GILES WOODFORDE talks to the great stage actress Barbara Jefford on her return to the Oxford Playhouse

"Men, Men, MEN!" cries Mrs Higgins in tones of mounting exasperation right at the end of Act III of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. The line is uttered just after Mrs Higgins's son Henry has paid a rare visit to one of his mother's genteel 'At Home' social gatherings. Accompanying him was one Eliza Doolittle, to whom he has been giving elocution lessons following a chance encounter in Covent Garden market.

"Henry is a funny character, because he's so clever, but hasn't got the faintest idea how to deal with life, or people, or anything," said actress Barbara Jefford, who is playing Mrs Higgins in a new production of Pygmalion, directed by Peter Hall. "He's one of those terribly brainy boys. As his mother, I'm very proud of him for what he does, but it's been a constant battle."

Henry is particularly embarrassing on the 'At Home' day. He may have given Eliza a new, posh accent, but he certainly hasn't taught her the art of polite conversation: there are references to "ee what done er in", as she discusses her family. In a hilarious scene, Mrs Higgins is left silently opening and shutting her mouth in dismay, desperately trying to think of something tactful to say.

Watching the production at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, just a few feet from the Castle, you could not help but wonder whether the Queen might privately have some sympathy with Mrs Higgins, having surely had to surmount some similarly embarrassing scenes in her time.

"Probably!" Barbara Jefford agreed when we met in her dressing room after the show. "Henry is the spanner in the works isn't he? He has no social graces. Awful."

Shaw gives an early marker that Mrs Higgins herself is a decent, generous lady. While waiting for a cab in the rain in Covent Garden, she gives a pound - a large sum of money at the time - to flower-seller Eliza, who is lurking in the gutter. She won't take any change.

"Shaw is wonderfully illuminating about her," Barbara explained. "There is a huge preamble about Mrs Higgins before Act Three. She used to be one of those greenery-yellowery ladies, very eccentric in her dress. Now she's in her sixties, she's long given up having any pretensions to eccentricity - she now dresses in an ordinary, fashionable way. But she's into the arts - Shaw's description of her drawing room, as opposed to the rather heavy style of Henry's house, shows that she has real style. I admire her very much."

Pygmalion was a classic play even before it found huge, wider fame as the basis for My Fair Lady. Barbara Jefford has played many previous classical roles, starting in Stratford at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (as it was then called) in 1950. She took part in the 1964 quarter-centenary tour of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Merchant of Venice, playing opposite Sir Ralph Richardson. Veteran theatregoers tend to go dreamy-eyed at thought of actors such as Olivier, Gielgud, and Richardson in Shakespeare - you can get the impression that nothing has ever been so good since. But was Shakespeare really done better 50 years ago, or was it simply different?

"It doesn't seem different to me," Barbara replied. "When I was acting with John Gielgud or Ralph Richardson, it didn't seem to me that they were talking in a different way. I think that good actors are good actors, whatever age they live in. When you listen to old recordings - Johnston Forbes-Robertson, for instance - they don't sound too bad actually. But Beerbohm Tree is a bit screwy.

"Perhaps some of them do sound rather mannered. I think it's a question of how you do it in whatever age you are. I certainly haven't changed my basic style over 50 years. I've gone on doing Shakespeare into the 2000s, and it doesn't seem to me that there's been a great shift of gear."

Although she's appeared at the New Theatre in the meantime, when Pygmalion reaches the Oxford Playhouse next week, it will be Barbara Jefford's first visit there since 1973, when she appeared in The Merchant of Venice, and Dear Brutus during Frank Hauser's last season as artistic director. In all she has appeared in nine productions at the Playhouse so far.

"But not as many as my husband, John Turner," Barbara laughed. "He was into the twenties, or something like that. We did our first Antony and Cleopatra together at the Playhouse. Frank Hauser is still pretty well the top director to me. He was super-intelligent for one thing, but not clever'. He had exactly the right balance of making rehearsals fun, but having discipline at the same time - you would never dare be late for a rehearsal, or not know your lines. I had a habit of taking my learning into rehearsal, and he'd say: Well, Pussy, I think I'll just go away until you know this scene'. He was very firm."

"But if there was a complicated bit, and you'd wonder: What does that mean?', if Frank knew, he would tell you. If he didn't, he'd say: Let's look it up'. He wasn't one of those directors who acted being a director, he was absolutely straight down the middle. Having worked with him, everyone else has to measure up to him."

Barbara Jefford's CV occupies more than a complete column of the Pygmalion programme. What's her reaction when she's offered a new part?

"I think very hard about it. When you get to 77 it's kind of limited as to what you can do. You've got to be believable, haven't you? You can't go muttoning about. My husband retired four years ago, and we live in Cornwall, which I love. So I never do anything that I don't absolutely want to. But if I feel I can't just be doing the garden, much as I love it, then I want to get back to work. Last year I didn't set foot on stage. I just did some radio and a couple of recitals. So I was ready for this: Pygmalion was something I really wanted to do."

Even though it means donning the corsets, which I can see hanging up on the other side of the dressing room?

"Yes, you always seem to have to wear corsets in the summer! You can't sit properly if you aren't wearing the right corsets, and they also affect the way you get up from a chair. You mustn't do period plays without the proper things underpinning you."

Pygmalion is at the Oxford Playhouse from next Monday until Saturday, September 1. Tickets: 01865 305305, or online at