Jenny Platt’s love of Corrie and the theatre

WHEN actress Jenny Platt called time at the Rover’s Return in 2008, it was to allow her more time to return to her first love – the stage.

Jenny, who played barmaid Violet Wilson in Coronation Street for four years, was true to her word and in addition to returning to her Ipswich roots to appear in a new play Chimps at the New Wolsey Theatre, she also starred in an open-air Shakespeare production of Twelfth Night before going onto to play Jill in last year’s Bournemouth pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk.

However, by the time that Jenny was clambering up the beanstalk she was six months pregnant.

Jenny was a firm favourite with Corrie viewers from 2004 to 2008. She played barmaid Violet Wilson, who found herself caught in an on-off relationship with Jamie Baldwin which was complicated by a close friendship with Sean Tully, who had fathered her child. After four years on ‘the street’ Violet and Jamie drove off to make a new life for themselves down south.

In real life Jenny fell for Jamie Baldwin co-star Rupert Hill and now the on-screen and off-screen couple are the proud parents of daughter Matilda, who was born in April.

A year earlier Jenny was back in her home town, back at the scene of her first stage triumphs at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich.

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 opposite Brian Ralph. Chimps represented not only a return to the beginnings 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.

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“Nothing had changed. I remember feeding the ducks in Christchurch Park after school. Suddenly I was seven again.” Brought up in Sproughton Road, Ipswich, she remembers youthful expeditions to the newly opened Solar Superstore.

“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 laughed.

But, it was her introduction to the world of theatre via visits to the Wolsey that really grabbed her youthful imagination. “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 says that she has no idea where her desire to act comes from as she doesn’t come from what she calls an ‘arty background’. “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.”

She said that this grounding in the real world has given her the strength to weather some of the more unpalatable aspects of being a well known face on the telly. Despite the success that a major role in a telly soap represents, she wasn’t always comfortable with the sacrifices that were required, particularly the media intrusions into her domestic life.

It still goes on. At the end of last year Matilda’s baby scan found its way onto the pages of a national tabloid paper.

Rupert posted a picture of their baby’s first scan on Twitter. That picture was picked up by the paper ended up on their gossip pages.

“My dad, who is a Guardian reader, was horrified that a picture of his unborn grandchild was in a tabloid,” Jenny laughed.

“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 pulled 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. 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 believes 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.”

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 lead role on stage – particularly in a small cast play in an intimate auditorium like the New Wolsey has.

“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 her priority, prior to the arrival of Matilda, was to gain the sort of variety of experience that only theatre could provide.

After finishing at the New Wolsey in May she immediately set off for an open-air Shakespeare festival in Staffordshire playing Viola in Twelfth Night.

“At drama school, it’s the part every girl plays,” she said. “It’s a brilliant part, because there’s all the romantic stuff and you get to dress as a boy, and you get to be funny too.

“Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible pieces of writing. There’s no need to read a text book beforehand to understand it, and I think the story-lines, about mistaken identity and falling in love with the wrong people, still appeal to audiences today.”

The fact that the Stafford Castle production was set in the 1960s lowered the barriers even further.

As for returning to Corrie Jenny says, never say never. ““I remember asking the producer not to ‘kill me off’, because I’m not one of these people who doesn’t want to have a chance to go back.”