What does it do to an actor to play the same role for most of their life? Do soap stars dream of binning off Albert Square, the Cobbles, Home Farm or the Woolpack? And do they have nightmares about being written out in a helicopter crash or crushed by a Blackpool tram? I spoke to four of Britain’s leading soap actors to find out.
Charles Collingwood – Brian Aldridge in The Archers since 25 March 1975
In 1989, Brian Aldridge had a run-in with a mad cow. “Brian was standing as a Tory councillor and went to the Grundys to get their vote,” says Charles Collingwood, who has played the Ambridge rogue in the world’s longest-running soap opera for 47 years. “Then the BSE-crazed cow chased him and he fell and split his head open on the cowshed floor. Scenes like that are meat and drink to an actor. It’s when you’re supposed to walk across a field of oilseed rape and say: ‘It’s grown a bit’ – that’s much harder.”
For those who have long followed British radio’s answer to JR Ewing – a philandering, cravat-fetishising, landowning chancer – Brian’s comeuppance was rather glorious; it would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh.
That said, Collingwood feared for his character’s future, as he often has. Brian developed post-traumatic epilepsy after the accident and Collingwood suspected it might be a prelude to his exit. “The producers knew I was worried, so one day they gave me a parcel. Inside was a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Brian Lives!’. It reassured me no end.”
It all started one day in 1974, when Collingwood was at a party in Birmingham with his girlfriend (later wife) Judy Bennett, who has now been playing Shula Hebden Lloyd in The Archers for 51 years. A producer invited the Rada graduate to play the role of conman paint salesman Escott. “I did that for six months, then he was written out and I was offered a new character called Brian. One day, I was in the lift at Pebble Mill and I met Jack Holloway, who played Ralph Bellamy. He said: ‘I’ve just been written out.’ When I got to the canteen, the other actors pointed out that he was out because I was in. Such is showbiz.”
Despite Brian’s longevity, Collingwood has often been insecure. “I remember when Brian bought a plane. I thought: they’ve only created that story so he’ll crash and die.” He could have left rather than wait to be killed off, I suggest. “I’ve never thought about leaving. I have been able to do other things during my career.” He was the score-keeper on Noel Edmonds’ BBC quizshow Telly Addicts. He has also had many guest roles in programmes such as Midsomer Murders.
But he is very readily mixed up with Aldridge. When he was on BBC Radio 4’s Just a Minute in 2006, Nicholas Parsons introduced him as the actor who played Brian Aldridge: “Everybody booed!” At least he doesn’t get confused with Brian in the street, though, surely? “That can be a mixed blessing. I was once introduced to a woman as the man who played Brian. She said: ‘Oh dear! Not what I expected at all.’ She expected someone to have a full head of hair and look like Michael Heseltine. She actually said: ‘You are a disappointment.’”
What is it like being married to a fellow Archer? Do he and Judy compare notes on storylines? “Once, she read a script and found out Brian was having an affair. She sent me a text that simply read: ‘Bastard.’”
In a sense, it is Collingwood’s fault Brian became such a rogue. “For the first few years, he was in a happy family, but that doesn’t make for good drama. So, every time there was double entendre, I would add a naughty laugh. The scriptwriters picked up on this and the next thing I knew I was having an affair with Siobhan.” Unlike Charles, Brian has probably had more affairs than venison casseroles, which is saying something.
Any regrets about Brian taking up so much of his life? “I’m 79 and I don’t want to do anything apart from watch cricket and play Brian Aldridge. I’ve had a blessed life. If the day comes when I fall off my perch while watching cricket, so be it.”
Sally Dynevor – Sally Metcalfe (previously Webster, née Seddon) in Coronation Street since 27 January 1986
Would you advise your daughter to follow your career path, I ask Sally Dynevor. The 59-year-old has played the same character in Coronation Street for 36 years; her 27-year-old daughter Phoebe plays Daphne in the hit Netflix period drama Bridgerton.
“I don’t think so,” says Dynevor. “She’s on a different trajectory. I come from a working-class family. My parents didn’t understand why I wanted to be an actor. I thought I was going to work in a factory or a hairdresser’s.”
Despite that, from the age of 13, Dynevor attended drama club in Trafford, Manchester. One of her fellow child actors was Michael Le Vell. Little did she know that, on screen at least, she would spend 25 years married to him. In episode 2,590, mustachioed mechanic Kevin Webster drove his van down the street and accidentally splashed Sally Seddon while she was waiting for a bus. “I was in two episodes, then four, then I got a year’s contract and could afford to buy a car.” Sally Seddon became Sally Webster, then the couple had two daughters before the affairs started. “I think I’ve had 10 affairs,” says Dynevor. “I wasn’t that sort of woman when I arrived on the Cobbles!”
Dynevor had been in Corrie for five years when one of the stars of the show told her to quit. “Jean Alexander [who played Corrie termagant Hilda Ogden] said: ‘Don’t stay. You should be out in the big wide world.’” She didn’t take her advice. Why not? “Some actors don’t like it – they don’t enjoy the length and the process. But some thrive there. I’m one of those.”
On-screen Sally has survived a minibus crash, been wrongfully imprisoned for fraud and endured domestic abuse and internet trolls. But most importantly, in 2009, she had breast cancer. During her research for the storyline, Dynevor made a discovery. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, at the same time, I found out I had breast cancer. Life imitating art, I suppose. If I didn’t have these scripts, I would never have checked myself. Coronation Street saved my life.”
The oncology surgeon Lester Barr was a consultant on the storyline and he told Dynevor she had cancer: “I thought he was mixing me up with the character.” But he wasn’t. “I had to leave the show for six months, but I wanted to carry on because I had this great storyline. It sounds crazy now. I thought: ‘I’ll have the lumpectomy and be back at work on Monday.’” Instead, she had chemotherapy. She remembers the day she returned to the set. “I was wearing a wig and I walked on the cobbles on my own. I was so glad to be back. It was a place just for me, away from real life, from my children. I was thinking: ‘I am so lucky to have this job.’ I still feel that today.”
Does she not think she could have done other things? “Now I’m older, I completely understand why Jean said what she did. I could have pushed myself, but I didn’t want to.” She recently appeared in Dancing on Ice. “It gave me tremendous confidence. I’d never skated before. But after being thrown in the air, I feel I could do anything. I might do a play. I could do Lady Macbeth. Maybe I could do something off the Cobbles.”
Mark Charnock – Marlon Dingle in Emmerdale since 17 October 1996
When Mark Charnock was walking through Piccadilly station in Manchester recently, a stranger came up and gave him a hug. “I’m very recognisable, being 6ft 4in and gangly. Phillip Schofield always says when he goes to ITV awards he can spot me easily because I’m like a lamp-post.”
The reason for the hug was that Charnock is confused with the character he has played for 25 years, the cheeky chappie Woolpack chef Marlon Dingle. “People always call me Marlon and they often say: ‘Cook us a burger.’ I can count on one hand when people have been rude.”
Charnock has been widely praised for the recent storyline in which Marlon has a stroke. “Emmerdale tells its big stories so perfectly,” tweeted Russell T Davies, the creator of It’s a Sin. “Devastating tonight, @markcharnock is one of our greatest actors.” The genius of the script was to blindside viewers by snatching tragedy from romantic comedy. Marlon decided to propose to Rhona and went over to the Woolpack not knowing that she, too, had resolved to propose. Both got down on one knee, proposed, said yes and hugged. Then Marlon ran home to get the ring. But then he looked in a mirror, could see that his face had collapsed on one side, keeled over and couldn’t move.
Charnock suspects the writers decided to make his character have a stroke precisely because Marlon has hitherto been so physically animated. “I think they thought: ‘We could reduce him down to a pair of terrified eyes and work from there.’”
When he graduated from Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in 1991, Charnock never imagined he would be in one role for nearly half his life. “I’m in people’s living rooms every weeknight while the kids have their tea, almost as if I’m part of the family.”
At 26, he was being directed by Alan Ayckbourn in Chekhov in Scarborough when he auditioned for the role. “I’ll never forget the script. It said: ‘Marlon appears. He is an Adonis. A Greek god who makes women melt.’ And I swear to you, I went to the loo, looked in the mirror trying to be an Adonis. I went into the audition and I said to the director: ‘This thing about being Adonis … ’ And he said: ‘Don’t worry. He’s now a nerd who thinks he’s an Adonis.’”
He didn’t expect to play Marlon for long. “I’m really strict with myself. I never think beyond the contract. The amount of people who come on this show and think they’re secure, only to get written out in a threshing accident … If you start taking it for granted, you’re finished.”
Surely he dreams of what he could have done had he not been Marlon? “Not really. My course was very classical, it was all Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare, so that’s what I expected I’d been doing. But when I was doing the Chekhov, I asked an older actor if he had done a soap and he said: ‘No, but I would in a second.’ That was my instinct, too.”
So he really has no unfulfilled ambitions? “I want to be a writer. All my closest friends are writers. I’d like to be acknowledged. I’ve got hundreds of thousands of words – novels and short stories. By the time I pop my clogs, there’s going to be this vast JD Salingeresque locker of unpublished stories. Somebody will read them and go: ‘Oh, let’s burn them.’” Let’s hope not.
Natalie Cassidy – Sonia Fowler (née Jackson) in EastEnders since 2 December 1993
“I’ve had the same job since I was 10 years old!” says Natalie Cassidy. It is the actor’s 39th birthday and she pauses to take in the weirdness of this fact, especially in our precarious era of zero-hours contracts.
Cassidy has been known to the world as EastEnders’ Sonia Fowler for three-quarters of her life. “I have an 11-year-old daughter and I often think her life is so different from mine at that age.” True, but Eliza made her screen debut last year in Junior Bake Off.
Natalie was spotted by the EastEnders writer Tony McHale and the casting adviser Jane Deitch during a night improvisation class at the Anna Scher Theatre performing arts school near her home in Islington. “I used to go on Friday nights. It was £2.50, so if you could afford it, rich or poor, it was great.” She had never watched the soap and her parents preferred Corrie. “I think that’s common for northerners to watch EastEnders and southerners to watch Coronation Street. My parents had no idea what I was getting into. Nor did I.”
The Jackson family arrived in Albert Square just before Christmas 1993. Carol and Alan Jackson had four children. Billie was the only child fathered by Alan; Bianca’s dad was David Wicks, Robbie’s Gary Bolton and Sonia’s Terry Cant. None of the actors who played the Jackson children were matched for appearance or screen compatibility. “I don’t think it particularly mattered that none of us Jackson kids looked like each other, because all our characters had different dads!”
“It was a lovely place to work, especially with strong women like Wendy Richard [who played Pauline Fowler], Barbara Windsor [Peggy Mitchell] and June Brown [Dot Cotton]. This matriarchal group really shaped who I am. They were so welcoming and so professional. I’m never late for work or makeup because, like them, I know that you must respect the people who are on set 12 hours a day.” Did you study? “I did, but all at home. It’s very different now, when the young actors have study rooms. It wasn’t like that for me.” That may explain why Cassidy dreams of doing a university course as a mature student. “Perhaps when the kids are older,” she says. She has two daughters, Eliza, by her former partner Adam Cottrell, and five-year-old Joanie, by her fiance, Marc Humphreys, a cameraman on EastEnders.
Sonia, as happens with soap characters, took over Natalie’s life. “By the time I was 14 or 15, I started getting a lot to do.” That is an understatement. Sonia has been embroiled in feuds, bereavements, a cancer scare, and, most resonantly of all, a teenage pregnancy. In 2000, at 15, Sonia gave birth to Rebecca, whom she put up for adoption. Two years later, in what Cassidy says is her favourite storyline of all, Sonia kidnapped her baby girl, barricading herself in the house until Dot intervened and persuaded her to give her back to her new family. “It was like a Play for Today, and one of the happiest memories I’ve got is working on it with June.” Brown died at 95 in April.
A few years later, she left the show. “I was 22 and wanted to see what I was capable of away from EastEnders.” She wound up doing a lot of theatre work, going on national tours in The Vagina Monologues and Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, starring opposite Diana Rigg and Frank Finlay in the 2008 Chichester Festival theatre production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. “EastEnders star Natalie Cassidy proves her stage abilities as lovelorn maid Dunyasha,” went the Daily Mail review. “By the end, though, she might as well be called Dunmoppin, because the orchard and house are sold.”
She denies she left EastEnders because it was implausible for Sonia to have a lesbian relationship (Grace Dent once described the character as “the worst lesbian ever”). “Sonia’s sexuality is complicated. People come up to me and say: ‘Oh, you’re not a lesbian any more.’ But the truth is that Sonia can fall for anyone, man or woman.”
Although she didn’t return to EastEnders full-time until 2014, she did several cameos as Sonia. It was as if neither the show’s producers nor Cassidy could bring themselves to kill her off. Why did she come back? “I was 30, I had one child and it felt the right time. I got the call from [EastEnders’ producer] Dominic Treadwell-Collins and agreed to come back full-time. I wanted to work regularly at a job that wouldn’t take me far away, because I want to come home to the kids.”
Does she like the woman she has played for three-quarters of her life? “Sonia’s dull. She’s boring. I like that about her. She works really hard as a nurse, then comes home, and there’s always someone who isn’t family she’s looking after. At the moment, she lives alone and I like that. She isn’t just looking for love all the time.”
What would she do if Sonia were written out? “I always think, when I’m in a restaurant and have been looked after very well, I could do that front-of-house stuff very well. Or maybe you’ll see me in the jungle.” She means I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!. Indeed, Cassidy has previous with reality shows, having come fifth in Strictly Come Dancing in 2009 and been the fifth evictee from Celebrity Big Brother in 2012. “For the time being, though – and I never get complacent about this – I think Sonia’s part of the fabric of EastEnders. You have these big stars who come and go, but Sonia’s like the curtains or the walls or the wallpaper. You need that for the soap opera to work.”