Michelle Collins must have one of the most instantly recognisable faces in the UK. For the past 30 years she’s been in our living rooms in the nation’s favourite soaps, stalking the Square in EastEnders as bad girl Cindy Beale, then conquering the cobbles in Coronation Street as Stella Price, landlady of the Rovers Return. She’s also familiar, especially north of the Border, from Two Thousand Acres of Sky, with Wigtownshire doubling as a Scottish island, and younger viewers know her from Doctor Who, so there can’t be many people who don’t clock her when she jumps on the Tube.
“They don’t say anything in London because they’re used to seeing people, and I love that, to be anonymous. I’d hate to be that famous where I couldn’t live my life. People are generally nice and respectful. Mostly they know me from EastEnders and I was in Corrie for three years. In Manchester the Corrie actors can’t walk down the street, they’re like royalty, but London’s a bit different,” she says, her East London accent proudly undimmed by years treading the boards.
Collins was born and raised in Hackney, by a mother who went back to university to study law when she and her sister were teenagers and it’s there as a single parent she raised her daughter Maia, now at university. With more flexibility around her home life, now 54 she’s freer to travel for work, and this week sees her in Scotland with a touring production of the multi-award winning Broadway musical comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Set in Jazz Age New York when women shortened their hair and their hemlines and became a force to be reckoned with in the labour and love markets, Thoroughly Modern Millie follows the adventures of Millie Dillmount, a Kansas girl determined to make it big in New York City. Based on the 1967 Academy Award winning film, it’s won six Tonys including Best Musical and sees Collins as Mrs Meers, a boarding house owner who is not what she seems, alongside Strictly Come Dancing’s Joanne Clifton as Millie.
“Mrs Meers is a con woman really,” says Collins.” She’s very brash but quite clever, a larger-than-life character. A chameleon con woman who pretends to be Chinese, but she’s so obviously not. It’s a very funny part and I’m excited about it,” she says. “I want to try and be known as a bit of a character actress.”
Collins has put her finger on the problem for female actresses in their fifties: a dearth of decent roles. They can either resign themselves to playing The Mother, or, like Collins, take matters into their own hands and commission something to star in. Which is why Collins finds herself looking forward with anticipation and trepidation to the launch of her play A Dark Night in Dalston in March.
“I’m acting in it and producing it too,” she says. “I’m in Millie for six weeks and there’s an option for me to go back later in the year, but this takes space so I need to focus on that. I commissioned it from Stewart Permutt, an actor turned playwright, because I felt there wasn’t enough out there for females of a certain age. It’s not a vanity project, I hate it when people say that! It’s a way of getting out there.”
“Stewart has written it beautifully and it’s a two-hander, very intense, very funny, quite brash, it’s Mike Leigh meets Pinter meets Joe Orton. I play Gina who takes in a young man who has been attacked. It’s what happens that night between them, two lonely people from two walks of life meeting up. It’s about people getting lost in modern society, people that can’t keep up with it. It’s about relationships, parents, children, religion, there’s something for everyone. I don’t want to say too much and label it. I’ve given it a try. Let’s see.”
Collins is also proud that her play is very Londoncentric, a celebration of her home town.
“There aren’t many things like that now because southern accents have become very passé. When you think about it, TV is very northerncentric or regional, there’s not much of East London. Has it gone out of fashion? It’s a weird one because it’s my native accent, working class, Dalston old school. We are becoming a lost generation. Don’t give me posh!” she says, laughing in exasperation at a perceived gentrification of her profession.
Collins did youth theatre from 14, then studied drama at college before landing a role in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Crimson Island. Singing took over for a while with an appearance in the video for Squeeze’s Up the Junction in 1978, then 18 months as a backing singer with Mari Wilson and The Wilsations, touring with Marc Almond, Level 42, Altered Images and Kid Creole and the Coconuts. When the band broke up, her friend, actor Tim Roth, suggested an agent, leading to her first TV appearance with Gary Oldman in the BBC drama Morgan’s Boy.
“It’s tough for people to go into our industry because it’s expensive to go to drama school and because of that you’re going to get a certain type of person going. There seems to be more work for actors of a certain class or style and you don’t see too much else. There’s a Ray Winstone every so often, or a Phil Daniels... another thing is people want fantasy escapism and I love rich, frilly drama too, but I also love miserabilist themes. I, Daniel Blake is one of the best films I have ever seen. It is just so touching and unblinkingly honest,” she says.
After A Dark Night in Dalston Collins will be working on a longer version of a short film she appeared in, Black Road, which was honoured at the Berlin Short Film Festival last year. Directed by Tim Fywell (Grantchester and Happy Valley), written by Michelle Bonnard, and starring Collins alongside Steve Evets and Molly Windsor, it explores the relationship between a recovering alcoholic and a young runaway.
“Making films is easier than waiting for TV roles and it’s great because it has two females in the lead. You never get that,” she says.
Also in the pipeline is a film with Sheridan Smith, The More You Ignore Me, a film adaptation of Jo Brand’s 1980s-set book about a schizophrenic mum, set to a Morrissey soundtrack. Then there’s The Mayoress, another example of the sisters doing it for themselves in the shape of Collins’ friend and standup Brenda Gilhooley.
“She wrote it herself and decided to do it as a Kickstarter project. It’s got Jack Dee and Harry Hill in it too, so that will be great if that goes well. That’s really exciting. TV’s not a break, but it’s a damn sight easier than theatre, that’s for sure.”
Playing the vicious yet delicious Cindy Beale, Collins burst onto our screens in 1988 and wrought havoc in the East End, in the most entertaining way (who wasn’t rooting for her when she worked her way through the pick of the Queen Vic hotties and attempted to murder irritating hubby Ian Beale?) before being sent to prison and dying in childbirth ten years later, and ruling out a return to EastEnders.
“She was a bad girl, but men can get away with behaving like that, so why not a woman? She was before her time. A complex character.”
Coronation Street handed her another strong female character that Collins enjoyed getting her teeth into, and with Stella’s absence on screen being explained as “living in New York” there’s always room for a return.
“I liked playing Stella, especially when she was ballsy. I often felt she could have been a bit of a stronger character, but they were keen for people to like her. I’m not going to say anything because one day I might go back and it would be interesting to see how she’s developed as a person by then after living in New York…” Watch out for those stilettos clacking back up the cobbles.
“I left because I wanted to be at home with my family and with my daughter while she was doing her A Levels. I don’t want to do something for the sake of it, then moan all the time. Now she’s gone to university my life has changed. I do what I want. But I don’t want to be away from home for a year. Millie is only six weeks, A Dark Night in Dalston is just down the road. I have a partner and a life,” she says, referring to Mike Davison, who runs a menswear shop.
Away from the Street, the Square and the small screen, her stage work includes Calendar Girls (West End), The Play What I Wrote (West End), and most recently Kindertransport (Chickenshed, London) and a tour with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as Baroness Bomburst. When we speak she’s still in the throes of panto, playing the Genie of the Ring in Aladdin at a theatre in Aylesbury, her fifth panto, then before she can draw breath she’s straight into touring with Millie. In between the matinee and the evening performance she’s stepped out of the stage door to get a signal on her mobile when we chat.
“It’s Michelle here,” she says. Then shouts of: “Humphrey! Stop doing that!” There are sounds of scuffling and more “Humphrey! Stop it!”
Has she been jumped by a zealous fan or could this be a line from her panto? I don’t remember any Humphreys in Aladdin. Who’s Humphrey?
“Oh, that’s my dog,” says Collins, the mock outrage softening from her voice. “He’s a pug shih tzu.”
Collins is juggling Humphrey and a commute from Buckinghamshire to her home in London, along with learning lines for Millie and working on A Dark Night in Dalston. She’s a busy woman.
“It is hard work, panto, but something every actor should experience because it’s a completely different genre and it’s fun. It’s part of your craft and such an old tradition and it’s another string to your bow. Everyone takes themselves so seriously these days and it breaks that fourth wall.”
“I was supposed to be doing Chitty for a whole year but had to pull out because of a knee injury, then this came up and I thought great, I can be near home. I wanted to play a baddie, but Abanazar is the baddie. My character is more funny. If I do it again I’ll play a baddie – the wicked stepmother in Cinderella or something.
“I love theatre, really love it, but it does mean total commitment. I’ve done TV, sitcoms and a film, but theatre takes over your whole life. It’s so physically demanding on your time and you have to have a really understanding family, particularly if you’re doing panto at Christmas.
“I’ve done lots of theatre over the years and I try and be as versatile as possible. You’re only as good as your last job. People go ‘EastEnders, Coronation Street’ but I have done a lot in between. Things like Two Thousand Acres of Sky. I loved that show, three years doing that, one of those jobs that was really lovely, that you don’t appreciate till they’re gone, and I’ve done Miss Marple, Doctor Who, Midsomer Murders and lots of drama in between.”
Now that Collins has decades of TV and theatre, as well as life experience behind her, does she think her maturity is reflected in her acting?
“You draw from your experiences in life,” she says. “I was listening to Glenda Jackson the other day, talking about doing King Lear, doing Shakespeare and playing a man, and that was so inspiring,” she says referring to the Oscar-winning actor’s return to the stage at the age of 80 after standing down as an MP at the last election.
“For me… I’m more prepared than I ever used to be. I used to have a crazier lifestyle and be not so focused in my life. I was very lucky that I could get away with being a bit dizzy sometimes, all over the place, but I’m much more focused now and prepare, make sure I know my lines and get there early. As a woman, as a parent, your experiences in life make you more resilient. I have a lot of really good friends and family. Never let your family and friends go by.”
Or your dog it seems. With Humphrey pulling on the lead, it’s time to go and for Collins to get this show on the road, but she pauses to deliver one last thought, “My mum taught me don’t ever give up, don’t be afraid. Go out there and do what you want to do.”
• Michelle Collins is in Thoroughly Modern Millie at Edinburgh Playhouse, 30 January-4 February and the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 6-11 February (www.atgtickets.com); A Dark Night in Dalston is at the Park Theatre, London, 7 March-1 April (www.parktheatre.co.uk)
Michelle Collins hair and make up by Shari Rendle. Thanks to The Hospital Club, 24 Endell Street, London, WC2H 9HQ