Patricia Hodge is still the thinking man's crumpet, although I daren't mention this observation to her.

Because although friendly, you don't want to overstep the mark with Patricia Hodge. Her steely gaze has rendered even the most ardent baddie speechless in numerous TV series and films over the years.

So, instead, I stuck to the script and asked about her current play, coming to Oxford's Playhouse on Monday, and inquired whether she was aware of her continued and loyal male following - still alive and kicking, judging by the waves of excitement going round the newsroom at the mere mention of her name.

"It's not something I really think about unless someone reminds me of it. I work and I'm a mother and housewife. But what I do know is that art and patronage could not exist without the other, so I have the greatest respect for people who write in to say how much they enjoyed the play or wait at the stage door to see me because it's important to be interested," she says ambiguously.

It's little surprise that Patricia is guarded with the Press after experiencing the full whammy of tabloid scrutiny when the story that she was trying for children ran and ran.

"It wasn't easy. Having the children had a lot of media attention," she agrees.

But even then she did the right thing, faced the pack and spoke out about the trials and tribulations of trying to conceive. With two teenage sons under her belt, there was a happy ending to her saga, but it left her with a bad taste in her mouth where newspapers are concerned.

"I didn't tell everyone to mind their own business because you have a degree of responsibility when you have a public image," she says.

Patricia Hodge has always been a very private woman, choosing her projects carefully and making sure they work around her family.

And her absence from your screens has more to do with her wanting to be a stay-at-home mum than any waning on the career front.

"I am now in the comfortable position of not having to say 'yes' to everything and so am very selective about what I do," she says, but luckily The Clean House was something she just couldn't say no to. The play is by Pulitzer finalist Sarah Ruhl and Patricia plays Lane - the woman with everything - who employs a young Brazilian cleaner and in so doing uncovers some uncomfortable truths about human relations.

So is it the part she fell in love with? "No, the play as a whole, because it really makes people think and is different as well as being entertaining.

"And I really felt that while you can see new drama in London, the provinces tend to get the safer pieces and I just think this play should be seen. To be honest I wouldn't do it unless I really felt it was worth doing."

It has been 14 years since Patricia last toured, which shows how committed she is to the project, but she gets three days at home in London a week which keeps her grounded.

"It's a good balance and my children have been growing up. They are 16 and 19 now so being away from home is not such a problem any more," she explains.

So did she ever worry about coming back? "I'm lucky in that I have flexed my muscles in the theatre over the years so that it's known territory, although I still like to push the limits."

' Flexing her muscles' has brought her three Olivier awards nominations and an Olivier award in 2000. But Patricia Hodge has less patience for the current obsession with minor celebrities, feeling that they are taking jobs away from the real McCoy, and making "the pond enormous".

So does she feel threatened by them? "If you have got staying power and really care and stick in there you will be capable. But at the end of the day it's all about balance." A no, then.

PATRICIA Hodge is one of those actress who has graced some of the most popular television programmes of recent years.

She starred in the controversial 1986 drama The Life and Loves of A She-Devil, based on the book by Fay Weldon. And she returned to bring another one of Weldon's books to life in 1992, this time, The Cloning of Joanna May.

Patricia also appeared in the popular series Rumpole of the Bailey, and in Rich Tea and Sympathy. She also starred in Inspector Morse, and in Sherlock Holmes. And her talents for comedy were on show in The Other 'Arf and Holding the Fort.

The actress was born in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, in September 1946. She married Peter Owen in 1976 and the couple have two children. She has also worked as a teacher and made her stage debut in 1971.

You have seen her in.... f=85 Helvetica Heavy l=8.5q=lCAPTION: In hereof=Helvetica s=6Picture: Name Order No. XXXX f=85 Helvetica Heavy l=8.5q=lICON: Patricia Hodge in The Clean House of=Helvetica s=6