Monday 12 November 2018

From the Street to the throne - Sarah Lancashire is the best British TV actress of her generation

The reviews are in and Sarah Lancashire has another hit with 'Kiri'. Ed Power charts her journey from Raquel Watts to the best British TV actress of her generation

Class act: Sarah Lancashire steals the show in new drama Kiri
Class act: Sarah Lancashire steals the show in new drama Kiri
Ed Power

Ed Power

Sarah Lancashire's first terrifying brush with fame came as she stood on a railway platform, waiting for a train to take her from Manchester to Oldham. The young actress had recently secured her first screen role as bubbly Coronation Street barmaid Raquel. Pulling pints at the Rovers Return was about to turn her life upside down.

"I was on the concourse at Manchester Piccadilly Station," she reflected later, "and I heard someone shouting my name… it was horrific, absolutely horrific. It felt like this total violation."

The incident occurred in 1991. Twenty-seven years later, the startled young woman cowering from a well-wisher is one of Britain's most esteemed and, it is rumoured, highly paid actresses.

She's played lovers, mothers, coppers and nurses. Now with her stark new Channel 4 series Kiri she slips beneath the skin of a hard-drinking social worker whose naivety has fatal consequences. Predictably, it's another riveting turn, with Lancashire making you empathise with a woman who - so far as everyone else in the show is concerned - has done a terrible thing.

But if Lancashire is that rare soap star to blossom as a 'serious' actress - Doctor Foster's Suranne Jones is the other example that springs to mind - off-screen life has been far from easy. It was a huge irony of her Corrie tenure that, though Raquel embodied kind-hearted effervescence, in real life Lancashire was a wreck.

She suffered from depression while her first marriage, from which she had two children, was soon on the rocks. Exacerbating her unhappiness was the strain of Coronation Street, with its inescapable celebrity. On the street, in the supermarket, at restaurants - everywhere she went people wanted to say hello to Raquel.

Street-wise: Lancashire as Raquel Watts Corrie
Street-wise: Lancashire as Raquel Watts Corrie

To cope, she turned to medication and soon developed a ruinous addiction to painkilling tranquillisers. "Tranquillisers were the worst thing for it," she said later. "I ended up in a terrible mess. My 20s were a write-off.

"It's a cruel illness because you can't see it and you can hide it so well," she said of depression. "At least I can. I'm a genius at hiding it. I think a lot of people are. Actors are bloody marvellous at hiding."

Something had to give. Ultimately, it was her soap career. During a break from filming Coronation Street, Lancashire's mother dragged her to a doctor who helped wean her off tranquillisers. Meanwhile, after five years as Raquel, she could take no more and so, in 1996 - to the despair of viewers - the Rovers' beloved barmaid served her final pint.

The real miracle is what happened next. Former soap stars rarely go on to greater things. Many find themselves in a showbusiness purgatory where they are required to monetise their fading celebrity, whether by releasing pop singles, putting in interminable personal appearances or stooping to panto.

Lancashire, a trained actress who had been teaching drama in Manchester when the Corrie gig came along, was determined to do better. It helped that her range extended far beyond eyelash-fluttering barmaids with hearts of gold.

That isn't to say she was ashamed of her Weatherfield origins. Her father, Geoffrey Lancashire, had worked as a script editor on Corrie - prior to Sarah's involvement - and she spoke highly of soap operas as a proving ground for new talent.

"Soaps are a double-edged sword," she told UK reporters. "There can be prejudice from some writers and producers who feel you will lower the currency of their work if you've been in one. You have to rise above such ludicrous prejudice.

"Sometimes it's necessary for soaps to hang on to an audience by sensationalising, but it's a beast I don't understand anymore, an art form that has fostered extraordinary talent.

"It's a great arena to learn your craft before you move on. There's no such thing as a 'soap' actor though. We're all actors and work across an enormous amount of media - radio, television, or standing outside a supermarket in a Weetabix outfit."

Standing outside supermarkets in Weetabix outfits has not featured on her CV. The jobs rolled in and, by 2000, she was said to be Britain's highest paid actress, with ITV "shackling" her to a £1.5 million golden handcuff deal.

But it was with the BBC that she would put in one of her most memorable recent turns - in bittersweet romance Last Tango in Halifax (2012). Lancashire was cast as a domineering head mistress grieving for her dead lesbian partner - a role that reinforced her ability to illuminate the inner life of outwardly closed-off characters.

Her most acclaimed post-Coronation Street role, however, is arguably as police sergeant Catherine Cawood in the ironically named Happy Valley, for which she won the 2017 Bafta for best TV actress.

A bleak police procedural set in greyest Yorkshire, the show flows from the angst-ridden pen of Last Tango in Halifax writer Sally Wainwright. Its extreme violence made it immediately contentious. In a scene in the fourth episode, Cawood is beaten black and blue, prompting an outcry and a deluge of complaints.

However, the controversy did little to diminish Happy Valley's popularity - inevitably it may have added to it - and it reinforced Lancashire's status as the preeminent British TV actress of her generation (the series also introduced UK audiences to Love/Hate's Charlie Murphy, who impressed as a kidnap victim in the 2014 first season).

Lancashire provides an all too rare example of an actress over the age of 40 continuing to win interesting parts. That she is the exception to the rule speaks to the industry's entrenched sexism and ageism - and how impressively she has pushed against such prejudices.

"I'm 53 this year. It started at 49 with Tango in Halifax and then Happy Valley. I can't complain at a time when most actors are disappearing. I seem to have become very visible," she said in May.

"Age affects us all in the workplace. We all get a little less appealing as we get older, unfortunately. We should gather strength from the fact that the climate is looking very promising for women. But it's very early days, and too soon to celebrate."

Still, for all her accomplishments, to many she will always be Raquel from Weatherfield. Lancashire appears at peace with that fact - though Corrie fans hoping to see Raquel negotiate the cobbles of Weatherfeld one more time shouldn't get their hopes up. She has ruled out a Rovers return, insisting: "The show I was in doesn't exist any more."

Kiri continues on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm. Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax are available on Netflix

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