Soap vet returns to the stage

Soap star Leah Bracknell is well known for being TV's sexiest vet. For the last 16 years she has been the troubled Zoe Tate on Emmerdale - now she has returned to the stage and is currently on tour in Gaslight - the epitome of the psychological thriller.

By Andrew Clarke

Soap star Leah Bracknell is well known for being TV's sexiest vet. For the last 16 years she has been the troubled Zoe Tate on Emmerdale - now she has returned to the stage and is currently on tour in Gaslight - the epitome of the psychological thriller. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to her about her return to the stage and life on the farm.

Emmerdale's Leah Bracknell is not only one of the longest serving actors in modern soap opera but she has carved out a gloriously unique role as the only schizophrenic lesbian vet in Yorkshire.

For 16 years she played eye-turning vet Zoe Tate arriving in 1989 when Emmerdale was still a farm, survived the plane crash that wiped out most of the cast and went on to discover that she preferred women to men , survived an attempted rape and a kidnap by a long-lost brother.

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“They certainly gave me a lot of interesting storylines,” she laughs; “That's probably why I stayed so long. I was very well served by the writers, there was always something going on.”

But Leah went to Emmerdale's producers last autumn and asked for a leave of absence from the show, so that she could go off and fulfil a few ambitions. One of those ambitions was a return to the theatre where she is joining former co-star Peter Amory on stage at the Colchester Mercury in a revival of Patrick Hamilton's Victorian thriller Gaslight.

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“I really enjoyed myself on Emmerdale, it's a fantastic show and has that ability to go from a situation which everyone can identify with to storylines which are completely out there.” Mention of the 747 jet landing on the Emmerdale community still raises a smile with her.

“But after 16 years I felt I needed some new stimuli. I love working on Emmerdale, I have lots of friends there and it's great working out on the Yorkshire Moors rather than been cooped up in a hot stuffy studio but I felt I needed to get out and try something new. The producers were very nice about it. I haven't closed any doors. I can always go back - if they want me - but at the moment I am just finding my feet again in the outside world.”

She said that landing a stage role on a major British tour so quickly was a wonderful piece of good fortune. “It all came about through my former co-star Peter Amory, who played my brother Chris Tate for many years. He left the show before me and landed a part in a theatre tour and as he knows getting back on stage was one of those ambitions I was talking about.

“I felt that I never had a proper crack at stage work because I joined Emmerdale two years after leaving drama school. So I felt I had something to prove. Peter knew that Gaslight was coming up and spoke to director and producer Ian Dickens about casting me in the show and he agreed.”

She admitted that it was a marketing man's dream to have Zoe and Chris Tate in a play together - although this time instead of playing brother and sister, they are husband and wife.

“It's a fantastic play and a wonderfully atmospheric thriller. The reason it has stayed around so long is that it provides audiences with a really good evening out and as an actor it's wonderful to play. We have got a wonderful set to move around in which, when coupled with the low key, gas-effect lighting we have, gives the play an immediate atmosphere.”

Leah plays Bella Manningham the wife who is being psychologically tortured by her husband. When we first meet them Bella appears to be a neurotic, terrified mouse of a wife while her husband is a suave, urbane, confident man-about-town. At first the audience sympathy is very much behind the long-suffering husband. Bella appears to be paranoid and clinging - afraid of the world both outside and inside the house. She is almost delusional claiming hearing people moving around the house and claiming the gaslight flickers low when her husband is out of the house.

However, the story turns when a stranger arrives at the house and starts Bella asking questions of herself and her husband.

Speaking to Leah it is obvious she is delighted to be back working with Peter. “It's great to be on tour in a play with someone you know and enjoy working with. It allows you to concentrate on the play and your performance and not worry whether you are going to get on with your leading man.”

She said she was really enthusiastic about setting foot on stage again. “Working in television is a real treadmill. It doesn't allow you time to go off and do something else for three months or so. You've got to be there all the time simply because of the logistics of turning around six episodes a week. So the opportunity to do something like this is wonderful.”

Looking back on her days in Emmerdale she said that it provided her with a tremendous grounding in the world of acting. “I always knew I wanted to be an actor. I have always enjoyed acting and I love the process of acting - of becoming someone different - and certainly Emmerdale gave me some wonderful opportunities to stretch and grow. I got the job two years out of drama school, while I was still finding my feet in the world, and it gave me a terrific boost and did a lot for my self confidence.”

She said that the whole flavour of Emmerdale changed during her years on the show. “When I first joined it was still very much Emmerdale Farm, then we had that dramatic plane crash and the whole character of the show changed. The Farm part of the title was dropped and it became more about life in the countryside rather than the workings of a farm or people being intimately involved in agriculture. Reflecting the change in countryside use I suppose.

“The storylines became increasingly more about the personal and social lives of the characters and the cast has grown huge now, so there is a thriving community on screen now.”

She said that she is quite proud of the fact that she portrayed the first regular lesbian character on mainstream television. “It was quite a surprise when they first told me about it because I hadn't had a hint of this up until that point. I think I must have been in the show for two years and I certainly hadn't been playing part as a latent lesbian - infact I had a string of rather rough and ready boyfriends.

“Of course as soon as I had come out, the writers then suddenly had a crisis of confidence and we then had a long discussion which rumbled on for weeks about whether she should stay a lesbian but I was pleased that they decided to stick to their guns and it actually benefited the show and furnished me with some good storylines.”

She said that she is also rather proud of the fact that she delivered television's first lesbian kiss with interior-designer Emma Nightingale a full year before Anna Freil did the same thing on Brookside. She even cheekily struck up a relationship with her brother's Chris' fiance Charity Dingle which got viewers all hot under the collar. “Zoe was quite a game girl,” laughs Leah, “It also proved that despite its cosy image that Emmerdale has been on the cutting edge of television. We dealt with issues but we didn't hit audiences over the head with things. My character Zoe dealt with an attempted rape by a local farmer, kidnapping and murder and was without all my various love affairs with local girls and even some married women. It's a wonder that the whole countryside wasn't up-in-arms.”

She said that the schizophrenia storyline remains one of her favourites because it tackled a subject rarely touched on by television and it explored the subject matter in some depth and over a long period of time. “The whole schizophrenia thing went on for the best part of a year. Again as an actor it was challenging material but it was treated well and I certainly learned a thing or two about it but it was done in a way that wasn't preachy and didn't hit you over the head with facts and figures. It was incorporated into the storyline very well and you just sort of picked things up as you went along. That's the great thing about Emmerdale and soaps in general is that you can deal with issues but you always have to be entertaining and I think that's the best way to put things across.”

She said she is grateful that her character was flexible enough to be able to have all these happen to her. “As an actor Zoe gave me a tremendous a lot of material to play with. Everything seemed to happen to her and yet she was never a victim - which I was grateful for.

“In a way that's similar to the role I play in Gaslight. Bella, Mrs Manningham, starts off looking like a victim but along the way she reveals herself to be a person of great intelligence and incredibly resourceful. There's some lovely twists along the way which will keep audiences on the edge of their seats.”

She said that she comes from a cinematic background, and her move into acting had an air of inevitability about it. “I alaywas enjoyed acting even as a young girl. My father, David Bracknell, was an assistant director doing a lot of second unit work in films and was in charge of the Children's Film Foundation. He did the aerial sequences in Battle of Britain which were fantastic but it was through the Children's Film Foundation that I got my start. I just pestered him to put me in a film until he couldn't stand it any more.

“I was 11 when I was cast in The Chiffy Kids which I loved and I knew what I wanted to do from then on. I trained at Webber Douglas and then after graduation came Emmerdale.”

Away from the stage and television Leah is married to TV director Lyall Watson and has two daughters. And just to not waste a second of her day she is also a registered yoga teacher and holds classes in Leeds when her schedule permits. She has also just issued a yoga DVD Leah Bracknell: Yoga and You which she said she would like to do more of. “It was great putting it together. I started yoga about four or five years ago and I knew straight away that I wanted to teach it.

“Indeed I am working on a programme for the cast of Gaslight to help combat pre-performance nerves. It's a great way of getting rid of stress.”

Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton is being staged at Colchester Mercury Theatre February 18.

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