Simply Dolly Wells

Dolly Wells: Only knowing who my real father was late in life made his death all the more painful   |   Written by Lina Das

When actress and writer Dolly Wells was nine years old, she recalls penning stories with her father, the satirist and actor John Wells, who carved a niche for himself in the 1980s playing Margaret Thatcher’s long-suffering husband in the ITV sitcom Anyone For Denis?

“We’d sit there, coming up with little stories together,” she says, “and I used to love it. Years later, I found some scenes we’d written which were set in a ski resort, and, weirdly, the first film Emily and I wrote together was set in a ski resort, too. It was so bizarre to think I was doing the exact same thing with my dad 25 years previously.”

The “Emily” in question is actress Emily Mortimer, Dolly’s best friend and co-creator and co-star of Doll & Em, the hugely popular Sky Atlantic series about two best friends in Hollywood who simultaneously do and don’t resemble their real-life namesakes.

Since it launched five years ago, 47-year-old Wells has followed in the footsteps of her beloved father, becoming a comedy scriptwriter with a neat line in character acting. When the Academy Award nominations are announced on Tuesday, her latest film project, Can You Ever Forgive Me? – in which she co-stars with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant – is tipped to feature heavily.

“Dad died when I was 26, and that was really rough because we were so close. I almost kept still for a while after his death because I just didn’t know what to do and it was a really confusing, upsetting time. I was trying to work out what I was doing with my life, and at that moment Emily said: ‘Come on, let’s write together.’ It was almost like she was picking up where my dad had left off.”

Losing her dad at a relatively young age was difficult enough, yet what made her loss even more poignant was that, incredibly, she only knew that Wells was her biological father in the final few years of his life.

“It was a very short time to know that he was my dad. Very short…” she says softly. “So that did make his death more painful, for sure [Wells died of cancer in 1998]. It was just a slightly complicated situation.”

Dolly was born when her mother, Teresa, was with her first husband, aristocrat Edward Gatacre, and naturally assumed that he was her father – until it transpired she was the product of an affair.

When Dolly was ten, her mother, now divorced, married Wells. She told her mother that if they ever had children together, she would get jealous, only for her mother to reply: “Well, we sort of have…”

“My first thought was that that might be me,” Dolly says. “You can sense funny things when you’re little and, somewhere, I kind of knew [John Wells] was my dad. I’d always felt very easy with him. We even looked the same. But it was really confusing dealing with those feelings at a very young age.”

More confusing still, she wasn’t told for certain that Wells was her father until she was 18. “Until then, it was a grey area. It was not dealt with perfectly, but I certainly don’t bear any ill-will towards my parents for not telling me sooner. I understand it now. I feel for them, because it didn’t just involve telling me, it involved telling siblings, too [Wells is the youngest of six]. And, of course, you don’t want to upset anybody. But the outcome was that I had two very sweet fathers growing up.”

London-born Wells is now based in Brooklyn, where she moved five years ago with her husband, photographer Mischa Richter, and their children, Elsie, 17, and Ezra, 14. She says she has long come to terms with the confusing reality of her upbringing, although admits that it has had an effect on her marriage.

“I think that my choice of husband was a sort of reaction to all that happened before, in that Mischa is pretty straightforward and honest, and I think that I really searched for that,” says Wells. “I’d been with Mischa for about three years when my father died, and I suppose I was looking for stability. I wanted to know that he was going to stick around and that we were going to create our own little family.”

The couple married in 2000 and their two children, says Wells, “know the whole story about my dad. I’m pretty honest with them about everything, which I’m sure is a reaction to everything that happened.”

Honesty is a word that pops up frequently in Wells’s conversation, and is a central theme in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which tells the true story of biographer Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy) who, beset by financial difficulties, is forced to sell a prized piece of memorabilia: a signed letter from Katharine Hepburn.

Soon, she has embarked on a second career, brilliantly forging a series of letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward in order to make ends meet, with predictably dire consequences. Wells plays Anna, a sweet if slightly gullible book dealer, who buys many of the forged letters.

“Lee didn’t find her voice or find appreciation till later in life,” says Wells, “and I think the film shows people that if you’re struggling to do the things you want to do and it hasn’t quite worked yet, you never know when it will.”

Dolly Wells’s latest project ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is based on the true story of biographer, Lee Israel  CREDIT: ADAM NADEL

It’s a sentiment with which Wells herself might agree. Having known she wanted to act from the age of eight, after seeing her dad on stage in Anyone For Denis?, “it took me a long time to really find my feet. I didn’t love my time at drama school, and I didn’t get much work after I left. But being able to create my own thing gave me a real freedom.”

Wells had grown up around actors, with the likes of Peter Sellers and Peter Cook popping in for lunch at the Wells family home in Kensington, but she admits that only now, as she approaches 50, does she feel that she it starting to hit anything approaching her stride. Not content with acting in Oscar-buzz films, she has just directed her first feature, Good Posture, in which Mortimer stars.

The pair are currently finshing off another joint project, a TV series about a seemingly well-adjusted woman working in finance who calls someone she believes to be a therapist, “but who is, actually, quite mentally unstable. No prizes for guessing who plays which character.”

Writing with Mortimer, while fun, is occasionally tinged with sadness. “Sometimes, I wish that I could have put my dad in things that I wrote, or even written things with him, so that’s a real shame and can be really tough sometimes,” she admits. “I think about him a lot and talk about him, too. And without being too soppy, I think that he’s somewhere and everywhere around me.”

  • Can You Ever Forgive Me? goes on general release on February 1

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