A journey home to the north east for Melanie Hill

Something special happened to Melanie Hill recently, when several factors combined together to make her latest TV role as Selina in Joe Maddison’s War one that she will remember for a long time.

Not only did she get to star alongside fellow Geordies Kevin Whately and Robson Green – both of whom she’d worked with before, but she also got to travel back to her home town in the north east, where the 1940s drama is set.

There was added poignancy because this was the last script by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Alan Plater, who died in June. During a career spanning 50 years, he wrote everything from Z Cars and The Wednesday Play to The Beiderbecke Affair and episodes of Lewis for Whately.

Plater, who was also from the north east and lived in Tufnell Park, spent time with the cast during the read through.

“It was a very personal story for Alan that dealt with what happened to his family during the war and I wanted to do it as soon as I read it. It’s right at the top of the work that I’ve done,” enthuses Hill.

“We sat down and chatted about his ideas for my character, Selina, who is a widow and very much a free spirit. She’s been through a lot of hardship like everyone who lived through those times.

“Selina is good friends with Harry (Green) and she sees Joe (Whately), whose wife has left him, as another lonely person like herself.

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She offers him a hand of friendship and it builds from there.”

She admits that, as a character actress, Selina is not the usual part she gets as they tend to be more quirky roles.

She adds: “Playing the leading lady who falls in love with the leading man is something I always wanted to do.”

But it was daunting for her to discover that she wouldn’t be wearing any make-up because the producers wanted to make the drama as realistic as possible.

“For me to play a romantic role in my 40s without make-up was scary,” she reflects. “But I can see now that it was the right decision.”

Her father served in the army as a royal engineer and she recognises the detailed recreation of the period, from the mangle her grandmother used for the washing, to having an outside toilet.

She also learned a lot from Plater’s script about her home because the north east’s Home Guard played an active role in Britain’s fighting force.

One aspect of the drama concerns Joe’s agony over his faith as his comrades are killed in battle, and his marriage falls apart. He seeks comfort from Fr Connolly, played by Belsize Park actor and fellow Geordie John Woodvine, who together with Hill, played a gangster in the 90s drama series Finney.

When Joe and Harry sign up for the Home Guard, they are interviewed by another local actor Derek Jacobi, who plays the chemist and the pretentious and overbearing Major Simpson – a man whose manner is not unlike Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army.

Hill knew Whately from the 80s series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet in which she played Hazel and then she appeared opposite Green in his first television drama, A Night On The Tyne in 1989.

It was at school in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, that Hill remembers playing a slave in The Crucible and thinking, “I could get used to this because it’s so different and I’m having the best time possible”.

With the encouragement of her drama teacher but without any thoughts she’d get in, she successfully applied to RADA and moved south to Camden.

While still in her early 20s, she vividly recalls seeing a drama that really inspired her to succeed.

“I saw David Hayman as Jimmy Boyle [the prisoner turned sculptor and novelist] in A Sense Of Freedom, which is set in Glasgow, and I thought this is an extraordinary performance and I want to create something like that.”

After RADA, her early professional work in rep included Dirty Linen, Twelfth Night and the title role in Educating Rita, which she took to America.

She had a shock with her first television job in 1984, the police series Juliet Bravo.

“I tripped up during a take at the police station, so in the next scene I crawled rather than walked up to the desk. They couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know that in television you could cut and start again because I came from a theatre background.”

Since then, she’s appeared as a regular in a succession of quality drama series, especially in the 90s, as Sister Pamela in Cardiac Arrest, Emma Shepherd in Crocodile Shoes and as Rita Dolan in 31 episodes of Playing The Field, the story of the Yorkshire-based Castlefield Blues ladies’ football team.

Also in the 90s, she became Sean Bean’s second wife. Although divorced from Bean, she says that they remain on good terms. She adds: “We have two children together and they are the most important people between us.”

In the last 10 years, she’s fulfilled a drama school ambition to act with Robert De Niro, which she did in Stardust, she played DS Ruby Sparks in NCS Manhunt opposite David Suchet and she dug out every last muscle of acting ability when she played DS Jim Carver’s (Mark Wingett) wife Marie in The Bill for nearly a year.

She recounts: “It did stretch me. Marie was an alcoholic, husband beater and she was mentally unstable. On The Bill, the turnaround is very fast and you have no time to agonise, so you just have to get on with it, which I love.”

At the age of 48, Hill has good reason to say that “acting has given me a fantastic life and it’s been very kind to me”.

However, she pauses before adding: “As I get older, I’ve been to a few auditions where they’ve said, ‘You’re too old.’ I’m not, and some of the people you have to see for work are only in their 20s, so they haven’t seen what I’ve done. I’m old enough to be their mother.”

Hill admits that she only allows herself an hour to get depressed when she misses out on a job and then she picks herself up.

After Joe Maddison’s War, we’ll next see her in a new comedy series called Candy Cabs about a firm of women-only taxi drivers who only accept female passengers.

She’s lived in Muswell Hill for 16 years and when she gets stopped in the street, people will more often than not ask her about Hazel in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Sandra in the 1996 film Brassed Off and, most of all, Aveline Boswell in the BBC comedy series Bread.

Hill takes a sharp intake of breath when she realises that Bread was 20 years ago. “Bread was huge,” exclaims Hill, who took over the role from Gilly Coman who died in July.

“I was completely shocked because I’d never watched it and I wasn’t ready for its massive popularity – at one point we had 21 million viewers. I can remember going on the Wogan show and turning on the Christmas lights in Bournemouth. It was a bit like being a rock star.”

An amusing experience during Bread came when she was followed around a shopping centre by an elderly couple who recognised her as Aveline.

She says: “They came over, asked for my autograph and said, ‘We hate that new Aveline. We prefer the old one and you’re the best, Gilly.’

“I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it’s actually me that you hate so I signed their autograph Gilly Coman. I think she’ll be laughing about this in heaven.”

Joe Maddison’s War will be screened on Sunday September 19 on ITV1 at 8pm.