20 Questions With...Patsy Palmer
Date: 24 March 2003
Actress Patsy Palmer - who stars in the mother of all comedies, Mum's the Word - talks about erasing herself after EastEnders, avoiding Celebrity Fame Academy & parental planning.
Patsy Palmer was only six years old when she made her theatrical debut in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The youngest member of the company, she stayed with the production for three years.
But, though the big stage musical whetted Palmer's appetite for performing, it was on the small screen that she found fame as an adult, playing Bianca for eight years in the BBC soap EastEnders.
Since leaving the show four years ago, the mother of three has concentrated on raising her family as well as other business interests. More recently, she has returned to the stage to pursue her acting ambitions. In December 2002, she starred in Anthony Neilson's alternative pantomime The Night Before Christmas at London's Riverside Studios.
This month, Palmer has opened in the West End with the London premiere of the international hit comedy Mum's the Word, in which she stars with five other actresses - Brits Imogen Stubbs, Cathy Tyson, Jenny Eclair, Carol Decker and Canadian co-creator Barbara Pollard - as frontline mums.
Date & place of birth
Born 26 May 1972 in Bethnal Green, east London.
Lives now in...
I studied as a child at the Anna Scher School in Islington.
First big break
When I was six, I went along with my mum and my ten-year-old brother who was auditioning for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Kids could stay in the rehearsal room, but parents had to wait outside. I ended up sitting in the lap of the casting director and she loved me. I was the youngest person in the cast and stayed with the show for three years. I haven't seen it since. It was being in Joseph that made me want to study at Anna Scher, but I suppose that's too early to be considered part of my career.
I don't really know what it means when people say 'big break'. I've been working constantly since I was a kid. In terms of being recognised, I did commercials for Clearasil when I was a teenager - I was really spotty and funny so people remembered that. The most obvious thing, though, is EastEnders, which changed my life so dramatically.
Career highlights to date
I sometimes wonder, if I hadn't done EastEnders, whether my career might have gone in a direction that I would have now preferred. I never wanted to be propelled into this life of a 'celebrity' and all that entails. I'm from a working class background - I never even imagined making so much money. I consider myself an actress before I'm a celebrity. I almost want to erase myself sometimes, so I can do the jobs I actually want to do. I just want to act.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I had some really great moments on EastEnders. I had some great storylines, too, and they were always so well researched. The best ones were about the worst stuff, like when Bianca lost the baby. That was very challenging - it happens to a lot of people, but it can be difficult to know which way to play it. I was glad that it was received so well. A lot of women wrote to me and told me I got it right.
Also, when I was 16, I made a BBC film called First and Last with Ray McNally who died while we were filming. I was so honoured to have been able to work with him. We later had to re-shoot with Joss Ackland, who was equally wonderful. That was the first film I'd done and both of those men were so helpful and lovely. They made me realise that people are just people no matter how big a star they are.
All of the women in Mum's the Word, I've really enjoyed working with them. Also Kate Ashfield who I worked with on a TV drama called Do or Die. We were filming for three months in Australia and became very close being so far away from home together. She's really lovely and a great actress as well.
Caryl Churchill and Anthony Neilson (who wrote The Night Before Christmas). I like plays about people and relationships. I don't enjoy theatre that's too arty. I just want something that's true, something I can relate to. I can't pretend to understand or enjoy something I don't.
What roles would you most like to play still?
There are loads. I don't get much opportunity to do what I want to do. It's easy to be pigeonholed, especially when you've done a soap. I'm not under any illusion. People loved my character in EastEnders and I think they're still drawn to that - which is flattering. When they see me, they want some of Bianca to come through. But I've been out of the show for four years now, and I want to do different roles. Maybe some period drama.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
It was my little boy, Fenton. When I was at Riverside doing The Night Before Christmas, there was a musical called Molly Malone in one of the other studios. The little boy in their show got ill and, because my son was around all the time, they asked him to take over. He really enjoyed it - no fear there. It was cute.
Why did you want to tackle theatre work?
I didn't want to do Celebrity Fame Academy, that's why. I'm a businesswoman myself - I have a range of beauty products - so I understand that celebrity sells and I don't feel insulted when people ask me to do things like that. But I want to act, and theatre is the only place I can do that at the moment. Playing live is a good buzz, too.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I don't think theatre comes into the government's list of things to worry about at the moment. That said, theatre is about bringing people together, and, now more than ever, it's important that we're all nice to each other and that we're human. With the war on, theatre should be a safe place, somewhere you can take your mind off of those worries and feel part of a community. Everyone's a bit paranoid.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
My daughter, who's one and a half. She goes through life totally looked after, so innocent and so happy. That would be nice, and it'd be interesting to know what she's thinking.
Favourite holiday destinations
Club Med. It's great for the kids. They always enjoy themselves, and it gives you time to relax.
The Diving-bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. It's the memoir of this man who had a stroke and then could only blink his eye. It makes you think, what are we all moaning about?
Favourite after-show haunts
I like a good dance. My business partner does a night Thursdays at the Kabaret Club on Beak Street in Soho. It's small and dark and reminds me what it would have been like in the 1960s.
Red Letter Days. I was looking for Christmas presents for my family and was fed up going to shops and buying jumpers. I logged on to that site and bought my husband a day of riding. Another good one for presents like that is Into the Blue.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I was going to go to college to do make-up so maybe that.
Why did you want to accept your part in Mum's the Word?
I thought the script was very well written. When I read it, I remember laughing out loud - that's a really good sign. Because I'm a mum myself, I totally understood it and warmed to it. My character, Robin, is probably the most sorted of all six women in the play. She's a single mother, very down to earth and practical, she's not fazed by anything. It's nice not to play an emotional wreck for a change.
How do you view your own role as a mother? What's your top tip for new mums?
I love every minute of being a mum. I've had a lot of help from my husband, we share things equally, and we have a lot of fun with the kids. It's hard to advise other people because there are so many different types of mums. I suppose one thing I would say is, try to get as much sleep as possible, especially when they're newborn. Sleep when they do. You really don't need to do the housework, it doesn't matter.
How do you juggle your parental duties with eight performances a week?
We're all mums in the show so everybody's got kids at the theatre. Sometimes it's a bit like a crèche. Doing the shows at night is also nice because, unless we have a matinee, I get to spend all day with my kids.
Does Mum's the Word appeal to non-mothers?
Yes, because everybody's had a mum. I'd say the only people it probably wouldn't appeal to would be women who were desperately trying to have children but can't for some reason.
What's your favourite line from the show?
Imogen Stubbs is writing a letter to her husband, who's said mothering should come naturally, and she says: "Maybe in primitive societies it was more natural, but even then I'm sure it was naturally fucking hard work. And I bet many of the children died."
What are your plans for the future?
I don't think you can plan. I'm quite keen to work again in Australia. I'd like to live there - it's a much better quality of life. But we'll see. Right now I want to be sure to make the right decisions for my kids.
- Patsy Palmer was speaking to Terri Paddock
Mum's the Word is playing at the West End's Albery Theatre.