Pam Ferris had the shock of her life as she peered through the trees and saw the ghostly image of a woman in flowing gown as she was filming The Turn of the Screw.
Ferris explains: "We were filming a scene where Jodhi May's character can see a ghost, but my character, Mrs Grose, cannot. We were busy setting up the scene on difficult terrain by a lake, building tension, fear and anxiety. Unbeknown to me the actress who plays the ghost had been put into position amongst the reeds. I had never seen this woman before, so when I turned round and saw her among the reeds I nearly had a heart attack. I thought I was hallucinating. She was so convincing, as if she had leapt out of the pages of the book, that my heart was in my mouth."
That spooky moment on set reminded Ferris of another psychic experience when she was appearing in theatre at Ipswich many years ago.
"I was staying in digs and had noticed strange things happening in this house. Items would have been moved in the room, and something fell over in another room when nobody was in it. Then one night I awoke to see a dark presence standing over the foot of my bed. The figure was a Victorian lady who was silhouetted against the curtains by the light from outside. She said to me 'It's alright, go back to sleep.'
The following morning I mentioned the ghost to the people who owned the house, and they told me other people had seen her and she had been a children's governess there years ago. It was very strange, but oddly it wasn't a frightening experience."
In The Turn of the Screw Ferris plays the kindly Mrs Grose, a woman with a heart of gold, whose illiteracy is more than compensated for by her loyal service over many years at the Master's country mansion.
Ferris delved into the history books to find out what it was like to be in service in Victorian days, to prepare for her role. She is no stranger to costume drama, having starred recently in Our Mutual Friend, and says she has a keen interest in that period.
She is also a big fan of Henry James' work. "Henry James anticipated the whole Freud thing. The books I like to read about psychology refer to James' work because of the way it was ahead of its time in terms of understanding sexuality. I am interested in psychology because it is my job to understand what makes people tick. I think our interpretation of the story is very faithful to the original. Sometimes with costume drama you do have to change things for a modern audience because you don't want them to be misinterpreted."
On location in Oxfordshire during the hottest days of summer, Ferris wished the costume designers had not been quite so faithful to the period.
"The costumes look wonderful but they were very heavy. I was wearing a petticoat with four layers, which were very difficult to pick up together because they were so heavy. We used to joke that it was a form of bondage with the corsets, the heavy petticoats and the boots. I couldn't sit down in a chair because the costume was too big, so they gave me a stool to perch on in between takes. But when we were filming by the lake the stool began to sink into the mud. It sank so gently, and left me sprawling on my back, much to everyone's amusement."
Ferris' distinguished career began in New Zealand, and has taken her across the world. Her credits include six productions for the Royal Court Theatre, a National Theatre tour of Roots, Under the Stars for the Greenwich Theatre, and a Royal Court/National Theatre tour of The Queen and I and Road. She shot to fame with her celebrated portrayal of Ma Larkin in The Darling Buds of May, and won plaudits for her Hollywood debut as horrendous headmistress Agatha Trunchball in the film Matilda.
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