Actress Anita still loving stage life: Anita Dobson talks ahead of role in Annie at Wolverhampton Grand
Where you do you start with an actor like Anita Dobson? She became a household name playing the alcoholic landlady of the Queen Vic on EastEnders. Her portrayal of Angie provided the perfect foil to her adulterous husband, Dirty Den Watts, and on Christmas Day 1986 drew an astonishing audience of more than 30 million viewers; the highest ever for a British soap.
If that made Dobson a household name, transforming her life from that of a jobbing actress to that of an A-List star, it didn’t end there.
She proved her mettle in a variety of roles; showing herself to be equally adept at light, laugh-out-loud comedy as she was at gritty, heavy drama. Indeed, in 2003 she was nominated for the Olivier Award for Best Actress for the National Theatre production of Frozen, a remarkable play written by Bryony Lavery that told the story of the disappearance of a 10-year-old girl, Rhona. The play followed Rhona’s mother and killer over the years that followed as they were linked by a doctor studying what causes men to commit such crimes. Emotional paralysis and forgiveness were among its themes and it’s fair to say the role was emotionally draining.
Few soap stars make a successful transition to the West End and the Royal Shakespeare Company, but Dobson has done both.
She starred in the West End as Mama Morton in the 2003 production of the musical Chicago while also appearing as Gertrude in Hamlet in 2005.
And she made her RSC debut in the 2012 revival of The Merry Wives of Windsor, fulfilling a long-held ambition to make her curtain call at the home of British drama. There have been film appearances too; most notably in Darkness Falls in 1999 and London Road in 2015.
Oh, and lest we forget, she dazzled on Strictly Come Dancing in 2011 when she lined up with Latin specialist Robin Windsor and made it past Wembley to Week Nine. She enjoyed a top five hit in the charts with a version of Anyone Can Fall In Love. And she also married the man who produced that song, Queen guitarist Brian May, to whom she has been happily wed since 2000.
So the question remains. Where the hell do you start with an actor like Anita Dobson?
Given that’s she’s soon to appear at The Grand Theatre, in Wolverhampton, in a new production of Annie, that seems as good a start point as any. Dobson is taking the role of Miss Hannigan in Nikolai Foster’s production, which is back on the road following its previous UK tour, West End run and sell-out season in Toronto.
She’ll be in the Black Country from February 19 to 23. Set in 1930s New York during The Great Depression, brave young Annie is forced to live a life of misery at Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. Her luck soon changes when she’s chosen to spend a fairytale Christmas with famous billionaire, Oliver Warbucks. Meanwhile, spiteful Miss Hannigan has other ideas and hatches a plan to spoil Annie’s search for her true family.
With its Tony award-winning book and score, including the unforgettable songs It’s The Hard-Knock Life, Easy Street, I Don’t Need Anything But You and Tomorrow, it’s set to be one of the biggest shows of the year.
“I’m looking forward to it,” says Dobson. “It makes me nervous because it’s a new adventure for me, but I’m looking forward to it. I was at Wolverhampton some years ago, in a production of Hello Dolly, so I’ve very much been looking forward to making my return.”
Dobson seldom goes on tour – why would she? She has a beautiful home, loving husband and great life and all are infinitely preferable to slogging it out on the M6 on a Tuesday morning – but she jumped at the chance to play Miss Hannigan. It was a role she had craved.
“She’s a nasty character but she’s funny and useless and gets her comeuppance,” she says. “Because I’m starting the tour off, I got to do all the rehearsals, which was wonderful because we worked out how we should play it.
“For me, I came from a place of knowing nothing. But it’s a terrific team and having Nikolai Foster involved, who had been the original director, as well as a fabulous assistant director, has made it all thoroughly enjoyable.”
Dobson has steered clear of watching recent productions of it so that she can leave her own stamp on the role.
“I’ve only seen it once with Sheila Hancox playing it. So I haven’t seen it in this reincarnation. I got invited to see Craig Revel Horwood when he did it but I couldn’t go because I was working. So I came in clean and unaffected by anything I might have seen.”
Annie allows Dobson to add yet another string to her bow. After playing the downtrodden Angie or having fun on Strictly, it’s been a revelation to play a villain for a change.
“I love this business. I just love all aspects of this business and I’ll keep doing it for as long as I can. There’s so many things that stand out from my career and there’s so many things that I’ve done that I’ve enjoyed.
“I think these days I tend to choose what do, especially in the latter part of my life. Usually I only get involved if it’s something I really want to do. But that all came about because of EastEnders. That was the turning point when I changed from being a jobbing actress into somebody well known. I still audition though and I like that because I want the producers to see what they are getting.
“With Annie, the phone rang and they asked me to play this role. It’s lovely to have somebody phone us and ask.”
Dobson has a beautifully settled life. She’ll celebrate her 70th year in April and keeps in shape by using a mini-trampoline that is kind to her joints. She and husband Brian are private people and having become public property during her EastEnders years – when she couldn’t go to a pub or supermarket for fear of being recognised and followed home – she’s glad to lead a quieter life. They go to the theatre together but tend to avoid premieres and the red carpet hoo-ha.
“I don’t tour as a rule. So this production of Annie is quite an unusual thing for me to do. I just wanted to play this part. I’ve not toured for a long time because it took a long time to get the home I love. Having got that, I don’t like being away for a long time. But this was one of those parts that I couldn’t resist.”
Dobson’s life changed when she signed up to play Angie. Remarkably, she wasn’t the first person cast to play the part. Another actor, Jean Fennell, had already begun recording but her performance didn’t gel and Dobson got the gig.
She became a household name before quitting the show in 1988 and since then BBC bosses have made numerous offers for her to return, but she did not want to tarnish her earlier creation.
Bosses finally gave up hope of ever tempting her to return and in 2002 Angie Watts died off-screen of alcohol poisoning and was brought home to be buried by her on-screen daughter Sharon Watts (Letitia Dean), who had returned to the show the previous year.
The show was a real-life rollercoaster and Dobson became public property. Suddenly, she couldn’t move for cameras. Her every move was reported in the tabloids.
“Well, with everything in life, there’s no formula or way of figuring it out. You do the best you can. Things get thrown at you and you have to deal with them to the best of your ability”, she adds. “Back then, it was all new. Some of it was great, some of it was tough. You just deal with it the best you can.
“That’s your life, you can’t control what happens. The important thing is how you deal with it. That role got me to where I am today. You have to learn to own everything. There’s no secret solution. We all have to find our own way.”
EastEnders opened a world of possibilities. Suddenly Dobson’s currency shot up. But it wasn’t just her public profile and ability to put bums on seats that endeared her to producers, it was also her profound ability to act. Dobson wasn’t in any way wooden. She had real skill. And that ability to invent and inhabit characters is what’s kept her in gainful employment for four decades.
Indeed, the measure of her talent was evident when she was invited to perform at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“That was brilliant and I consider myself very lucky to have done that. Philip Breen was the director and he asked me to do the Merry Wives of Windsor.
“I hadn’t worked at the RSC before and it was wonderful to be on the RSC stage.
“I loved working with Philip and the production was fantastic. So that’s one thing that I hold up as a lovely thing.”
From the RSC to prime time telly and a reality show. Having also carved out a career in musical theatre and starred in Chicago – before returning in 2016/7 to star in Wicked – Dobson was invited to compete for the Glitterball Trophy.
“Strictly was very different,” she smiles. “I’m not a reality show person, I’m an actress. But I was interested because I had never trained as a dancer even though I love dancing. I think dancers are the backbone of any theatrical company.
“They asked me three times and the third time I was tempted because my parents used to ballroom dance. I spoke to my best friend about it and they asked me what was stopping me. I said I didn’t want to make a fool of myself, but at the age of 62 I also thought ‘why should I care because I’m happily married, comfortable and in a good place’. So I parked my career and did it and it was such fun.
“It was really hard. People don’t appreciate how hard they work. And afterwards, you’re not suddenly a dancer. Yes, you can do the routines your partners taught you to do, but then it goes out of your head. I worked with someone who was remarkably talented but dancing isn’t in my bones. My bones were too old by the time I did Strictly. I got past Wembley and did the tour and it was very much like a gift.” And yet Strictly wasn’t her proudest moment. In many ways, her coming of age was her remarkable portrayal in Frozen, which earned her an Olivier Award.
“Well, yes, that was a good day. That part was a biggie,” she says. “That was a part I felt privileged to play. It was such an immensely horrifying story of a poor woman whose daughter had been horrifyingly abducted.
“We did it in Birmingham and I don’t think there was a performance where I ever felt relaxed or blasé. There was one day when I might have not tried but I thought don’t you dare. It was a privilege to be portraying that story and for every single performance I was totally with it.”
Dobson’s private nature is clear throughout the conversation. Her answers, while revealing, are strictly business and as she’s said to many others so many times, underneath it all, people like her and Brian are just ordinary people who want to live an ordinary life without the glare or intrusion of cameras.
In many ways, she’s simply grateful that she’s been able to live a life where she’s been able to do the things she enjoys.
“I love everything. I love it. I love the roles that are funny just as much as I love the ones that are serious. I love the heavy, gritty, serious stuff. I’ve never wanted to get stuck in a mould where I just do heavy roles. Keeping a balance is really important because that keeps you ticking.”
Dobson has no plans to slow down or retire.
And that’s just as well for theatre-goers – particularly those in Wolverhampton – who can revel in her latest portrayal.
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