■ The actress, 65, on the truth about leaving EastEnders, ageism and her role in hit play The Thunder Girls
We’ve not seen you since you starred in EastEnders more than 20 years ago — what happened?
I was 43 and I was told, ‘We’re not interested in women over 40. That’s not our audience, nobody’s interested in you or the character.’ Ageist comments started creeping in. I was playing Louise Raymond and in one scene her lover Gianni di Marco said to her, ‘I’ve been in your cupboard and seen your hair dye — you’re nothing but an old granny.’ I had a line where I had to say, ‘My body’s not what it was.’ Now when I look back, I think, ‘God, my body was really hot!’ I was a size eight.
Did the situation take its toll on your health?
I felt powerless and I was written out. It felt like I’d been thrown away. The only parts that came along were prefaced with ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ or ‘cougar’. It was humiliating. Before then I’d had a successful career. I felt very depressed and it was a difficult time. I’d tried to take my own life when I was younger and I knew the signs that I was getting really low. The difference this time was that I had a young son so I couldn’t get that dark. I had counselling and took anti-depressants.
What was it about The Thunder Girls that pulled you back to acting again?
The play is a great celebration of women over 50. It explores ageing in a really heartfelt, sympathetic and funny way. The play doesn’t smack of any associations like ‘past it’ and ‘old hags’. Beverley Callard and Coleen Nolan are both in it, and they want to show positive role models too.
Were you nervous?
Yes. Once you’ve been told you’re no good, it affects your confidence and you begin to believe it. After EastEnders somebody asked why I wasn’t on television any more and I said, ‘Oh, I think my days in front of the camera are over.’ I got really choked up saying it. I was on TV all the time before — I did Brush Strokes for seven years, London’s Burning and Get Back with Ray Winstone. Luckily The Thunder Girls has had such good reviews it’s made me feel more sure of myself.
Hasn’t The Thunder Girls been described as ‘the reunion from hell’?
It tells the story of a fictional 1980s girl group who haven’t spoken to each other in 30 years, after greed, envy and ego tore the band and their friendships apart. The women are now all in their 50s. I play Chrissie, who is the former lead singer. Unlike me, she’s not let anyone take it away from her. She’s a bitch in some ways but something happens and she loses her power and she has to go back to the girls and beg them to get back together again.
What else have you been up to for the past two decades?
I did a two-year MA in scriptwriting. I wrote and produced my show All Or Nothing, which toured around the country.
Has The Thunder Girls given you a taste for doing more acting?
Definitely, I’d love to be on TV again. I never lost the love of acting, I just lost my confidence and The Thunder Girls has helped me get it back again. It broke box-office records for a new play when it previewed last year at Manchester’s Lowry Theatre. People do want to see women of that age being fabulous. I want to show that strong working-class women are not on the scrapheap just because they’ve reached 50.
Why have you decided to speak out about your experiences at EastEnders?
Now is the right time because I’ve got my courage back. When I was younger I was in the Women’s Liberation Movement. I fought against racism, fascism and injustice, and ageism seems like the hidden discrimination.
Were you shocked when June Brown announced she’d quit EastEnders after 35 years playing Dot Cotton?
It’s really sad because she’s one of our greatest actresses. She said she’d come back and was promised a really nice storyline and it was a wet fart. It’s the same thing — we’ve done with you now. Where is the respect?
Why did you become an actress?
I had a difficult childhood — I suffered abuse and my mum had mental health issues. Acting was an escape.
What’s your secret for staying in shape?
I do some Pilates and I’m currently doing a regime for The Thunder Girls tour with a woman who specialises in fitness and health for the menopause. I recently did a detox where I cut out sugar, alcohol, caffeine and dairy.
When are you at your happiest?
When I’m performing. It’s like my life’s blood, it makes me complete. When I left EastEnders I felt like something was amputated.
■ For info on the The Thunder Girls tour, due autumn, see thundergirls.co.uk