Eastenders and Coronation Street’s Michelle Collins looks forward to life beyond soaps
Michelle Collins has always been a north London girl. Born in Highbury, now living in East Finchley, she even wanted to call her new autobiography Tales of a North London Girl until the publishers intervened, fearful of “ungainly connotations”.
Even now, as we sit down to discuss the book that eventually became Michelle Collins: This Is Me, it is in the pub-cum-museum of the Clissold Arms; the revered Fortis Green establishment that famously hosted The Kinks’ first gig and has since become a shrine of memorabilia in the Muswell Hill band’s honour.
Much like the Davies brothers, Collins has a great affinity for her city and perhaps that’s why many fans still associate her with the iconic EastEnders troublemaker Cindy Beale, who she played for a total of eight years until the late ’90s.
“All my friends from outside town call me ‘Cockney Cabbie Collins’ because I do know my way around London without a sat-nav,” she jokes, before politely asking a waitress for the sweetest thing on the menu – settling on a brownie.
“They’re now saying London’s the most popular city around the world and that apparently we have more billionaires than anywhere else. Not that that’s going to affect us – they’re all in Highgate, aren’t they?”
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Indeed Highgate seems to be one of the few locations that Collins hasn’t directly lived in, though it did provide a temporary home for the fluffy pup buzzing around her feet.
She picked up Humphrey two years ago at the village’s rescue centre, All Dogs Matter, and he’s settled into the household just as Collins’ daughter, Maia, is preparing to leave for university.
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This impending departure was in fact the reason for another. Last month, Collins bowed out of her three-year stint at Coronation Street to spend more time with her daughter before she leaves. The 51-year-old’s spell as Stella Price, who became landlady of the Rovers Return for a short time, initially proved controversial – not just because of her previous EastEnders association, but also because of a supposedly dodgy northern accent.
The actress sighs. “You know what it’s like with social networking – one person says something and it becomes like Chinese whispers. Anne Hathaway got the same accent grief when she was doing One Day and I thought, well, at least I’m in good company.”
Over the last year, Collins has had to become quite used to self-analysis. When she was first approached years ago to write This Is Me, she unusually turned the offer down. “It felt like I hadn’t done enough in my life yet. I thought to write that sort of thing, you had to kiss and tell and do things that were really sensationalist, which just wasn’t me.”
This time, however, the moment felt right. Tasked with a tight schedule, she sat down to compose the memoir over just a few months. The resultant tale was not just one of a young actress struggling against the odds, but also of a proud, working mum with an acute eye for the environment she grew up in.
“I really liked the childhood stuff – it made me very nostalgic remembering the ’70s and ’80s, the strikes and the power cuts. Some of my most vivid memories are of going to a café on Holloway Road during those times because all our lights had gone out. This owner had somehow managed to get some power together so we’d go down and have our evening meals there.
“As kids, we loved it because we got to eat dinner out and didn’t have to do our homework, but I do remember how much rubbish there was on the streets and seeing the miners striking on TV.”
Childhood wasn’t always a happy time. While still in secondary school, the death of her best friend, Kate, hit Collins very hard. It was the first experience of tragedy the young teenager had had to deal with and it became the first of many challenging episodes that make for a startlingly honest read.
Some of the book’s most poignant moments include Collins’ recollection of the AIDs epidemic – which robbed her of another close friend, Mark, who she had spent time living with on a houseboat as a 19-year-old – and her battles with bulimia and depression, which nearly resulted in a fatal overdose during a “moment of madness” in the wake of her EastEnders departure and break up with Maia’s father, Fabrizio Tassalini.
For every low though, there were also many highs. When Collins initially struggled to break through Islington’s famously competitive drama scene – “Phil Daniels, Phil Davies, Kathy Burke, Pauline Quirke; they all came from this gang” – she soon forged an unlikely career as a backing singer for Mari Wilson and toured with her entourage for 18 months. Upon her subsequent return to acting, she made her television debut appearing in BBC drama Morgan’s Boy alongside none other than a young Gary Oldman.
“Off he went to Hollywood and there I stayed in Islington,” she laughs. Yet in 1988, Collins received her own breakthrough when she landed the part of Cindy Beale in EastEnders and it is a path she has few regrets about. “I’m not cynical about soap acting, but I’m a realist. If you’re doing a smaller drama, perhaps you can afford to be a bit more creative, but then you also have to make a living and I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to do that as an actress.
“Soaps are definitely bigger now; when I was in EastEnders they certainly weren’t entered for the BAFTAs. In fact, the episode I did when I left with Michael French was the first one to be entered for the BAFTAs and it won. There definitely is still a snobbery about it, but I don’t know why. Why do people say it’s their guilty pleasure? Why can’t they just admit that they like it? It’s good escapism, it’s entertainment and shows like Corrie get six or seven million viewers an episode easily, so they must be doing something right.”
That’s not to say Collins doesn’t crave the other side, but it is her balance of pragmatism and ambition that has seen her emerge as one of London’s most cherished television actresses.
With This Is Me now on bookshelves, she is even preparing to cross to another medium of entertainment to appear in Hampstead Theatre’s upcoming production of The Glass Supper.
Beyond that, she hopes to take a break from soaps to concentrate on shorter dramas, but leaves open the possibility for a return to Coronation Street one day.
“To be honest with you, when you’re doing a long-running soap, it’s very difficult to be creative. You don’t have any rehearsal time, any time to talk about a scene or where your character’s going.
“I remember one director saying to me ‘do you always ask questions?’ I was like, erm, yes, and he goes ‘why, why do you do this?’ Well it’s because the day I stop asking questions, that’s the day I’m giving up.
“Who knows, in a couple of years I’ll probably miss that buzz and want to go back, but for now it’d be nice to do something again which has a beginning, middle and end. Something where you can sit around, talk about things and think ‘this is why I got into acting, this is why I love doing it’.”
Michelle Collins: This Is Me, published by Michael O’Mara Books priced £20.