Phyllida Law: Your eyes need looking after

March 6, 2011 by
Health   1 Comment

One can’t imagine that Phyllida Law – grande dame of the theatre, mother of the actresses Emma and Sophie Thompson, and widow of Eric Thompson, creator of The Magic Roundabout – panics too often. Serenely beautiful at 78, Law is as strictly no-nonsense and yet slightly laidback as one would hope from the mother of Nanny McPhee (Emma’s hugely popular cinematic rival to Mary Poppins). Even when Law, a Scot who lives in north London, discovered she was suffering from glaucoma, the disease which causes gradual loss of vision, she greeted the news with aplomb, her sangfroid only disturbed by the realisation that it was a hereditary form of the illness. Her daughters (Emma is 51 and Sophie, 49), and her grandchildren, Emma’s daughter Gaia, 11, (with actor Greg Wise; the couple also have an adopted son, Tindyebwa), and Sophie’s   sons (with actor Richard Lumsden) Ernie, 14, and Walter, 10, will also be at significant risk in the future.

“To be honest,” she admits, “I’m grateful that my glaucoma was diagnosed relatively early” – it was detected in 1980 – “and for the drops that keep my eyes healthy. I wouldn’t want to lose my sight, but I don’t like to know any details about the condition, or the prognosis. I’m not inclined to poke about or panic. But of course, I am concerned about my daughters.” Law’s mother Megsie also suffered from glaucoma, which usually occurs when the pressure of fluid inside the eye increases, causing irreversible damage to the optic nerve and loss of vision. It is very common affecting 1 in 200 people aged 50 and younger, and 1 in 10 over the age of 80.

“My mother developed it in her seventies, so quite late on,” she explains. “She had been having trouble with her sight when doctors found out it was glaucoma. They started her on drops to reduce the pressure but oddly that seemed to make her sight worse. She also underwent a few operations; it was not a nice time for her. But she remained optimistic.”

The family had to help Megsie adjust her home, placing yellow duct tape on the floor to help her find her way at night, and painting the edges of the stairs white to help define the edges. “I had to be careful when I was helping her. If I tidied up, I had to replace items exactly where they had been left so she could find them – even if the locations seemed illogical to me,” recalls Law. Both Emma and Sophie grew up being aware that their granny “bumped into things”.

Tristan Reuser, consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Birmingham Heartlands & Solihull NHS Trust, warns that there is a substantial increased risk of glaucoma if a parent or sibling has the disease, and that family members are entitled to free eye tests for that reason. Opticians use eye pressure tests and visual field tests (where the patient looks through a viewfinder at a   dark screen, with pinpricks of lights appearing randomly to all sides) to detect it.

There are two types of disease. In its acute form (called closed-angle glaucoma) it can appear suddenly and is often painful; while vision loss can happen quickly, the discomfort often leads patients to seek medical attention before permanent damage occurs. Chronic (or open-angle) glaucoma, as suffered by Law, progresses more slowly and the patient may not notice that they have lost vision until the damage has occurred. This is why it is  important to have regular eye checks (advised every two years for everyone over 40) especially if there is a family history.

There is no cure. “The only thing we can do is reduce the eye pressure, normally with eye drops, although we sometimes use laser treatment to make tiny holes in the area, so that fluid can drain away, and that may help,” says Mr Reuser. Surgery is also available but carries risks.

Bright light bothers those with glaucoma and Law’s mother wore a green shade; she also had trouble judging distances, as does Law, although some of her troubles may simply be due to old age.

The actress is known for preferring a monocle to help her read. “Much more convenient than glasses, which I lose and sit on. A monocle is frighteningly useful, although never use one when eating soup,” she says.

Her own glaucoma was diagnosed during a routine examination. The pressure in her eyeball was found to be too high, and she was prescribed two types of drops to keep it down which have worked (one, called carteolol, is a type of beta-blocker which she uses morning and night, and the second, latanoprost, helps to open drainage channels in the eyes and is taken at night). She has check-ups every six months to a year.

I try not to think about the future and I am very good about taking my drops. I am fine at the moment.

‘My concern is for my family – it is definitely passing through the maternal line. But they’re good – they all go to the opticians for check-ups regularly. I tell them, you have to look after your eyes the way you look after your teeth – regular check-ups.”

And she warns: “It would be easy to put any changes down to old age, but glaucoma is serious and a major issue.”


Phyllida Law supports Fight for Sight, a charity that funds research into blindness and eye disease;

About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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