Monday 18 December 2017

Don't give up the day job

As Helen Flanagan, aka Rosie Webster, gears up to leave 'Coronation Street', Ed Power looks at career prospects for soap veterans

Ed Power

Ed Power

Helen Flanagan has had it up to here with tarty tops and saucy chat-up lines. For the past 11 years -- more than half her life -- she has played Rosie Webster in 'Coronation Street'.

But the character's penchant for skimpy evening wear, one-night stands and single entendres has started to grate and, at the grand old age of 21, Flanagan recently announced she would depart the show in the new year.

For 'Corrie' veterans, it will be difficult to imagine the series without her.

In a profession as fraught as acting, a regular gig in a top-rating drama is a pretty sweet deal, you might imagine.

With her career stretched ahead of her, why walk now? There are worse things in life than having to play a good-time girl with the heart of gold.

The answer, apparently, is that Flanagan doesn't feel she is being true to herself.

"Rosie is confident, whereas I'm reserved and shy," she said in a recent interview. "She's funny and sweet, too. I didn't enjoy playing her when she went through a promiscuous phase. Luckily she shows more heart these days."

What does the future hold for this glamorous and -- on the evidence of her 'Corrie' turns -- relatively accomplished actress?

In the short-term, it means a move to Wales to be with her boyfriend, Swansea City striker Scott Sinclair.

Looking further ahead, though, we probably shouldn't expect to see Flanagan making a Best Actress acceptance speech at the Oscars any time soon. Or, indeed, ever.

As any long-suffering soap icon will tell you, casting off the shackles of a beloved role can be difficult. It might even be impossible.

"Helen has been playing Rosie for 12 years -- that's a long time to play one character," says 'Inside Soap' news editor Kate White. "She has grown up in front of 'Corrie' viewers."

"She is an interesting case," adds 'All About Soap' editor Jonathan Hughes. "She's been playing the same part since she was a child and is now an adult, so you can understand her wanting to branch out to see life outside of 'Corrie' as being in a soap is quite sheltering, especially if you're in it long term.

"Fair enough that she wants to spread her wings and play other roles."

Hughes points out that the press have taken a huge interest in Flanagan as a 'celebrity' as she's grown up, with the actress becoming a favourite in the celebrity magazines and tabloid press.

"They seem to have cast her as a glamorous WAG-type personality similar to her 'Corrie' character," explains Hughes. "There is an interest in her personal life, and inevitably this has drawn parallels with Rosie.

"Her next career move will be very important -- she's so closely identified with Rosie by the press I wonder if she'll do something completely different to escape that image. But once she's left and Rosie is no longer on screen, perhaps it will be easier for her to be accepted in other roles by the public."

The depressing truth (for Flanagan, at least) is that much bigger stars than her have tried to depart the soap game, only to find they are typecast for life.

Perhaps the most notorious example is Martine McCutcheon, whose exit as Tiffany Mitchell from 'EastEnders' via a grisly car crash was watched by a record 22 million viewers in Britain in 1998.

Not long afterwards, she had a number-one single. Then she appeared in 'Love Actually', playing a maid who falls for Hugh Grant's Tony Blair-a-like British Prime Minister. Critics swooned over her unaffected, girl-next-door manner and the public was overwhelmingly on her side. How could she fail?

Quite easily, it turned out. Acclaim back home meant absolutely nothing in Los Angeles, where aspiring stars would literally drive one another into the ditch if it meant scooping a choice part.

From uber-celeb to faceless unknown sitting in line at an endless stream of auditions, McCutcheon came crashing down with a wallop that you could hear all the way back at the Queen Vic.

She was last seen shilling for a well-known yogurt, looking thrilled just be working.

The lesson? According to McCutcheon it's that you shouldn't be too sniffy about what you say yes to.

"I'm learning to not rely so much on other people's offers and to create things for myself instead," she mused when her debut novel came out a few years ago. "It's tough out there. Any actress will tell you -- it's really hard.

"If you're not an A-list Hollywood movie star, if you're in the middle, there are people who assume you wouldn't do certain things without even asking you, when actually you probably would. And there are people who always think you are busy doing something else."

On the other hand, there are some gigs you should always politely decline, according to Kate Ford, aka 'Corrie' she-devil Tracy Barlow. "Leaving 'Corrie', I was offered reality TV -- lots of money to go off and eat a crocodile's knob, or whatever," she said. "But you have to try to develop. Because the worst someone can say is, no thanks, stick to the day job."

"It's certainly possible to have a successful career after soaps." points out Hughes. "Let's not forget the likes of Anna Friel ('Brookside') and Sarah Lancashire ('Corrie')."

The key, he says, is for the actor to take a risk post-soap so the public sees that the star can play a variety of roles, and is not just chasing the fame.

"Lacey Turner left 'EastEnders' last year having 'grown up' on the show and receiving huge critical acclaim for some very dramatic storylines, but she always kept a low profile and rarely did interviews," he says.

"She's been very choosy since 'East-Enders' and is obviously taking her time over what she does next, consciously staying out of the spotlight, but you get the feeling she just wants to act and is not bothered about the fame and attention that came with being in a soap."

If McCutcheon erred early in her post-'EastEnders' career, it was in taking on parts that had too much in common with sweet-hearted Tiffany.

If you want to jail-break out of the soap typecasting, it's best to go for characters as far removed as possible from the one you are associated with, says Kate White. She points to Katherine Kelly -- aka 'Corrie's' Becky McDonald -- who will star in a high-brow West End play upon quitting the show in January.

"It's a very, very different character from Becky," says White. "And that's an extremely smart move."

One mis-step actors commit again and again as they flee soapdom is to make eyes at the pop charts. Perhaps we would have taken McCutcheon more seriously as potential movie star rather than a hawker of dairy-based treats had she not, upon leaving 'EastEnders', immediately released a collection of sappy pop songs.

Going back to the ancient days of the early 1990s, the same could be said of Tracy Shaw, aka 'Corrie' hairdresser Maxine Peacock, who went on to record two hit singles and then vanish from public view.

Shaw was most recently spotted with a bit-part in hospital drama 'Casualty' -- quite a ways from the 'Rear of the Year' gong she won in 1996.

Strangely, the rules are very different for those travelling in the opposite direction. A pop star moving into the soap world is allowed do so with credibility intact, maybe even enhanced.

Take Boyzone's Keith Duffy, who talked the 'Coronation Street' producers into writing a part for him when he was at a loose end. Far from pulling the rug from under any future ambitions he might have had in showbusiness, his stint as likable barman Ciaran McCarthy (an all too rare example of a sympathetic Irish character on British TV) seemed to enhance his appeal and he has stepped freely between music and stage ever since.

Indeed, it's a sign of how far he's come since his days standing behind Ronan Keating, gyrating in tight-fitting dungarees, that Duffy is appearing in Druid Theatre's production of 'Big Maggie', overseen by heavyweight theatre director Garry Hynes.

When someone as awards-garlanded as Hynes rates you as an actor, you know you have arrived.

"Keith had a great time on 'Corrie'," says White. "The character he played was very likable. Of course, Kym Marsh, his love interest on screen, has followed the same route. She was in Hear'say and turned her hand to acting. It's worked out well for them.

"It will be interesting to see him do a serious role, as Ciaran isn't a serious character."

So what can the want-away soap star do to ensure they still have a career once they've handed in their notice? It sounds cruel, but the best advice is to be Australian.

While the path from 'Fair City', 'EastEnders' or 'Coronation Street' to Hollywood is essentially non-existent, there is a long-standing tradition of Australian and New Zealand actors graduating from soapland to the big, big time.

Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts all received invaluable experience in local soaps before chasing US stardom --though not Hugh Jackman, who turned down a part on 'Neighbours'.

Then again, it looks as if he'll be playing a man with retractable forks in his hands until his dying days.

"Quite a lot of Australian soap stars have found fame in America," says White.

"The thing is, most Australian soaps aren't even shown in the US. There seems to be a well-trodden path between Australia and the States in terms of advancement.

"If you look at someone like Alan Dale, who played Jim Robinson in 'Neighbours', I don't think there's a top American show he hasn't been in.

"It's incredible given that he was already quite mature in 'Neighbours'. Now he's having the best time of his career."

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