Nichola McAuliffe: Acting old and Waiting for God

Nichola McAuliffe stars as Diana in the upcoming stage adaptation of the hit 1990s sitcom Waiting for God, set in the Bayview retirement home. She talks to Terri Paddock about the play, getting older and how age is a state of mind.


How familiar were you with Waiting for God when it was on television? 

I didn’t watch the original – it was on about the same time that I was in a sitcom called Surgical Spirit and I didn’t watch that either. I never watch my own TV programmes, it’s not like I am going to do the scenes again. I just watch my nice crime programmes – serial killers, I like!


Diana is a retired war photojournalist. Nichola, your husband is Fleet Street veteran Don Mackay. Has that given you any special insights?

I’ve lived with a journalist for 30 years and Don was a war correspondent. We were together when he was in the war zones: Gulf War one, Kosovo, Rwanda, all those. A photojournalist is totally different to a war correspondent, though. They’re ‘reptiles’ versus ‘monkeys’. Diana is a monkey. A reptile is a blunt nib, a scribe. And a monkey… That term came about because a great journalist called Alastair McQueen was at some do or another – this was way before Princess Diana – and the photographers were hanging out of the trees trying to get photographs. One of them fell out of his tree and concussed himself. McQueen called the office and said, ‘send me another monkey, this one’s fallen out of a tree’. So they’ve been monkeys ever since.

It takes a particular sort of person to be a photojournalist, particularly in a war zone. God yes. I’ve known many of the great Fleet Street photographers, including Michael Fresco and Kent Gavin. There’s an interesting thing about photographers, that [looking through her hand in the form of a camera lens] is reality – everything goes through there, absolutely everything. There could be someone coming towards you with a gun, and you’ll still keep clicking because that’s how it is: there is you, a camera and reality. Reporters don’t have that separation between them and the rest. So reptiles and monkeys are looking at the world in very different ways.


What do you think of your character in Waiting for God?

It’s important for me not to form an opinion of Diana. I’ve got to become her not judge her. I never form an opinion of any character I’m playing. The minute you have an opinion about a character and they do something you, as you, don’t like, what are you going to do? You’re left standing outside the character. You can’t do that. Also, if you’re inside yourself and you have an opinion about everything you’re doing as a character, you’ll probably end up in a psychiatric unit.


That’s good advice. Any other advice you can share on acting?

I’ve heard two brilliant notes in my life. One was Terry Hands who said: ‘If you’re playing the king, don’t play the throne as well’. In other words, don’t be doing all that ‘I AM the king’ acting business. And Ray Cooney said, with farce ‘breathe in when you walk onstage and don’t breathe out until the curtain call’. Isn’t that wonderful? The minute you breathe out in farce, you lose it. I think that applies to all comedy.


One of Diana’s great lines in Waiting for God is: “If you’re angry, you know you’re alive.” What would be the equivalent for you?

Freedom makes me alive. Freedom is knowing that I make the decisions for my life and nothing is forever – including life itself. As long as I know that the bag is packed and the door is open, that to me is knowing I’m alive.  Avoiding being trapped – When I was at school, we had this fantastic swimming pool with diving boards of different heights. I was quite good at diving. One day I plucked up the courage to climb up the highest diving board, 3m or 5m. Just as the whistle blew I jumped off and I did a perfect dive. You know one of those where you barely make any splash it’s so perfect. I was so surprised that I didn’t pull out of the dive position and my fingers ended up going down the drain at the bottom of the pool. I can remember them going into the grate and struggling to disentangle them. I was trapped. And I remember thinking, this is a feeling I never want to have again in my whole life, of feeling trapped. I didn’t panic. I put my feet on the bottom of the pool and eased my fingers out to free myself. It was that moment of feeling that way: not that I was going to drown but that I was trapped. There are all sorts of things that make me feel that way still and I just say, oh no.


Do you think attitudes to older people have changed since Waiting for God was first onscreen 27 years ago?

I think views of older people have changed totally since the TV show was first seen. Thirty years ago, it might have been expected that you’d have an elasticated waist and a pair of slippers on when you were 60, but that’s certainly not the case now. Not at all. For a woman, it used to be, after she was married, that was it. By the time she was in her forties, she was middle-aged, and by the time she was 50, she was old. No hair dye, no nice bras, no ‘dressing too young for your age’, no high heels, you know whatever it might be.

There used to be a mentality that just isn’t as common now. I mean, I look at pictures of people who were younger than me that were taken in the Fifties or Sixties or whenever and they look 20 years older than I am now. I have a friend who is 93 – he doesn’t have a hearing aid, he doesn’t wear glasses, he doesn’t need a stick. Look at Prince Philip, who’s 95.

I just think that the idea of chronological age determining what ‘old’ is has gone out the window.  You look at the average rockstar now and he can be in his 70s or nearly 80. Look at Mick Jagger – he’s just had another kid and he’s 76. Look at young people when they go to Glastonbury. They’ll cheer Dolly Parton, the Stones, Meat Loaf. It doesn’t matter. The same divisions do not exist. ‘Old’ is about being mentally old, that’s all.


Does being an actor help you stay young?

I think we stay young in our business.  Because you’re working with all age groups all the time, you change jobs a lot so you stay on your toes, line learning is quite handy for keeping you mentally sharp, and you’re always looking for the next thing.  So you’re ducking and diving and you stay agile.


With all that in mind, what are the disadvantages of getting, chronologically, older?

You only slow down when your body falls to bits. So you must, must exercise. Whether that’s going to the gym or walking around the block or whatever. Now if you get the curse of osteoporosis or rheumatoid arthritis, things may change, but you can still do stuff. Like they say, ‘if you’ve got your health, you’re happy’.

When I see some of the things that people do to their bodies, at any age, I think, well you’ve got to live in that for a few years..

I warm up before the show every day. I’ll do stretches and weights. If I can’t find a gym where I can do Body Pump, I’ll get a stage weight and do it myself.


And the advantages of getting older?

I wouldn’t go back, not one day. I certainly wouldn’t go back to being a child, teen or in my twenties, never. Just being here is what’s great about the age that I am. I’ve made it. Also, what might have appeared outrageous when I was in my twenties or thirties, you know being outspoken, it’s now, ‘well that’s just Nichola’. Everyone’s got used to me by now.


Waiting for God comes to The Lowry Mon 3 – Sat 8 July. For more info and tickets visit the website or call box office on 0843 208 6000.