Five Surprising Facts About Francesca Annis
You may know her now as the loving family matriarch Vivien in Flesh and Blood, but leading lady Francesca Annis has been an on-screen star for decades. Learn about the inspiring life of the actress and her many MASTERPIECE roles over the years, her thrilling youth, and the Hollywood icon that she was lucky enough to call a mentor.
She's been a MASTERPIECE star in six decades.
It’s likely that MASTERPIECE fans are no strangers to the talents of Flesh and Blood star Francesca Annis. Since her very first appearance on MASTERPIECE in 1975 in Madame Bovary as Emma Bovary, Annis has appeared in a grand total of sixteen MASTERPIECE on PBS productions over the years. In order, she appeared in: Madame Bovary (1975); Lillie (1978); Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1980); Shades of Darkness (1983); Partners in Crime (1983-1984); Parnell & the Englishwoman (1991); Reckless (1997); Reckless: The Sequel (1998); Wives and Daughters (1999); Jericho (2005); Jane Eyre (2006); Marple (2007); Cranford (2007); Return to Cranford (2009); Home Fires (2015-2016); and, most recently, in Flesh and Blood (2020).
She almost took a drastically different path in life.
Though she began her acting career young and never looked back, Annis almost took a very different path in life — one devoted to her faith.
“I was a strict practicing Catholic until I was 21,” she told The Independent in a 2002 interview. “I used to want to be a nun – like anyone at a convent school who is romantic. I was going to be a Carmelite. It’s a non-speaking order – can you imagine? Luckily for them, I moved on. I fell in love with a mortal, a boy. I suppose they’d say I’d fallen from the ultimate love.”
Then, there was a point in time when Annis, a trained ballet dancer, believed that dancing would be her path. But soon thereafter, she caught the acting bug. Looking back on the career she chose in the end, she knows she made a good choice for herself. “What my career has given me is time. I’ve had freedom and time,” she said. “That’s what a lot of people who have to do a nine-to-five job for 48 weeks of the year don’t have. If I want to travel for two or three months, I could do it. I had the choice. I didn’t have to think, ‘Do I give my job up or not?’ I know that my job will come to an end on a particular date. That play or that television or that film…Every new job is a wonderful voyage of discovery. It can be incredibly interesting. Finding out about other people’s lives that are outside of your own experience. It is challenging. Sometimes scary. But never boring.”
She spent the first seven years of her life in Brazil.
During the early years of Annis’ childhood, her parents ran a nightclub on Copacabana Beach. The family spent years there before moving to England, and Annis still has vivid memories of her time in Brazil.
“I remember chasing a turkey round the yard after finding out it was going to get its throat cut, poor thing. And snippets of the beach – my parents owned a nightclub on Copacabana beach. From one till seven, when we moved to England, I spoke only Portuguese. But I can’t speak a word of it now. Not a word.”
Though she moved to London after that and has spent most of her life in England, Annis is still quite the proud world traveler. “I’ve travelled quite a lot and I’ve never been afraid of traveling on my own,” she said. “I do appreciate that some people really want to be with a partner when they are traveling and doing things. They don’t want to do it on their own. But I learned at a very early age that if you wait around for somebody to do it with you, you’ll never get it done.”
Just recently, the Flesh and Blood leading lady returned to Brazil on one trip. “I went to Rio and São Paulo. I have relatives in both places. It was a six-week solo trip. It’s a completely different experience going on your own. It’s wonderful. Sometimes you get really high on being on your own.”
Her big break was starring alongside a Hollywood icon!
Though Annis’ first on-screen role came at the age of 14 as the lead in the 1958 film The Cat Gang, about a group of children who stumble across a smuggling ring, her big break would come just five years later in 1963 as Eiras, a handmaiden, in the hit film Cleopatra, starring big-screen legends Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Working with Taylor is an experience she’ll never forget. “I was very young, and Elizabeth completely took me under her wing,” she told The Observer (UK) in a 2017 interview. “She was wonderful with children and felt I was too young to be exposed to the film world and set. When we were on the island off the coast of Italy where we were filming, she wouldn’t let me stay down with the crew—of course, I was dying to stay down with the crew, being at all those parties—but she said, ‘No, no, you’ll come and stay with me and Richard at the big hotel on the other end of the island.’ I was very protected from all the paparazzi and the stuff that was going on.
“One thing I learned working with her has been with me all my life: It is possible, as she did with her family, to have a completely normal life when you are such a huge star. It didn’t infect every tiny little aspect of her being. She didn’t strike me as being deeply neurotic—of course, she was madly in love at that time. She was like royalty because it sat naturally on her shoulders. You weren’t with somebody who was permanently in a state of worry that her reign was coming to an end.”
She's always taken an unconventional path.
After her big break in the 1960s, Annis didn’t stick to a “normal” Hollywood path — she lived life her own way. “I marched. I cut my hair short. I picketed the Miss World contest. I turned down a lot of films,” she told The Independent back in 2006. The profile of the actress went on to call Annis “fashionably radical” during ’60s, and claimed that her circle included notable names, including none other than Jimi Hendrix. Once, after appearing in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth in 1971, famed founder of Playboy magazine Hugh Hefner asked her to pose for the risqué magazine — which Annis turned down. “I’m an actress, not a pinup,” she told him, according to one biography of the actress.
Despite her exciting younger years, however, Annis doesn’t lament getting older. “I think your life gets richer as you get older,” the actress said. “And the whole fabric gets so much more complicated. I know when you’re younger you think your life is complicated. Because it most probably is emotionally. But as you get older it’s not just the emotional things. It’s all of the other things. The practical things. The many people you know who need care and attention. And all sorts of different generations in your life.”
“I always think that every decade there is a change in you. You change, your attitudes change, you change physically, you change mentally. That’s why it’s so important to live in the moment. There’s no good thinking ahead, it’s too abstract. And there’s no good thinking about the past because it’s gone.”