Helen Fraser has had a long and respected performing career on stage and screen. She is perhaps best known for originating the role of Sylvia ‘Bodybag’ Hollamby in Bad Girls in 1999 on ITV, a role which she kept for the whole eight series. She made her first big break in to films with a starring role in the 1969 movie Billy Liar, in which she played Barbara. She’s also created her own one-woman show, Vesta, which played around the UK and US.
Fraser’s other film and television credits include Ellen in Box of Delights, Magenta Savannah in Coronation Street, A Kind of Loving, The Birthday Party, Repulsion, Rising Damp, Doctor in Charge, Casualty, One Foot in the Grave and The Dick Emery Show (seven series). On stage, she’s appeared in seasons at Manchester, Liverpool, Ipswich, Cambridge and at the National Theatre where she was in productions with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. More recently, she’s performed in pantomime and The Vagina Monologues.
Written by the creators of the television series, Bad Girls The Musical is based around some of the core characters from season one. In it, idealistic new Wing Governor Helen Stewart tries to make improvements on G Wing, but old guard officers, including Jim Fenner and his sidekick Sylvia Hollamby, stand in her way. A death on the ward leads to an angry protest which also forces Stewart and her love interest inmate Nikki Wade onto their opposite sides of the bars. Other featured inmate characters include Shell Dockley and her runner Denny Blood, the Two Julies, and the top dog and missus to the king of gangland, Yvonne Atkins.
The production is directed by Maggie Norris, who also helmed its premiere at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse in July 2006. The West End cast also features David Burt, Sally Dexter and, also from the TV show, Nicole Faraday.
Date & place of birth
Born 1942 in Oldham, Lancashire.
Arts Educational in Tring and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
What made you want to become a performer?
I’ve always wanted to perform ever since I was nine. I had a mother who I think always wanted to do it herself. Practically as soon as I was born, she put me in dancing school and then on to a better school. Then I went to Arts Educational in Tring until I was 15 and then I got in to RADA. My year really was a vintage year – everyone in my class has become a megastar. John Thaw, Tom Courtenay, John Hurt, Edward Fox, Sarah Miles, David Warner – they’re all the names, aren’t they?
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
A ballerina maybe. Arts Educational did ballet. Halfway through, they said I’d never be a ballerina – “too plump” and “back doesn’t bend” and all that. I always loved the ballet. That was my dream. But I did the next best thing.
First big break
I think A Kind of Loving. I was at Manchester Library Theatre and they came looking for Northern girls. It was just about the time when films came out of the studio and went on to real location, and they came to the Library where I was doing The Birthday Party at the time. Then they realised I was North country and asked me to go for a test for A Kind of Loving. I got the part and a year later John Schlesinger was doing Billy Liar and he remembered me. I didn’t have to go to any test or any audition. I haven’t had a year out in all my career. There’s been ups and downs, but I’ve never stopped working.
Career highlights to date
I did Repulsion with Roman Polanski which was very special. I went to America with Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens to do The Beaux Stratagem. Then I went back to this National and worked with Judi Dench on Absolute Hell. She’s just so special – my absolute idol. Then just this year I did The Vagina Monologues, which is something quite different. I think my life passed before my eyes on the first night, because I was so nervous. The other two girls I did it with had done it before so they guided me.
I suppose I have to say Judi Dench – she was one of my favourite people to work with. I’ve worked with so many lovely, lovely people. Here, I love working with David Burt and I loved many of them on Bad Girls on telly. We had some real fun there and that was a family – we were all in it regularly.
The lovely John Schlesinger, who died, because he gave me so many chances. Anthony Page directing at the National and our director here Maggie Norris, who was an actress so she understands what makes us tick because she’s been through it herself.
Favourite musical writers
I love Follies. I like old-fashioned music – Sinatra, Gershwin, that sort of thing. Romantic. Things that make you want to dance, stuff like that.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I went to The Venue to see Side by Side by Sondheim. I just happened to be in London over a weekend and got in on a Saturday night on a cheap ticket because I love that music so much. I didn’t know the cast at all, and I stood and cheered. It was wonderful. My mother used to take me to Manchester every week to see something. Zip Goes a Million, that was the first show I saw, with George Formby at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. There was a song in it called “I’m Saving up for Sally”, which I can still remember.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
From my husband: get on with the crew. The cameraman is the only one who looks through the lens, the sound man is the only one who listens through his headphones, and they can make or break you. My husband did Out of Africa and I was with him quite a lot. Meryl Streep was a lesson in how to be a leading lady. She knew everybody’s name on set, and there were a lot of Africans. I’ve made it my business to do that. So, that’s the advice: get on with the people around you. Anybody who is looking after you, because they’re the ones who you put your trust in and who carry you through.
I’m reading The Road Home by Rose Tremain at the moment, which I’m enjoying. I love novels and autobiographies. Of course, I read The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw by Sheila Hancock.
Favourite holiday destinations
I hate flying and because I live in Suffolk – we’ve got the most beautiful coast – really it’s boring but I love going to Aldeburgh. I just get in the car, it’s about 25 miles, and it’s just heaven. Especially when it’s out of season.
Favourite after-show haunts
I’m not very good at going out because I love my bed, I love my sleep! But now and again it’s nice to go somewhere glam like The Ivy, when someone else is paying! We’ve got a press night and a gala night for Bad Girls so those should be good.
What made you want to reprise your TV role of Sylvia ‘Bodybag’ Hollamby in a stage musical of Bad Girls?
It wasn’t so much that it was Sylvia, although she has been part of my life for eight years. But it has always been my lifelong ambition to do a West End musical, and this came up and I just said yes. A friend said to me, “well, Bad Girls isn’t feathers and boys and steps” – like you imagine a musical would be. But I said, “you just wait for my dream sequence with Jim Fenner”! We’ve been working on the musical for a while. I was in the first two workshops and we did a public performance at the Players Theatre under the Arches, and that got a bit of interest. Then they did it last summer at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Sadly, I couldn’t do it then as I was doing the television series. Then they came up with the West End production. I umm-ed and ahh-ed because it would be a big change for me, as I live in the country. Then I thought, well my one last ambition is to do a West End musical so I’d better get on and do it!
Did you see the show at West Yorkshire Playhouse? What did you think of the actress who played your part?
I did, I went on the first night and sat with tears rolling down my face. Rachel Izen was brilliant. Technically, she was far better than I am as a singer. I’m not a singer, I don’t pretend to be a singer. I’ve had dancing training because I went to stage school, but Rachel is so accomplished in that. I have to say she wasn’t Sylvia because nobody’s Sylvia but me. I created her and it doesn’t matter how good the actress is, nobody else will ever, ever be Sylvia.
Bad Girls was a huge success on the screen. To what do you attribute its enduring appeal?
I don’t know because when it started it was slammed by the critics, they just thought it was rubbish. But it gained quite a cult following, its fan base is enormous. Even now, outside the stage door. A girl in her late teens was in tears last night as I came out and she said, “please, could I give you a kiss? It’s like meeting Madonna”. I thought “well that’s praise indeed!” Who knows if it will repeat its success on the stage? The public is very fickle and it’s not just the public, it’s the press too. It’s a very, very high standard show now. Show-stopping numbers, wonderful characters. I don’t think you have to know the television series to follow the musical, although the story is based on the first series. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen it because it just tells itself as it goes along. It’s certainly going to be a cult musical, it’s not your usual Oklahoma! or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It’s quirky and different and quite serious and very shocking in places. But funny too!
Your character is noted for being the “prison officer from hell”. Do you keep that up backstage?
Oh no, no, no, no. I’m a jelly baby really!
What’s it like working with David Burt, a very experienced performer & a different Jim Fenner than the one you’re used to on screen?
David’s taught me so much because I’m on new ground here. I did pantomime last year, but I haven’t really been on stage for a long time because I’ve been filming. Although, having been 40 years in the business I’ve done a lot of theatre, it is quite different. Different hours for one thing. That’s been the shock. I’m used to getting up at 5am and going to bed at 8pm, and now I’m just beginning to wake up at 8 o’clock at night to do a performance! David is so accomplished musically. I had to do the dreaded harmonies which I’m finding a bit difficult because, as I’ve said, I’m not a singer. He’s helped me and been very patient with me! Because I’ve done these two workshops, I’ve been through a few Jim Fenners. Of course, the original Jim Fenner was Jack Ellis, who’s a brilliant actor, but the character died halfway through the series so I wasn’t connected to him right to the end.
What are your favourite musical numbers in Bad Girls The Musical?
I just love doing my numbers with David Burt. In the first half, we do a number which is really vaudeville – soft-shoe shuffle with sticks – and in the second half we do the dream sequence where we become more like Fred and Ginger!
What’s the oddest/funniest/most notable thing that’s happened in rehearsals/ the run to date?
I think the first preview shocked us. This great cheer went up when I came on to do the prologue. I didn’t expect it and nobody else really expected it. I didn’t quite know how to handle it; you just wait for the moment to end and then you start. It was very flattering, but you have to let the audience understand that the show isn’t just about one character.
What are your future plans?
I’d like to do something completely different. A posh part, a bit of glamour. I’d like to do one of those top-class Dickens that they only have money to do now and again.
- Helen Fraser was talking to Tom Atkins
Bad Girls The Musical opens on 12 September 2007 (previews from 16 August) at the West End’s Garrick Theatre.