PAULA Wilcox returns to York Theatre Royal for the first time in 30 years to lead the rep company in Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy from Friday.

Best known for her television roles in Man About The House, The Lovers and now Girlfriends and Ben Elton's Upstart Crow, she played Liverpool housewife Shirley Valentine in Willy Russell's holiday escape drama of that title in 1989 in York.

This season, Theatre Royal associate artist Suzann McLann is directing 69-year-old Paula in the stage version of Uhry's story of an unlikely yet profound friendship between a proud, wilful Southern-Jewish widow, Daisy Werthan, and her African-American driver, Hoke Colburn (Maurey Richards), appointed to the post by her son Boolie (Cory English) after Daisy wrote off her car.

Against the backdrop of the American Civil Rights movement, the play charts their relationship over 25 years and many miles on the road.

"When Suzann first asked me to play Daisy, I wasn't even sure I wanted to do it. I thought I knew the story from the film [starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman], but then I read the script, and was instantly converted to saying yes because it's deeper than I thought it was going to be," says Paula. "Especially in how it reflects the politics of the time but without being worthy proselytising.

"I also think it's a sort of Romeo and Juliet story, told amid the American Civil Rights movement. You could just see it as a lovely romantic comedy, but there's much more to it than that if you want to look into it.

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Director Suzann McLean with cast members Maurey Richards, Paula Wilcox and Cory English at York Theatre Royal

"One thing I hadn't realised before was that Daisy is Jewish, so it's two outsiders meeting and being very wary of each other at first but gradually building trust between them."

Playing Daisy Werthan continues Paula's run of "really, really good parts lately", from six years as Pauline Johnson in Sky One's Manchester comedy drama Mount Pleasant to three series playing Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, in BBC Two's Upstart Crow.

"Pauline Johnson's role became more and more important and it was lovely following her story in a long-running series, and playing Mary Arden has been a joy too," says Paula.

"I hear this complaint a lot that once you hit 40, you won't work again, and of course men have fared much better than women, and on the whole men have written more plays than women, and they write about what they know best: men's experiences.

"But now we're beginning to learn more about women composers, writers and painters. Their work is being aired and discussed and viewed; their music heard; their plays produced; their art noticed.

"For actors, it's wonderful that more women are writing, and also writers are realising that you don't have to be just the mother or the grandmother, but can have an interesting story to tell."

This thought brings Paula back to Driving Miss Daisy. "The story of Daisy is really profound, more profound than you would imagine in many ways," she says.

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"It's warm, it's funny and it's a story that's really important," says Paula Wilcox

"Both she and Hoke are from minorities and know what it feels like to experience prejudice, and this informs their relationship to a certain degree, and so they develop an understanding of each other.

"Daisy is someone you would call 'ornery'; she's difficult and demanding, and could be seen as being peevish, bad tempered and rude, but she's also clever and funny, and you meet her at a time when she's losing things.

"She's at an age when she's losing friends, her mind's going, when people wouldn't take an interest in her, so it's fantastic that Alfred Uhry has written about her experiences. It's warm, it's funny and it's a story that's really important.

"Prejudice is something that still exists unfortunately, so this play has not dated; it has a universal theme even though it was written about a specific time and place in America. It's a story that many, many people in Britain will recognise.

"I'm not a fortune teller, I'm not a politician, so I can't say if it will change, but you can put a play in front of people and hold up a mirror to show what was happening years ago and still is. We learn by watching other people's mistakes, by laughing at their foibles."

Paula, who is married to an American by the way, sums up Driving Miss Daisy as an "observational comedy that's also a really good night out". "And it's short!" she adds. "Two acts of 40 minutes, a really nice length for a night at the theatre."

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Unlikely yet profound friendship: Paula Wilcox as Daisy Werthan and Maurey Richards as Hoke Colburn in rehearsal

Driving Miss Daisy, York Theatre Royal, June 7 to 29. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

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