Interview: Dawn Steele returns to Glasgow on River City

Actress Dawn Steel. Picture: Robert Perry
Actress Dawn Steel. Picture: Robert Perry
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RIVER City has a new GP in Dawn Steele. The actor tells Claire Black why she signed up for life in Shieldinch, the challenge of working away from her daughter and the joys of being back in Glasgow

I can’t use anything on my showreel from Monarch of the Glen,” says Dawn Steele sounding mock-outraged. “I look about five.”

Dawn Steele in Monarch of the Glen. Picture: Jane Record/BBC

Dawn Steele in Monarch of the Glen. Picture: Jane Record/BBC

To be fair, it was quite a long time ago. Steele walked out of her degree course at the then-RSAMD (first class honours, incidentally) and straight into the role of Lexie in the couthie Sunday night show that was massively popular. That was in 1998. The programme ran for six years. Since then there have been other stints in weekend telly – a couple of years in Sea of Souls and five as vet Alice Collins in ITV’s Wild at Heart. There’s been plenty of theatre too – Suzi Kettles in John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti, Una in David Harrower’s Blackbird, as well as stints in a Noel Coward play, Volcano, and another in A Perfect Murder which reunited her with her Blackbird co-star, Robert Daws.

Nearly two decades, it’s no mean feat as far as acting careers go. “People still ask me about Wild at Heart, but I don’t tend to get recognised so much for Monarch.” She laughs. And it makes me think that, as with any career that puts you in the public eye, with acting this process is much more public than it is for most of us. “The ageing process is fully documented. Not that I mind at all. I don’t. It’s amazing that I can look back on all that – I’ve worked constantly.”

I’ve got my own reasons for feeling a bit perturbed about where the time goes. The last time I spoke to Steele it was for her role in Wild at Heart. I suspected it was a few years ago, but actually it was back in 2009. We met in London where Steele was living at the time (she’s in Whitstable in Kent these days) and although the photographer was insistent that Steele looked like Demi Moore, Steele was having none of it. “Oh my god, I look just like my mum!” was what she said when she looked at herself in the little window on the back of the camera. She was chatty, full of the excitement of starting a job that required her to live in Africa for six months of the year, an opportunity she looks back on now with a sense of it having been a one-off. “I’ll never have another job like that,” she says. “It was the most amazing job in the world.”

As for the passing of time, she’s got a simple, if not very comforting, explanation. “Time’s just whizzing past,” she says, when I remind her of how long ago it was that we met. “I think that’s just age.”

Dawn Steele and Stephen Tompkinson in Wild at Heart. Picture: ITV

Dawn Steele and Stephen Tompkinson in Wild at Heart. Picture: ITV

Since then, things have changed – personally and professionally – for Steele. On the domestic front, she and her long-term partner, actor Paul Blair, now have a daughter, Coco, who will be four next month. She is, says Steele, “amazing” – full of confidence and chat. There was also a bit of a health scare a couple of years ago – Steele had a stroke (she was just 37 at the time) and discovered that she had a hole in her heart. Happily, she is now fully recovered. “I had an operation because they discovered I had a hole in my heart,” she says. “But I’m all fine now. I didn’t know anything about it but it’s pretty common.” That information might’ve been good to know, she deadpans, before telling me that the condition affects as many as one in four people. “You can absolutely live with it,” she says, “it’s just that I had a blood clot. But it’s been repaired and I’m fine and back at work. I’m just grateful. It could’ve been so much worse.”

Professionally, it’s an irony to say that things have probably been a little less dramatic. After some years of doing theatre, she is, for the first time going to try her hand at a soap opera. Steele is to be one of the new kids on the block on Montego Street as a new resident of Shieldinch in BBC Scotland’s River City. Having played a vet in Africa for six years in Wild at Heart, now she’ll be a doctor in the fictional Shieldinch. To be precise she will be Dr Annie Jandhu who is married to Still Game star Sanjeev Kohli’s character AJ.

Steele had never been offered a part in a soap before but she was on the lookout for something new and she already knew Kohli, which gave her an added incentive to take the part. “We get on well – I know his brother and I’ve met his wife and I met his children the other day. They were so sweet.”

Soaps are notoriously fast-paced – with new scripts arriving every week at least. Learning them is a bit like cramming for an exam – it’s all about short term memory. But acting opposite someone you already know and are familiar with helps.“It was like, ‘this is your husband, he’s cheated on you, right go.’ ” She laughs. “You really have to trust the director because whereas you might be used to doing five takes with this you get one and they’re like ‘OK, let’s move on.’ But that’s nice too because it means it’s spontaneous. There’s a lot of faffing about in film but this goes like a train.”

Actress Dawn Steel. Picture: Robert Perry

Actress Dawn Steel. Picture: Robert Perry

One of the other reasons that she said yes to this role was the chance to work in Scotland again after a long time away from home. “I’d never been asked to do River City before. I was ready to go back to work but all that was about was tours of plays and I’d just done one. With a four-year-old it’s quite difficult and I’ve done the living in digs, driving home on a Sunday night to see her for one day and then driving away again.

“This job came up, I really liked the character and I thought well, why not? Like anyone I need to pay the bills. I need to work. What’s so nice is that I thought if I’m going to do this then what better way to do it than come back to my hometown? All my family is here and all of my friends. Even though I’m missing my family in Whitstable I’m having a whale of a time, I’m really enjoying myself.”

New jobs are always a bit nerve-wracking, but for Steele her arrival on the set in Dumbarton has been eased by the fact that she knows so many people. “I knew nearly everyone. I knew loads of the cast, lots of the crew – there is crew from Monarch, from Sea of Souls from Tinseltown. The director’s from Tinseltown, the writer too. We’ve all worked with each other, so when I came in I felt like I’d been here for years. I’m really enjoying it. I feel very welcome, very at home.”

Prior to landing this role, Steele had not worked for a bit because she’d been at home “being mummy”. She had a brilliant time, she says. She loved being able to be around for Coco, but she was absolutely ready to start back. When we speak she’s at the start of four days off so she’s about to jump on a flight back down south to head home for the first time in six weeks. “I’m desperate to see her,” she says. “We’ve managed to work it out. She’s been up a few times already and I’ve been home. But I can’t wait for a cuddle.”

Actress Dawn Steele. Picture: Robert Perry

Actress Dawn Steele. Picture: Robert Perry

There’s something about the timing of this job which, for Steele, feels right she says. She’s going to be 40 this year and although a job on a soap isn’t exactly safe – who knows where the plot might go and don’t forget the pace of learning scripts and shooting – it beats eight shows a week in places miles away from home for not very much money.

There is a reason that actors and directors including Vicky Featherstone, John Simm and Romola Garai have all backed a new campaign to support parents working in the entertainment industry. Parents in Performing Arts (PIPA) is all about raising awareness of “the child related challenges” that face parents working in theatre and on screen. Steele is sympathetic.

“Unfortunately I think it all goes right back to basics – money,” she says. “Money within the arts. I was getting offered jobs, good parts in really cool plays in London that I just couldn’t afford to do.” The practicalities of paying for childcare, plus the usual stuff of travel and expenses means that if you’re being offered a paltry wage, you might just not be able to take it. She knows it’s not a unique problem, it’s just that in her business things are particularly tough.

“Everyone has this, it’s just that people expect you to do it for much less in our industry.” And then there are the other practical issues. “There was a play I was looking at and it was for a year. I just thought I cannot do a year of not putting my child to bed. I just can’t do it.”

River City is a different ball game entirely. The shooting schedule – they finish in November and start again in February – means that she can keep spinning all the plates that need to be spun. And it gives her the option of doing those “really cool” plays that otherwise she can’t take on.

“You get the summer off and you get TV money which means that then you can go and do the interesting plays for no money.”

Being back in Scotland has reminded her how accessible theatre is here in comparison to London. “You can see great work at the Citz and there’s A Play, a Pie and Pint. In London you’re talking £70 just to see a play, not even a musical. So it’s becoming that only the elite – people who’ve got money – who can go and see theatre and only people who’ve got money who can do theatre now. It’s really tough.”

The pace of shooting a soap might be dizzying – on River City they work on four scripts at a time, with two new ones being delivered every Friday – but the regularity means that Steele’s partner, Paul, and Coco can come up to visit. “She loves coming up to Scotland because she’s got her granny and grandpa here and she gets spoiled. She loves it up here,” Steele says. “Also my brother has just had twin boys – they’re only 14 weeks – so I’m just loving being able to be around them as well. It’s all worked out.

“It’s hard being away from her. But we’re working around it. I was home for nine months without working, just being with her. It was important. We’re lucky that we’re both actors and we’ve both been able to be there. I mean there might be times when you don’t have any money but I was there every single day for her. And now I’ve got to go to work. It’s how it goes. It’s a juggling act. Paul has totally been there 50/50. He’s a great dad. We just need to work through these periods of not seeing her.”

Being back amongst family and friends is suiting Steele, but I know she is ambivalent about being recognised, so I wonder how she feels about the prospect of being in a soap once a week (repeated on a Sunday)?

“I don’t get it that often,” she says. “I’ve lived away from Scotland for a long time. I do get, ‘I know your face from somewhere’ but that’s about it. But I have been out with Gary Lamont quite a bit and some of the rest of the cast of River City and I have noticed that there’s a different level of being recognised in Glasgow when you’re in River City.

“Everyone’s been really nice. People like Gary’s character, Robbie, so they want photos with him. Girls all squeal around him. I was like, ‘oh my god, it’s like being out with Elvis.’ ” She laughs. “Unbelievable.”

• River City is on BBC1 on Tuesdays at 8pm