Gallery: The Rover's Return for Jenny
Having walked away from life on Coronation Street, actress Jenny Platt is delighted to be back at her old home town of Ipswich.
Having walked away from life on Coronation Street, actress Jenny Platt is delighted to be back at her old home town of Ipswich. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke met up with her in the bar of the New Wolsey Theatre.
When actress Jenny Platt called time at the Rover's Return last year, it was to allow her more time to return to her first love - the stage.
Jenny, who played barmaid Violet Wilson in Coronation Street, is true to her word as she stars in the sharp new comedy Chimps which opens at the New Wolsey Theatre at the end of the month.
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For Jenny this is a return to her acting roots. As a young, wide-eyed hopeful she landed her first acting role at the Wolsey in a production of The Sound of Music in 1986. Chimps represents not only a return to the start of her acting career but also to her home town. She hadn't been back in Ipswich for half an hour when she disappeared off to Christchurch Park to feed the ducks.
“Nothing had changed. I remember feeding the ducks in Christchurch Park after school. Suddenly I was seven again.”
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She said that she's delighted not only to be back in Ipswich but also to be back on a stage again. She said that despite the success that a major role in a telly soap represents, you do have to make considerable sacrifices.
“I loved being in Corrie, it was a very cosy, very happy environment. I could feel myself settling into a very comfortable little rut. Certainly the security of knowing that I had a wage coming in every week was wonderful. I had been in the series for three years but I felt that, as tempting as it was to stay; professionally I was missing something. Being in a series like Coronation Street is a full-time commitment - you live, eat, breathe Coronation Street. There's no time to do anything else.
“I would have liked to take a couple of months off here and there to do a play or something and then come back refreshed but the schedule doesn't allow for things like that, so I took a deep breath and said: 'Excuse me, I want to leave'.”
Considering that many young actors would give their eye teeth to have a regular role on Coronation Street this may seem more than a little perverse but Jenny says that you don't go into acting for security and a regular television role at such a young age, may actually limit your career in the long run.
“Before I landed my part in Coronation Street I used to love doing new plays. It was a real treat working on something very new - working with a director and with a writer - shaping a new play. That was my favourite form of work because you felt that no-one had said those lines before - you and you alone were bringing them to life.
“That's why Chimps is such fun to work on because I think this is the first time it has been done since its initial performance in London. It's witty, clever, has some amazingly sharp and funny dialogue and is a play very much of our times. A lot of people will be able to relate to it.”
Jenny explains that hard as telly acting can be, it did serve as a very good finishing school for actors and has provided her with the necessary tools to tackle a demanding part like the one she has in Chimps.
“People lament the loss of the old rep theatre and it did provide a wonderful training ground for young actors but television still does much of that work. You have The Bill, Holby City, Casualty .. all your soaps and there is no time to mess around. No long rehearsal period, you have to learn your lines, remember your moves and get on with it. In many ways it is very similar to what rep used to be.
“People think telly is easy but it's not. I remember that Keith Duffy injured his knee when he was on Corrie and suddenly I was landed with all his lines. I had no time to prepare. He had had this accident, they had these scenes to shoot and I had to somehow incorporate his dialogue into mine. It was a case of thinking on your feet - just like rep.”
She said that having gained experience of television she now wants the variety that the only theatre can provide. Also she's not sold on the whole television fame phenomenon and is even less certain about the short-term fame that surrounds the Big Brother and X Factor winners.
“There was a time when fame used to be a by-product of actually being good at something. Now I find that when I meet youngsters who want to be actors, they say to me they want to do it because they want to be famous.”
Jenny pauses and pulls a horrified expression: “I thought you'd want to become an actor because you want to act. I found that the fame thing largely gets in the way. Being on Coronation Street, it's something you accept. It's part and parcel of taking the job. I said right from the beginning that I would do anything necessary to promote the programme because that's part of the job but I wouldn't accept any paid interviews about my private life.
“And as soon as you make that clear, then they soon stop asking. The magazines knew I wasn't interested, so they didn't ask. Besides I wasn't that interesting for them because I didn't go to all the celebby parties. I gratefully accepted invites to the soap awards and the odd night out but that was it.
“I was in the mid-20s and I was having fun but it was important that you take it all with a pinch of salt. But there were times when it all seemed very weird and to be honest that was part of the reason I wanted to get back to some semblance of normality.”
Although she wouldn't ever say no about returning to The Street, and she still lives in Manchester where the series is filmed, she is happy to be back treading the boards, getting back in front of a live audience.
“I would be lying if I didn't admit that I do miss the camaraderie of being with those guys. But, I still see many of them socially, still see the guys from the crew, so I still have contact and if you don't challenge yourself to move on, then you can become stuck there. “When I became an actor it was with the express intention of playing lots of different roles.”
This then leads nicely into talking about her role in the New Wolsey production of the intriguingly titled Chimps.
Chimps is all about a couple being plagued by cold-calling salesmen who won't leave you alone and won't accept no for an answer. She said that the slightly esoteric title relates to the fact that Jenny's other half in the play designs children's books which have pages like A is For Armadillo, B is for Bear etc.
“For me, the play is much more about the dialogue than it is about the plot. It's a cautionary tale. It's quite satirical about what happens when you let a salesman into your house - especially if you are young and you are perhaps a little gullible.
“It's a character-driven piece. It's about how money can change how people feel about one another. The dialogue is brilliant and unusually for a play it's all done in real time. The play lasts for two hours and the events it depicts takes two hours to unfold. It goes from a very mundane beginning to a very extreme ending.
“If we pitch it right then it will be extremely funny. Comedy is always best when there a little bit of darkness lurking just beneath the surface.”
She said that coming back to Ipswich was a pleasant surprise. “It just felt right to come back to the theatre where I had my first experience on stage 22 years ago.”
She said that even from a very young age she knew she wanted to be an actress but had very sensible parents who made her wait until she had finished her education before allowing her to go off and pursue her dream.
“My mum was a teacher, she had been at Halifax School in Ipswich and my dad worked with people with mental health issues, so they were both very grounded. I did The Sound of Music at the Wolsey when I was seven and then a tiny part in a film and then mum said: 'I think you need to stop now and see if you still want to do it when you're 18.' I do worry about kids entering the profession at so young an age. For some kids I am sure it's fine but part of me does worry about how they are going to grow up. Even for those at stage school it can be too much. Personally, I think it's best to keep it as a fun, out of school activity until you've finished your education, then you decide what you want to do.”
She said that for many child actors, the transition into adulthood can come as quite a shock - particularly if the work dries up as you are no longer the cute little tyke you once were. “It's a shock to find that all of a sudden you are not as marketable as you once were, so its good to have a little life experience to give you some resilience.”
As for her own youthful dreams of an actors life, she has no real idea where it came from. “I honestly don't know. I don't come from a showbiz or a particularly arty background. I was just a show-off, I guess.
“I always loved watching shows, particularly musicals and we went to see The King and I at the Wolsey when I was about six. Now, my mum tells me that I immediately got very excited because there were loads of children in the show. I didn't know that kids could be on stage in the theatre and I didn't tell them that when I got home, I wrote a letter to the Wolsey Theatre saying: 'Dear director, how do I appear in one of your plays?' So my parents then got this weird letter in reply saying that 'We have had a letter from your daughter Jenny, she would like to be in a play, we have auditions for The Sound of Music on such and such a day, please bring her along.'
“Mum and Dad have always been very supportive about anything that either myself or my brother have wanted to do and so they took me along, I auditioned and I got the part as one of Baron Von Trapp's children.”
She said that what thrilled her almost as much as being on stage was the fact that she earned �80 for the run of the show and to a child of seven that seemed an enormous sum of money. She spent �20 on a guitar and the rest was squirreled away in a bank account.
One of the nuns in The Sound of Music also worked as a casting director and she put Jenny forward for a small role in the Terry Gilliam movie The Adventures of Baron Munchausen but this then led to a small cameo part in Bob Hoskins's directorial debut The Raggedy Rawney.
“As a result of the film I was offered an agent and it was then my mum and dad stepped in and put the brakes on, which was the right thing to do, but my love of acting stayed with me and here I am, 20-odd years later. It's something that you've got to love and really want to do because it is a tough life, and if you don't love it then you won't succeed. Certainly, if you go into it just to be famous then you will come unstuck because acting is not a sure-fire route to fame and riches.”
She said that what she has always stressed to youngsters who have come up to her and said they want to be famous like her is simply go off and do what you want to do and be really good at it. “I say: 'If you like science, go off and be a scientist, be a really good scientist, and who knows you may become famous for being a good scientist. In any event you will be doing something you enjoy rather than waiting for something that's not worth having and may not even happen.”
She said that one of her hopes for the credit crunch is that the public may want their celebrities to be famous for actually doing something rather than being manufactured by glossy magazines. “In the 1950s fame was a by-product of being good at what you did - look at all the great sportsmen of the time - so I hope that perhaps we are entering an era when that becomes the standard again. And there was a sense of mystery about celebrities, there was a mystique which was attractive because you didn't know every last thing about their lives or what the inside of their bedroom looked like. It would be nice if we got a little way back towards that.”
One of the things she wants to do once the play settles down is go and have a look at her old house in Sproughton Road, Ipswich. “We lived up near the Solar Super-store. I remember all the fuss when that opened. We used to go in there and buy Solar bars, which was their very own chocolate bar. Isn't it funny the things you remember?
“Also I remember the smell from the sugar beet factory, that really strong smell. I didn't know what it was when I was little. Oh, it's all coming back to me now,” she says giving a nostalgic giggle of delight.
Having spoken to me, she was then off for a nostalgic reunion with her first leading man - Wolsey Theatre legend Brian Ralph who played Captain Von Trapp.
She says just being back in the theatre brings memories flooding back and she can't wait to get reacquainted with the man, who for many people in the 1980s, was the public face of the Wolsey and indeed is still the president of the Wolsey Theatre Club, along with his performing arts lecturing duties at Suffolk New College.
Chimps is at the New Wolsey Theatre from April 30 to May 16. Tickets are available at www.wolseytheatre.co.uk or on 01473 295900.