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Sister Act: Getting into the habit

Denise Black's loud throaty cackle shatters the silence of the backstage area of the Playhouse theatre in Edinburgh.

In between rehearsals for her role as the Mother Superior in the touring production of Sister Act, which comes to Dublin later this month, the actress is reminiscing about her years of fame -- or notoriety -- playing home-wrecking hairdresser Denise Osbourne in Coronation Street.

"My husband and I were on holiday in Connemara soon after I started in Corrie, and I genuinely had no idea how big the show was in Ireland," she recalls. "One afternoon I went off to buy odour-eaters for my husband's smelly boots.

"I walked into this post office, and started talking to this lady working in there. She started to shake and couldn't speak. She recognised me, but couldn't compute that Denise was here in her post office asking about odour-eaters."

Black left the soap in 1997 after five years of big storylines (mostly involving unlikely stud Ken Barlow), but has returned to the show over the years.

"I was lucky in that she was sort of the reincarnation of Elsie Tanner, the kind of siren that caused disputes whether you loved her or hated her," Black says. "I had a ball playing her."

She's still close to the cast too. When Sister Act kicked off its tour in Manchester, some of her mates in the cast were in the audience on opening night. "Barbara Knox, who plays Rita Sullivan, was laid up at the time, but she came by to deliver a good-luck card," she says.

"I love Barbara. When I was on the show she once came over to me and said, 'my grandchildren have a lot of clothes they've grown out of. Would you be offended if I offered them to you?' I replied, 'Would I what?!'" I ended up getting all these beautiful things from Harrods. She's so kind."

Black has worked consistently since her departure from the soap. After Corrie, she played the colourful mother of one of the lead characters in Channel 4's groundbreaking gay series Queer as Folk, along with stints in Casualty and Bad Girls.

Black also co-starred with then-unknown Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch in the mini-series To The Ends of The Earth. While filming the drama in South Africa in 2004, Black, Cumberbatch, and another co-star, Theo Landey, were carjacked by six men, who held them captive for nearly three hours.

"It was terribly scary," she says. "It was only because we were actors, and so used to taking instruction and being able to keep yapping, that we were able to talk our way out of it."

As it happened, Landey had gotten an email shortly before filming telling him what to do in the event of a carjacking: namely, be polite and oblige as much as you can. The robbers eventually made off with the car, some money and their ATM cards.

Since then, Black has said that she wants to have as much fun in life as possible. For the past three years she has performed in a rock band called the Loose Screw. It's good practice for belting out her few tunes in Sister Act. "I don't have a musical theatre voice like others in the cast, but I think I carry myself okay," she smiles.

Black's co-star in the musical is another British soap stalwart, Michael Starke, who is still best known as window cleaner Thomas "Sinbad" Sweeney from Scouse soap Brookside.

Coming to Dublin with Sister Act, in which he plays the church's Monsignor, will mark Starke's first working stint in Ireland since filming episodes of Brookside here in 1995 as part of the infamous "body under the patio" storyline.

Sinbad had gone on the run to Dublin with Mandy Jordache and her daughter Beth (a young Anna Friel), who had killed abusive husband and father Trevor (played by Irish actor Bryan Murray, now in Fair City), and buried him in the back garden.

"Dublin was great at that time, and Anna [Friel] was just really taking off," Starke says. "All the lads wanted to meet her, so I was charging a pint of Guinness for an introduction. She obliged too, bless her."

These days, he's not much in touch with Friel, who has since decamped to Hollywood to star in movies like Land of the Lost, and the short-lived US TV series Pushing Daisies. "She's on a different level now in Hollywood," he says. "If I bumped into her tomorrow we'd have a chat and a laugh about it all."

There was nothing funny about the Jordache storyline however, sensational as it was. The plot struck a nerve with the public, requiring Brookside to become the first soap to carry helpline numbers for those affected by what they'd seen.

"Before that storyline, we averaged around 3m viewers per episode, but after the body was uncovered, it jumped to 7m," explains Starke.

"The interest in it was phenomenal, and a little scary because we weren't used to it. Even now, when anyone talks about Brookside, they mention the body under the patio, and Anna's lesbian kiss."

Ironically, that very success signalled the beginning of the end of Starke's time on the show. "I hung on for another three-four years, but I felt then like I had done everything I could do in the show," he says.

"I didn't want to just go back to popping up on a ladder cleaning someone's windows. The storylines afterwards had to be massive, but they didn't have the same impact."

Starke left the show in 2000, after which he starred in The Royal, before taking up a two-year stint as kebab shop owner Jerry Morton on Coronation Street.

"The character just didn't work," he admits. "Sometimes that just happens. I had my fears going into it, and I think they were borne out. But it was great to do, and I'm sorry it didn't work out.

"Right now I'm a jobbing actor. I've done a lot of TV, but this -- theatre -- is what it's all about."

Sister Act runs at the Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin from December 20th-January 7th. See grandcanaltheatre.ie

Irish Independent