REMEMBERING lines might not be as easy as it once was, but actress Phyllida Law still has the sharp wit and humour that's helped see her through many of life's ups and downs over the years.

Take the title of her new book, for instance: Dead Now Of Course.

She chose it, she says, because at her "great age" (she's 85), she often reminisces with friends about theatre experiences, remembering people who are "dead now of course". "The phrase is slung into conversations so often now," she reflects.

The book charts the veteran star's early days in the theatre - and there's a lot to get through. She has, at various points, worked with the great and good of acting past and present, including Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Ralph Richardson, Michael Gambon. It's filled with charming and amusing anecdotes, from battling flammable costumes and rogue cockroaches, to making her own false eyelashes and having startling encounters with rats - all in the name of treading the boards.

The book also recounts her courtship with her then future husband, the actor and writer Eric Thompson, creator and narrator of The Magic Roundabout, who she met while at Bristol Old Vic. She recalls that his corduroy jacket was the clincher for her.

"We were in the same company together. Tom [as Eric was affectionately known] came out of the London Old Vic school with his mates and I came out of the Bristol Old Vic school with my mates, and there was a cross-fertilisation in many ways in the theatre," she recalls fondly. "He was rather like a wild animal who has eyes at the side of its head - you don't know what it's thinking! He didn't smile much because his front teeth had been chipped in a cricket match and he never made a 'ha-ha' laugh; he wheezed. It was my ambition to make him wheeze."

When, on Boxing Day evening after a wild party, he asked her to marry him, she thought he was drunk. The misunderstanding, she explains, led them to not talking to each other for a couple of weeks. She eventually asked the stage manager to ask 'Mr Thompson', as she called him, to ask the question again. But he never got down on one knee, she recounts.

They were married for 25 years and, of course, had two daughters - the actresses Emma and Sophie Thompson.

Eric was ill for a lot of their married life, and suffered his first heart attack at age 35. "The whole family would be on tenterhooks about him getting ill, but he was good about it... He wasn't sentimental or scared, although he may have been inside, and took everything in his stride. He wouldn't dream of being serious when he was ill."

He died in 1982, from a heart attack, aged just 53. Phyllida never remarried. "Well, I've never been asked," she quips wryly. "There was nobody in my eyeline who I thought, 'He'd be good'. I also think you're very vulnerable when you're widowed."

She confesses to being a worrier, and reflects that the loneliness has become more intense over the years.

"It's a very strange thing, loneliness. I can't remember sitting in corners, well, I had work, and you can't let the strands that you are holding in your hands disappear. You just have to keep going," she says. "But it gets worse. Every year's worse because there are fewer people all around you. They start dropping off the twig. But my grandchildren keep me going. We do cooking, baking, walks..."

She still lives in West Hampstead, close to her daughters and their families, and keeps the family home in the west of Scotland. Phyllida, who was born in Glasgow (her father, William, was a journalist), has a string of TV credits to her name too, including series like Dixon Of Dock Green in the Sixties, plus she was a storyteller on Jackanory. She's written other books too, of course, including 2013's How Many Camels Are There in Holland?, which addressed her mother Meg's descent into dementia.

Her own growing age isn't something she's exactly planned for, she says, but quips: "Of course, there's always Denville Hall, that magnificent retirement home for actors. Perhaps I'll end up there. But I'm more likely to end up in a cottage in Scotland."

As for work, she doesn't have any plans to return to the theatre or screen - but still gets offers, and recently did a BBC radio play Lost In France with Sophie. She's worked with both her daughters in the past, with Emma in Peter's Friends and Nanny McPhee, and Sophie in the 1996 film Emma, and would love to act with them again - but jokes the feeling might not be mutual.

"It's a bit dodgy acting with your mother. I'd probably forget things completely, and you've got enough to worry about on stage without thinking your mother's going to say the wrong thing or throw up!"

For now, she'll be content with radio plays and writing, and enjoying life with her loved ones.

  • Dead Now Of Course by Phyllida Law (Fourth Estate, £12.99)