Friday 23 March 2018

In for a Halfpenny

Jill Halfpenny as Elizabeth Bryant. Photo: PA
A scene from Murdoch Mysteries. Photo: PA
A scene from Murdoch Mysteries. Photo: PA

As she swaps contemporary for costume drama, Jill Halfpenny talks that Strictly Come Dancing vacancy and filming in Canada

She's been a resident of Weatherfield, Walford and Waterloo Road, but recently Jill Halfpenny's career has been taking her a little further afield.

The actress says: "I travelled a lot last year - I went to Canada, Cyprus and South Africa twice. It was nicely spaced out though, so I didn't feel like I was away from home all the time."

The Gateshead-born star was in Canada for her role in the new series of Murdoch Mysteries, the period crime drama following a detective in the 1890s, starring Canadian Yannick Bisson in the title role.

"It was nice for me to step into a whole new world. We filmed in Toronto and also went up to the Yukon to a gold-mining town. That's a once in a lifetime thing, which I'd never have done otherwise."

While she may have been new to the Yukon, there is a chance that the locals recognised her.

Thanks to her stints in Coronation Street, in which she played nurse Rebecca, and EastEnders, in which she spent three years as Phil Mitchell's third wife Kate, she's picked up fans all over the world.

Halfpenny, 36, explains: "With all these new TV channels now, they get shown in lots of countries - I know that the British soaps are massive in Australia as well.

"I still get letters from people who are years behind on EastEnders, saying, 'I can't believe Kate is sleeping with Phil', and I'm like, 'What?'"

Her fans needn't worry about her falling under the influence of any dodgy mechanics in Murdoch Mysteries though, as her character Elizabeth Bryant, who appears in the first episode, has bigger things to worry about.

"She owns a hotel and bar and she was widowed at a young age, so she's a very feisty woman. She's been accused of murder, which she didn't commit, so she has to enlist the help of Murdoch to prove her innocence."

As the drama is set in the 19th century, it also gave Halfpenny the chance to wear period costume, which turned out to be something of a mixed blessing.

"Because Elizabeth has done well for herself, I'm in a different costume every time you see me, and some of them are quite flamboyant.

"It's quite a difficult period to wear though, because everything is really high-necked. I haven't got the longest of necks, so I was struggling a bit sometimes to get my double chin out of the way!"

Halfpenny's no stranger to flamboyant costume - away from her acting work she's arguably best known for jiving her way to victory in the second series of Strictly Come Dancing in 2004.

Despite her success on the show, the mum-of-one admits she had some initial doubts about taking part.

"When I got into this job, programmes like that didn't exist, they weren't even in our psyches, so I never had imagined doing anything like that. When they asked me to do it, it wasn't a straight out, 'Oh my God, yes', it was more, 'Oh, I would love to do it, but can I think about it?'

"Don't get me wrong though, I only thought about it overnight! I knew in my heart that I wanted to do it, I just had to know in my head that it was the right thing to do."

Luckily, her head and heart both got it right. "It was a gorgeous experience, and as the years go on I treasure it more and more because the further removed I am from it, the more special it feels. I've become almost sentimental about it," she sighs.

So with Alesha Dixon defecting to Britain's Got Talent, would Halfpenny be interested if the Strictly bosses decided they wanted another former champion to take her place on the judging panel?

"Something like that would be too good an opportunity to turn down. I've certainly not had a phone call about it and I'm not expecting one, but if it came my way I'd definitely consider it," she says.

"It would be hard being on the other side of things, but I would be able to do it. I'd have a lot of sympathy for the contestants though."

Halfpenny has been on our screens for well over 20 years now, having made her debut in the children's drama Byker Grove while still in her early teens.

"I was really working professionally from the age of 12, and in my head there was no question about what I wanted to do. I was young and naive enough to think that anything was possible," she recalls.

In fact, she's now enough of a veteran to pass on her wisdom to a new generation of actors, including her niece Chelsea Halfpenny, better known to soap fans as Emmerdale's troubled teen Amy Wyatt.

"We talk about things, and if she's had a tough day on set or an experience where she feels frustrated or confused, hopefully I'll be on hand to help. But actually the cast of Emmerdale seem so supportive of each other, from the way she talks about them."

Halfpenny the elder is still much in demand and as well as her appearance in Murdoch Mysteries she has just joined the cast of Wild At Heart and in March she'll open in a new stage production of Abigail's Party.

"The older I get, the more I can be proud of what I have achieved," she says. "I think when you're younger, you focus more on what you haven't achieved, but more and more now I think 'You know what? I make a living doing something I love, something that is very hard to make a living from.'

"I think the joy of being older is that you can appreciate that more."


:: Halfpenny has a three-year-old son, Harvey, with her actor husband Craig Conway. The couple separated in 2010.

:: As well as winning the second series of Strictly Come Dancing, Halfpenny also won two of the show's Christmas specials and became the first celebrity to score a perfect mark of 40.

:: She's put all that dancing experience to good use in the West End, starring in musicals such as Chicago and Legally Blonde, for which she won a prestigious Olivier Award.

:: Her niece Chelsea has said she'd like her aunt to be cast as her on-screen mum in Emmerdale.

:: Murdoch Mysteries starts on alibi on Tuesday, February 28

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