Thursday, 18 November 2010

LUCK BE A LADY

Below is a reprint of an interview I did with Thelma Barlow some years back and which appeared in On The Air magazine:

Actress Thelma Barlow talks exclusively to Mark Llewellin as she celebrates 50 years in show business.

Not all Coronation Street characters have their names etched on that golden list – the ones we all miss so dearly, the very mention of whose name is sure to bring a smile to people’s faces – but Mavis Wilton is definitely up there with the best of them. Although writers invent the characters and create the situations that keep them busy it is the artiste who invests the written word with depth and actress Thelma Barlow is held in high affection by fans around the world for investing Mavis with so much. It’s surprising then to hear Thelma tell me that she never had any aspiration to become a performer during her formative years.

She was born in Middlesbrough just a few weeks after the death of her father. Her mother, who had also been born in the wake of her own father’s death, did what she had to do to keep herself and her two daughters fed and clothed – she rolled up her sleeves and worked hard. “There were no benefits in those days,” says Thelma. “We’re a line of small but strong women in our family!” The young Thelma was schooled in Huddersfield, Yorkshire and soon went to work as a secretary. “I studied short hand typing at night school but I didn’t enjoy it – one day my friend and I decided to change courses and the only one we could agree on was speech and drama so that’s what we changed to!” she says.

She was inspired to join the local amateur dramatics society and then took the momentous decision to head off to London in search of work. “I shudder now to think about it – I only knew one person there!” she laughs. Thelma had done a little radio work during which she had met a folk singer who told her to look him up if she ever went to the capital and he would send her to Joan Littlewood. “Joan ran a theatre company in the East End and later became hugely famous but in those days she was just starting out and she was putting together a company for a one-off project. I did an audition and got the part – alongside Michael Caine!”

That role led to another contact who passed her off as his girlfriend to land them both a contract with a touring company in the West Country. “We travelled round in an old van, putting the scenery up, learning lines for the next play on the way home – it was great training.” She tells me. “That’s where I first worked with Peter Baldwin (Derek Wilton) and my husband, the scenic designer Graham Barlow. We were married in Exmouth with a triumphal arch made of scenic braces covered in ribbons and we had a one day honeymoon in Budleigh Salterton before going back to work the next day!”

Stints at repertory theatres in Liverpool, Birmingham, Nottingham and Bristol followed. At Bristol Old Vic she was reunited with Peter Baldwin who played her husband in The Way of the World. “By now I had two sons and Graham landed a job in Glasgow so we moved up there – it was alright for a while but then I had a lot of difficulty getting work due to Scottish nationalism which was very strong at the time. I did a few jobs in England and then auditioned for Mavis. I did one episode of the Street in 1971 for Emily’s engagement to Ernest – then I went back a year later for the wedding, then another stint and so on until I joined the cast on a more regular basis. It was a great role and I loved playing her – I was lucky to get to work with Barbara Knox and Peter because they were both brilliant.”

When I ask whether she left because Derek was killed off by producer Brian Park she tells me the real reason: “No! That’s not true. I had already told them I was going a couple of years before and was persuaded to do two further years but I had told the producer that I would not be renewing my contract at the end of 1997. So they knew that when they decided to kill Derek off – I don’t know why Mavis didn’t die instead, maybe they wanted a bit of the grieving widow but either way, they knew I wanted to do other things – get back to theatre, most actors’ first love. My sons had left home, I was divorced, for the first time I had no responsibilities.”

Since leaving Coronation Street she has certainly been busy – making cameo appearances in top TV shows like Where the Heart Is and The Royal and she played Mrs Heap in David Copperfield plus of course her long stint in Dinner Ladies. Stage appearances have included Alan Bennett’s Enjoy, Blithe Spirit and Smoking with Lulu by Canadian Janet Munsil. She also appeared in London’s West End in the acclaimed revival of Arsenic and Old Lace. Her latest project has been a film, Mrs Henderson Presents, due for release at Christmas, in which she plays Lady Conway. “I’m the naughty friend of the title role, the lady who founded the saucy Windmill Theatre in London, played by Dame Judi Dench. It’s set in the late 30s and she’s very posh – lovely because I thought I was resigned to apron and slippers roles!” she laughs.

A couple of years ago Thelma moved from Yorkshire to the south coast where she is creating a new garden. “I garden organically – great fun! I also love cooking, travel, theatre-going and catching up with friends. I still see a lot of Peter. In fact Peter and I went to Toronto and Vancouver and we had a great reception – the fans there are brilliant!” she tells me. “I’ve been very lucky – very lucky indeed!”

Text Copyright: The author  Picture: ITV



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