During lockdown Michelle Collins has been out delivering food parcels and has launched a campaign to help workers in the arts. She spoke to André Langlois for the Ham & High Podcast.

Ham & High: Actor Michelle Collins. Picture: Michelle CollinsActor Michelle Collins. Picture: Michelle Collins (Image: Michelle Collins)

Like everyone in her field, Michelle Collins saw her plans for the year wiped out with the arrival of coronavirus.

She was a week into rehearsal for Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party when the plug was pulled, and the national tour would have ended a week before the former EastEnders star spoke to the Ham&High on July 3.

Michelle was also due to perform at the Edinburgh Festival for the first time with a one-woman show.

The play may be revived in spring 2021 and the Edinburgh show is booked in for next August, but the actor quickly realised how precarious the livelihoods of those in the arts would be.

Working with Equity and Genesius Pictures, she launched the fundraising #ForTheLoveOfArts, roping in actors including Sir Ian McKellen, Mandeep Dhillon, Sir Derek Jacobi, Lennie James and Miriam Margolyes to record a series of monologues for a YouTube channel in aid of the Equity Benevolent Fund.

Around £40,000 has been raised so far and a book is set to follow.

But the actor’s attention has also been on the local community. Having been born in Hackney, and grown up in Highbury, she has lived at various times across north London, including in Hampstead, Highgate, Muswell Hill and now East Finchley.

“A lot of people out of London, go ‘oh London - it must be awful living in London’, ‘people are so unfriendly’, but actually, it’s not. I love this community and I also found, I’m sure like a lot of people, that my neighbourhood came together during lockdown,” she says.

Ham & High: Michelle Collins delivering food. Pictured: Michelle CollinsMichelle Collins delivering food. Pictured: Michelle Collins (Image: Archant)

“We had a WhatsApp group and everybody helped each other, and also the Clap For Carers really helped with communities - getting to know people. So when I was collecting for the food banks I used to do a WhatsApp group and I used to have food piled high on my doorstep, and none of it got stolen, ha!

“People were amazing, they were really, really fantastic, and really generous so I’ve been really lucky.”

Michelle works with the Alexandra Wylie Tower Foundation, launched in memory of the Channing School student who died of cancer in 2010. The charity supports underprivileged young people, including collecting food for the Ringcross Community Centre Foodbank in Islington, which has seen a huge uplift in users since the pandemic began.

Despite her other activities, Michelle remains committed to her career and since she shot to huge fame as Cindy in EastEnders she has enjoyed success on stage and screen. She has a number of projects on the go, including a television project about a girl group reforming.

“I was 26 when I went into EastEnders and I was a jobbing actress. I was on TV - I did a sitcom for a couple of series, I’d done a couple of films. You know so it wasn’t a big shock to me to be on TV but I think being in EastEnders was a bit of a shock.

“I remember the very first day I went for my audition I met Julia Smith - iconic, prolific producer and director of EastEnders - one of the first female directors in this country on TV - and she said: ‘You know this is going to change your life, don’t you.’

“And I was like thinking ‘of course I do, of course I do’ but I don’t think I knew to what effect it would change my life. After being on screen for about a week I started getting tonnes and tonnes of fan mail.”

Although the government has announced a £1.57bn culture rescue package, the future remains uncertain for the acting industry, as it does for many others.

Ham & High: Michelle Collins attending the Virgin TV British Academy Television Awards 2018 held at the Royal Festival Hall. Picture: Isabel Infantes/PA WireMichelle Collins attending the Virgin TV British Academy Television Awards 2018 held at the Royal Festival Hall. Picture: Isabel Infantes/PA Wire (Image: PA Archive/PA Images)

Michelle is certainly worried but she points out times were tough in the 70s and early 80s, and much of society pulled through.

“Will we have learnt something through all this? You hope we will,” she says. “You hope we will come out of it better people and love and respect people a bit more - we hope so - and maybe it may change things for the better when we look back, in years to come. Who knows?”

Support the Alexandra Tower Wylie Foundation by visiting https://www.awtf.org/

Visit the Equity Benevolent Fund channel on YouTube to watch the #ForTheLoveOfArts monologues. Donate via https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/equity-benevolentfund

For the full interview, and others in the series, simply search ‘Ham & High’ on the podcast app on your phone and hit ‘subscribe’ so that it downloads automatically each week.

Alternatively, just click here https://podfollow.com/hamhigh/.

Ham & High: Michelle Collins arrives at the British Soap Awards in 1999. Picture: Toby MelvlleMichelle Collins arrives at the British Soap Awards in 1999. Picture: Toby Melvlle (Image: PA Archive/PA Images)

Ham & High: Picture: Michelle CollinsPicture: Michelle Collins (Image: Michelle Collins)