Brigit Forsyth's unlikely return

FROM Canonmills to London's West End via Trinity, and from donning nipple caps to becoming Mrs Frosty-Knickers via the Likely Lads, Edinburgh actress Brigit Forsyth plays her home city next week for the first time in almost 40 years.

In the five decades since the bubbly 68-year-old left the Capital to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, she has become one of the UK's best loved actresses and, as she speaks, it's obvious that her return is going to be something special for the veteran of stage and screen.

"It's so funny, nobody seems to know that this is a homecoming for me. Because of the television I've done, and because I have lived Manchester-way for a while now, everybody thinks I'm northern in 'that' way, when actually I'm northern in a Scots way," she laughs, revealing that it was here in Edinburgh that legendary panto dame Stanley Baxter and a convent full of nuns set her on the path to a life in showbusiness.

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"I owe everything to Stanley Baxter and I am thrilled to be playing in The King's where I used to watch him as a child," she says. "Nobody was a better dame. He was so funny. He did the best cooking routine I ever saw, with sausages coming out from all sorts of places that they shouldn't ... he was just exceptional. Even when I was tiny I adored him and remember thinking at the time, 'I'd like to do that'."

If Baxter planted the seed, it was the nuns of Craiglockhart convent school who provided the first outlet for Forsyth's fledgling talents.

"The nuns put on things like Hiawatha and did it in style. I got a bit of a taste for acting there. In Hiawatha I was an Indian, obviously, everyone was an Indian in Hiawatha. I loved that," giggles the actress who today is best remembered as Thelma in Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads? a series which debuted 35 years ago and to which we shall return later, even though she cautions in good humour that it is a topic she has "said everything there is to say about".

One of five children, Forsyth, was brought up in Canonmills, before the family moved to Trinity Road. And despite those early school plays, it wasn't until the age of 18, when she landed the lead role in an amateur production, that she realised her childhood dreams could become a reality.

"I did the play Bonaventure with a very good amateur society called The Makars," she recalls. "I was lucky to land Sarat Carn, the lead role, and for me, that was it. I thought, 'This is great, this is what I want to do'."

While encouraging their daughter, her mother, an artist, and father, a town planner, did insist that first she must do "a year at Miss Dugdale's", where she trained to be a secretary.

"Dad had obviously told some friends about my ambitions and they had said, 'Well she'll never earn a living'. So he said, 'You must learn a trade'. I trained as a secretary and absolutely loathed it. I actually had a couple of jobs as a secretary which were a joke." Laughing, she confesses: "I just wanted to throw things out the window. Whenever they asked me to do something I just thought, 'What's the matter? Why can't you do it yourself?' I was not a good secretary."

Back in the present, it's been a long time since anyone has asked her to 'take a letter'. It's the stage version of Tim Firth's 2003 hit movie Calendar Girls that brings Forsyth to the Leven Street stage on Monday.

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Based on the real-life tale of a group of Yorkshire WI members, the play charts what happens when the women decide to disrobe for a charity calendar, puzzling their husbands and mortifying their children in the process.

Joining Forsyth in the high jinks are Elaine C Smith, Lynda Bellingham, Patricia Hodge, Sin Phillips, Gaynor Faye and Julia Hills – all of who are ready to strip for their art ... tastefully, of course. Forsyth does not.

"I'm a little bit sad that I'm not one of the girls," she confesses with a cheeky smile. "In my heart that is where I'd like to be, but somebody has got to be the protagonist – and that's me. I'm Mrs Frosty-Knickers, the one who doesn't approve of it all."

Back in 1965, however, when she appeared as one of the witches in Michael Jeliot's Festival production of Macbeth in the Assembly Hall, it was a very different story.

"That show caused an absolute uproar because they wanted the witches to have the bodies of young girls and the faces of old women, and they wanted us to have our top half naked," she recalls. "But the Earl of Harwood, who was running the EIF at the time, said, 'No'. So they put nipple caps on us which looked absolutely disgusting ... and they used to drop off each night. It was absolutely hysterical."

Forsyth's professional debut in Edinburgh, however, came a few years earlier when, straight out of Rada, she won a three-month contract with the Gateway Theatre on Leith Walk.

"That was absolutely wonderful," she says. "I was in My Three Angels, Listen to the Wind and The Country Boy with people like Leonard McGuire and Tom Fleming. It was a lovely intimate theatre."

In the late 60s, the actress worked in the Capital for a third time when she became a member of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, under the leadership of Clive Perry.

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"I'm hoping that lots of my school pals are going to come to see Calendar Girls because this is the first time I've played Edinburgh since I was at the Lyceum, when I did Trumpets and Plums, The Crucible, and She Stoops to Conquer with Clive – in all I did six productions there."

It was just after her stint at the Lyceum that Forsyth underwent what she calls "a big life change" that not only allowed her to break into the lucrative world of television, but during which she cropped her hair – discovering the iconic look which has since become her trademark ... and that brings us back to short-haired Thelma and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

"I didn't know what effect it was going to have actually," she says, "although I remember thinking it was rather a good part, and being pleased I'd got it. Up until then I had done a lot of drama on telly. If I wasn't being murdered, I was murdering somebody. Or I was a disturbed art teacher or something. I was playing quite a lot of deranged people, so comedy was a nice change.

"I was contracted for nine episodes and the writers liked me so, in the second series, they wrote me up. I married Bob at the end of the first series and then there were another 13 episodes, a Christmas special and a film."

Famously, the stars of the show – James Bolam and Rodney Bewes – had a stormy relationship, something Forsyth can see with hindsight when asked about the atmosphere on the set.

"It wasn't great, I was piggy in the middle. But because it was a new thing for me, filming in front of an audience, I didn't notice so much. Looking back on it I think, 'Ah ...'"

While Thelma may be the viewers' favourite, it's not the role of which Forsyth is most proud. "God knows I've had some wonderful parts over the years but Francine Pratt in Playing The Field, has to be my favourite part of all. It was wonderful," she adds.

The BBC drama ran from 1998 to 2002 and followed the off-the-field lives of women's soccer team, the Castlefield Blues. It co-starred Gaynor Faye, with whom Forsyth is reunited in Calendar Girls. So is the veteran actress a football fan? "Goodness no, I'm a rugby girl. My dad used to take me to Murrayfield, I don't know anything about football," she laughs.

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After five years with the Castlefield Blues, a likely story.

To discover what caused Brigit Forsyth's "big life change", read the extended version of this interview by logging on to Fringed Out: The quirky real-time on-line diary of the Entertainment Editor of the Edinburgh Evening News