Professor Snape saved my life: Anna Chancellor on the night she was struck down with meningitis – and how Alan Rickman came to the rescue…
23:22 GMT, 13 April 2012
Anna Chancellor’s partner Redha Debbah was in their kitchen in west London when somebody rang from New York to say she’d been rushed to hospital with viral meningitis.
‘He told me he sat down on the chair and thought, “Is this it”’ she says. Thankfully it wasn’t, and six months later they were married.
Anna, 46, was appearing in Creditors in New York, directed by Alan Rickman – Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films – when she woke up in the middle of the night ‘with this incredible headache'.
Anna was appearing in Creditors in New York, directed by Alan Rickman, when she was rushed to hospital with viral meningitis
'I ransacked the flat. I was desperate, like a junkie, to find some painkillers. I found some and went back to bed thinking, “They’re going to kick in soon.” Nothing. It just got more and more intense. I hadn’t been in that much pain since I was in labour. I rushed to the loo and was sick. So I called Alan. He said, “Come now.” Other theatre directors aren’t like that.
‘I got to his flat and was sick everywhere, so he and his partner Rima took me to hospital. Poor Alan. I was meant to be on stage that night. He was pacing the floor as it became clear I had to have brain scans.’ Did she panic ‘When you’re in that much pain, you’re just dealing with that. It was worse for Alan and Rima. They were so sweet. I’ll never forget that.
‘We had to fill out a form that said at the top, “Are you married or single” I thought, “I’m not single. If anyone’s going to help me now it’ll be Redha. He’ll be the one who’ll come and get me and sit by my bed,” which he did, while I turned into what felt like a 90-year-old woman.’ Anna then suffered a second ‘very bad’ attack. She was given a lumbar puncture to collect a sample of spinal fluid, but it leaked and there were complications. ‘My immune system was shot,’ she says. ‘I got over the meningitis and then I couldn’t move. Redha had come to New York, but I could hardly walk.’
Lifesaver: Alan Rickman – Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films – took Anna to hospital along with his partner Rima
Sustained career: Anna as Duckface in Four Weddings And A Funeral (left) and playing Mrs Derbyshire in the BBC3 comedy Pramface (right)
She says their decision to marry was an unspoken thing following the meningitis. ‘We just decided life’s too short.’ That was two years ago, and Anna is still crazy about Redha. In fact, she’s delightfully crazy full stop. The other day she bumped into Duncan Kenworthy, who produced Four Weddings And A Funeral in which she played jilted bride Duckface. ‘He said, “What’s happened to you You used to be nuts.” It’s true. I was bonkers,’ says the woman who used to think nothing of hauling her kitchen table into the street and dancing on it. When did she stop being so barmy ‘Well, that’s touch and go,’ she laughs. ‘I’d have said it’s as I’ve got older, but I was 28 when I did Four Weddings.’
She’s been with computer technician Redha – an Algerian former cab driver seven years her junior whom she met when he drove her to a job – for 14 years, confounding all the doubters. They’d like to have had a baby, but never did. ‘For whatever reasons, I just couldn’t have another,’ she says. ‘I was lucky to have had Poppy [now 24, her daughter by the poet Jock Scott] so young. If I hadn’t, I might not have had any.’
As well as being blissfully married, Anna’s career goes from strength to strength. We’ve seen her as Miss Bagstock in St Trinian’s, Mrs Derbyshire in BBC3 comedy Pramface, Elspeth Verney in BBC1 drama Hidden and, of course, as Lix Storm in BBC2 drama series The Hour.
If I have meningitis again, I’ll probably die tomorrow, but if not, what do I want to be like I just want to be me.
‘I’ve always been so pleased when I’ve
got a job. I’m sort of all over the place in my life. I like being told
what to do and where to stand. It’s like putting a tight corset on your
behaviour.’ Her latest job is a double bill of David Hare’s South Downs
and Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version. The plays examine life at
boarding school, which Anna knows about all too well.
Educated at a convent in Dorset, St Mary’s, she remembers ‘a frightening time’ where she was a ‘total failure academically’. It’s probably what set her on her slightly bonkers course – that and ‘parents who didn’t particularly concern themselves with what happened to their kids’ after their divorce when she was just a year old. ‘My mum would have loved to be kind and nurturing, but she wasn’t able to. She wasn’t there much when we were young. She just left us to it. It made me who I am, and I like who I am,’ she says.
Anna’s mother, Alice, died two years ago from liver cancer, and Anna looked after her in her own home through her last weeks. ‘It’s one of the things I’m most pleased about, that when she was dying we took care of her,’ says Anna. She wishes they’d been closer when she was younger, but they weren’t. ‘Everyone has their reasons,’ she says. ‘My mother’s mother was a manic-depressive. Life can be quite tricky sometimes, and it’s difficult to divorce motherhood from life.’
Anna was 22 when she had Poppy, but she and Poppy’s father separated when their daughter was five. Anna admits she didn’t have much idea how to be a mum. ‘I had nothing to compare it to. I was selfish and fun-loving,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know how to behave.’ Poppy, an illustrator, moved out of the home she shared with Anna and Redha three months ago. It is, says Anna, ‘an intense three-way relationship. Sometimes they haven’t got on that well and sometimes they have.’ Has she felt caught in the middle ‘God yes,’ she says. ‘I want everyone to be happy.’ Which it’s hard not to be around Anna. She is, she says, ‘in the prime of life’ and wouldn’t change her colourful past.
‘When you make mistakes, when things go wrong, when you say things you shouldn’t have said, when you’re dumped or you dump, it’s a great opportunity to learn. Sometimes I think, “What do I want to be like when I’m old” If I have meningitis again, I’ll probably die tomorrow, but if not, what do I want to be like I just want to be me.’
South Downs/The Browning Version, Harold Pinter Theatre, London, from Thursday. www.browningversion.com