Gwen Taylor relishing role in Driving Miss Daisy

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DUTY Free is missing from Gwen Taylor’s biography. The ITV sitcom, which thrust the sprightly 74-year-old into the homes of 16 million viewers a week, has mysteriously been omitted from the press release for her latest project, Driving Miss Daisy.

“It shouldn’t be,” says the actress, who is appearing at The King’s, all this week.

Duty Free, a series, about two British couples who meet while holidaying in Marbella, ran from 1984-86 and made Taylor a household name. She is bemused, to say the least, to discover it has been omitted.

“It was one of the highlights of my career, such an important thing for me to do both in terms of comedy and regularly being on television,” she explains.

“From that, came all the other shows, which ensure that having your name above the title means something when you do theatre.”

Taylor cemented the success of Duty Free with the equally popular A Bit Of A Do, with David Jason, and her own series, Barbara. Recently as Anne Foster, she murdered her son in Coronation Street.

“I didn’t actually mean to kill him,” she laughs, “just to hurt him a little, because I was so angry with him. It was great fun, though. I thoroughly enjoyed playing against type, which I’m sure shocked a few people.”

It’s a very different role again that brings Taylor back to the Capital this week, to play the title role in the critically acclaimed, sell-out Broadway and West End production of Driving Miss Daisy, which opens at the Old Lady of Leven Street tonight.

Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is the charming, poignant and compelling tale of the unlikely and long-lasting friendship that blossoms between prickly, elderly, southern matriarch, Daisy Werthan, and her kind-hearted chauffeur, Hoke Colburn, who is employed by Daisy’s son Boolie.

As the wheels turn and the decades roll by against a backdrop of prejudice, inequality and civil unrest, the pair slowly transcend their differences and ultimately grow to rely on each other far more than either ever expected.

Sparklingly funny and irresistibly heart-warming, the play was written in 1987. Adapted for cinema two years later it won a brace of Oscars, including Best Picture. With images of Jessica Tandy’s Miss Daisy in mind, I confess it’s a role in which I’d never have expected to see Taylor cast.

“Me too,” she agrees, emphatically. “I actually rang the American director and asked, ‘Are you sure you want me to do it?’

“He said, ‘There is no way that Miss Daisy has to look and sound other than as a lady from the deep south of America. She can be thin, fat, whatever you like.’

“So he gave me carte blanche, but you’re right, I’ve always seen thin ladies doing it, from Jessica Tandy to Vanessa Redgrave. So I must admit, when I was offered it I was thrilled and delighted, but somewhat apprehensive.

“But I think I have made it my own now. You bring what you have to a part and try to play the truth.”

In this touring stage production, the cast is completed by Don Warrington, best known as Philip Smith in the classic Seventies sitcom Rising Damp, as Hoke Coleburn, and Ian Porter as Boolie Werthan.

“This show is a joy to do and it is a wonderful part for me,” says Taylor, who is delighted to be appearing with Warrington.

“I’m working with Don, and we get on very well together,” she says. “We both come from working class backgrounds so we have lots of talks about where we’ve come from and where we’ve got to. It’s lovely.

Those roots are important to the actress who came to the stage later in life than many, having already established a career in banking for herself.

“I feel very proud of the journey I’ve made because there was nobody I knew who had ever done anything like this,” she recalls.

“When I went to drama school - I actually went quite late, I was well over 26 - it was like: ‘What do you think you’re doing our Gwen? Who do you think you are?’

“So, it took me a while to get the courage to follow my dream. However, thank goodness I did because it has given me a wonderful life.”

With a chuckle she adds, “I’ve now got the label ‘much-loved,’ which is quite precious to me.”

Driving Miss Daisy, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, tonight-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14-£27.50, 0131-529 6000