Artist's brush with fame on the Street

Jayne Tunnicliffe is an actress, stand-up comedian, poet, ukelele player and artist. Her role as tart-with-a-heart Yana on Coronation Street inspired her to paint icons of the nation's best-loved soap. Sheena Hastings reports.

ONE of Jayne Tunnicliffe's earliest memories is of the night in 1971 when Ken Barlow's first wife Val died in a fire after electrocuting herself with a hairdryer.

In those days bed time for four-year-old Jayne was when the credits rolled at the end of Coronation Street, but that particular episode probably caused a sleepless night.

The demise of poor old Valerie was to start a lifelong passion for the soap. For Tunnicliffe, who's from Cottingley, near Bradford, many of television's most memorable dramatic and comedic characters have been Corrie legends.

Ena Sharples, Annie Walker, Elsie Tanner, Hilda Ogden, Derek and Mavis Wilton, and more recently the likes of Richard Hillman.... to Jayne they are all icons of popular culture, and part of her own life story.

The multi-talented fan, who trained in art but became a stand-up comedian and performance poet, took a new direction that led her down the cobbled streets of Wetherfield a couple of years ago, landing a "satellite" role on Corrie, playing Yana, best friend of regular character flighty Cilla Battersby.

"It is a bit of a fairytale, going to work there when it was the one show I had always watched and knew so much about. I was terrified, but the cast there is like a family. They are also tremendously talented actors, which they don't get enough credit for."

Jayne left home at 16 with her parents' blessing, to start a business with friends painting murals in pubs and clubs around Liverpool. Returning to Yorkshire at 20, she did a degree in art and design at Bradford College. Wanting to work in television, she got a job in the post room at YTV in Leeds, working her way into the entertainment department, where she was production secretary on Countdown before becoming a researcher.

Alongside the day job she led a parallel life.

"There was no family history of it, but I really wanted to perform," she says. "I'd always written things, including poetry. What started me off was an invitation from Ian MacMillan to do a performance at Ilkley Festival."

Jayne's brand of witty, quick-fire poetry found regular slots on the alternative comedy circuit. Appearances on James Whale's TV show and Opportunity Knocks ("I was beaten by child handbell ringers from Sheffield") gave her a boost, as did a tour with Phil Cool and work with names like Jo Brand and Steve Coogan.

She developed the stage persona Mary Unfaithful (a play on Marianne Faithfull), and took her stand-up routine on the road. "She was a rude, gobby rock chick in PVC mini skirt and leopard print tops," says Jayne.

"She sang a song and played the ukulele at the beginning and end of the routine. As a woman in comedy, I learned that you have to grab the audience fast, faster than a man. You have about 20 seconds to do it."

After 12 years of touring stand-up, she decided to ease off and look for television work. She was the reporter in Phoenix Nights, in The Peter Kay Thing she played the woman who ran the bus station caf, the object of Kay's desires and a part as a gritty northern woman in Paul Abbott's Clocking Off led to a successful audition for a one-off appearance in Corrie as Debbie, a stand-in florist.

"Walking into the green room was terrifying," says Jayne. "Helen Worth (Gail Platt) came over and made me feel welcome. They'd all had the same experience once, and seemed to remember how I must be feeling."

She recorded two scenes in the Peter Barlow bigamy plot, and got the Corrie bug.

"Oh yes I did, even though some of the cast seemed a bit jaded. Anything can become 'just the day job' if you've been at it 20 years,' I suppose."

Later, in 2004, Jayne found herself in a dilemma many would love to encounter. A friend who was a director on Coronation Street knew Jayne had written her own comedy material and suggested her name for a workshop aimed at grooming new writing talent for the soap.

After the workshop, Jayne came away with the task of scripting an episode. While waiting for a response to it, her agent called and told her she had a casting for a new Corrie character, the tarty Yana.

"They were looking for someone to play Cilla Battersby's best friend. She's attractive but dog rough and gaudy, what you'd call 'a tart with a heart'. She's in the Bet Lynch mould. I'd played that kind of character in other shows and in stand-up.

"I don't normally arrive at a casting already in costume and character, but this time I did – in very short skirt, thigh-high boots and temporary tattoo. I put a long skirt over the short one, and whipped the long one off in the lift, Buck's Fizz style."

Yana was originally scheduled to appear in only one episode, but the character has returned regularly. The idea of writing for Corrie was abandoned. "Acting pays well and it's easier," she says.

A flurry of Yana episodes will be filmed in July and August for broadcast in the autumn. In the meantime, there are other auditions, appearances on entertainment shows like Family Fortunes, Bullseye and a forthcoming Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes and an exhibition of her art work inspired by her favourite soap.

During the hectic years of leading two lives as performer and wage slave, and more recent trajectory of success in showbusiness, she has never stopped practicing her other art in spare hours.

A great love of artists like Peter Blake, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein led Jayne, who lived in Bridlington and Haworth, before setting up home with her script editor fianc Mark Bickerton in central Manchester, to do her own series of op-art pictures, which she sells online. It was Bickerton's idea that she should paint homage to some of the monumental characters in Coronation Street's history and the seven acrylic paintings will be exhibited for the first time in Harrogate, along with the work of nine other contemporary British women artists.

Working from photographs taken on-set, she has captured characteristic moments between the indomitable Ena Sharples and her brow-beaten side-kicks Martha Longhurst and Minnie Caldwell, the singing charlady Hilda Ogden, and Street siren Pat Phoenix, lamenting her looks as she eyes herself in the mirror of her compact.

"The speech bubble I've put on the Ena, Martha, Minnie picture was actually coined by Victoria Wood. But it's something that completely suits the Ena character. I love the black, white and grey of Corrie in those days, and Ena in her big double-breasted coat and hair net.

"Other pictures are done in the Roy Lichtenstein comic-strip style. It's only when you try it yourself that you realise his technique is quite difficult to imitate."

"There are loads of characters in the show's history I'd like to capture on canvas.

"There's often more comedy value in the women, but there are a few men I'd like to do. I never tire of acting, and I'll never stop painting. I'm lucky that I can do both."

sheena.hastings@ypn.co.uk

The exhibition TEN runs from tomorrow until August 19 at The Picture House, 20a West Park, Harrogate. For information call

01423 569763 or see www.thepicturehouseharrogate.com