From Bad Girl to sensitive songstress

Nicole Faraday has spent much of her career playing women from hell. But how she's portraying a homeloving singer who valued solitude and loved nature.

Nicole Faraday has spent much of her career playing women from hell. But how she's portraying a homeloving singer who valued solitude and loved nature. And who, sadly, found fame only after dying young. Nicole spoke to Steven Russell

IT'S the morning after the night before - very late morning, in fact - and it's breakfast on the run for a houseful of thespians.

It's past 11.30am. Toast is being eaten, and burned, before they pack themselves into their van and head for south London, playing silly games and chatting to while away the miles. The curtain goes up in Croydon in eight hours and the drive will take more than three.

Such is life on a tour that has zig-zagged the country from Scarborough and Grimsby to the likes of Southsea, Halifax, Manchester, Leeds, Eastbourne, Cambridge and Winchester.

After the previous evening's performance in Bournemouth, the cast of Over the Rainbow: The Eva Cassidy Story overnighted in Dorset at the parental home of its star - former Bad Girls actress Nicole Faraday, who played the amoral murderer and drug smuggler Snowball Merriman.

“I was brought up in the county and it's lovely to be able to come and visit mum and dad,” says the actress whose home is now a flat not far from the site of the Millennium Dome. “I told the cast how the sun was always shining in Dorset, and of course it's now pouring with rain!”

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Playing the sweet songstress Eva Cassidy is a 360-degree turn in theatrical roles when compared to former porn actress Snowball or another of Nicole's TV portrayals: Casualty's Dr Heather Lincoln, a troublesome and lazy medic who got away with whatever she could. Eventually she was sacked and told she had no place in emergency medicine.

However, Nicole's background stands her in good stead. She trained in musical theatre at Guildford School of Acting and before joining Bad Girls for two series played Agnetha Falkskog - Abba's blonde jumpsuited singer - in the touring show Thank You for the Music. Then she joined the tribute band Abba Gold. Nicole's also played another blonde bombshell: Marilyn Monroe.

Eva Cassidy was unknown outside her hometown of Washington DC when she died of cancer at the age of 33. However, within a few years Terry Wogan had discovered her haunting rendition of the Wizard of Oz classic Over the Rainbow and was playing it on his Radio 2 breakfast show. Her album was soon at the top of the album charts in the UK.

The shy and retiring singer was said to be easily affected by criticism and no stranger to bouts of depression. In her short life she shunned the spotlight and was also wary of materialism.

Nicole joined the touring production towards the end of January - in Jersey, the fifth venue on the schedule. “I'd met the producer and always said I liked Eva Cassidy and would love to play her, but with all my other commitments it was never very convenient,” she says between mouthfuls of toast. “Then, at virtually the last minute, they asked if I could take over. Luckily, it fitted in. I had five days' rehearsal!”

Is it hard bringing Eva Cassidy to life? - both from the point of view of her musical abilities and in fleshing out her creative yet vulnerable personality.

“It is challenging because people do not know that much about her. It's been a case of building her character from scratch, and a writer has built up a picture of her.

“It is quite an emotional rollercoaster, showing her family life and her growing up, going through a couple of boyfriends and then that sad finale, as it were, with her death from cancer.”

Musically, Nicole was a bit stunned by Eva's range. “I only knew her folky songs, such as Fields of Gold and Over the Rainbow, but she could also belt out some strong jazzy numbers. When I first heard her singing those kinds of songs I didn't know if I could sing in this style, because I hadn't really tackled it before. But it's working out all right.”

Eva Cassidy was also an accomplished guitarist. “We do cheat it a bit with the guitar,” laughs Nicole, deftly dealing with a wet cat that's launched itself on to her nice clean skirt. “I can do a little bit, but we've got a fantastic group of musicians in the production.”

It was ITV's prison-based programme that established Nicole in the consciousness of the viewing public with her portrayal of the baddest of bad girls. She played the manipulative Snowball Merriman for two seasons. “She was just evil! I had brilliant fun.”

It was a belting role, with never a dull moment. The cold-hearted prisoner grassed on fellow inmates to win a cushy job in the Larkhall library. She gave herself salmonella by eating raw chicken in a bid to escape, and then she made a bomb using parts smuggled to her by her boyfriend, the son of a gangster.

The device was detonated during the prison's open day and was meant to provide a diversion while she escaped, but Snowball was apprehended at the gates. During another escape bid she managed to shoot boyfriend Ritchie, leaving him paralysed from the waist down.

Ritchie later committed suicide and, desperate to be reunited with him, Snowball hanged herself from the prison landing railings, following a period of self-harm and self-starvation.

Because of the issues highlighted in Bad Girls, ITV published a number of factsheets, compiled by the Centre for Crime & Justice Studies, on subjects such as suicide.

Does Nicole think it ever got too much, or did the programme handle responsible the dark corners of life?

“It is difficult. Overall I thought it was done really well and it got fan mail from people who appreciated the way it had done things.

“As time went by, though, it had more and more camp elements that weren't necessarily true to life. I'm a big fan of No Angels; my family are from a medical background and they say there is no way nurses would behave like that. The whole point of drama is to make something watchable, so in the case of Bad Girls it might take elements of the prison service that were outdated, say, or it might take events that would happen across five years and concentrate them in just one week.”

Following Chelmsford, the final curtain falls at Skegness on Sunday. After that it's Nicole's mum's birthday and then, maybe, a holiday.

She might have left the TV version of Bad Girls, but her relationship with the girls of G-Wing is ongoing: in the spring she co-stars in the world premiere of Bad Girls - The Musical at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds for five or six weeks from the end of May.

It's not Snowball she plays but Shell Dockley, a really delightful lady serving a life sentence for the kidnap, torture and murder of the woman who “stole” her boyfriend. The judge called her “evil personified”.

Bit of a theme here developing on the Faraday acting CV . . . (She even played the wicked Morgan Le Fay in Sleeping Beauty at Norwich's Theatre Royal the Christmas before last.)

“When I was Snowball, Shell set my head on fire!” laughs Nicole. “Mind you, I've been playing Eva for quite a while now - and she's someone who was really, really nice - so it will be good to be someone who's really, really horrible again!”

(Over the Rainbow is at Chelmsford's Civic Theatre from Thursday, March 16 to Saturday, March 18. Box office 01245 606505)

All about Eva

Eva Cassidy was born in February, 1963

Her family was musical. As a child, she had an ear for perfect harmony and would sing along to songs on the car radio

In her early 20s she did the artwork for a band's album cover, was asked to sing on it, and impressed producer Chris Biondo

Eva sang on several other albums as a backing singer

Soul singer Chuck Brown admired her talents and in 1992 they recorded a song together: The Other Side. They also began performing live

As a performer she probably did no more than 80-100 gigs, many of which had audiences of around only 30 people

In the summer of 1996 Eva reported pain in her hip. Tests showed she had cancer and doctors gave her a maximum of five months to live

She died that November, aged 33

The majority of her released recordings were only ever intended to be demo tapes often recorded in one take

Her first success was with the album Songbird, released in 1998. By 2000 it has sold more than 100,000 copies, but the release of a hand-held video recording with Eva singing the track Somewhere over the Rainbow was championed by Terry Wogan and the song entered the charts at number 33, rising to 18, then three, and then the top spot

Eva Cassidy is the only female artist to have three consecutive posthumous number one albums

American Tune knocked Robbie Williams off the top spot when it was released in 2003

In 2002, after the release of a TV documentary, she had five albums in the Norwegian charts and at the same time enjoyed similar success in Sweden

She was viewed as a brilliant artist, and had she been able to afford the tuition fees would have taken up an offer to study animation at the California School of Art - and probably would have gone on to work for Disney

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