Anita Dobson has been a household name for more than 30 years. Chris Bond talked to her about acting, EastEnders and finding success later in life as she heads to Hull.
“I’ve just been rehearsing one of the big numbers so if it sounds like I’m heavy breathing then I do apologise.”
The voice on the other end of the line will be familiar to TV viewers if, like me, they were around in the mid to late 1980s, as the person it belongs to Anita Dobson who played one of the decade’s most recognisable characters – Angie Watts.
It’s now 30 years since actress Anita Dobson played the Queen Vic’s formidable landlady in EastEnders yet the character remains no less memorable. At its peak, her war of words with estranged husband ‘‘Dirty Den’’, played by the late Leslie Grantham, drew in the kind of audience figures that today’s television execs could only dream of. This reached its zenith with the famous Christmas episode in 1986, when around 30 million people tuned in to see Den serve Angie with divorce papers in the Queen Vic.
Since then Dobson has continued to make her name as a character actress on screen and stage, starring in the West End musical Chicago and the National Theatre’s production of Frozen.
This Christmas she’s starring in Cinderella, alongside Bernie Clifton, at Hull New Theatre and is taking a breather during rehearsals to talk to The Yorkshire Post.
As it turns out, she’s no stranger to pantomimes. “I did Babes in the Wood, Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk and I’ve played wicked witches and snow queens and now I’m the wicked stepmother,” she says.
Good actors make panto look easy but, as Dobson points out, it isn’t. “I think it’s one of the hardest forms of performing that there is because it follows a particular style.
“There’s a lot of silliness and fun and audience participation thrown in for good measure. It’s very popular in this country but the Americans don’t get it at all.”
Dobson, like many people, has a great fondness for pantomimes. “They bring those fabulous fairy stories alive,” she says. “I grew up with them and my first memory of the theatre was going to watch a pantomime and if you catch children early enough then that love for pantomime stays with them for life.”
Her latest appearance in one has brought her back to Hull. “Many years ago I was in a production of Hello Dolly and we did a week in Hull. I do remember it being incredibly windy,” she says.
“The city’s changed a great deal and I think what they’ve done with it is lovely and it certainly deserved to be City of Culture.”
Going to the theatre as a child also sparked Dobson’s desire to be an actress and it was her grandmother who took her along to a local drama group in London. She left school still harbouring a desire to become an actress. “I tried three or four jobs and then when I was 20 I thought ‘you know what, maybe I’ll give acting a go.’” So she applied for a grant and, after being accepted, went to drama school for three years. “I was hooked from the beginning and I have been ever since.”
Dobson certainly put in the hard yards doing repertory theatre for 13 years, honing her craft along the way. “It made me realise that you have to be a team player in this business, at least it’s preferable if you are. There are stars, of course, but for me the best stars are the ones who lead a really good team.
“When I was in rep I loved doing plays as a company because sometimes you played the lead and other times you had a small part, but whatever you were doing your commitment was always the same.”
She speaks with fondness for her rep days and laments the fact that’s all but disappeared in this country. “I don’t think it exists anymore. Now with reality TV and the internet people want their 15 minutes of fame. That used to be the joke and now it’s true. Some youngsters perhaps feel they can just queue up, go in and get their big break on a talent show and they’re made – and sometimes it’s true. This idea of being in rep theatre and doing a play every two or three weeks has gone really. But I was very grateful for it because for me it was like an apprenticeship.”
When Dobson got her big break in EastEnders it would prove to be monumental and, as she says, “changed everything.” She was in the show from the very beginning in 1985 and quickly became one of its biggest stars.
Was she surprised how big the TV soap became? “Yes,” comes her instant reply. “For me it was big because I was getting a job in a long-running show and I was getting paid every week. Finally I was on TV and I thought if I did well they might ask me to do another 18 months. But I didn’t realise, I don’t think any of us did, what was in store until the first episode went out.
“I remember looking at it in the canteen at Elstree thinking ‘wow, this is really good.’ I loved Angie and I thought she was a wonderful character to play.”
Suddenly she went from relative obscurity to being on the front cover of magazines and in the tabloid newspapers.
She admits being in the media glare was a shock initially. “I kind of went from nought to a hundred overnight. I’d been in the business for 13 years earning a living and suddenly people were asking me to open shops and I got to meet people like Princess Diana – my life changed completely.”
It was during this period that she met and later married Queen guitarist Brian May. “Had I not been in EastEnders we wouldn’t have met,” she says.
She quit EastEnders after nearly four years in the show. “I wanted to go out on top. I didn’t want to wait till I became someone that people would talk about and say ‘oh yeah, she’s in that soap.’ Also, because I wasn’t young I felt I owed it to myself to take what it had given me and see if I could go further and become an actress that people sent scripts to, rather than having to audition all the time, and that’s what happened.
“When I was starting out you audition for jobs and you hope you get it so you can afford to eat. I’m now in a very fortunate position where I can pick and choose what I want to do.”
Dobson, who turns 70 next year, believes it’s a tough business irrespective of age or gender. “I think it’s hard in this business no matter what age you are. I found it incredibly tough at the beginning of my career to get going and at the moment I’m having a fantastic time. I’ve been very lucky and I think you just have to stick at it. An agent said to me once, ‘the biggest asset an actor or actress has is being available.’
“My mother always said it would happen for me but not until later in my life, and she was right and I’m going to enjoy it for as long as I can.”
Cinderella runs at Hull New Theatre until December 30. For ticket details call 01482 300 306 or go online at www.hulltheatres.co.uk.
See today’s Culture supplement for our pick of some of the best pantos in Yorkshire.