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Bad Girl Helen Fraser’s journey back to the beginning of a dramatic career

PUBLISHED: 15:10 28 May 2013 | UPDATED: 15:10 28 May 2013

Sylvia `Bodybag` Hollamby (HELEN FRASER) in Bad Girls.

Sylvia `Bodybag` Hollamby (HELEN FRASER) in Bad Girls.

For Suffolk-based actress Helen Fraser the past 18 months have passed in a whirl. For someone who claims that she is taking things a bit easier now, life has never been busier.

She’s been touring in Calendar Girls, played the villain in panto, played Timothy West’s widow in Coronation Street – and moved house.

When I arrive at her new home in Eye, she apologises for the way the house looks. It looks fine to me but she explains: “I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to sort things out properly. I’ve been here for months but what with Calendar Girls and Corrie I haven’t been home long enough to put things where I want them. Everything is still pretty much where the removal men left them.”

With a busy summer looming, it doesn’t look as if she will have much time to do anything to her new home before September.

At the moment the actress, who is best known for her role as tough prison warden Sylvia “Bodybag” Hollamby in Bad Girls, is dividing her time between preparing for her new one-woman show An Evening with Helen Fraser, which is touring over the summer, and promoting the restored re-release of Billy Liar, which has just been issued on Blu-Ray.

Her one-woman show will be weaving its way round Suffolk: it’s being staged in Aldeburgh by Alys Kihl’s Wonderful Beast company; Helen is then taking it to the Woolpit Festival, where she is patron, Diss Corn Hall, The Cut at Halesworth and ending up at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, in the autumn.

“It’s crazy; life’s never been busier,” she says, putting down the phone from her agent, who has just rung to inquire how the interview with London newspaper Metro went the other day.

“They wanted to know what my five favourite films were. I was talking to this lovely person on the other end of the phone but he must have been very young because he didn’t seem to know anything I was talking about.”

Apart from Billy Liar – which occupies a special place in her heart not just because it’s a classic British film but because it was the film where she met her late husband, Oscar-winning soundman Peter Handford – her favourite film is Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, with Moira Shearer.

“This reporter on the other end hadn’t heard of it and was amazed I had chosen it. He asked me to explain when it was made and what it was about. There’s no reason, I suppose, why he should have heard of it. It’s fairly old but it’s not an obscure film and is frequently in top-10 film lists.

“For me it was a perfect film. As a young girl, growing up with dreams of being a ballet dancer, I could see my future up on the screen.”

Sadly the dreams Helen shared with her mother of becoming a star in the Festival Ballet were not to be.

“I had a Gypsy Rose Lee mother who was determined I was going on the stage. So I was sent to stage school at a fairly young age. I was a little show-off and she was determined I was going to make it as a dancer and get away from Oldham, where I was born and brought up.”

Helen spent her formative years at the Arts Educational School at Tring in Hertfordshire. “I remember telling everyone that my name was Victoria because I hated the name Helen. It’s funny what you remember.

“Putting my one-woman show together has triggered all sorts of memories and it takes me and the audience on a journey through my life. People say to me: ‘When did you know you wanted to be an actress? When did it all start?’ And if truth be told I had no choice in the matter. At the age of nine I was a boarder at the Arts Educational School at Tring.”

If Helen had a pushy mother, then Mum had an ally in Helen herself. Fired up with those images of Moira Shearer dancing like a woman possessed in The Red Shoes, Helen wanted a life on the stage almost as much as her mother wanted it for her.

But a dancer’s life was not for her. “In those days it was all very strict. You were measured and weighed; tested for suppleness; but I knew I wasn’t going to be a dancer.

“I wasn’t very supple and if I am honest I was a little podge. Coming from Oldham, suddenly let loose in the Hertfordshire countryside, all that fresh air, I developed an appetite. So they put me on the drama course and it was the best thing that they could have done. It was the era of the Rank Charm School. They liked to get you young. I got my Equity card at 15.

“I have been very fortunate. Apart from my two years at RADA, where I trained with John Thaw, John Hurt and Edward Fox, I haven’t done anything but work. I look back now and I think ‘How and why was I so lucky?’

“One of the things about satellite television, on channels like Gold they show all these old situation comedies and I keep popping up. I find myself thinking: ‘How many did I do?’ On The Buses, Doctor At Large, Man About The House, Rising Damp, they keep coming up.”

Helen Fraser first came to public attention in the mid-60s, when she played Tom Courtenay’s long-suffering girlfriend, Barbara, in John Schlesinger’s classic Billy Liar.

“I have lots of very fond memories of Billy Liar. It was a wonderful film and we were all so young, Tom, Julie Christie and myself. It really captured the spirit of the age.” But there are also personal memories as well as professional ones. It was on Billy Liar that Helen fell in love with the film’s sound-recordist, Peter Handford.

Peter had already worked with Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, and was then making a name for himself as a specialist in the tricky business of location sound. He had already worked on other such ground-breaking movies as The Room At The Top; Saturday Night, Sunday Morning; The Entertainer and Tom Jones.

“It was one of those things that just happened. We were shooting the scene in the cemetery and it was the coldest day of the year. I was absolutely freezing and Peter, ever the gentleman, loaned me his coat in between takes. It was as simple as that. We both just fell for each other.

“We had a lot in common. We went to the ballet, theatre and the cinema together. He was very much in demand and was one of the key people in that English New Wave cinema pioneered by people like Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger.”

Helen is delighted that Billy Liar, what she calls their special film, is now being given a new lease of life on Blu-Ray.

The camera negatives and Peter’s sound have been cleaned up and it now looks as good as it did when it was premiered in 1963.

Another favourite of her late husband’s works is The Go-Between, made by Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter.

“That was another very special film. That was one of the first jobs he did after we moved to Suffolk. He was thrilled because they were shooting around Norwich and south Norfolk, and it meant that he could stay at home. Unfortunately, though, his car broke down and I remember having to drive him to all these different locations each day.

“This was long before sat nav – long before personal computers. It provided me with a crash course in the country roads of Suffolk. I got to know my way around very quickly.”

More recently, Helen firmly lodged herself in the nation’s consciousness as the mean-spirited Bodybag in Bad Girls, which ran for nine years.

It’s a role Helen loved, as she believes the villains are always the best parts – or at least more interesting characters to play.

The series also provided her with an unexpected opportunity to fulfil a personal ambition. “I had always wanted to be in a West End musical and it turned out that after the series finished there was such a lot of support for it that it was transformed into a musical.

“At first we didn’t think it would go into London because there wasn’t a theatre available, but then the Garrick became free and we were away. I even got a big showstopper number and a ballroom dance sequence, which was lovely.”

These stories and others like them form the backbone to her show, which is interspersed with songs from her previous show about the music hall star Vesta Victoria. She is accompanied by pianist Keith Monk, someone she discovered during her Christmas break at The White Lion.

He was playing during Christmas evening in the bar. “He played a couple of requests for New York, New York and Moon River right off the cuff and when he said he came from Ipswich I saw the stars aligning.

“I rather nervously asked whether he would be interested in accompanying me in my one-woman shows and he said he would be delighted – and he is absolutely brilliant.”

She has added some songs to the evening to provide some variation. “It would be too much if it was just the spoken word all evening. So I have put in a couple of my favourite Vesta Victoria songs from my previous show and then I do Adelaide’s Lament from Guys and Dolls – it’s my favourite number from that show.”

This year has already been extraordinarily busy for someone who is wanting to calm things down a bit.

The tail end of last year saw Helen on a 16-week tour with Calendar Girls which finished just before Christmas in Dundee. With just a brief pause to book herself into a hotel with friends for Christmas, the New Year then arrived, with an offer of a juicy guest role on Coronation Street – an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“I wasn’t really looking for anything at that point but my agent rings and says they want you for Coronation Street. The icing on the cake was that my scenes were with Sue Johnston, who I knew from my guest role on The Royale Family.

“Her character had been going out with Timothy West, who had just died, and she knew he had a bit of money because he was in vinyl flooring.

“The solicitor tells her he wants to meet her in The Rover’s Return and she thinks she’s come into some money. However, when he arrives, he says: ‘Sorry I’m late; I had to pick up Doris,’ and steps aside and I’m standing there.

“She says: ‘Are you a relative?’ I just smile and say: ‘You could say that, luv. I’m his wife.’ It was a lovely scene to do. It is what Coronation Street does so well and it was lovely for me because I got such wonderful feedback from being on it.”

Helen has enough stories to fill several evenings and has had a long history with Suffolk, having moved here in 1969. She has worked at the Wolsey and Colchester Mercury theatres, and the old Eye Theatre.

So, being an experienced actress who has shepherded many young hopefuls into the profession in Bad Girls, does she have a heroine or a role model? “Oh, I love Judi Dench. I have always admired her, but I saw Skyfall the other day and she is just amazing. The expressions on her face were wonderful. You’re used to her being bossy and in charge, but her reactions when she was trapped and frightened were incredible. What goes across her face is just indescribable – you get waves of fleeting thoughts and emotions. She’s brilliant.”

An Evening With Helen Fraser is at The Woolpit Festival on June 9; The Cut, Halesworth, on July 21; Diss Corn Hall, July 28 and at the New Wolsey Theatre on Saturday October 26.

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