresh Fields; they had won both an International Emmy and viewing figures as high as 16million.
But it was 5am. It was freezing. They were caked with mud. “He looked at me,” recalls McKenzie of that dismal dawn, “and I said, ‘Never again, eh?’”
Now they’ve broken their vow. Because in You Can Choose Your Friends, a new, one-off comedy drama on ITV1 this week, McKenzie and Rodgers are reunited. It’s not about the Fields, the couple they played all those years ago. But their characters are comfortingly familiar: warm, mildly long-suffering and inseparable.
So how does it feel, working together again? Lots of fun and catching-up and laughter about the good old days?
“Oh it’s horrible,” mock-snorts McKenzie, 66. “I can’t get away from him.”
“No one else will work with her,” mock-mutters Rodgers, 74.
“Well, everyone’s ageing so fast, so the choice isn’t wide.”
“Still, we’re always polite to each other.”
“You don’t know about that voodoo doll of you I’ve got…”
It’s the type of fond mickey-taking you might expect from a married couple. In reality, they’re not married to each other – although many assume they are. Rodgers remembers a holiday with his wife and children. At the airport the customs officer barked, “Where’s your real wife, then?”
Marriage is the main theme of You Can Choose Your Friends: specifically, the contrasting attitudes to it held by different generations. Ken Snell (Rodgers) and his wife Margaret (McKenzie) are holding a family party to celebrate their wedding anniversary. They’ve been comfortably married for 45 years; their three children, however, are all in relationship trouble, trouble that flares at the party.
Their eldest, Simon (Robert Daws), has cheated on his wife; daughter Jane (Claire Skinner) feels taken for granted by her unromantic husband; their crude, sex-mad youngest, Ian (Richard Herring) fears commitment. It’s by turns sad, witty and uplifting.
It may surprise some to learn that the script was written by Herring, better-known as an edgy, flippant stand-up comic. He says the inspiration came from his own parents, and that the show is in part a tribute to their marriage.
“They met at 13, have been together their whole lives and are happy. For my generation, it’s much more difficult. I’m 39 and single, and I think, ‘Have I wasted my life? Or is my life better than my parents’, for not having married the first person I met?’”
Such emotional conflict means the result isn’t exactly Fresh Fields two decades on. Not that it was intended to be. Herring didn’t watch Fresh Fields (“Bit broad for me – I was into alternative comedy”), and ITV hadn’t thought of hiring Rodgers and McKenzie as a “package”. McKenzie was signed up first, and recommended they cast her old co-star.
It was a move inspired by friendship. The two have always remained close: McKenzie is godmother to one of Rodgers’s sons. “My golden retriever had eight pups,” Rodgers adds, “so I gave one to Julia. They were all named after roles I’d played, and I decided I’d give her Lillie, which was the title of a thing I did with Francesca Annis.”
“No,” McKenzie says, “you didn’t give me Lillie. You gave me Cecily.”
“Oh,” frowns Rodgers. “Who had Lillie?”
“You had Lillie!”
“Oh yes,” he says brightly, “I had Lillie. No, you’re quite right…”
Of course, the freezing early-morning mud wasn’t the only reason Rodgers and McKenzie stopped working together. They wanted to show they could succeed separately, find fresh fields of their own. Rodgers’s other hits have included May to December and Noah’s Ark; McKenzie has appeared in films such as Notes on a Scandal and Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things.
Then, last year, both had cameo parts in an episode of Where the Heart Is: she as a widow, he as her smitten gardener. “We had such a good time – we just laughed,” Rodgers says. “Then You Can Choose Your Friends came out of the blue. During filming we stayed in the same hotel, so we reminisced non-stop. We know each other so well, we’re like Siamese twins.”
On the set, the laughs continued. For one scene, Rodgers had to topple into a large tank of water and sink to the bottom. “To help, they put weights on my trousers. I did it in one take. Then, as I was climbing out, I looked down through the water and saw my braces going all the way down to my ankles. I thought, ‘Something wrong there.’”
McKenzie is in fits at the memory. “The weights had pulled his trousers down,” she giggles.
Twenty-three years since the beginning of their first comedy marriage, the couple seem as happy as ever.
# 'You Can Choose Your Friends' is on ITV1 on Thursday at 9.00pm